It seemed like a nice job: to be given the opportunity to write a light-hearted piece on the first steps in the browser-based MMORPG RuneScape - an industry outsider that's quietly the Western world's second most successful MMO. Nip in, work out what everyone loves, hide my conclusions at the end of some amiable fluff, and phone my bank to tell them not to be shocked when millions of Eurogamer pounds fly into my account. I'll start with my guesses as to its popularity, then play it.
First, RuneScape is accessible. A Java-based browser application, it'll run equally happily on PC, Mac and the years-old laptop I installed Ubuntu onto for a lark. So kids can play without having to install anything, and even the most restrictive corporate networks will usually allow a nice bit of certified Java.
Secondly, RuneScape is free. Or a slice of it is. Some skills, such as thieving and agility, aren't open to guests, and the majority of quests will be denied anyone logging onto the guest servers.
Finally, RuneScape is everything that seemed amazing in 1990. A year when people would gather around a 386 processor and listen to the latest public-domain MIDI files. When children would stand in plastic tree trunks and pay 15 pounds per hour to wear a cripplingly heavy VR helmet and try to pick up an imaginary key. RuneScape has the strong whiff of the Rogue-like about it - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, when you consider how involved and deep some Rogue-likes can be.
The fact that it's so hugely popular makes RuneScape a game that demands to be taken seriously. But from the first burst of pitch-bent MIDI trumpet on the title screen, there's a worried smile on your face. A smile that you'd give a unicorn that trying to give you a neck massage. A smile that says "I appreciate what you're doing, but I'm not sure this'll work, and you really shouldn't exist".
Part One: Tutorial Island
Tutorial Island is non-optional for new accounts - every player must follow the training trail. You'll be taught to chop down trees, prepare a fire from the logs, fish for shrimp, cook the shrimp, make dough from flour, and bread from dough. You'll mine tin and copper, and smelt them into bronze. You'll stab a giant rat to death, then pepper his mate with arrows. You'll pray, and be introduced to the friend and ban menus. I tried to befriend someone called "worldeater12". Not because I'd met him - more because anyone called World Eater 12 sounds like the kind of bloke you'd want to have on your side.
Virtually everything you do gives you experience. RuneScape's XP and levelling system is divided into 24 boxes (with a couple, as mentioned, only available to paying members). Cut down a tree, get 25 Woodcutting XP. Cut down just under 100 trees, and you'll be able to... cut down new kinds of tree. Fire-making is another skill, which gives you something to do with all the trees you've cut down. And on the fires, you can level your cooking skill by toasting the prawns you got from grinding your fishing skill. Eat cooked meats to top up your energy during combat, which boosts your Defence, Strength, HP and Attack experience. Do your enemy the dignity of burying his bones, and you'll get prayer experience.
There are no character stats, only bonuses to your levels acquired from items, and your overall level is calculated from all your others. With nothing that's not unlockable to any paying member, the only limitation is how much of your life you're honestly capable of spending in this world. No classes means one character per account - it makes no sense to have more than one when it would be a needless duplication of effort. This has its own drawbacks, as I'll discover later.
With a network of level prerequisites and codependencies between the ability and crafting skills, there's always something that needs to catch up. This trail of tantalisingly close numbers is pure brain-filling time-sponge. It's one thing RuneScape gets right - progress may not always be meaningful, but it's constant.
Part Two: Lumbridge Job Centre
The first person I meet in the starting town, Lumbridge, is a beggar. "I've spent all my money, and I can't be bothered to earn any more," he says. I've been through this before. It's the old "waste a gold piece because you think the beggar might be a bearded princess" trick. I always fall for it, because I think it makes me a better person. But I realised that I was being given a subtle hint not to kill beggars with kindness. It was RuneScape's way of telling me that they'd only spend it on absinthe and Marlboro Reds.
So, RuneScape has a strong work ethic, and work ethic here means fetch quests. The very first job I took on involved me fetching 23 cooked chickens. (Can I just type that in words? Twenty-three.) Finding a few chickens opposite Millie Miller's Mill, I killed them until my backpack was full of raw meat.
I say "killed". Early combat is more like watching the world's first computer slowly bleed binary. Each battle took nearly a minute to resolve. Chickens only have 3HP, but both myself and my equally determined and noble combatant seemed completely incapable of hitting each other. The long stream of zeroes - punctuated by the occasional one - was bizarrely gripping. By the time I'd reached level 15, and upgraded my weapons to match, beating a Level 5 goblin wasn't much more fun.
Apart from issuing the attack command, you have three ways to influence the fight. The first is a setting: your attack style. I could also cast a spell, a process which uses up runes and gives you Magic XP. I could also have activated a prayer buff. I refused to pray, feeling that if I had to pray to survive a flurry of chicken pecks, I'd be better off playing Insaniquarium Deluxe for the rest of my life.
