MMORPGs and live service games depend on constant updates and new content to stay relevant, but this carries with it the risk that a long-running game will eventually deviate from that which drew in players to begin with, causing an exodus of the older player-base while new players are more interested in games that came out more recently. Originally releasing in 2001, Jagex’ Runescape has seen drastic changes over the years, but rather than bury their past, the company opted to keep its history alive and available, creating 3 major versions of the game. OldSchool Runescape is the version I grew up with, reflecting what the game looked like around the mid-2000s.
Answering the question of what in the world Runescape even is, is not an easy feat. It’s a fantasy MMORPG unlike any other game that would roughly fit that description.
Skills and finding purpose
After completing a tutorial on the aptly-titled Tutorial Island, players are teleported to the courtyard of a castle with basically 0 direction. They got a map, the equipment from the tutorial, and nothing else. No questgiver right in front of the exit ready to set them up on their adventure and nobody to tell them where to even go. You could go and seek out questgivers using the map and hints in the questlog, or you can disappear into the woods and start grinding woodcutting.
Everything in Runescape is based on skills, of which there are about 20. Of course, you got your combat skills to fight enemies with, including ranged and magic options, but you also have skills that might not seem as immediately appealing. You can go fishing, cut down a tree, make a campfire, cook up all the fish you caught, and all those actions are separate skills that you are tempted to level all the way to 99. Yes, arson is a skill, and you’d be surprised how efficient it is to grab a pile of logs and turn the city center into an inferno of campfires.
Many skills have some interesting use to them, such as mining & smithing allowing you to craft armor that you can then wear if you have high enough defence skill. Fishing and cooking are great ways to secure a food supply for yourself, which can restore health during combat to keep you going. You might also want to level these skills to create goods to trade with other people, which is a viable playstyle that I have seen people thoroughly enjoy. There are caveats to this, but I’ll get back to those in a bit.
If you are going to play Runescape, then you need to get into a habit of setting your own goals. Reaching level 99 in every skill is ambitious, but it’s a long way off. Maybe you want to finish a quest today or create a stockpile of rune essence? Maybe 99 isn’t exactly short-term, but how about going to a port and fishing until you have gained 5 levels, then seeing how much money you can make with that catch.
A downside is that Runescape isn’t very exciting to play. Reaching your personal goals feels like an accomplishment, but once the training wheels come off, leveling skills starts taking hours of time and literally thousands of reagents in the case of the crafting skills. You’ll be making so many copies of the same items that you won’t know what to even do with it all anymore.
Practicing these skills is also not the most entertaining thing to play. Runescape feels like it should be an idle game, but it’s designed against that. While mining, you need to constantly click new rocks to resume your work and the same applies to fishing, stealing, woodcutting, etc.. You can’t even burn an inventory full of logs or use magic on every item in your inventory, you need to repeat the same clicks and commands every time. I could never give Runescape my full attention because it just wasn’t interesting, so I alt-tabbed or kept is in a small window while doing something else. Then, if I didn’t get back to it soon enough, the game would just disconnect me after about a minute of inactivity. Sometimes I’d be actively playing it and still get disconnected, because skills are just you standing still in one spot doing nothing while your inventory fills up with tuna.
Riveting combat, high stakes
If you don’t feel like taking time out of your adventuring lifestyle to be a fantasy woodcutter or bake cakes, then just fighting enemies is also a viable way to play. Be warned though: the combat in Runescape is an acquired taste.
Like many of the skills, fighting enemies is just a matter of selecting attack and watching the combat animations loop. Early on, you’ll find yourself constantly missing attacks and not having much influence to make things go any smoother. That prayer that gives you 5% extra defence is not much help when your defence is 5.
Those who are used to more active combat systems may find this sluggish and they’d be right. It’ll be a deal-breaker to many trying out the game today who don’t have nostalgic memories of it. What makes it worthwhile is the feeling of progression. As you buy or craft stronger gear, train up your skills, you start to hit more reliably and for much more damage. You can also mix in magic and prayers to give yourself an edge, but until you reach the big end-game boss-fights, the combat doesn’t advance much and remains kind of static. Even those late-game fights against level 100+ enemies can be easily countered with a bow, some leather armor, and a hiding spot where the foe can’t hit you.
