In the Cosmicomics of Italo Calvino, the narrator Qfwfq is as old as the universe, blessed with the ability of taking a seemingly endless number of forms, sometimes simultaneously, so as to survive and relish in the infinite present. In all senses of the word, Qfwfq is the master of time. Qfwfq was there when time began, and he’ll undoubtedly be there when it ends.
On an abstract level, the qualities of Qfwfq are what every video games developer should have: an ability to change with the times. Granted, some will always be able to make their name in retro-styled games brimming with nostalgia, Gaijin Games’ Bit.Trip series being a notable example, but this is a niche, and the vast majority of developers need (and try) to stay with the times.
In mainstream console games, developers try to do (this is a sweeping generalisation, I know) one of two things to attract attention: either they imbue the game with something unique, a quality, a gimmick, whatever, to give it a major selling point, or they try and make it formulaic. Many FPS developers, for example, believe that emulating the design of Modern Warfare will result in good sales. They know they’re never going to sell as much as the real thing, but these games are cheap and easy to make, and always yield a decent profit.
In the case of the former, the type of developing that advances the industry technologically and often widens its audience, innovations often come about. One fairly important recent innovation is MotionScan technology, created in order to enhance realism.
Such innovations have led to an industry wide trend (this is where MMOs come in) and today, the average video games consumer wants good graphics, engaging gameplay (either through thrills and set pieces or depth of interaction), a strong narrative, suitable audio and, in some cases, unique interfaces such as motion control. All of these qualities add to an overall sense of immersion.
It is no secret to anyone here that MMOs, and RS in particular, do not offer this really. You cannot decide to play RS on Kinect, the graphics remain rather dated (because it’s running on Java, but nevertheless, many won’t take that into consideration), and the audio has always been twee and irritating. These are all things that Jagex can’t really change. Other MMOs better RS on these factors (Kinect being an exception), but they pay the price in being less accessible. Much of RS is made up of people who can multitask while they play, a luxury not offered by WOW or the other big MMOs.
But there is something in RS that could be changed, and yet Jagex have not. I am referring to that other aforementioned factor: ‘engaging gameplay.’ I recently retired from RS. Like many others, I’ve quit in the past, but I feel this time is different; this time feels more permanent. Unlike many, I was not angry at the return of botting, or felt I had grown out of games, or any of the other textbook reasons for quitting. I just couldn’t be bothered with the endless clicking anymore.
Let us think of Red Dead Redemption and RS. Compare the fluidity with which one can move John Marston across an open desert, speeding along on a perfectly animated horse, firing indiscriminately at a helpless armadillo or Mexican peasant, a cacophony of hooves and gunfire erupting in a barren wasteland while the setting sun gives the entire world a reddish tinge. It is beautiful, seamless, and over a year old; in technological terms, that’s a long time. Compare this to the killing of a goblin. Everything looks like it has come from the early 1990’s. In a similarly archaic piece of game design, goblin and man stand face to face, politely taking it in turns to attack one another, emitting strange sounds reminiscent of a ZX Spectrum rendition of Pac-Man. Eventually, the goblin is felled, and collapses into a pile of bones. All of this is controlled by a cumbersome clicking and menu interface that is as outdated as the rest of the game.
The difference in quality between the two games, RDR and RS, is chiasmic. One creates a living, breathing, organic world, full of unique experiences and interaction. The other is basic, primitive, and really rather dull in comparison.
I’m not going to criticise Jagex for everything. RS has a good, but criminally overlooked narrative. But the game does not do it justice, and in doing so the game shoots itself in the foot. The (fairly) recent additions of capes of this, that, and the other are exemplary of Jagex’s failing strategy to maintain user interest: just add more content. Skill capes did this quite successfully, because they used the old ‘achievement’ mechanism that Xbox Live or PSN use to keep people playing. But trying to rehash the same concept, but with slightly different prerequisites, is not going to lure people in twice in a row. Granted, some will accept this challenge in their quest to be the best person in the world at inane clicking, but the playerbase in general is wearier, more cynical. Improving a game does not involve just adding more and more and more physical content; console game developers realise they have to stop eventually with DLC, but MMO developers cannot stop. They keep adding little things, one tiny piece at a time, until, as we saw with this second batch of capes, they end up repeating themselves.
