To understand the importance of this referendum one needs to understand the reasons for which the Wilderness and free trade were removed in the first place. This piece attempts to do so by examining the history of the period leading up to the removal of free trade and the Wilderness.
When the announcement was made for a vote on the possibility of returning the Wilderness and free trade the first thing I thought about was RuneFest, an event I was able to attend this past summer. I remember the players and the developers that I met and got a chance to talk to. I was able to ask questions and hear the passionate fervor of fellow players and the developers. I believe that RuneScape, its players, and Jagex are ready to face the challenges of the return of free trade and the Old Wilderness. It has been a year of bold and decisive action in MMOs. Online gaming has come leaps and bounds in the past three years.
The desire for the return of free trade and the Wilderness is strong. I do not believe that it represents a vocal minority. Thorough discussion with colleagues and friends has confirmed that the vast majority want them back. The only other reply I have heard was from individuals who were fine with either scenario and even then most of them voted "Yes."
I did not cast my vote until New Years Eve of 2010. I listened carefully to the arguments enumerated by my friends and some excellent discussion points that were found on the Official Forums. Though ultimately I believe that I and the community in which I am most active in - Businesses & Services - could potentially benefit either way, I voted yes. In 2010, many online games were forced to change to stay fresh. Some radically altered their subscription models. The appearance of mainstream "casual" online games on popular social networks made people who never would have touched a game before turn into "gamers." One of the highest profile MMOs in the industry debuted the complete re-forging of their world to keep their game fresh. It stands as a testament to the powerful legacy and pull of the RuneScape brand that to merely call for a referendum considering the return of free trade and the Old Wilderness would have the whole of RuneScape buzzing. By combining that with a continual stream of almost weekly content updates that remake the game a little with each one and the legacy of being one of the first games to popularize browser based gaming, we see that RuneScape continues to do things that industry juggernauts have certainly taken lessons from.
At RuneFest, Mod Fetzki (the Head of RuneScape) mentioned that one of the biggest things that Jagex often worries about is "legacy". There is probably no greater example of the powerful draw of "legacy" in RuneScape than the excitement, furor, and debate this referendum has drawn. A combination of industry, global legal initiatives, and a whole host of other factors makes now the best time to consider the return of free trade and the Wilderness. But in 2007 the situation was not as it is now. In fact, free trade and the Wilderness were becoming the unfortunate pathways that threatened to destroy RuneScape if they were not stopped.
In 2007 the threat that real world traders presented reached its highest point seen yet in RuneScape. Whilst the ubiquitous image of the level 3 bots clad in green and a mottled hue shirts, chopping away at yew logs has become a running joke in the history of the game, their prevalence was one sign that things were becoming dangerous as bots' economic influence on the game increased. In a Developer Blog titled "RuneScape vs. the Wilderness" released on December 10th, 2007 Andrew Gower himself summarized the situation in a quote: "There has been a significant increase in the amount of real-world trading this year. If we don't find a solution to RWT now, it will ruin RuneScape."
In a year where the war against real world traders became increasingly fierce, we can see the severity and threat that real world trading via gold farmers and bots had become in RuneScape. On May 1st 2007 we saw the first serious post during the year about the threat of bots and RWT. In it was a revealing description of the level of organized activity behind what was becoming a major threat to not just the "spirit of the game" but RuneScape itself:
"What's happening is more complex than it first seems. What's actually going on is that the VAST majority of the level-3 characters you see playing the game repetitively and not talking to anyone, are actually people from countries such as China and Korea, who are trying to collect RuneScape gold to sell for real world money (obviously against the rules). Some of them aren't even using bots, they are just playing the game very repetitively with a single-minded purpose to collect gold. These people have no interest in playing the game properly, and therefore don't care if they get banned. The final effect is the same, though – it spoils the game for everyone else."
A Tip.it Times article on the 12th of May 2007 commented on the piece. It discussed some of the players' thoughts on the subject at the time. The Editor-author (at the time the Tip.it Times articles were written by an anonymous "Editor") wrote "While in general Jagex does an excellent job of improving and expanding the game, there are some areas where they consistently do a poor job. The bot/macroer/gold farmer problem is not a new problem. It's been going on for years. It has, however, become significantly worse in the past six to nine months." Here a continual grievance that is still expressed to this day was made – that players didn't "feel" that something significant was being done to fight them. Whether this is true or not, the Editor went on to say a sentence that reflected some of the player reactions at the time: "To be absolutely honest, I thought last week's announcement was yet another piece of insubstantial PR on the part of Jagex."
On May 15th the Tip.it Times published a Letter to the Editor written by myself. During that period in 2007 I had been furiously training Runecrafting and the level of suspected gold farming occurring drove me to write to the editor after reading his piece. What I wrote over three years ago described the extent of the danger that RWT had posed:
"Runescape has always had a population of autoers since its popularity has steadily increased. Autoers are one of the ills that have plagued the runaway success Jagex has created in this MMORPG. The very fact remains that, not only do we see them, but we feel them working in our very economy. Although it has its own inherent faults, autoers that choose to participate in illicit activities flood the economy. Not only do players feel the sheer economic power of these people, but Jagex sees it as well."
