On December 1st, 2003, the RuneScape 2 engine was made available to the general public. After months of teasing with screenshots and descriptions of the new engine's technical capabilities, which included the first attempt at creating a fully balanced combat triangle, improved quests and of course the new Runecrafting skill. The first day of the open beta saw all the troubles you could expect. Even with just under 60,000 members having access to the beta, the game servers simply couldn't handle the strain. Even Jagex themselves noted that downloads would be slow, but the rush to play with the new engine was so large that they needed to add three extra servers on the day of release just to make the load somewhat bearable.
Some people reported having to wait several hours before they could play. I myself spent my full 45 minute lunch break waiting for the game to load, only to be forced to sit through three more hours of school before I could try loading it again at home. Fortunately, everybody's patience was eventually rewarded and people were released into the new, fully three-dimensional world with nothing but their skills.
To protect themselves from being overwhelmed with bug reports regarding items, Jagex decided to let players gather and craft their own rather than giving them access to the contents of their banks. This meant that in the early days of the game, players were almost entirely reliant on their own skills to arm and clothe themselves with, as supply was far too limited to allow for any kind of stable economy to emerge. Still, those rare few players who had the maximum Smithing level required to make a set of full rune were rewarded for their industriousness, as Jagex gave the first few players to achieve this a free party hat. While a nice gesture, this was mostly just for show, as all RuneScape 2 beta accounts would be wiped when the game would be released to the public.
Of course limited availability of items wasn't the only limitation that RuneScape 2 beta testers would have to deal with. In the first two weeks of the beta, the only areas that were open to players were the major free-to-play territories (Misthalin, Asgarnia and the Kharidian desert) and the members territories up to White Wolf Mountain. In addition to that, certain complicated quests, such as Witch's House, the Heroes' Quest and Family Crest, were not implemented yet. The first major update to the available areas came two weeks later, on December 15th, with Seers Village, Camelot, Catherby and Brimhaven being released. With them came several valuable new resources, including shark fishing and magic trees.
This certainly didn't mean that there was nothing to do. Besides a chance to relive classic quests in a new perspective, there was also the new Runecrafting skill, which would forever change the economy, and of course the entirely overhauled combat system. Magic was given a new spell casting system and a new damage scale. Melee was split up into stab, slash and crush. Ranged got perhaps the biggest overhaul of all, with new equipment to boost ranged attack bonus. All three combat styles were affected by the new weapon speed system.
Over the next few weeks more updates would slowly be added. On the 18th of December, players could test themselves against the King Black Dragon and the Family Crest quest. As an added bonus, some major interface updates were introduced, the most important of which was dragging and dropping to rearrange the contents of the bank. After the holidays, on January 7th, 2004, players were finally given the possibility to change their appearance, use emotes, toggle auto retaliate and run. Another two weeks later, the map was expanded all the way to east Ardougne, including the new Ranging Guild and market stalls. Furthermore, Jagex started introducing sound effects and the Makeover Mage finally allowed people to change their skin colour and gender.
The biggest update yet came on February 2nd, when the rest of Ardougne, Yanille, the Tree Gnome Stronghold, the Ogre country, the Khazard Battlefield, more jungle areas, the rest of the Kharidian desert, the barbarian outpost (now moved to north of the waterfall), the north-east of the wilderness, the Fishing guild and the Yanille Dungeon opened up to players. With the new areas came fifteen new quests, most of which required relatively high skill levels. Finally, a large number of skill animations were overhauled for the very simple reason that the fancy new graphic engine made training certain skills take longer than it did in RuneScape Classic. The next few weeks saw more and more minor updates, such as prayer bonuses for maces and pickaxes that could be wielded as weapons, along with a handful of quests. There were also dozens of technical updates, such as linked friends list, improved path finding and increased experience for lighting higher level logs.
February 2nd also brought an announcement by Jagex that caused quite a bit of consternation among players: Jagex had decided to come back on its original plan to fully bring over each player's account from RuneScape Classic to RuneScape 2. Instead, players would have to choose which game they would keep their items in, with the other account being left bare. This was done after Jagex came to the realization that the original plans would essentially cause them to duplicate the amount of items circulating in RuneScape. As an added problem, the Runecrafting skill had changed the value of all runes, so Jagex scaled the stacks of runes accordingly when items were transferred.
The final dress rehearsal for RuneScape 2 came on March 3rd, when the original beta accounts were wiped and replaced with fresh copies of RuneScape Classic accounts. This was done not only to further improve the beta testing process, but also to see if the system designed to transfer accounts from one game to another was functioning properly. More and more quests were added, along with more tweaks. The beta entered its final round on March 17th, when free players were set loose into the third dimension. Twelve more days of tweaking followed until finally, on March 29th, RuneScape 2 went fully public.
Beta testing RuneScape 2 was an exciting time for all players involved. There was something oddly satisfying about making my own armour and weapons, even if it was full steel. Furthermore, there was a nice sense of nostalgia playing through even the simplest quest, sheering sheep and gathering eggs. A new combat engine meant that everything that RuneScape Classic taught us about efficient combat, most of which involved "only the rune two-hander is worth using," had to be unlearned. Of course I had the added joy of being the only person in my high school who had successfully talked one of their parents into buying them membership, so for just over three months I always had a handful of people watching over my shoulder in the school library, much to the bemusement of the librarians.
The thorough beta testing by Jagex's thousands of players, along with a well-prepared development team, meant that the highly anticipated third incarnation of RuneScape was released on schedule and relatively bug free. The development process also meant that Jagex could also tweak dozens of small aspects of the game that they never would have noticed in closed beta testing. All in all it was a very exciting time to be a RuneScape player, and Jagex should be applauded for successfully introducing this full overhaul of their game, which made sure that RuneScape would stay healthy for years to come, which is more than could be said for the majority of MMOs out there. Jagex wouldn't be Jagex if they simply rested on their laurels after this, as they continue to expand and improve their game even to this day.