The Game Archaeologist: Runes of Magic, an MMO that made millions disappear


In more ways than one, the year 2004 was a pivotal one for the MMORPG community. Even as games like City of Heroes, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft were breaking onto the scene, a brand-new game studio in Taiwan with only eight developers set its sights on creating an accessible MMO — but with a twist that would set it apart from its competitors.

This was Runewaker Entertainment, a studio that would eventually oversee a wide array of eastern MMOs and mobile titles, including Dragon’s Prophet, Luna Storia, and Guardians of Ember. But it was the studio’s first project that really put it on the map, a fantasy MMO called Runes of Magic.

Co-founders John and Tony Tang originally came up with the concept for Runes of Magic while studying in the US and being exposed to early MMORPGs like EverQuest and Ultima Online. Once back in Taiwan, they buckled down to work on this new project, drawing inspiration from classic fantasy IPs such as Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and Warhammer. The Tangs and their team also built a brand-new engine from scratch to suit their purposes.

“The underlying concept was to create a fantasy MMOG that combines the positive aspects of traditional western-style online role-playing games with the technology and features of a new generation,” said Frogster’s Axel Schmidt in 2008.

Following its founding, Runewaker’s team got hard at work on crafting an MMORPG in the unenviable market that was high on World of Warcraft fever. But the studio — made two shrewd decisions to turn Blizzard’s juggernaut into a boon for Runes of Magic.

First, the game was fashioned to look and feel very much like World of Warcraft — one of the first and most obvious “clone” to hit the market. And second, Runewaker rolled out the game in early 2009 with a free-to-play business model, which had yet to become the industry standard. Poor kids (and adults!) who couldn’t afford a WoW subscription now had a free (with microtransactions) alternative that sort of looked like WoW if you squinted just right.

That wasn’t the end of the fun twists, however. Runes of Magic sported a dual-class system that allowed players to mix-and match roles for a total of 36 possible combinations. Unfortunately, it only offered two races at launch — humans and elves — instead of a wider roster (happily, more races were added later). Players tackled familiar WoW-style quests, conquered dungeons, raised pets, and even moved into their very own houses.

World of Warcraft-mad players streamed into Runes of Magic, catapulting the title into an unlikely success story virtually overnight. The beta saw 500,000 players sign up to test it, but that number would only grow. Runewaker relentlessly touted how its product was “a quality game” that “broke the stereotype” of shoddy free offerings that were already cluttering up the online market.

By 2009, the game boasted three million players in the western market. A year after that, the game was raking in almost $2.4 million profit for Frogster every month. It was a popular game as well, winning nine reader’s choice awards from Massively-that-was back in 2009 (including best launch, best new MMO, and best free-to-play MMO).

The studio didn’t even mind that people kept comparing it to World of Warcraft — after all, this was the shark to which Runes of Magic’s remora attached. “We’re rather thrilled when we hear that people name us in the same breath as established MMORPGs. Personally, I think it just shows that we have reached a level of quality and depth that makes us comparable,” said Frogster’s Joerg Koonen in 2009 when asked about the comparison.

On top of that, Runewaker partnered with Germany-based Frogster Interactive to adapt the game to the global market with localization and region-specific servers. Frogster then became the publisher, only to be acquired by Gameforge in 2010.

Frogster was instrumental in softening the game up for western audiences, including reducing the grind, getting rid of loss of XP upon death, adding western-style faces to the character creator, and ponying up for Dynamedion to compose a new soundtrack.

Runes of Magic rolled out five major “chapters” in its initial years, from the first one that came with the game’s launch on March 19th, 2009 to the fifth in 2012. Each of these chapters was something between a hefty content patch and an expansion, marking major growth milestones for the title. A sixth and seventh chapter eventually filled out the remainder of the game’s first decade.

By 2011, Runewaker reported that Runes of Magic had over five million players, with around 11% to 12% of that population paying money into the studio’s coffers. By this time, Runewaker had expanded to 83 employees purposed for the project, including those who created a browser version of the game for 2012.

Momentum started to slow down rapidly for Runes of Magic by the mid-2010s. No doubt that this was cause by a one-two punch of a flood of competing WoW clones and a market proliferation of free-to-play models. For better or for worse, Runes of Magic had to stand solely on its content offerings — and weather continual accusations of being “pay to win” with its microtransactions and item shop.

Slower development and a shrinking fanbase didn’t mean that this MMO stopped dead in its tracks. On the contrary, Runes of Magic’s team at Gameforge began revving up new content development starting last year. So far this has paid off in a new “Timeless” dungeon raid for the 15th anniversary of the game this year.

However, there’s no denying that Runes of Magic is a game with a vastly reduced population (averaging 116 daily players on Steam alone) and a smaller footprint on the MMO industry. But could it make a comeback with a hungry dev team and a future generation of players curious about this 15-year-old title? We’ll have to see when we convene for the game’s 20th anniversary in 2029.

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to 2004! Every few weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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