So it has come to this. I'm fairly certain everyone reading this article will be aware of the fact that Jagex has decided to "revamp" their high score. They are doing this by removing inactive and free players from their lists, and thus making it "easier" for active members to top the charts. I hate to be a doomsayer, but if they don't do something different, this will be the death of RuneScape.
When you think about RuneScape's story, it is absolutely remarkable. Who would imagine that a browser based game programmed in Java could draw in so many people? How could a computer game based on a 600 millisecond tick and a tile mapped third person view survive for ten years while other games have crashed and burned long before? While Jagex would lead you to believe its that their games are fun to play, experts will highlight their business model.
For the longest time, Jagex offered two versions of their game. They prided themselves for offering a full game for free, supported by non-intrusive banner advertisements, along with a deluxe upgrade for a cheap $5/month. It seemed every other month a news article came out praising Jagex's business model or talking about RuneScape's astonishing success. Throughout this time, the debate raged on. Was RuneScape's free game a demo?
This was settled in February of 2009 when Mark Gerhard introduced himself in the news post "The Future of RuneScape" where he wrote,
"We'd also like to clear up a few issues surrounding the free game. RuneScape is different from all other MMOs in that the free game has an epic amount of content (we'd estimate over 2,000 hours worth to get all your skills up to 99 and complete all the quests) and isn't merely a demo for the members’ version."
He went on to say,
"I strongly believe if you love the free game you will equally love the members’ content and that is sufficient promotion to me. If you can't enjoy the free game in its own right then we're not doing our jobs properly. We will continue to improve the free game and, crucially, make it as fun as possible because we know that this is the way that everyone first discovers RuneScape."
While in that post Jagex made its point very clear, recently their actions have shown otherwise. This includes the experience throttle for higher leveled players in Dungeoneering, and member only doors and puzzles in a game that's supposed to stand on its own. More notably are the blatant pop-ups in game talking about paid benefits or the level guides that show everything you can't do in free to play.
This has become more muddied with a recent session at RuneFest, where a Mod said,
"The culture between free to play and members is getting a bit blurred.
Something in the pipeline, but we won't talk about today.
But the idea is, free to play is like, I hesitate to call it an intro.
Sometimes it's been called an intro. Sometimes it's been called an entirely other game.
I hesitate to call it either."
Removing free players from the high scores certainly would make the free game an intro. When you think about it, the free game may be unlimited in the amount of time you can put into it, but there are definite limits to the amount of time before you're done. Of the combat skills, after reaching level 60 in attack there is no more content to unlock. After reaching level 69 in Dungeoneering there are no more floors to unlock. After reaching level 60 in Firemaking there are no more logs to burn. In fact, the only skill that unlocks something new for free players at 99 is Smithing with Rune Platebodies. All other skills top out at 85 or below.
There are only a handful of reasons that would keep a player exclusively in the free game. One might be an inability to pay (this reason is rapidly going away), another might be a personal challenge (removing the high scores won't affect this player). The biggest reason would be a pure free to play high score.
Prior to the release of Dungeoneering, there were only 12 pure free players who attained 99 in every skill, with a maximum of 1494 total levels. Since Dungeoneering, only two pure free players have maxed with a total level of 1614. Compare this to the nearly 1100 members that have maxed with a total level of 2496, and its easy to see these high level free players are a minority. In fact, in the list maintained in the forums of the top 250 free players, the minimum level to make it on the list is 1459. Very few players are career free players.
If Jagex's goal is to make the free game an indefinite intro in order to stop career free players from competing for the top spot, they probably will achieve it with a bare minimum short term gain, at the expense of a huge long term loss. There are very few players that use purely free to play high level accounts, and even in that category there are fewer that have never been a member on a different account, nor bought RuneScape merchandise, nor participated in RuneFest. In fact, other than goldfarming bots, I'd guess the number of players that have cost Jagex money is zero.
Returning our focus to the players that Jagex will remove from the high scores for being "inactive" free to play, you can expect that some will quit, some will become members, and some will remain free to play. Regardless, this is bad for RuneScape's future. Initially the only game that loses out is RuneScape's free game, as fewer players will stay free.
In my opinion, this will be the death of the free game. Right now the free game is on its last leg, with about 20% of players logged in at any given point in time on free servers, along with less than a quarter of the capacity of free servers even after Jagex re-purposed some to their member worlds. Even more saddening is that not all the players logged in are actual players, more and more advert bots are finding their way into the game every day.
The first experience a new player has in RuneScape is the free game, and unless there's a strong community present filled with people to interact with, all they will find is an empty world with nothing worth doing. Less new players sticking around means less people spreading RuneScape through word of mouth, which means less new members to replace quitting members. RuneScape may stick around for several years, but unless Jagex supports the business model that brought them so much success, it won't be around for much longer. Goodbye, RuneScape.