Interview: RuneScape lead designer David Osborne reveals what 2021 has in store for Jagex’s signature MMO

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RuneScape is a long-running MMORPG that is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. Recently, I got the chance to sit down with RuneScape’s lead designer, David Osborne, to discuss the anniversary in detail. If you’re interested, be sure to check out our breakdown of everything you can expect for the Anniversary Event. However, that’s far from the only thing we spoke about. Osborne also provided some in-depth thoughts about the state of RuneScape as well as several major updates that are planned for 2021. From skill reworks to new bosses, he’s responsible for just about everything that finds its way into the live game. And he’s been working at Jagex for 14 years so it’s fair to say he knows his stuff.

The concept of a live service game has become more common as of late but RuneScape inherited that model a long time ago. Ever since its initial launch in 2001, the MMORPG has relied on continued updates to sustain and grow its player base. Back in 2017, Jagex was awarded the Guinness World Record for developing the most prolifically updated MMORPG of all time. These updates vary from small quality of life improvements all the way to colossal expansions that can require over 18 months of development.

Given that the spine of RuneScape is and has always been built on its updates, I’m sure you can imagine the pressure that Osborne has to shoulder. A string of bad updates can kill a game. But thankfully RuneScape fans likely have little to be concerned about as Jagex is listening to feedback. The first planned major update of 2021 is one that many players have been requesting for some time. Both the player characters and NPCs are finally getting a long-overdue makeover.

In RuneScape, the player is the focus. Everything you do in RuneScape comes back to your avatar. From the joy of upgrading and leveling it to collecting the gear for it. But the player character itself hasn’t always been up to the standard we’d like,” revealed Osborne.

I’m really enjoying the process of working out how we can improve that avatar. It’s really exciting, and I’m jubilant that it’s finally going through as I’ve been advocating for it for so long. One of the benefits of how we’ve gone about it is that both NPCs and players share the same human rig. So, this visual update will start to bleed out and affect NPCs around Gielinor too.

Osborne’s thoughts on this are widely echoed by a majority of RuneScape’s player base. The current player models are based on the visual override that marked the beginning of the RuneScape 3 era in 2013. Since then they have been left behind as the MMO’s graphics have gone from strength to strength. It’s especially jarring when you stand next to one of the newer NPCs who often look like they’re from an entirely different game.

A comparison between the player model (left, 2013) and a more recent NPC, Laniakea (right, 2019).

Perhaps the most anticipated update of 2021 is the Elder God Wars Dungeon. It was originally planned for a 2020 release but development complications and COVID have seen it pushed back to this year instead. But if Osborne’s excitement is anything to go by, I think there’s plenty of reason to still look forward to it.

If you’re identifying an iconic element of RuneScape that is worth celebrating, the God Wars Dungeons are one of the biggest. Players love them as they’re very social and you can mass bosses with as many friends as you’d like. It’s a very communal combat experience. 

This year we want to apply that to the Elder Gods. We’re going to create a trigger event next year that causes the eggs in the center of Gielinor to hatch. And when they do, the universe itself will be ripped apart and remade. That’s the premise of the Elder God Wars Dungeon which will act as the centerpiece of the year.

For context, the God Wars Dungeons are bossing oriented areas where the player is tasked with taking down representatives of Gielinor’s many gods. Several of RuneScape’s most iconic characters such as K’ril Tsutsaroth and Vindicta began life as God Wars Dungeon bosses. Despite debuting all the way back in 2007, the original God Wars Dungeon is still relevant content to this day. For a bossing update to have lasted so long is seriously impressive given the natural power creep a game like RuneScape has experienced.

The intent remains for the Elder God Wars Dungeon to be mass spawn. So it’s hard to apply a difficulty because you can come in with your mates and overkill the bosses. But we are looking at it being a step beyond God Wars Dungeon 2. It will be a little harder but we’re taking a different approach with the Elder God Wars Dungeon. I can’t reveal too much yet but skillers will be able to get involved too. It’s not necessarily all combat-oriented. Also, we want to make the mob fighting more interesting than the other dungeons where you just aim to fulfill a kill count.

RuneScape God Wars Dungeon 2 cinematic screenshot
God Wars Dungeon 2 is still a go-to for PVMers of all skill levels. The beautiful visuals coupled with the great drops makes it one of RuneScape’s most visited areas.

If you were hoping for either a new skill, skill rework, or even a 120, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Although Osborne did confirm some work is ongoing to deliver on one of those, the final product won’t be seen any time soon.

New skills are the defining feature of RuneScape. It’s what differentiates us from Old School and is the biggest factor in how your character succeeds in the game. So of course we’re looking at what the next skill is. As for if that’s going to be in the next year, that’s a big ask. But you can be sure we’re at least doing the necessary preliminary work.

