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Why so much success for Runescape?

At a time where there are quite many rather nicer-looking RPGs and MMORPGs, Runescape, with 4 millions free players plus 1 million paying members (source) (making it second in terms of paying subscribers after World of Warcraft which has over 11 millions (source)), was recognised as the most popular free MMORPG in the world for the second year in a row by Guiness World Records (source). However, it has rather poor graphics as well as a limited “point & click” gameplay. So, why such a success?

The reasons most often given is that contrary to other MMORPGs, there is no need to install anything to play it, you can play it simply with a browser with Java on, and the system requirements are rather low. This makes it attractive compared to other free-to-play since its low system requirements make it technically cheaper, and its free-to-play contents are decent. At $5.95 (or €5.95 in Eurozone / £3.50 in UK) per month, the pay-to-play version is also cheaper than other pay-to-play MMORPGs like WoW ($12.99 to $14.99 per month (source)) or Age of Conan ($12.99 to $14.99 or €12.64 to €14.94 or £8.84 to £10.34 per month (source)).
So, cheap and easy. This makes a good start.

Another very strong point is the versatility of your character: in most if not all MMORPGs and RPGs, at some point you’ll need to specialize your character in some fields, and let it weak in others. For instance you’ll have to choose between making a melee warrior, a mage, a healer, a ranger, etc. So if you want to experience the whole panel of skills, you’ll need to create and train several (and more precisely, quite a lot) characters. And actually, it’s rather an impossible thing to do unless you spend your whole life on it. In Runescape on the contrary, a single character can train all skills to their maximum. So you can be almost at the same time (you just need to swap your gear) a strong warrior, a powerful mage and an elite sharp-shooter. This, combined with the other point I’ll develop next, is in my opinion the most overwhelming strength of Runescape, virtually able to balance almost all the criticisms I’ll make later on.
The other very strong point is the consistency of monsters regardless of the player’s advancement: in most if not all MMORPGs, when the player’s level gets higher, lower level monsters become less rewarding, up to a point where absolutely no reward (XP, items) is given for slaying them. Seriously, this sucks. In most modern RPGs like Oblivion or Fallout 3, when the player’s level gets higher, the monsters become stronger. Seriously, this is retarded: this totally defeats the point of leveling up your character, thus is in absolute contradiction with the principle of RPG. In Runescape, on the contrary, leveling up provides none of these drawbacks, thus killing low-level monsters becomes easier and easier, and remains as rewarding whether your combat level is 5 or 120 (although proportionally to the corresponding wealth and XP, this is of course not as interesting), making it technically possible to level up to max level by killing only very low level monsters (source).

The two key points developed in the previous paragraph are in my opinion the top reasons for Runescape’s success. And when adding the low cost aspect, I guess you understand how hard it would be to make this game fail. Jagex did try quite hard to ruin their game, though:

  • They censor the chat probably worse than what’s being done in China or other dictatorship.
  • More globally, since the majority of players are children, they treat all players as if they were babies. They notably “educate” the player to censorship and delation, consider them stupid by stating (and repeating over and over) obvious security tips like “don’t give your password”, and globally use a sweety mushy care-bears-landish tone that should make anyone with an age and IQ over 12 throw-up sick.
  • They removed free trading from the game, and instated a totally over-regulated “grand exchange” instead, which forces players to trade at a sometimes inappropriate price
  • They remain purposefully ambiguous about the law, letting players believe that real-world trading is illegal (sources: 1, 2) even though they implicitly admit it’s not (sources: 1, 2). They also try to scare people away from real-world trading sites (source).

Thus, globally, they’re a bunch of brainwashers promoting dumbness and censorship, who don’t hesitate to take away players’ freedom (free trade…) to save their profits (RWT was “hurting their benefits”, which in 2006 were a whopping pre-tax profit margin of 61% (source)). But on the other hand, their game is unique.
So, now you can choose between taking the blue pill and play this good MMORPG, or taking the red pill and refuse to financially support an organization that jeopardizes the future of freedom by teaching millions of kids to STFU and to follow King Jagex like the nice little Chinese follow Mao. Your great great great grand parents bought your freedom with their lives, will you buy the captivity of your children for 5 bucks a month?

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