As I levelled up, the zeroes turned to more regularly to one, and although it'd be some time before I saw my first two, my backpack slowly filled with sixteen carcasses. Time to cook some, and hand them in. I chopped down a tree, lit the logs, and destroyed eight of my corpses thanks to my low Cooking level. The only thing that stopped me weeping from the thud of futility was the fact that I'd levelled up in four of my boxes. So that was pretty f***ing awesome, all things considered.
Part Three: Questing For Coins
I died. There's no excuse for my death, I was simply caught up in the zeroes and ones, and forgot to run away when death became likely. Battle has such a randomised feel that it's an exciting gamble, but there was more was at stake than I realised. This is old-school MMO death - you lose pretty much everything. There's no "soulbound" here, no sanctity of possession. You die, passers-by will loot the meat from your bones.
I've never been more tempted to beg. Nothing was possible. I couldn't chop down trees, because I didn't have an axe. I couldn't buy an axe, because the cheapest was 16 gold pieces. I went back to the cook I'd got the chickens for - he wanted 22 raw shrimp. With no fishing net, I threw myself at the mercy of a fisherman, who was disgusted enough by my wailing void of dignity to give me a free shrimp net.
And this is how the rebuilding of my squalid life began. Fifteen minutes of fishing, in which I took advantage of the tabbed browsing environment by control-tabbing to some erotic jpgs. It's difficult, however, to maintain an auto-romantic mood when you're waiting for the sounds of prawn-sloshing to stop in another window.
Paid by the chef, I bought an axe, and the best armour I could afford. Luckily, my sword had survived the death. Replacing everything was a pain - shops are inconveniently scattered. The sword shop in Varrock is a couple of minutes walk from the shield shop in Falador. This walking - it's all part of Jagex's barely-disguised eagerness to fill the time between levelling up with something. That's OK for children: they're made of time. If you cut them open, pocket watches fly out. But I'm an adult. An adult who's chosen to play games for a living, sure; but that doesn't stop me feeling witheringly mortal when faced with such blatant life-eating tactics.
I moved on to the quests, and at last, I found something that appealed to me on a level that wasn't... levelling. For levelling's sake. Some quests were your standard forced exploration, but some were like Ernest the Chicken, a miniature point-and-click adventure that made clever use of the control system. Others were just as entertaining, and the script is often knowing and self-deprecating enough to win you over.
Part Four: Other Players
After losing everything, and gathering it all up again, I begin to feel philosophical about life in RuneScape. My understanding of the cow that is the world has been deepened by drinking the sour milk from its resurrected teat, if you will. And my understanding of the world's working has also been bolstered by the fact I've been squinting for hours at Sal's excellent Realm of RuneScape.
One thing has eluded me so far, though. Other people. My interaction has been close to zero, and everyone around is well out of my level range - a natural consequence of accounts having only one character each. With less popular games like Ryzom, which has a similarly open levelling system, there's a desire to help each other that's borne from new blood being valuable and welcome. The opposite seems to be true here. In the members-only servers I logged onto, there was no response to my polite requests for help, and no-one willing to join me in a cheeky underground adventure.
Perhaps that's my fault for saying "does anyone want a cheeky underground adventure".
So, I set about trying to make a friend. I've never had a problem with this before. I'm a charming sod, my amiable winking could win over the most fundamentalist terrorist. But RuneScape is beyond my skills. Every "hi" was ignored. When I did get a response, it was quick and efficient. From my limited experience, it's a brutal and lonely world for the low-level adventurer.
Stories of noob abuse are rife. You hear about people leading you into the Player Killing PVP areas, just to steal your stuff. You're warned about trade scams. I wish I had an interesting story to tell: I would have loved to have been scammed out of my dozen burnt chickens.
Despite my largely confused feelings about RuneScape, I can't deny that it's needled itself under my skin. Perhaps it's the retro appeal tugging at the long-dead teenager inside me, or the nagging feeling that true understanding of the game's mechanics and... purpose... were within a few more hours' reach. If my character hadn't been called EurogamerOli by the Jagex admin, there's every chance I'd continue playing. I still might, just to give Oli a reputation as a sex pest.
But, the graphics: I've left it this long before mentioning them just to sound deep. I mean, you don't tell someone you're dumping them because they're ugly, do you? It's not the low polygon count; that's a valid constraint of the medium, and despite Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, browser gaming is still young enough for the creation of a 3D world this large to be hugely impressive. The problem is that those restrictions extend to the controls. On one occasion, I nearly died because some wonky pathfinding sent me around in a circle, back into a bear's arms.
I wouldn't have minded, but I had a backpack full of burnt shrimp at stake.
No, I think my time with RuneScape has come to an end. And the worst thing about that is that I'll never know why those penguins are disguising themselves as sheep and rocks. Or why I wasn't allowed to kill them.