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RuneScape embraces legacy servers while rolling out major update

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"It takes balls" to start an official legacy server, but RuneScape did it

More than a week ago, one of the biggest names in massively multiplayer online games shut down its biggest legacy server. The closure of Nostalrius, World of Warcraft's largest private server, displaced and dismayed thousands of players. But one of World of Warcraft's longest-running competitors, RuneScape, is in the opposite situation: Its developer has embraced fans clamoring to play older versions of the game by running a successful, official legacy server.

We spoke to Mark Ogilvie and Mat Kemp of RuneScape developer Jagex yesterday, just as the studio launched what it's calling the game's biggest update in 15 years: a new client, NXT, that improves performance and revamps the massively multiplayer online game's graphical engine. Gone are the Java-based visuals familiar to longtime players; as seen above, the free-to-play MMO sports a new look.

Despite launching the update, the team behind RuneScape is still dedicated its more nostalgic players. Old School RuneScape continues to run concurrently with the main game, offering a version that looks much the same as it did nearly 10 years ago at its height.

Old School RuneScape, an officially run legacy server created by Jagex, opened in early 2013 following a fan vote. The developer opened up the poll at the request of fans who made their desires to play the older version of the game they'd grown up with known to the team.

"[Old School RuneScape] started as an exact copy of RuneScape from August 2007," designer Mark Ogilvie told us when we spoke yesterday, on the eve of NXT's launch.

Building off of the build from that specific time was intentional, he explained.

"There's always a desire to be reinventing the wheel in MMOs," he said, "but for a lot of players, the amount of hours that they've invested when they dream about that game, there's a certain version of the game ... that they love.

"For a lot of players, that was 2007. It was the glory days of RuneScape."

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RuneScape has been around since 2001, but Ogilvie and Old School RuneScape product manager Mat Kemp described 2007 as when the game was at its height, posting its highest membership numbers (in the millions) and winning awards.

Ogilvie, Kemp and the rest of the development team recognized the desire to return to this time not just within players, but themselves as fans of the game they were making. While some voiced their concerns about possibly cannibalizing the game's audience by offering this older version — including staff and the fanbase — the majority voted to introduce the server. It's since achieved success on both a business level and with players, something Kemp recently detailed in an analysis of the legacy server business model.

Old School RuneScape continues to operate in a democratic fashion. Any major development update proposed for the game — like bug fixes or even new content to the legacy version — must be passed by a three-fourths majority, Kemp and Ogilvie explained.

"We've had a thousand updates and 90 percent of them have passed," Kemp said. "That really validates that effort that we put into [the game]."

That's a major factor in its success; Old School RuneScape hit one million accounts in October 2013, a few months after its launch. Kemp and Ogilvie also described that more users voted in favor of legacy servers than the hundreds of thousands who still actively playing, proving that the wider community supported launching a retro version of RuneScape.

Yet it's an undertaking that other notable, popular MMOs haven't explored. The timing of Kemp's piece on how Old School RuneScape has paid off for Jagex closely followed the recent shutdown of Nostalrius, the biggest private server for World of Warcraft.

"It's intelligent to run older versions of games"

Unlike RuneScape, World of Warcraft doesn't offer official legacy versions of the MMO. Instead, players take to hosting their own game servers that allow players to return to the game they might have originally played with, before its various expansions launched. Blizzard Entertainment's terms of use, however, don't condone these private servers, resulting in cease-and-desist orders forcing player-run communities like Nostalrius to close.

"A lot of companies want to look forward, not dwell on the past," Ogilvie said when we asked about their take on why other companies, like Blizzard, might not want to embrace legacy servers like RuneScape has.

Kemp told us that the RuneScape team was in a position to support the Old School RuneScape servers when the idea first came about; while he said it still "takes balls" to actually launch a retro-style version of a game, the developer weighed its options and ability to do so and figured out a way to make it work. Other studios might have come to a different conclusion, he said.

"[But] we know a lot of players take a big, long break from MMOs," Ogilvie added. "Then they come back to their game that they've invested thousands of hours into, they log in and they don't understand what's going on. They're going to be alienated by it."

"It's intelligent to run older versions of the games because if [players] don't want to relearn, if they just want a comfort blanket, they have a version straight away."

Both developers noted the strong nostalgic desire exhibited by current players of MMOs and other genres — especially ones who have stuck around with games like World of Warcraft, Everquest and RuneScape since they began. As fans of the game they're working on, Kemp and Ogilvie understand where these older fans are coming from. They work to make Old School RuneScape operate alongside the newer version of the game, running them as their own individual yet interrelated projects.

Keeping the players happy

"I don't think there's anything wrong with people saying, 'I wanna play this game from back in the day,'" Ogilvie said.

"Companies should be brave enough to say that [they] think this is worth trying."

Kemp put a finer point on it. "If we keep the players happy, if we make money, that keeps my bosses happy," he concluded.

Both OldSchool RuneScape and its newest version, the NXT client, are now available to download. You can preview the updated client — which extends draw distance and adds more dynamic lighting, among other visual changes — in the trailer below.