When you discuss modern games with certain types of adult, there's a good chance that you're one day going to hear something like this:
"In my day, we didn't have any of that. We had to make our own entertainment."
Computer games, ever since they were first widely played, have often been very linear: the player is put in a situation and given very specific tools (e.g. a "fire" button) with which to overcome the challenges. There's plenty of skill involved, but there typically isn't supposed to be much scope for the player to make the game different for themselves through their own imagination. Within most single-player games, almost all the choices in the game will have been pre-determined by the designers themselves.
Multiplayer games have the potential to go in a different direction. Network and internet games such as Quake (now 12 years old and still memorable) can be far more replayable thanks to the unlimited supply of players coming up with new tactics and styles of play. Players can even make up their own preferred rules, such as instructing their friends not to camp near respawn points. These rules aren't enforced by the game; players choose whether or not to respect the wishes of their peers. Through the endless variety of player tactics, a simple game concept can become far more complicated than even its designers imagined. Effectively, the players have the scope to make their own entertainment rather than having the game rigidly forcing them to play as the designers intended.
RuneScape manages to have its feet in both camps at once. The quests are fairly rigid, with the player guided through the storyline and puzzles as the designer intended. There's the occasional chance for a player to determine the outcome of the quest (Hazeel Cult, Temple of Ikov) but that's all within the design of the quest-writer. The entertainment has been planned in advance by the quest-writers at Jagex, and the player is just playing along. Which is good fun. However, the rest of the game has far more scope for players to do their own thing.
Over a year ago, Pault & The Editor wrote a thought-provoking piece for this column about emergent gameplay. They focused on the nature of pures in RS Classic and wrote about how players were developing new designs for pure characters to make the most of the combat system. But the idea of emergent gameplay goes far beyond simply picking the right numbers. RuneScape's gaming community took the Wilderness and evolved their own rules for it! Long forum threads developed over topics such as whether it's "right" to kill someone who isn't interested in fighting back, the meaning of "honor" and much more besides. Clans could come together at pre-arranged times and have battles with rules chosen by their captains, such as a prohibition on any armor tougher than iron. Hotspots of activity became very well known, such as the Greater Demon ruins and the Mage Arena bank and the low-level area north of Edgeville, and people wrote detailed guides on the best ways to catch a fleeing opponent. Jagex had provided the landscape and the combat system; the rest came from the players themselves. Which suited everybody.
Outside of combat, there's the matter of item lending, Jagex made it clear that players did this at their own risk, and that Jagex wouldn't take action against anyone who failed to return an item; the game's trading feature could be used for lending out items, but Jagex didn't recommend it and wasn't going to get involved. Another example is the existence of clans; Jagex provided a Friends list, a basic chat-channel feature and some space on the RSOF, but their involvement stopped there.
Since then, we've seen the removal of Wilderness PVP combat. Beyond that, the trade restriction has prevented many things that players commonly did, such as running items to friends training skills, and lending out items to people they trusted enough. These were also areas where gameplay was very strongly led by players rather than by the game's designers.
Having removed a lot of the old player-led activities, Jagex seems to be dedicating a lot of time towards creating new activities to fill the gap. They initially gave us Bounty Hunter and Clan Wars, and more recently we've had Fist of Guthix. They're interesting games in their own way, especially Fist of Guthix, and there's much fun to be had in them. However, all these minigames begin with instructions. When a player goes in, they're told what they're supposed to do, and they're assigned an opponent with whom to do it.
The minigame areas aren't particularly suitable for other uses, as witnessed by the clans who've been trying to hold their battles in the Bounty Hunter craters and finding it increasingly difficult. Jagex made Bounty Hunter a sort of single-way combat area, presumably to help their minigame work better, and people keep asking for it to be made multi-way again so that its arena can be used for team events by players who aren't interested in the minigame itself and who just want a place for fighting. Now, that's not what the minigame areas were designed for, and if those minigames are going to be playable at all, Jagex can't simply agree to ignore the minigames' requirements and redesign the areas for an entirely different activity. The minigames are decent enough features in themselves, but they're not a replacement for the freedom players had before, and that people still seem to want. Instead, what we need is a place that doesn't have an intended purpose. A place that doesn't have designated instructions or a scoring-system, and that simply exists for players to visit and use in whatever way they wish, making their own entertainment with their own choice of friends and opponents.
Moving away from combat again, let's look at the changes to skill-training. With the removal of unbalanced trade, Jagex produced their Assist system to let players help each other with training. They've also had to promise an item lending system. It's good - and right - that Jagex should provide updates like these, even though they don't necessarily provide everything we might want. As mentioned earlier, these are areas that Jagex had previously avoided touching, leaving players to evolve their own rules for helping each other.
The Assist system has its limitations, especially for large-scale training due to the XP cap and the difficulties in exchanging items where the prices don't match up conveniently. Similarly, we can guess that the new method of lending out items will have restrictions. It's to be expected that Jagex will continue looking for ways to improve things further. Of course, whatever they produce will necessarily have limitations and rules built into its design, and this is probably unavoidable when item-transfer is involved. We can, however, hope that RuneScape's future combat updates (and other multiplayer updates) will fare better; something to bear in mind when we're proposing suggestions to Jagex. There are almost too many suggestions floating around at the moment involving improvements to Clan Wars; if Jagex tries to put too much into that minigame, they'll end up with a minigame that's great at doing some things, but utterly useless for doing anything else. We need that feature to remain flexible, to give players enough choice about how they want to play, otherwise it won't cater for players whose preferences weren't built into the design.
Let's recap. Player-driven gameplay is one of the best things in a multiplayer game, giving unlimited variety in the game, and making it far more than its developers imagined. Certain aspects of RuneScape that had benefited from players developing their own gameplay have been removed, and the updates which were intended as replacements have had mixed receptions. Perhaps what we need is more flexibility for players to play the game in their own preferred ways rather than just playing the game according to the instructions. To make their own entertainment.
~ Armadyllo ~
Did You Know...
...the Gnomecopter launch field has bank deposit boxes that make it one of the most convenient places in the world for banking cow hides for both members and non-members. (Thanks Armadyllo!)
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