BY HAROLD GOLDBERG
Cheshire, England – Walking through the greenest of forests in Tarpoley, a rural town between Liverpool and Manchester, I pass daffodils and bees and newly unfolding ferns. I muck about the ruins of what may have been a cook house, and a singing blackbird flies out of a broken window. It’s the sunniest of afternoons as I approach an overlook to see for miles, brambly heaths and wide pastures with sheep, and down below, pheasants fight manically for the affections of a female and for territory.
Here at Peckforton Castle, it’s all about nature and a fantasy environment. Despite its high brick walls, awe-inspiring falconry shows and generally majestic nature, the castle is kind of faux, having been built just 200 years ago by the largest landowner in the county, Baron John Jervis Tollemache. Weddings are held here almost daily, and once just a few years ago, a groom had a fight with the management over a few hundred pounds difference in bar bill.
After drinking 20 double vodkas, he, according to the BBC, cried, “No one crosses Max.”
Enraged and perhaps egged on by his new wife, the drunken lout set fire to one of the wings in the castle. Many rooms burned to the ground despite the efforts of 100 firefighters, and the arsonist is now jailed.
All of this could have been made into a quest of sorts in RuneScape 3, the latest iteration of the free to play, browser-based MMO with a sword and sorcery narrative. A deep look at this summer’s RuneScape 3 release is the reason I am present here at PeckfortonCastle.
Because it was first offered without need for a physical disk, RuneScape was ahead of its time as a browser-based online role playing game. Over the years as the two brothers Andrew and Paul Gower oversaw its growth, it became a go to first MMO for teens, a kind of fairly troll-less environment one enjoys before moving to World of Warcraft. Later, it was besieged by botters, essentially, cheaters who use software to get in-game currency and upgrades, and then sell it for real-life cash. Botters have been the subject of various rants by long-time lovers of the game, and I wondered how JagEx would address this issue publicly during the course of the day-long event.
So, still jetlagged, I sat curious in a cathedral-like space, one of the rooms one can have one’s nuptials, and very memorable ones (without arson) at that. The ceiling must have been 30 feet high and there a regal nature to the room, including stained glass windows from which shards of sunlight poked.
Today, there would be no wedded bliss. Instead, there would be nerdy game developer ecstasy as evangelizing employees from JagEx mixed with journalists from the U.S. and Europe who were inquisitive and, perhaps, waiting to be thrilled. They wanted see whether an HTML 5 version of RuneScape would move the game eons forward through enriched graphics and game design.
As he sipped from a Celtic pewter (RuneScape inscribed) tankard, JagEx director of design Mark Ogilvie read a handwritten missive from a book with blank pages. He touched upon the history of RuneScape, now over 10 years old. He added facts and figures, like 450 million hours of play since 2004. He talked about the Monty Python-like humor in the dialog and quests, very British. And he became enthused when he touched up the idea of the player’s ability to control the interface to make it what he or she wanted it to look like.
For someone who’d played RuneScape for just a while in 2005, I wanted to share his enthusiasm. As far as the freemium/free to play model goes, RuneScape offered more content than most. And it’s been a great first MMO for folks who want to get their feet wet.
But there was one thing that was missing: a hook, a phrase or a video that would put the story of RuneScape 3 into perspective. Ogilvie had mentioned a deep story of gods in the new game, and perhaps ardent players already know the full deal via message boards. But there was so much content in his speech, the sentences describing the precise nature of the story and why anyone would want to play had, like an ambling puppy, somehow gone astray.
Right after the speech, we were ushered into another sprawling castle lair, complete with what looked to be 100 computer terminals. Surely I could find out all now, everything from the story to the joy of the graphics. I could do so by playing RuneScape 3.
To be continued
Harold Goldberg is the founder of The Circle. He writes for The New York Times and other publications.