Disclaimer: This article deals with an event in the quest Ritual of the Mahjarrat, known as ROTM. I will not be saying exactly what that event is nor where it happens, and will be as vague as possible with regard to the actual event. The implications the event is what this article will focus on, so any potential spoilers are very minor. However, if you would prefer knowing absolutely nothing about ROTM then you might want to avoid this article.
So, here is the minor spoiler. Those of us who have completed ROTM will know that one of Gielinor’s towns has been destroyed, albeit partially, sometime during the events of the quest. The facilities of the town are unaffected and it is still a perfectly good place to hang around and grind. As one of Runescape’s oldest towns (though it has drastically changed since it was first put in the game, and an iconic one for many of us), Jagex shows that it is not against making changes to the landscape of the game, even in important and frequented areas. However, this town’s destruction is purely cosmetic and that takes away a lot of potential for Jagex to do something new and interesting. The same buildings are still accessible, the same NPCs are still wandering around in the same places unnerved by the destruction, and nothing has changed except I see the damage every time I head into town. The long-time citizens of this town do not even acknowledge the change. There is no dialogue option for them to comment about the change or how it has affected them. It makes the entire change feel artificial and unimportant.
Other MMOs have incorporated changing landscapes in their games to add new stories, gameplay elements, and revitalizing unused areas. Often, in-game destruction is the catalyst for such changes. World of Warcraft has its Cataclysm expansion where different areas drastically changed and offered new content for players new and old. Lord of the Rings Online’s starter area is destroyed at the end of the “tutorial” questline, motivating players to move on from their time as a completely new player and exploring what else the land has to offer. LotRO is a good example of changing areas through destruction, but since it is not building on old content it is not particularly analogous. WoW’s Cataclysm, on the other hand, has old content drastically changing to offer players new content.
Jagex has made similar changes in the Burthorpe update and, to a lesser extent, area graphical updates. However, with the continuity in Runescape’s mythos and questlines doing something in the same vein as Cataclysm would be nearly impossible because of the differences in the update and narrative styles of WoW and Runescape. Some Runescape quests have changed over time (i.e. Quests in the Buthorpe/Taverly area), but the overlapping narrative has stayed the same and drastically changing huge areas of the game would send ripples throughout various plotlines. Tackling such an issue is surely daunting and I do not blame Jagex for not making such a change that would necessitate examining 10+ years worth of content, especially since they are already doing that for the EoC update.
Instead of following examples set by other games, Jagex can take other routes to make these types of landscape changes effective and offer new content while not blocking off players to old content. One path that would fit the model of how Jagex handles unique encounters for players is to make a large landscape change only visible to the players who have unlocked the content. Runescape has evolved from the days when a player would start a unique encounter they would often be surrounded by others doing the same to the current system where quest or content specific items and NPCs only appear to the players who have that content available. I remember crowds of players finishing the Vampire Slayer quest all fighting their own Count Draynor in the same place, and I have always missed seeing Delrith (even though I killed him years ago) since the day they implemented selective visibility in Varrock with its graphical update. But I digress; Jagex already has the capability to make entire areas look different for different players as evidenced by the town destruction in ROTM. It is within their capability to keep an area’s frame or layout and completely change it only for players who have unlocked that content. Keeping the same layout is important so players with or without that content can still be in the same area and interact. But there can be different NPCs, different shops, selectively visible access to other areas, and much more.
To make a purely hypothetical example, imagine if Varrock was destroyed for some reason. Buildings could be entirely missing. Depending on the player, the Phoenix or Black Arm gang headquarters could be reduced to a crater in the ground, maybe leading to a new dungeon, since players cannot access the headquarters of the gang they did not join. Chunks of the castle could be missing, players with or without this change could still be together and pray at the first floor chapel but for the player who can see the destruction there are no longer pews or even a wall in the room. Fountains could have fallen into the sewer, leaving a leaky pipe as a replacement source of water. The slums could become a refugee camp, filling the previously empty houses with the city’s wealthy that can no longer stay in their damaged homes. These are just some examples, but the possibilities are much more vast and varied. Destruction does not have to be what necessitates a change and such a change does not have to happen to a town or city. New content done like this can revitalize an area and bring more players to use what the area has to offer. It can add new narrative opportunities and allow players to experience a living, breathing world.
While I do not know how Jagex would handle such a change or even if they are considering doing anything like this, I do know it is possible. In fact, I would wager that testing out these possibilities is why they destroyed a town to begin with and why they have made so many selectively visible NPCs and objects in various quests, some more than others (I’m looking at you, While Guthix Sleeps). I am excited to see what Jagex does next in this regard, but I also do not want them to make changes that offer the same emptiness as the town’s destruction. So, I will end with two important aspects Jagex should think about if and when they make this kind of content, because it could be the difference between something interesting and meaningful, or failed content.
One, the area really has to feel like it has changed. NPCs need to comment and react. Players need to be able to use what the area offers in a different way. There needs to be some kind of narrative involved that adds to the world building of Gielinor. Two, while not a necessity, such a change will resonate more with players and be more engaging if the players feel like they have a hand in the change that happens. This is a point I did not cover extensively in the rest of this article because I did not what to spoil what role, if any, the player has in the destruction of the town that was mentioned earlier. However, if the actions of the player feel like the cause of change, or if the change is only possible with the player’s involvement, then the change will be much more immersive and feel more important to the players. Honestly, I could write a whole piece on the importance of a player’s role in the events of a game and how that affects enjoyment and immersion (and maybe I will), but that would be woefully off-topic here.
Instead, I hope Jagex keeps these things in mind and are going to make some sort of change like this to breath more life into an area of the game in an interesting way, though this could all be wishful thinking on my part. Nevertheless, this would be a great idea, because Runescape players like nothing more than big changes. Right?