95% of my time with Runescape, combat would just be a matter of attacking the foe and waiting until I beat their healthbar down to 0. I’d scarf down some food if things seemed like they might get hairy and sometimes I’d turn tail and run, but most encounters felt samey and victory was usually guaranteed unless I deliberately sought out foes that far outleveled me.
A mild exception to this rule are the slayer missions, which are related to a skill that’s all about defeating special monsters. While a lot of slayer targets would just be regular combat, there are foes mixed in there that have some special rules that you must counter, such as giant slugs that won’t die unless you use a bag of salt on them. A bit gimmicky, but it gives mid-level players at least some enemies to fight that deviate from the standard.
Please give me a quest
So, combat isn’t that exciting, leveling skills is kind of tedious, and the game looks like butt, so many might be wondering what people see in Oldschool Runescape. Why did people petition the developer and quit in protest when Jagex overhauled the whole game?
Well, where Runescape makes up for a lot is in its quests. Unlike other MMO’s that have players kill X amount of enemies or grind for items, the quests in this game are actual adventure storylines with characters and plot twists to them. Players don’t just kill a local demon, for example; they have to quest for the sword of the previous hero who slew it and learn a magic incantation to seal it away. And that’s one of the simpler examples. Many quests are long journeys that require you to solve puzzles, find locations, and use your own wit to make progress. Some quests feature 0 combat, only requiring players to bring tools and find obscure items needed to complete their objectives.
This does present an issue, as you notice that Runescape doesn’t have much of a consistent tone to it. The game is overall quite comedic with well-written dialogue and storylines, but it also has some intricate fantasy lore that’s interesting to follow. Some quests are amazing and creative, like investigating the mystery of a plague-stricken city or establishing a peace between humans and the cave-dwelling goblins living underneath their land. Other quests feel like extended jokes that degrade the game’s own identity and world-building, such as it straight-up featuring King Arthur and Romeo & Juliet as main characters for quests parodying their stories.
Players also have little influence over the game’s world and face few consequences for their actions. You personally unlock access to some areas through questing, but everything else is static and unchanging. You can go on quests to revive demonic lords and empower local cults, then walk over to the church of Saradomin and pick up a quest from them. There are few options to roleplay or interact with factions, and those few moments where it does happen are usually temporary or terribly one-sided.
The way quests work also encourages a playstyle by walkthrough, which in turn pushes players to abuse the trading network. For example, that quest with the city experiencing a plague will suddenly require players to have an item that doesn’t spawn anywhere remotely near the location of the quest. Without a guide or trading, you could waste days exploring the far reaches of the world and still not find that item, whereas it’s trivial if you looked it up beforehand and just bought the item from some profiteer who knows about the quest.
Using a guide robs these quests of a lot of their magic, but you frequently have no indication of what you might logically need for any quest. It’s just poor design that expects player cooperation to fill in the gaps. I am not saying every quest should come with a chest containing every item you’ll need for it, but if some quest requires cheese for whatever inane reason, could there at least be a shop that sells cheese somewhere remotely near?
Pay-to-play 80% of the game
You should also be aware that Runescape has a premium membership program, which I’d say is a must-have for anybody looking to play the game for an extended period of time. If you just want to pop in and relive some nostalgic memories, then free-to-play has hours upon hours of content available. The free-to-play area is large and has several big quests that give you plenty to do and work towards up until about combat level 60-70, depending on when you feel ready to take on the final big quest. There is no shortage of F2P stuff, but getting membership opens up a whole other world.
Hundreds of new quests and the full expanse of the game’s wonderful fantasy world alone are compelling reasons to pursue membership, but you also unlock new member-exclusive skills and get the full potential of the existing skills. This is what I meant before when I mentioned caveats, as even the free-to-play skills are more useful to paying players. Firemaking is, technically, useless. It allows players to make campfires out of various types of tree, but no quests ever require it and cooking on a stove is always better than open fire. Members, however, use firemaking for candles and lanterns that allow them to explore dark areas, which is required for a lot of quests and is just generally useful for exploration.
