Why RuneLabs Must Be Successful

posted by on 25th February 2015, at 2:43am

Back in January 2014 Jagex brought out what was then known as Power to the Players, now Player Power. This was on the heels of the Evolution of Combat, an update that many players did not understand and therefore, they treated it with disgust. This lead to a player movement to bring back an older version of the game which ultimately ended up being from 2007 and given the new name of Old School RuneScape. Player Power had its bumps through 2014 but did manage to deliver some impressive updates such as Plague’s End and Prifddinas. At first it appeared as though Player Power was simply a mechanism to shift the decision making of controversial updates over to the players to enable Jagex to have a “Get out of Jail Free” card. This has become less the case over time and has almost been vanquished with RuneLabs.

Jagex explains RuneLabs best, if you aren’t familiar with the concept here is the Behind the Scenes video from when RuneLabs was released:

Updates curated through RuneLabs will make up a sizeable portion of the game updates later this year. While both Lord Rickles (Trolls in White Coats) and Tanis (Train Wreck – RuneLabs Stutters with Messy Launch) feel as though RuneLabs isn’t quite right, we should all hope for the success of RuneLabs as that directly translates into success for Jagex as a corporation. Game development is a long intensive process that many players don’t get a chance to be a part of. If players are lucky they have the chance to test new additions on a test server before it goes live with the hope of being able to find a bug or at best make suggestions for game balance. There are many other examples where users get to influence product design but it’s nowhere as easy as RuneLabs.

Everyone enjoys a good game of Team Fortress 2 with its ever increasing number of hats and unique weapons. A good chunk of these were created by players and subsequently put into the game through the Steam Workshop. The differences between RuneLabs and the Steam Workshop TF2 are immense. While there may be two separate ideas behind content generation the shear difference is why RuneLabs must ultimately be successful. The Steam Workshop requires players to have knowledge of 3D modelling and the Source SDK. If you don’t know what these are then your chances of getting your item into TF2 just went down greatly. Add to this that there’s no guarantee that Valve will actually pull from the Steam Workshop for its next additions into the game.

The differences are simple; one is elite, and the other allows the average Joe to have an idea and submit it. While this has ultimately lead to a selection of ideas that are downright horrible some interesting ideas have appeared. It need not be about the most flashy of ideas, shipping early prototypes can be somewhat rewarding and sometimes lead to runaway hits in the software development sphere. The mere fact players are submitting ideas in a controlled fashion is ultimately a good thing. Yes, there are issues with the user-interface of RuneLabs but these will be fixed in time. One also hopes that it will be possible to view ideas that are becoming popular quickly (high number of supporters in a short amount of time) in addition to ideas that are already popular as this is a great way of finding new ideas to support.

This kind of software development has existed for years in the open source community. Two open source projects that millions use daily are Firefox and Chrome (Chromium). Anyone with a decent background in programming can join one of these communities and start contributing to the development of two of the most popular web browsers. While any person can’t just walk in and decide to add a few lines of code to Firefox with time it is possible to play a novel role on the development team. Those who can’t program can also have roles by suggesting features or working with the open source community. If an idea submitted on the various forums for Firefox or Chromium is decent and gets enough community backing it is likely to make its way into the application at some point in the future.

Upon seeing RuneLabs it is clear that the open source community is where Jagex took some inspiration from. RuneScape is not going open source, that would undermine many efforts inside Jagex. What Jagex does want to emulate is the open community and the idea that anyone can contribute and be a pseudo-game developer. In order to accomplish this players are limited to 2000 characters and a forum topic if they want. There’s no room for flashy concept art or 3D models which keeps the barrier to entry low. The support mechanism of RuneLabs is very similar to the support feature on GitHub (an online community for sharing source code) and many other open development websites. Jagex wants to be open and they want everyone to have a hand in their game.

Aside from the garbage ideas that some people take too much enjoyment from submitting and the missing features at launch, what makes RuneLabs good? It evokes feelings of the mid 2000s Web 2.0 craze that saw large numbers of web applications and social networks created. Some didn’t go anywhere and others took off, it was an interesting time and it had a profound impact on what the web is today. It also exposes the virtue that a quick and dirty prototype is better than nothing and sometimes that’s all that’s needed to create a star product. With these virtues of the bygone Web 2.0 era surfacing at Jagex it means that Jagex wants to turn the corner to a new phase of Free-to-Play online gaming.

Before the ultimate end goal of Jagex is revealed I think it’s necessary to look at Chronicle. Chronicle was announced at RuneFest, a game that uses the RuneScape lore and characters but is entirely different than the MMO itself. As we’ve come to expect, Chronicle will be Free-to-Play as with most Jagex products. What’s different about Chronicle is that the team behind it is much more agile than we’ve known RuneScape to be. This allowed a rough prototype to be put together in 10 weeks for RuneFest and subsequent changes were made after RuneFest with the feedback received. There should be two things about Chronicle that now seem somewhat familiar to you: 1.) Quick prototypes that get demonstrated to the player rather than a closed development environment. 2.) Community feedback is essential in shaping what Chronicle will become. The second item here is RuneLabs in a nutshell, community input driving updates. The first item also goes back to RuneLabs with the 2000 character limit with no concept art or models.

If it was ever more clear the direction that Jagex wanted to take the RuneScape IP they would have had to directly spell it out to the players. RuneLabs is the experiment to see if this development process works on a game as large and diverse (community wise) as RuneScape. Chronicle is the experiment to see if this kind of agile community driven game development works on a new game from the very beginning. We, the players, should be very grateful for being a part of the process as most game developers are merely concerned about profit.

If RuneLabs and Chronicle are successful this will mark a new chapter in the history of Jagex. Just as Jagex pioneered the Free-to-Play model of game play online they are in the process of charting a new course for game development. A few successes is all it will take to bring awareness of this new form of game development to the wider gaming community. This is why we want and need RuneLabs to succeed.

Imagine your favourite game with a RuneLabs idea mechanism…

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