RuneScape, the ground-breaking and long-running Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing game, just registered its 200 millionth account.
That's a world record, and one that took 10 years to achieve. So obviously there is something keeping people coming back to the world of absent gods and terrifying monsters - and also coming to the game for the first time.
To mark the milestone we caught up with Dave Osborne, who is the lead narrative for RuneScape.
His job is to create a story arc which is both engaging for players who have seen everything and done everything RuneScape has to offer - and also make the game attractive for new players.
It's a daunting task. So how does Dave balance those demands?
Dave: Narrative design is split into two. It's taking those experienced users and finding new reasons for them to come back and keep playing through the story, in that existing universe. We release content every week - and each month release one piece of pure, story-driven content. We have to make sure they have that periodic story that keeps them interested.
It's almost like a Dickensian periodical - you release the story once a month, you get the reaction and feeding back into the story. They react to it and have certain expectations, and you can change the story based on that. It's only really comic books who also have the opportunity to interact with readers like that.
But the other element is looking back at the 10-year-old stories we produced that people are playing in the early game and going, 'this just isn't up to the standard we're producing now'. What we're doing is stripping out old content and improving it to create a seamless movement through the storyline.
So how do you solve that problem of the new user signing up to RuneScape and not being overwhelmed with 10 years of backstory?
One advantage we we have over comic books is that new users don't just enter at any time. The joy of being an MMO is that everyone starts at the same point. So you can tailor that initial experience - we call it the "funnel". It's like this moment where your userbase comes through and reaches your main storyline, the more expansive storyline. We control the thread and focus them in on certain parts of the story.
The core storyline of RuneScape is that Gods used to rule this world and one day they all. Just. Left. And the world doesn't know why that happened. The world is in chaos and they're all struggling to find out what the gods are. At its core that's what the story is - so while we've got this 10 year legacy of content, we've been able to look at that and refine it.
How long is that funnel to get new users to the point where they're current?
We look at metrics where people start leaving the game if they do, when they play for longer periods of time. It does shift but generally we see that as a four hour period… Once you get over those first four hours you're hooked and interested, and you're progressing through the game.
A player also has to feel like they have some agency and control over what they're doing, and that their story matters. How does that fit into the meta narrative?
This is an eternal problem - you get this whenever you talk to someone who writes story for an MMO. It's a universe that is shared by millions or thousands of other people. So you can't all be world-saving, chosen-by-the-gods characters. It is a balance - you've got to make the player feel empowered. One of our golden rules is that the protagonist makes all the important actions within the story. If the god is stopped, the player does it. If a large creature wanders into RuneScape and needs killing, you are the one who does it.
What is difficult about that is that you have this persistent world, and having the player have an impact - if I blow up a building that building isn't necessarily blown up for every other person. It's about delivering an empowerment that doesn't cause issues for other players. Generally it's about being clever and doing little tricks so that everyone ends at the same point.
In terms of the setting - there is a constant tension between cliche and genre in a game like this. So many people have told stories within this setting of quests, dragons and goblins. How do you make sure you don't fall into cliche?
It's difficult. You have to have to have that degree of familiarity and those touchstones of dragons, swords, of goblins and dwarves means I know what I'm getting in that Tokeinesque sense. But, for me it's about making the experience feel unique and non-derivative. And that comes from the interactions the player has with the game that feel unique.
For example we have a quest we recently in which you become the quest giver rather than the quest participant. In that instance we flip things on its head.
So when you sit down to discuss where you're going to take the narrative next, what happens? How does the process work?
It depends on the size of your storyline arc. In terms of - we have a notion we want to do big things, in terms of the RuneScape gods. They're something we've only hinted at in our game content and we take a very similar approach to comic books. Avengers Assemble is a good notion, or Infinite Crisis and Civil War. What they do is take all of the storylines they've got and bring them together for a single momentous event, which feed into the different storylines.
We know very well that we want to bring the gods back into RuneScape, which we're doing at the moment, so what we do is bring them together into a big trigger quest, and that feeds into the next 15-20 quests. We have this package of determined updates, and things we're going to do over that period.
But smaller storylines, what will happen is that the lead designer will get together with the team - roughly eight people in a room and will look at the year ahead, and think about demographics in terms of player types and player experience, and think 'right, we haven't done a high level quest in a period of time' so that people who are level 90 or above, we'll do something for them.
It's more about filling holes in a gameplay sense and then attributing stories to them, riffing off each other and working out what stories we want to tell.
How much freedom do you still have after 10 years to tell new stories, since the core mechanics of the game are ageing? How many new stories can you tell?
Story is one of the things we have a great deal of flexibility with. I think that's why we've turned it into a unique selling point… You're right, it is effectively a grid-based game, you're moving from square to square, but we actually have more time to spend on story, possibly more so than you'd find in other games. Because we're quite lucky and adventurous about what we do with story because of the way our game works.