Another good example is fishing. F2P players wanting to catch mid-level fish need to pay for a boat to Karamja, fill up their inventory, take the boat back, dump their inventory in the bank and then repeat. P2P players can just go to Catherby, an easily-accessed port city with fishing spots right outside the bank, which itself is located next to a house with a stove. You are so unimaginably advantaged as a premium player that it’s actually kind of absurd. Free players are constantly taunted with doors they can’t open, quests they can’t start, devices they can’t use, and options that are unavailable to them. How weird is it that free players who choose to be primarily archers can’t even be self-sufficient, just because fletching is a members-only skill. You can craft your own armor and magic runes, but pointy sticks? You gotta subscribe to get those.
Once you have been a member, you’ll also find that Runescape forces you to stay a member. Players who downgrade for whatever reason will see their bank accounts filled up with junk turned into ambiguous “members objects” they can’t identify or use anymore. Your weapons and armor become useless, you can’t even sell the stuff off anymore. Perks you earned by leveling skills like using shortcuts (thanks to the agility skill) are also rescinded. Whenever I returned to the game after a period of inactivity, I either immediately stopped or became a premium member again, because not doing so was basically unplayable for me.
The robots are ruining the economy
Finally and fatally, I want to address the matter of botting. For as long as I have played the game, there would be players who used software to automate tasks and optimize their time with the game. Now, years later, entire bot networks have hordes of generic level 3 characters doing literally anything and everything. Real players are constantly obstructed by automated bots endlessly grinding out the tasks they need to do to level up their skills or even to complete quests.
On my most recent account, I literally had to become a member because every world I tried would have 3-4 bots completing the objective for a starting quest that I needed to do myself. Imagine being a new player trying to get into this game people keep hyping up and not being able to do basic tasks like mining some iron or shearing sheep because the robots are active and they are always faster than you.
This rampant botting issue is an existential threat to the whole game and the response to it from moderators is just not active enough. Even after becoming a member I’d find bots continuously stealing from the market stalls in Ardougne before running back to the bank to deposit their ill-gotten loot. I’d report them, do a whole quest, come back hours later, and they are still at it.
Keep in mind, these bots are making MILLIONS of in-game money by flooding the in-game economy with items, and not just those that are easily obtained. Bots have learned to grind mini-games and can perform the weirdest tasks needed to get obscure items to then sell in bulk. The worst thing is, the grind-heavy nature of the game plays into the hands of these bots and not just for the players who use them to level up their own characters.
Those thousands of reagents players need to level up their skills are frequently provided by bots that drive down the game’s entire economy to provide them. If you’re on the buying end, this might be a small win for you in the short term, but it also robs a lot of players of business opportunities and is just all-around a nuisance to actual players looking to enjoy the game and play legitimately. There are cathartic videos out there of YouTubers bullying bots or the moderator team performing a big sweep that takes out hundreds at once, but it doesn’t feel like anything is being done while you are playing and witnessing it with your own eyes. For all we know, the report function is just not sending anything at all.
Playing Runescape, I found myself experiencing a cycle. I’d play it for a few days while watching anime, eventually upgrade to membership to get more out of it and do some amazing quests, before interest began to wane and I’d cancel my subscription and stop altogether. I wouldn’t touch the game again for months before the cycle restarted, but the period in which I actually played would grow shorter each time.
I feel that Runescape is nostalgic and does do interesting things with its quests, but the core of its gameplay is flawed. It encourages you to repetitively grind out skills, even as the actions you are performing serve no direct use to you outside of slowly but surely making the numbers increase so you can eventually do something that is beneficial to you. It encourages you to seek out easy tricks and optimization guides, just to get it over with.
It made me question why I even played? I was setting goals for myself and reaching those felt great, but what it had earned me? Access to the next grind and maybe the prerequisites for some quest. Vague promises of end-game bosses and content loomed on the horizon, but whenever I got around to one it felt like I could have had more fun and challenge for less effort in basically any other RPG.
There are worthwhile things here. Exploring Gielinor is fun, it’s an imaginative game with funny writing and great quests, and I found it very easy to play on the side while watching anime. However, so much of the game is dead content, overrun with bots, or so convoluted that I ultimately felt it was better to stop playing and let Runescape die as a pleasant memory before my boredom and frustrations soured my nostalgia for it further.