Osborne also touched upon the difficulties of justifying a skill rework given the time required to do it properly.

The Mining and Smithing rework has huge benefits as all new players will use the skills at some point. But so many of our active players have already completed mining and smithing. This puts it in a weird place where veteran players are happy it’s there but don’t end up using it. The balance between new and fixing the old is something we’re constantly trying to maintain. And we don’t have room for dozens of 18-month projects so we’ve got to pick and choose wisely. So there’s no new skill rework yet.

As for inside information regarding which skill could get the 120 treatment, Osborne wouldn’t confirm anything but did give some personal insight on how he feels regarding Summoning and Construction.

I like the idea of Summoning 120 having a slightly different identity. What if instead of how it works now, Summoning 120 has you drop down a creature that was tied to an area rather than the player. So you could use them within a specific range in an environment. That could be mining or smithing in a quarry or fighting a certain boss or slayer creature. My favorite 120s are ones where it fundamentally mixes things up. Players are going to be training for a long time in those higher levels so just doing the same methods you used for the first 99 levels feels like a cop-out.

If there was a skill I would rework it’d be Construction. All aspects of it are a little bit off. Owning a house sounds fantastic, with it being your very own place in the world. But you can’t really customize it yourself and the rewards aren’t great. But it’s finding those reward spaces which is difficult. What would players now really value? Even if it was just updating the house to be a place you could happily invite players around to once again, that’d be good.

RuneScape Player owned house
Player-owned houses still serve a handful of niche uses but is widely irrelevant content for most players.

Have a lot of money and don’t know what to do with it? Consider holding on to it because a money-making pet is on the way for rich players to show off their wealth.

We’re putting in a money-making pet called Ritchie. We did a poll for players to create a concept for a money-making pet and one of the entries was a magpie with a top hat. Taking that idea we decided that this would be a pet you can tier up. By sinking more and more GP into Ritchie, his appearance will change. The top tier is Ritchie with a party hat which will require billions of GP to unlock.

Some players may wonder what happened to the tick rework and predictive movement. Both features were first unveiled as potential future updates at RuneFest 2019 but Jagex went quiet afterward. I asked Osborne how these were coming along and he explained why implementing these game-changing features is so hard.

We don’t have any news on that. I can’t remember the exact progress we had on it but we did do some internal beta testing and combat was the problem. It’s in the hands of our tech and platform team who are exploring it daily. But with fast tick especially it’s an overhaul of how the game works. It affects everything. So combat abilities become an issue. How often you skill in a given period becomes an issue. We hope to be in a position to give more details soon.

RuneScape 3 combat gameplay
RuneScape’s ability system for combat is fairly complicated. Reworking everything to function at a faster tick rate would require a lot of development time.

Another key issue players will be keen to hear his opinion on is the state of monetization. Although things have improved considerably since the days of the Squeal of Fortune, it’s no secret that RuneScape still has some issues from a business point of view. In 2019, Jagex appeared before the UK parliament as part of their investigation into gambling in video games. Later that year, the House of Commons reported that one-player had spent “in excess of £50,000,” on RuneScape microtransactions. Here’s Osborne’s take on RuneScape’s current business model.

One of our focuses over the next coming year is to explore our monetization options and make it so that the player has more control over them. With Treasure Hunter, we want to move away from blind chance and randomization. But equally, anything that is gameplay focused and that players need to be optimal will be made more accessible. Also, we’d love to be in a place where more direct purchases for cosmetics elements are available.

As the interview came to a close Osborne did touch upon one last aspect his team will be focusing on in 2021. Making old content relevant again. Naturally, with it being a twenty-year-old game RuneScape is full of what the community calls ‘dead content’. That term was coined to describe aspects of the game that are no longer useful and are often neglected as a result. Whilst it’s impossible for Jagex to make everything viable, Osborne does at least want to bring some past content back to life.

We’ve talked a little about the idea of remastery. The idea of going back to older things and giving them life. For example, what would happen if King Black Dragon was brought up to be the next top-end boss? And we can reimagine some of the older elements of our game to be relevant again. I think that pattern works well for RuneScape as it keeps the climate familiar for players but doesn’t result in repetitive content. So that’s what we’re going for. We think that’s the right one. And we’ll be testing that approach over the next couple of years.”

I’d like to give a huge thanks to Dave for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk with me. This interview made it very apparent to me that he has a genuine passion for RuneScape and wants nothing more than to see the game flourish. If you’re interested in checking out RuneScape, you can sign up and play for free by downloading the official client. Recently, it even came to Steam making it easier than ever to try out.

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