Part I: The Trade-Off
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide with no escape from reality
Fantasy. Reality. The two are mutually exclusive by nature, yet these opposing forces coexist and ultimately support each other in the world of RuneScape. To see this, consider for a moment the deep contradiction which exists in any video game: all video games are essentially pockets of fantasy which dwell within reality. In the case of an MMORPG such as RuneScape, the contradiction is even more absurd. An "RPG" game is fundamentally designed to immerse the gamer in a different world altogether, yet the "MMO" portion of the acronym ensures interaction with other living human beings. In this respect, RuneScape is a microcosm defined by the interactions of the gamer with the real and non-real portions of the game.
The relationship between these interactions will be the focus of this article. In particular, I will focus on the trade-off which occurs between enhancing gameplay immersion and encouraging player interactions.
Most obviously, fantasy is the part of RuneScape which makes it a video game instead of a competition. Strip away the fantasy elements of the game and you will be left with something similar to a board game, except delivered through an electronic medium. Fantasy is most active when you complete a quest or inhabit an isolated area (such as Mort Myre Swamp). As you consider Gielinor's vast lore or experience any content alone, you are interacting with the fantasy world. On the other hand, reality is invoked through the player base. The bustling Grand Exchange in a trading world, for example, and a rowdy game of Castle Wars are good examples of what I define as "reality"—the parts of the game in which other humans play a significant role.
Both are absolutely necessary for the success of RuneScape. However, from the examples which I have listed above, it is immediately clear that fantasy and reality dominate under contrasting circumstances. The real world interrupts immersion into fantasy, so the game designer is forced to make his or her choice: which element should be emphasized in various aspects of the game, and what is the appropriate balance?
For example, there are various stores located throughout every major city of RuneScape, but when is the last time that you visited Flynn's Mace Market in Falador? In order to promote gameplay immersion as thoroughly as possible, the insanely disruptive Grand Exchange must be removed. Instead, we look towards the roots of a marketplace economy—the humble store-keeper. If a player wants a mace, he or she should trek to Falador and purchase one there. Thus, the world of Gielinor is made more mesmerizing, but at an alarming cost: convenience and community.
Allowing Gielinor to become more immersive is beneficial, but every game has its limits. After a certain point, games are simply not as enjoyable as they once were, but the community outlasts this phenomenon. A player may grow bored of the content which RuneScape has to offer, but the interactions with the community as well as community events can entice him to stay. The community is crucial to the long-term health of the game, and this is a vicious cycle: empty worlds will decrease interest in RuneScape, causing more vacant worlds.
Every time new content is produced, there is a trade-off. When Jagex designs a quest, for example, is it better to emphasize fantasy over reality? The Elder Kiln is an example of a quest which is clearly designed with immersion in mind. Specifically, the Kiln is instanced, so the player only interacts with the game itself. At the other extreme, Shield of Arrav actually requires different players to work together to complete the quest. Quests such as the iconic Monkey Madness quest allow a certain degree of immersion, but also allow veterans to help out newer players. Indirectly, quests such as the Legends' Quest help strengthen the bonds of the community through shared experiences and challenges, until they almost become rites of passage. Clearly, there is no correct answer. Both the individual and the community must be considered in game design.
If you were a Jagex game designer, how would you affect this trade-off? How successful is RuneScape's current balance of fantasy and reality?
Fantasy vs. Reality is a two-part series, so please watch out for the second installment next week!