Old School Runescape is getting a new skill. Well, hopefully. In a landmark poll, nearly 200,000 OSRS players recently voted on three potential skills pitched by developer Jagex. The monster-raising skill Taming and spirit-harnessing skill Shamanism both had their fans, but the winner, barely coming out ahead of Shamanism, was Sailing, a seafaring skill that would let players explore the game's untapped oceans. Sailing is still just a raw idea in need of refinement and a lot of design legwork, but even the possibility of a new skill is huge news for OSRS, already one of the best MMORPGs you can play today. Players are equal parts excited and cautious, eager to have a 24th skill but hesitant to make fundamental changes to a game that was revived by nostalgia. As a longtime fan of OSRS, I was eager to dig into this storm of ideas and emotions.
I spoke to associate design director Kieren Charles (Mod Kieren) and senior content developer Elena Nordmark (Mod Elena) about the studio's goals with Sailing, their ideas for how the skill will work, their thoughts on player suggestions for the skill, and the timeline for getting this thing in the game if it all goes well – or if it doesn't. Ahead of the interview, I also read and watched a lot of player-made content about the promises and risks of Sailing, and it's remarkable how closely Jagex's thoughts mirror the community's. Everyone seems to agree that if we're going to do this, we've got to do this right. So here we go: the big Sailing interview.
Responses edited for clarity and length.
GamesRadar+: So we've had this poll and Sailing has emerged, just barely, as the winner. How are the other skills that were pitched doing?
Kieren Charles: I think, for sure, Shamanism isn't necessarily dead. It's almost certain, if we do this skill, we'll probably do another. I think that's fair to say. Who knows when, but certainly, if we come around, let's say Sailing moves forward and everyone's on board with it, polls, refinement, we deliver Sailing. Hell yeah Shamanism is going to be on the cards. I mean, clearly people liked it. Obviously, just a little bit less than Sailing. But we believe in it.
Taming? It's not to say it's dead forever. But obviously there's bigger changes that would need to be made to get that up to a place where people do have more favorability for it. I think we already know that from the feedback we've received over the course of the poll, as well as from what we read on social media. We needed more meat on that bone to really capture Taming and address some of the problems people raised with it.
One of the key points has been keeping OSRS Old School and not deviating more into what's become mainline Runescape. How do you make Sailing, this new activity and concept, feel Old School?
Elena Nordmark: I think a lot of it ties back to some of the things we said right at the start of the new skill project. Back in December, we brought up something that we've called the new skill design pillars, and we had essentially four guidelines for, no matter what the new skill is, the things that it needs. They were: to be a healthy addition to the game, to provide meaningful progression, to appeal to a variety of player types, and to be enjoyable to train.
I want to say variety in activities, the different training methods, is really important. Some people just want chill gameplay. They want to watch a movie and put on Old School on the side, or they're on the train and just play on their phone. That's cool. Other players want to solely focus on what they're doing and train the fastest way possible. And we need to appeal to both types. So I think that's one thing that feels very Old School.
Charles: We're cognizant of the minigame feedback that's come up. I think some of it stems from earlier preconceptions of previous Sailing pitches, and discussion that's happened in that community over the years as well. But we're pretty adamant. Minigames rely heavily on instances, point systems and all this sort of stuff. We're going to avoid that where possible. It's not to say we couldn't do a Sailing minigame, a minigame could totally be part of what's going on, it just won't be the whole skill.
It does seem like a lot of the skill is still up in the air. One sure thing seems to be a lot of exploration with finding things and bringing them back with you.
Charles: Yeah, people want discovery, the unknown, what you're gonna find out there. I think it harkens back to a lot of the nostalgia players had when they first played Runescape, possibly back in 2007, where you don't know what's around the corner. Something like Sailing gives us the whole ocean that's basically a brand new canvas to do new things with. Who knows what you're going to find out there?
Nordmark: What we're doing by refining with the community is saying that we're not going to just decide on one gameplay loop and telling you this is what Sailing is. We want to work with the community on figuring out, okay, you want something to do with mermaids, you want to have – and these are just examples off the top of my head – you might want to farm corals and you want a navigational challenge. Cool. We'll go make that. And the suggestion we had about, you know, finding a shipwreck was not appealing to you. So we'll just skip that.
What do we do about max capes? Nordmark says "I think the consensus last time was to just say you lose it when you log in until you're maxed again."
How do we update the skill UI? Charles says "I've got one rule, and it's don't add a scroll bar."
After this poll, what are you doing internally? Ideating, iterating, prototyping?
Nordmark: Right now we're trying to figure out the biggest community concerns with this skill. What do people want to know about? What are the biggest unknowns? A couple of those are stuff like navigation – how does it work? Do you just click to move like the traditional movement? Do you use your keyboard? Do you use an interface? Maybe that would feel clunky? We've kind of done that with quests in the past but maybe if we give it more attention, maybe it would feel less clunky. So it's that whole conversation, but just with different topics. So navigation is one, another is the core loops. People want to know exactly how you train the skill. The whole map view was a big one, right? Will the sea look like it does now, or is it going to change? Is it going to be bigger once you're on the sea? Are you going to be the ship? Are you going to be on the ship?