Now, in addition. we have seen the explosion of another entity that rivals the sheer threat of autoers as well: the "sweatshop" concept with real players playing the game solely to break rule 12 (real world trading). So at the present, we have two grand enemies that seek to extrapolate as much worth as possible in real world trading. One enemy is the "bots," who are now under the scrutiny and view of the whole of RuneScape. But we also see the rise of gold farmers, people that play solely for the purpose of "farming" gold through whatever means possible in order to consort in real world trading."
All this paints a picture of a status quo in 2007 where RWT and bots were rapidly weaving themselves insidiously into the fabric of the game. Players all around bemoaned the bald botting menace. Now, three years later and looking back on what the times were like I can see that Jagex responded in the strongest and most dramatic way to combat this threat that was not only affecting RuneScape but all other major MMOs at the time. In the December 10th article "RuneScape vs. the Wilderness" Jagex stated ominously that, "'We keep developing technologies to combat bots, but it's like an arms race – we stop bots, they improve their macros, we stop them, they improve again,' says Andrew…If we don't break that vicious cycle now, it would just keep getting worse and worse. It could reach a point where macro software becomes undetectable."
Based on the prospects of waging a technological cat and mouse game and the state of the games industry in 2007 against RWT and bots, Andrew was probably right. At the rate with which bots and gold farmers were rapidly entrenching themselves in the very way the game functioned, the strategy they took, as described in the Dev Blog, was to make the game inhospitable for gold-sellers. Mod Mark says, "They're in it for the money and are going to be looking at the bottom line: their profits. The key phrase is 'not profitable'. We're changing our game in a way that doesn't negatively affect its gameplay, but which makes real-world trading not worth the effort." It's a bold move to make, and one that no other MMO developer has attempted." The Grand Exchange, which has become for many a bitter symbol of a lost age, the removal of what they called "unbalanced trade" – now called "Free Trade" in the referendum, and the Old Wilderness - was one massive blitz to crush the real world trading menace.
Since 2007 , RuneScape has attempted to correct itself for the restrictions implemented by the removal of free trade and the wilderness. I will not go into additional detail on that count, but the past three years of progress and adjustment by Jagex and the games industry against real world trading must have made this referendum possible. There has been three years of additional legal precedent set in cases in major gaming markets like the US and the UK. Certainly Jagex has moved to develop adequate mechanisms to be prepared for the potential scenario of a second surge of botting and RWT.
It is without a doubt that as the referendum receives hundreds of thousands of more votes, potentially matching and exceeding the 1.2M votes the petition achieved, questions will be asked in regards to what a free trade and old wilderness return would look like. The essential question of what mechanisms are in place to combat botting and real world trading must stand at the fore of the way Jagex communicates with its players. I concluded my Letter to the Editor three years ago with a call to action amongst the player base: "Rallies and demonstrations ingame won't help. Badmouthing autoers and gold farmers won't help. Runescapers, what will help is taking the time to send in that helpful query, sending in that report." Constant vigilance will be more critical than ever should the referendum pass.
Jagex has done a commendable job in shifting its focus to supporting community-oriented activities. 2009 to 2010 has brought Jagex into an active role on social networking sites, YouTube, and with many RuneScape fansites. The final paragraphs of the "RuneScape vs. Real World Trading Dev Diary" show Jagex fulfilling their word: "Removing unbalanced trade will lead to a massive reduction in trade scams and account theft, meaning our customer support teams can spend more time on helping our players than dealing with abuse reports." Will a return of free trade and the wilderness weaken the more active community-oriented role the community management team has taken in the past two years?
In the final paragraph of the Development Diary Andrew says, "Above all, we're a games company. We don't want to spend all our time and energy fighting gold-sellers and bots. We want to get on with making the game." I think all RuneScapers would agree with this. If you are for this referendum, you need to prepare to play an active role as a player to help combat the menace of bots. And most importantly, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of RuneScape, Jagex must be open and clear with us players with how they have prepared to be able to offer us this referendum. By understanding the history and context of the removal of free trade and the wilderness in the first place, we can see that the referendum represents a company confident enough to face the menace of RWT and bots and fight it successfully - a question that Jagex must have answered.
The author would like to thank BusinessPulse on the RSOF for their help in proofreading and preparing this article.
References used for the Piece & Suggested Reading:
The following documents played an essential role in the writing of this piece as well as many additional pieces and many long discussions with fellow players. I have attached an asterisk to the ones that I highly recommend other players read.
News Post | Category – Customer Support, December 24th, 2010: Wilderness & Free Trade Referendum
Development Diary | December 10th, 2007 RuneScape vs. Real World Trading*
News Post | Category – Customer Support, February 17th, 2009: Wilderness and Real-World Trading Q&A*
News Post | Category – Behind the Scenes, February 09, 2009: The Future of RuneScape*
News Post | Category – Behind the Scenes, February 21st, 2008: The State of Play
News Post | Category – Customer Support, December 13th, 2007: A Word About Our Updates
News Post | Category – Game Updates, December 10th, 2007: Trade and Drop Changes
News Post | Category - Game Updates, December 10th, 2007: Wilderness Changes, Bounty Hunter, and Clan Wars!
News Post | Category – Customer Support, June 07, 2007: Real World Trading is against the Rules!*
News Post | Category – Customer Support, May 11th, 2007: Bots and Real-World Trading Update*
News Post | Category - Customer Support, May 01, 2007: Bots and Real World Trading*
News Post | Category – Customer Support, December 20th, 2006: A Christmas Reminder