The free-to-play gaming market has officially become a huge deal. As you know, RuneScape has for many years championed the title of the world’s most popular free-to-play MMORPG (by Guinness World Records) without much serious competition (Travian, Adventure Quest and others don’t count in my book). That title which has been monopolized until now, will be seriously contested.
Even though, there’s not a whole lot of data out there about how many players the top MMORPGs have, World of Warcraft is the 900 lb. Gorilla in the market with approximately 11.4 million subscribers. Just for perspective, RuneScape, estimated by some to be the second largest, has about 10 million active accounts. The number of members is relatively small portion of that number, though there are over 156 million accounts registered.
There are big competitors lining up to take RuneScape’s place should Jagex falter or drive away it’s players. The biggest contenders for Jagex’s throne is Lord of the Rings Online which released free-to-play in September of last year. After having watched some gameplay and messed around with it a little, its seems to be well polished and has good graphics and gameplay, although it’s class system does seem strange to me. The other more recent challenger is aforementioned 900 lb. gorilla (i.e. WoW).
WoW just recently released a new trial method that allows you to play for free until level 20 with a fully enabled account, and once you reach level 20, you can continue playing, but just don’t gain any more experience until you subscribe. As you can imagine, the influx of new accounts created (plus the added revenue from new subscribers and ads) will very likely push WoW’s total number to close to RuneScape’s.
I must admit, these offers of free-to-play is quite tempting, enough so to truly give me doubts over whether it’s worth it to continue with RuneScape. Another problem that eats into all games that require a monthly subscription are easily modded and creative games (e.g. Minecraft, Starcraft 2, etc.). They, in a sense, can give what Runescape cannot which is a huge outlet for creativity and a self determining story. Minecraft, for example, gives you unlimited control over your environment and (in my opinion) a greater sense of accomplishment when a large project is completed, such as securing a new cave system. RuneScape has largely ceased to engage the player in a sense of exploration or even true participation in the stories that play out in the world. As time goes by and as the popularity of these games grow, RuneScape will be hard-pressed to offer engaging and creative experiences.
This poses an interesting question: What will Jagex do to keep itself competitive in relation to some of the most successful IPs (Intellectual Property) in all of gaming history, not to mention extremely fast growing gaming communities? All we can do is speculate. In a lot of aspects, Jagex is just trying to play catch-up, especially with Blizz-con that is probably one of the biggest gaming events of the year (along with E3, PAX, Tokyo Game Show, Comic Con International, and others). In my opinion, if Jagex really wants to keep itself competitive it needs to take RuneFest up a notch, and make it one of their prime events of the year. One of the biggest attractions of gaming events and concerts like Blizz-con, PAX, E3, etc. are the tournaments, parties, press-conferences, and previews that happen, and thus attract people from the community, and from the press.
Having RuneFest as their main event of the year would be great, but it would all be for nothing if few people showed up. I think that, even though Jagex is a UK company, they need to go to where their largest user base is i.e. the US. To some, that may seem like favouritism towards the US, but logically, it makes sense. If the majority of users are in the US, and the conference is on another continent, very few people are willing to spend the money to fly to said other continent just for a couple of days for 1 conference (e.g. our dear Shane, Mike, myself, Paul, King Kulla, Shwa, and most of the RSBANDB staff).
The other main point that I believe is essential is catering to the community at large, especially to new players. Even though there is some that gripe that RuneScape “has become too easy on noobs”, it’s essential that those new players are sucked into playing the game and eventually subscribe or at the least keep it up, giving them continued ad revenue.
My last question is: what surprises does Jagex have for us, so that it can keep ahead of the competition? Only time will tell.