RuneScape Moves to Come Out of the Shadows

RuneScape is one of online gaming’s biggest success stories, but unless you play it or know someone who does, you’ve probably never heard of it. Launched in 2001 by Jagex Software, an independent studio based in the UK, it’s a traditional fantasy role-playing game that boasts six million active monthly players, almost all of them in the English-speaking world — making RuneScape more popular in the West than World of Warcraft. (Over half of WoW’s 10 million players are based in Asia.) Do a Google trend comparison of RuneScape to World of Warcraft and Age of Conan, the latest MMORPG darling, and you’ll see that the web traffic of Jagex’s indie title outstrips both of them. Despite all this, it’s received comparatively little coverage, even by the gaming press.

That may change soon, because this week Jagex will make its first appearance at one of gaming’s biggest trade shows — the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles — where it will debut a graphically upgraded version of the game called RuneScape High Detail. Ahead of the launch, I sat down with the Jagex team last week to find out how, with so little attention, the modest-looking RuneScape has attracted so many players.

Originally created by Andrew Gower and his brother Paul while Andrew was still an undergrad at Cambridge, RuneScape runs on Java, making it accessible to anyone who can get on the web. It’s also free, though 60 percent of the world’s content is restricted until you upgrade to a $5 monthly subscription, which some one million RuneScape players currently pay. And while even RuneScape High Detail won’t win Jagex any graphics awards, the developers have compensated by creating a game world with depth and variety of play. “In terms of gameplay,” influential game developer Raph Koster notes, “RuneScape is a very worldy world, offering a diverse array of activities that frankly, resembles Ultima Online.” (Koster was that classic game’s lead designer.) At the same time, the Java code makes it easy to add new features and make quick fixes. As Jagex CEO Geoff Iddison noted to me, “The beauty of Java is it’s platform independent.”

The result? Tremendous viral growth, especially from very young gamers on a limited budget. Jagex won’t give out specific numbers, but Iddison told me their greatest expense is payroll for 400 employees; he also said their profit margin is well over 50 percent.

More details on Jagex/RuneScape

– New content (questions, items, etc.) added to RuneScape every two weeks
– 1.2 megabyte Java app
– Peak concurrency: 250,000
– Average player time: 12.5 hours/week
– RuneScape is a sharded MMORPG (i.e. copies of the world run on separate servers)
– 250 RuneScape shards for up to 2,000 players each. Unlike many MMORPGs, player characters are not bound to a single shard.
– 200 servers total
– Main player demographics: 60 percent are from the U.S., 25 percent from the EU, smaller percentages from Australia/New Zealand and Canada. Player age typically 8-20, approximately 80 percent between 10-16.
– RuneScape HD feeds graphic data to computers with 3D cards for dynamic rendering. Displays at 15 frames per second on minimum spec computers, but can optimize up to 50 FPS. Can display in full screen.