I was a bit surprised not to get my weekly update notice from Jagex last week. I must have gone back and refreshed the page several times just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. With a tantalizing September "Behind the Scenes" notice the week before, I was expecting all sorts of exciting things, so it was good to read this week that these things are indeed in the pipeline.
It's always tempting to think of upgrades as expansions of the game play: new skills, more quests, unexplored lands, innovative equipment, and a fresh crop of monsters to terrorize. The truth of the matter is that new game content is only half, and very often the easy half, of the story.
Updating the game engine is as important, possibly even more important, as adding new content. We've recently seen a number of graphics upgrades. Little by little the world is being made over with better and more detailed graphics. This is a good thing. The "clunkiness" of the graphics (and the poor quality of the sound effects) is probably the most frequently criticized aspect of the game. This criticism is not entirely unjustified, even though what can be done in a web-based Java application is pretty limited. It has been good to see how Jagex has responded and improved the graphics quite dramatically over the past few months. New and better sound will also give a boost to the perceived quality of gameplay.
Now Jagex tells us they're working on upgrades to their scripting language, which they expect will enable them to expand and enhance game content even more. And, hopefully, make the programming easier for them. This is a massive undertaking. Not only do they have to make sure that their upgrades and improvements work as intended, they also have to check for backwards compatibility with the existing code.
I've been on the pointy end of software updates several times in the course of my professional life. The blokes at Jagex Towers have my sympathy. These things often do not go as smoothly as everyone would wish, and much midnight oil is burned getting everything sorted out and working properly. In some respects, they're stuck: they can't improve the content of the game beyond a certain point without updating the game engine, yet updating the engine is a somewhat hazardous operation, which can lay the game open to all sorts of "undocumented features". The easiest course to take is often not to upgrade the engine on the existing game, but instead use the new engine to create a new game. It's a good indication of Jagex's commitment to RuneScape that they're undertaking this type of complex engine re-design and enhancement. You don't do this for something you're not planning to stick with for a long time. Unless you intend to support, develop and keep on selling your product, whether it's a game or some other type of software, there's no percentage in performing updates that are invisible to the user unless they fix some potentially dangerous bug.
It would be foolish in the extreme to attempt to estimate what the return on investment for this infrastructure upgrade would be. I couldn't begin to calculate how much time and money has gone into it. However, from what I know of the software industry, I'd expect Jagex to be looking at continuing active development of RuneScape for at least another 2 to 3 years in order to get a decent ROI. That's something like another 25 or 30 quests. Perhaps another new skill or two, and probably considerable expansion of the world, both as yet undiscovered lands and new interesting creatures and NPCs. I think we'll be seeing more mini-games as well. Some of them have proven more popular than others, but in general they are a fun aspect of the game.
So while I was disappointed last week not to have something new in game to go off and investigate, I'm very pleased to read this week that Jagex is investing so much effort into the infrastructure of the game that there'll be plenty of stuff coming down the pipe for the foreseeable future. It's nice to know that they are as committed to developing the game as we are to playing it.
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