Interview: RuneScape music leads on their massively musical operation

The lead composer and head of audio overseeing the MMOs RuneScape and Old School RuneScape talk about the history of the games’ music, from humble MIDI beginnings to grand orchestral tracks (via dubstep).

By Thomas Quillfeldt

Confession: until this year, I’d never paid much attention to RuneScape.

A bit like other lifestyle games such as Football Manager, esports favourites, or the Simulator titles (Farming, etc.), it seemed to me that the long-running fantasy MMO was off in its own space, somehow cloistered from the rest of the world. After all, I didn’t start a ’Scape account in 2007, age 11; ‘buying GF’ memes are meaningless to me; and, until recently, I would have guessed that Guthix was a brand of motorcycle tyre.

Any illusions I had about the relative seclusion of RuneScape’s fanbase were shattered when I saw a queue of thousands snaking around an aircraft hangar-sized venue to see the Royal Philharmonic perform on the opening night of the recent RuneFest convention. The collective passion was palpable — enough to make this outsider whoop at the interstitial skits, laugh at the esoteric in-jokes, and even get goosebumps as the orchestra launched into fan-favourite “Harmony”.

Other things I didn’t know until recently: as well as holding Guinness World Records for most MMO user accounts and most MMO updates, RuneScape also enjoys the most original pieces of music in a video game, with the total standing at 1,198 tracks as of August 2017 — 1,463 as of the next update.

And, as if the world of Gielinor wasn’t big enough in the latest iteration of the game (often known to fans as RuneScape 3 or RS3), there’s also a whole other MMO running in parallel: the community-driven — though officially hosted and developed — 2007-era throwback version known as Old School RuneScape (OSRS).

To find out more about how the games’ soundtracks have evolved alongside the games themselves, I chatted to long-time Jagex’ers Ian Taylor (sound designer, lead composer, and audio developer) and the Head of Audio, Stephen Lord

ICYMI - RuneScape music is available for the first time on physical formats via Laced Records, including double vinyl and double CD editions of Original Soundtrack Classics and The Orchestral Collection albums.  

Also for the first time, RuneScape music is available to stream (and buy digitally) on major music platforms — here are all the links you could possibly need.  

RuneTunes: Origins

Both Ian Taylor (pictured left) and Stephen Lord (pictured right) have been embedded in games audio for decades.

With a background in organ playing and synthesiser noodling, Taylor’s first and only gig in game audio has been with Jagex working on RuneScape. In 2002, he started in a customer support role, before convincing the game’s creator, Andrew Gower, to appoint him as audio lead and composer. The audio team has grown, but Taylor is still the musical man in the middle of RuneScape.

Lord is a 20-year veteran of games, having been a composer, sound designer, audio director, and/or head of audio at several companies including Rage Games, EA, and Realtime Worlds. He joined Jagex seven or so years ago, and is now firmly embedded as a custodian of Gielinor’s soundworld.

Conceived of as a ‘graphical Multi-User Dungeon’ (MUD), RuneScape launched in January 2001 as an in-browser Java game — and music was a bit of an afterthought. Taylor recalls: “Within the first year of the game offering a membership service, music was added as a perk.” Having shared his hopes and dreams of becoming a game composer with his boss, Taylor became the game’s audio jack-of-all-trades, a role that he balanced with other functions such as quest writing, quality assurance, and scripting.

RuneScape Classic

Taylor: “Quite a lot of the game was already built so my first task was to populate as much of the world as possible with music tracks.” His wearing of several development hats came to an end as soon as it became clear that there was too much work for a part-time composer to handle: “After that, I spent all my time writing MIDI files, which we then attached to different locations within the world or to gameplay states such as combat.

“At the time, RuneScape was a very small product and didn’t have many members. We were a tiny team, and individually we had to be very agile doing whatever was required to keep the game running. Then, the game grew hugely quickly — faster than anyone imagined — which meant that the team had to be expanded quickly as the membership increased.”