Charles: One of the interesting challenges is, like with the island of Crandor in the Dragon Slayer quest, you sail there with the help of a captain. But where it is on the map is just a few tiles over from the coast. So if you suddenly go to sea, you could just see it. There's an interesting tech problem there, a scaling issue where, narratively, it's a much bigger space than it is physically in how it's been mapped all those years ago.
Ultimately, we're working towards the big lock-in vote, a final yes-no on Sailing. If players are happy where we're at, we get the yes vote, we'll move towards proper betas. Assuming lock-in gets going fairly soon, we hope we could deliver our first beta maybe this year. But we also don't want to heavily spoil the skill, right? There's that feeling of mystery and discovery. So betas we're looking at primarily as a way to test the mechanics. Are you happy with how the ship navigates? But we're not going to necessarily spoil what you're gonna discover at sea. Certainly for the full skill's delivery, we're not looking at this year, it'd be way longer than that.
Do you have any idea of how long you may spend in betas before proceeding to the final version?
Charles: We don't know. There's a certain amount of betas we're gonna want to do for certain things, and refinement is going to help us discover that. Over the course of the next few weeks, we might start to have a better answer. But it will be lots of tests. And there'll be more if we don't have it quite right. So we need to tweak things and get more input. The key message for us is that a skill is a huge undertaking. We will take the time needed to make sure it is right.
Why is now the right time for a new skill?
Charles: We've polled skills in the past, and the desire for a skill from the community has only gone up. The other thing is we've matured, we're a growing team. Back in 2015 the team was tiny. The core Old School team back in 2015 was like 11 people. Today it's like 50, 60 people with a lot more input from support parts of the studio as well. So we're better equipped to do it today.
With so much undecided, I just want to throw ideas and player suggestions at the wall. For example, do you see PvP potential in Sailing?
Nordmark: I think there's absolutely space for us to do that. I don't think it would be at the core of the skill because we know a lot of players don't want to engage in that type of gameplay, so you should be able to train it without engaging in PvP. But that's not to say you can't. We've had a few ideas floating around similar to the Wilderness. But if we have PvP combat, how does combat on the ship work? Do you board their ship or use cannons? How do cannons work? A lot of questions still need answering, but I would be happy for it to be part of the skill.
And I realize a lot of these ideas are going to be met with 'yeah, maybe.' But that's kind of what I want; to narrow down what's at least on the table and what you absolutely don't want. So moving on, how might Sailing interact with other skills? Skill checks, resources, materials, and so on.
Charles: The best skills interact with the game. It's not some separate thing you can just ignore. It should interweave with the game. It feels like it's always meant to have been there. So all of the above really. We don't know which skills, but obviously there's plenty of scope for what monsters you discover, new things you can fight with Slayer, you could discover new plants – the scope is endless there. We will probably look at what skills have gaps and use that as the primary focus. Does Fishing need a new resource? If it does, absolutely, let's try and fit that into Sailing. We should prioritize the ones that do have gaps and we can make better. We won't touch everything, and it's got to make some thematic sense as well.
Nordmark: I think it's really important to tie into the skills, and do it both ways. Skills can impact how you train Sailing. Maybe you use Construction to build an upgrade on your ship. But then you want Sailing to impact existing skills. That could be your ship taking you to a new island where you find a type of tree that you could use for Firemaking or Fletching. I think that's really important to make it feel like it's part of the game.
Charles: And to feel Old School as well. It's quite a sandbox experience. When you play, you can set whatever goal you want. We don't want to add it in a way where it dictates how you play the game, like you must train Sailing before the other skills because the benefits are so overwhelming. We should leave options for how players want to route through the game and play it their own way.
Does an existing skill come to mind as a reference for how you want it to interact with the game?
Nordmark: First thing I thought of was Farming because of the variety of training methods and also the benefit of the product that you get, and that benefit is quite diverse. Herbs for Herblore, seeds for birdhouses and that sort of thing.
Charles: I think it will probably touch more skills than other skills do. Like, Woodcutting and Firemaking are very hand-in-hand. I think this will have scope to touch several skills in different ways, some more than others. That's exciting to me because it's offering something different.
Looking at new gameplay, is there potential for being the first person to find an island, and now you've made a permanent mark on that island?
Nordmark: I would love some sort of remembrance like that. It's not unheard of that we do that; we like to commemorate people who do the first thing, like Woox getting the first Infernal Cape. I think that'd be a really cool thing to do.
The reference in my head for that is No Man's Sky, which makes me wonder if there are games with sailing that you're looking at as a reference for the player fantasy here.
