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Best-kept secret in online virtual worlds gets a major overhaul

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Since 2001, while Alliance and Horde have fought it out in World of WarCraft, and while the space fleets of EVE Online and the fellowships of Lord of the Rings Online have had their adventures, a quirky, free-to-play, browser-based virtual world has been quietly amassing some 10 million active users.

This stealthy megahit, RuneScape, has been explored over its long life by some two hundred million gamers who have, in total, racked up some 450 billion minutes of gameplay time. That’s billion with a ‘b.’ Yet many gamers never noticed.

Now, with the release of RuneScape 3 -- the game's second major overhaul and facelift -- the developers at England's Jagex Game Studio have decided to stand up and be counted.

RuneScape 3's announcement was heralded by a major press event set in a rented castle (yes, in England you can rent castles) east of Manchester. Stately Peckforton Castle was kitted out with massive Runescape banners, and enjoined to host a huge banquet, complete with court jesters, fire jugglers, and medieval combat re-enactors providing thematically appropriate entertainment.

But the real entertainment lay in the 50-odd computers laid out in a conference room, installed with a pre-release version of RuneScape 3, where eager games journalists could get a first peek at the new-and-improved graphics and gameplay.

"RuneScape 3 puts us back in the forefront of gaming -- not just in the browser market," said Design Director Mark Ogilvie. "Much of the industry has dismissed browser games because of their limited graphical capability. We're about to turn that [idea] on its head."

Built in HTML5 -- a technical upgrade from the game's original Java incarnation -- RuneScape 3 features fully 3D graphics with a player-controlled camera and a slightly cartoony art style that will make fans of World of WarCraft or Free Realms feel right at home.

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The updated game will be fully 3D, entirely in-browser. (Jagex)

The upgrade isn't just technical. While all of the game's content -- a vast quantity honed over a decade of weekly updates -- is being retrofitted to the new engine, RuneScape 3 also incorporates a major new chapter in the game's story, involving the return of a pantheon of old gods who are jockeying for control of the gameworld. The players' allegiance -- or lack thereof -- to these gods will apparently have an impact on the story, allowing gamers to be in the driver's seat as subsequent updates release.

"Every single action that the player takes will mean something and will have ramifications in the future," Ogilvie enthuses.

[ Related: RuneScape 3 Screenshots ]

It’s a bold claim, and time will tell if Jagex can pull it off. But it won’t be easy.

The graphics engine, pretty but hampered with a stuttering framerate, isn't quite ready for prime time. (Jagex members assured us that further optimization is imminent.) Nor is it clear by what precise mechanism the player-influenced story will unfold. Will their actions be recorded and taken as a sort of poll guiding the developers in their choices of future updates? At this point, it’s hard to tease out the hype from the concrete facts. RuneScape 3 also seemed more targeted at the existing playerbase than at newcomers: the Jagex team declined to show us any of the game's tutorials or starter zones.

There's no arguing with the huge amount of content in the game, nor with the fact that it’s all accessible without downloading a game client. The clever, Python-esque humor that saturates the quest writing is also a welcome respite from more self-serious role-playing games.

We've known for years that RuneScape is a viable option for those unwilling or unable to pay a monthly subscription fee for World of WarCraft, EverQuest 2, or their ilk. But with more high-end MMOs going free-to-play, the competition in the online gaming space is fiercer than ever. Can RuneScape continue to stand tall against such rivals? To hear Jagex tell it, it’s already in the bag.

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