Monkey business

Picture by RS-LegendsArts on DeviantArt

Taylor cites several game scores that have influenced his work on RuneScape, including the music of classic ‘90s point-and-click adventure games such as LucasArts’ Monkey Island titles, composed by various combinations of Michael Land, Peter McConnell, Clint Bajakian, and others.

“The Lookout” by Michael Land from The Secret of Monkey Island:

“Early Monkey Island music is incredibly memorable, and was revolutionary for its time. The scores were especially relevant to the game, capturing the spirit and humour — it was the complete package. You’ve got to bear in mind that RuneScape is a point-and-click adventure at its heart. The game was built on a foundation that drew from LucasArts adventures: [RuneScape creator] Andrew Gower also loved those games. The Secret of Monkey Island’s quirky humour resonated with me and influenced my writing.”

Some of Taylor’s favourite RuneScape music includes quirkier cues that still makes him laugh and/or hum along to this day, for example the dwarf/gnome theme:

Taylor also briefly mentions Japanese-originated earworms from the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I’ve always been into arcade games and still collect them now. Early arcade music was often incredibly simple and memorable, which is something I’ve tried to emulate at various points.” Other influences include soundtracks to the golden-era JRPGs (Final Fantasy et al), stuffed with catchy, looping chip tunes.

Stephen Lord has found himself come to admire the various uses of diegetic music in video games over the years; moments where musicians, or music playback devices (gramophones, etc.), actually appear in the game world itself. He highlights the barbershop quartet songs and other musical performances depicted in BioShock Infinite. “These things bring the game to life a little bit. In RuneScape, we have quests like Song From the Depths, where you get lured to your death by a siren.”

MIDI ages

RuneScape’s origins as a browser-based game meant that early on the technical overheads for everything, not least the music, were incredibly low. Lord explains: “There were strict file size limits on MIDI music in the early versions of the game — just 60kB per track [roughly 1/100 of the size of the average MP3]. There was no option to record proper WAV files or MP3s; it had to use a general MIDI set of sounds, and a synthesiser created all the sound effects for the game. The restrictions were there because RuneScape had to be able to be played on anybody’s computer, whether it was in a school library, or at your nan’s.”

For those not in the know, MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is a set of musical instructions (rhythm, instrument, volume, etc.) that is interpreted by the end user’s hardware/software using a stock set of instrumental sounds to recreate a track.

Taylor: “What I tried to do was to stretch this stock library of 128 sounds as far as I possibly could. In some cases, I was abusing certain sounds by using them out of context: for example, I would take a woodblock and pitch it down as low as it could go to transform it into a rumbling thud. It was quite fun!”

Taylor agrees with the truism that limitations breed creativity, but he seems glad that those days are behind him — notwithstanding his Old School RuneScape duties. Only 60kB for a music cue meant going to extreme lengths to optimise tunes, limiting the musical layers, and curtailing the length of tracks.

Lord and Taylor concur that the MIDI palette of sounds available also left something to be desired — especially trumpets and saxophones. Certainly some MIDI instruments sound more palatable than others, particularly percussive ones: for instance harps, harpsichord, percussion, staccato winds, and plucked strings tend to fair better than other sounds.

Despite MIDI limitations, or perhaps because of them, the importance of strong melodies was paramount in Taylor’s mind: “I tried to capture the spirit of the era of RuneScape’s setting through tunes that would get stuck in people’s heads.”

The power of nostalgia

As the orchestra at RuneFest’s RuneScape Live concert launched into the beloved “Harmony”, goosebumps spread throughout the venue. This was in part because of the exceptional combination of Ian Taylor’s melodies and James Hannigan’s orchestral arrangement; but also because of the weight of nostalgia that that particular cue, and other early RuneScape tunes, carry.

“Harmony” was the very first track that Taylor wrote for RuneScape, c. 2002-2003:

Taylor: “People have grown up with these pieces. Some players were 10 years old when they started a RuneScape account — even though we didn’t officially allow under-13s! They’re now in their twenties. A lot of these players have played this game an awful lot. They’ve heard these pieces over and over again, and they can probably hum them accurately, not for note.”