Nordmark: Absolutely. I've been playing a lot of Sea of Thieves lately. I started playing it, blaming it as research. I think it's important to draw inspiration from multiple games as well as movies, songs, books. I had a rewatch of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for example, and thought about what we can do with pirates in Old School. Maybe you're at risk of being attacked by pirates, or you can actually become a pirate. Both sound really cool to me.
To continue down this wishlist, is there potential for group PvM in Sailing?
Charles: Hell yeah, that does sound awesome. Obviously we need to look into these things. How does group Sailing work? But we are keen to explore that. My god, if we do one day, not necessarily at launch, but one day add a raid at sea, it'd be sick to go on the ship together and sail out to that island and take the fight to the beast, whatever it is. We're definitely going to look into that. And we were talking earlier about different types of Sailing, like Fremennik longboats that are very Viking-inspired. I can totally imagine a Fremennik raid where you've got the big rows going, that'd be awesome.
A VOTE FOR SAILING IS A VOTE MORE PIRATE FASHIONSCAPE from r/2007scape
Another idea I've seen is the possibility of a roguelike loop with endless procedurally generated content. Are you interested in that space, or is that too minigame-y and you'd rather build and explore a fixed world?
Nordmark: The main part of the skill will be open-world because we want that MMORPG feeling of seeing other people sail around. If you do a roguelike, you kind of have to instance it and lock people away, and then that makes it feel like you're playing alone. Our biggest focus is just opening the world. There's obviously only so much we do for launch, but the cool thing about a skill is it's an avenue for new content. Even if we can't put something in for launch, that's not to say we won't have a Sailing raid a year after.
To focus more on the core rewards of Sailing, let's say I find a chain of islands. How do I interact with them? Do I take a passenger boat ashore? Do I collect and bring back resources?
Nordmark: The short answer is we haven't decided yet. We're open to seeing what the community wants the most. My instinct would probably be not to do the raid potion type of resources because that's more instanced and we want to keep it open. But exactly how you move onto islands is yet to be determined. Maybe if you get to an island, you have to rely on that being a settlement before you're able to access it, but maybe down the line you get a rowboat so you can go ashore in other places. There's a lot to figure out.
Where do you draw the line with community feedback to avoid giving away too much design power? Because some things aren't polled for a reason. Game integrity aside, most players aren't game designers. We simply are not. I often hear that players are great at feedback and less great at solutions. And at the end of the day, you make the skill.
Charles: It's a tricky balance to strike, and it's one we've been learning continuously over the last 10 years. The big thing is: bring players in earlier. We know what a good skill looks like, and from there we design these skills with the players. It's still us that decided these are the three we want to do, but we equipped ourselves with information that would help us pick the right three.
And I think you're right on the money. Players are great at coming up with the problems and offering solutions that might not be the right solution. But it still gives us enough insight to say, right, I know what they're trying to solve. Now we can maybe come up with an even better solution and it helps define the problem space for us. Because we can easily design a skill without doing consultation, but we wouldn't have known a lot of the problems or concerns players have.
This community involvement, I think, is a huge part of why we're so successful. I wouldn't necessarily advocate for every game studio out there to go to the same level we do. I think it's perfect for this game because it's such a lifelong thing. And it's genuinely quite astounding to me, 10 years later, we are doing this well, hitting record membership numbers again and again. I think it's because we are taking the game in a very clear direction that the players are signing up for. We understand how much it's meant to people's lives. If you spent 10 years playing a game, you'd be disheartened if it went in a direction you aren't on board with. So let's do the right thing by them.
As you said, we're game designers and players aren't. For a skill, we've got to convince them that it is OK, that we can be trusted to deliver something that will be good for the game. There is potential for it to be a little scary. And that was what we've been getting at. We are trying to do it the right way, that will be Old School. Because we're in the same boat – literally, in this case, with Sailing.
Voyage to the Western Sea from r/2007scape
I don't want to put a damper on things at the end, but let's say Sailing doesn't pass the final vote. What happens?
Charles: If it comes to that point and clearly there's issues, maybe it fails its poll, we'll obviously go back and discuss why. Some of that's going to be context-dependent. Why has Sailing failed its poll in that case? If it's close, maybe there's a few tweaks that we need to make to address some feedback and then we pass. So it depends on the severity of it, what the feedback looks like.
But certainly, from the votes, I mean, 200,000 people and 80% told us yes to any skill back in December. When we look at the recent poll and see that it was only like 13% of people who said no to any of them, that suggests it's improved even beyond what it was in December. Players are pretty clearly telling us they want a new skill. So we will obviously explore how to do that based on what happens at this poll. So if Sailing doesn't do so well, we'll have to understand why and then consider our options when it comes to that. But I mean, based on this poll, I'm pretty confident. We're not exactly worried about it at the minute and we'll see how the next stage goes. We're pretty determined to do a new skill. Players are telling us they want one and we want to do it.