I do not subscribe to the idea that the end of RS is imminent. It’s been around ever since I started playing over five years ago. But I do subscribe that it’s going to end if it doesn’t change. I once saw someone on our own forums, in one of those threads of statistics which allegedly back up these doom theories, compare RS to a “55 year old man,” in that they are still able to do things, but they are showing the first signs of decline. I think this fits the bill quite nicely. Extending this, I find Jagex’s approach to be like a 55 year old man in a mid-life crisis; he buys flashy cars and sunglasses and other material goods to keep himself happy and young on the surface, but he cannot evade his age forever.
The fundamental difference between a 55 year old man and RS, however, is that aging is reversible for the latter. Video games only age if they choose to age. Just look at Square Enix: no matter how many nearly identical Final Fantasy games and uninspired spin-offs they churn out, they sell in the millions because they make minor aesthetic alterations and add little features, which are enough to give the impression that they’re moving with the times. This just goes to show that change to RS would not have to be massive to renew its appeal and extend its lifespan.
In today’s video games industry, online connectivity – something PCs could once boast about over consoles – has come of age. Increasingly, MMOs and MMO-styled games are being released on consoles. This bridging of the gap between console and PC has lead to new opportunities for the console market. I think that only WOW is left as a true PC success story, MMO or not. The concept of PC-exclusivity has died out in the past five, perhaps more, years. After all, the inter-connectivity of the console market, along with the greater accessibility and variety of its games, gives people less reason to spend their gaming hours on the PC.
Today’s games industry is also one where the transition from PC to console (and vice-versa) is increasingly fluid and commonplace. Valve’s games are just as enjoyable, if not more so, on the 360, and such cross-format releasing will doubtless have a positive effect on their revenues.
This being the case, one has to wonder why Jagex continues to do nothing other than add physical content. The interface of RS is aged and in desperate need of reform. All of the other sub-par qualities are not so much of an issue in my mind, but the inanity of the gameplay is so shocking that I expect most of you will one day, as I did, look at what you’re doing and suddenly think, “And I’m doing this because…?”
In an earlier article, I discussed my views on how the Clan Camp may contribute to the depth of the game. I think looking back then, the Clan Camp was brand new and I was a little over-optimistic in my appraisal (my hope was likely a by-product of my disillusionment with my own clan experiences), but nevertheless the clan system as a whole (starting with the Clan Chat feature in 2007) was the closest we’ve got to real, substantive change. But even clans still rely on clicking (and lots of typing), and are dogged by the shoddiness of the game as an overall product.
There have been many attempts by players to add their own layers of depth to the game, be it conscious or not. I have discussed in the past the “Businesses & Services” microcosm in the game – essentially role-playing with a commercial theme that deviates significantly from the fantasy atmosphere of the game. I feel that B&S is an attempt to add depth. Players who are bored with what the game has to offer but are unwilling to quit it altogether create these ‘businesses’ to try to add something to the game themselves. Personally, B&S was something I dipped in and out of for four of the five years I played RS, and really rather enjoyed. Only the end of my subscription forced me to abandon the community.
I imagine that the contents of this article are a common complaint. I’ve tried to highlight, however, just quite how outmoded Jagex is in a contextual and measured way, rather than simply writing “I don’t like RS anymore.” I hope I’ve succeeded in doing so to some extent.
In spite of everything I’ve said of RS and Jagex, it would be a lie to claim that I didn’t enjoy RS once upon a time. It maintained my interest for half a decade, after all. I even clicked so much on one account that I reached level 99 and, for a brief time, I was proud. Then I started to train my current account, in the hope of repeating my feat. It took until level 62 for me to stop and realise that I no longer wanted to spend my time clicking on jugs, bowls, fish, stoves, and the rest. I suppose the gradual decline in active friends, until I was left with a list of 198 inactive people, made the experience quite solitary too.
To all who still enjoy the game and all that it entails, do not feel as if I am deriding you choice in this article. I am not. But the fact is that, as more time passes, RS to many of us older players (and especially to newer ones), looks increasingly dated with each passing year. More importantly, if feels increasingly passé, and there comes a time for many a player when fun can no longer be derived from it.
Videogames, especially MMOs, have the opportunity to be fluid and evolve, as per Qfwfq, but they must make a conscious effort to do so. Jagex has yet to do anything substantial to continue this evolution. I’ve alluded to some possible solutions above, but there are many I’ve not even touched on. The current format for RS is, quite simply, unsustainable. To me, the idea that Jagex won two consecutive Golden Joysticks without employing FIFA-esque tactics is laughable. After all, why reward poor game design unless you’re being paid?
In the end, it matters little how many Golden Joysticks Jagex get; if the mechanics aren’t good enough to maintain player interest on a wide scale, the slippery slope of decline that everyone is predicting will eventually become a reality. It’s only a matter of time.