Lord adds: “It’s the soundtrack of their childhood. There was a lot of emotion at RuneScape Live. Some players are now grown ups and have families, but these tunes take them back to their youth.”

Here’s the Philharmonia at Abbey Road Studios recording James Hannigan’s new arrangement of “Harmony”:

Taylor and Lord have overseen a recent project to bring RuneScape’s music to physical formats, streaming services, and the concert hall — more on all that in a future article. As part of this ongoing project, during which the pair worked on some opulent new orchestral recordings with the aforementioned Hannigan (more on him in a future piece), Lord’s appreciation of the earlier MIDI tunes has grown: “I’ve gone full circle. I love the early melodies, including “Harmony”, “Autumn Voyage”, and “Background”. They’re such strong tunes that it doesn’t matter how you rearrange them, they just shine through.”

So much music has been produced for the various iterations of RuneScape that Taylor admits that he occasionally forgets having recorded certain pieces. “I have got a lot of specific memories of writing pieces of music… but there’s also a whole number of tracks I wish I’d never written.” He jokes: “I listen back and think ‘what on earth was I doing?’ But, for some players of the game, that might be one of their favourite tracks! Who am I to tell them what’s good and what’s not?”

A fun fan favourite

Since Monkey Island’s piratey silliness was brought up...

“Sea Shanty 2” was a song originally written for the Port Sarim area of the game, a hub of activity from which players can travel to various other places, as well as go fishing. It’s a fairly busy location, meaning that players would likely have heard “Sea Shanty 2” a gazillion times. 

Taylor: “The 60kB limit was still in place when I wrote “Sea Shanty 2”, so it was a simple tune like all those early tracks — again, I was going for catchy. It came very quickly to me once I was in the shanty-writing groove. It has remained in the game for well over a decade, and has always enjoyed a degree of notoriety because it’s a cheesy earworm.

“Since Old School RuneScape launched in 2013, we came to realise that the fanbase had re-embraced the track, and it has become a meme. There are plenty of silly videos featuring it, Rick-Rolling, etc.”

One of Taylor’s favourite gag videos featuring “Sea Shanty 2”: 

Taylor admits: “Although it makes me cringe a little, I don’t mind it being a humorous song as it has charm. One of my ambitions in life is to write a novelty track and retire from the proceeds.Sea Shanty 2” might be my best effort yet, but sadly I’m not close to retiring…”

Rework in progress

Concept art by former art director Pascal Blanché.

Despite RuneScape and Old School RuneScape being constantly updated ‘live games’, the audio team are loathe to remove any music once it’s in the game; and they’re incredibly careful about making adjustments. Taylor explains: “What we have done is improve the quality of the game’s audio over time. That could be completely re-recording a track with new instrumentation, or just making small tweaks to things that annoy us sonically.”

The original MIDI version of “Background” from 2004:

Lord points out that they’ve generally taken two approaches: “Sometimes we’ve taken a theme and completely changed it, such as with a lot of the new orchestral music; it’s got enough hints of the theme to preserve people’s nostalgia. On other occasions, we’ve taken the MIDI original and replaced it with better instruments, better sounds. They’re both valid approaches — some have been quicker reworks, whereas with others, we’ve let our imagination go wild.”

A newer version of “Background”:

Taylor cautions: “One dabbles with things at one’s own peril, and the nostalgia factor can’t be underestimated. We’ve had complaints when we’ve done a rework and gone too far, because we’ve tinkered with something that carries fond memories, whereas we may have wanted to change it just for the sake of it. We try to bear in mind that we’re not doing it for us — it’s for the players.”

To keep things reasonably consistent over the years, the team have often reused themes and motifs over and over. One of the clearest examples of this is the “Scape” main theme, which has enjoyed several versions — some epic, some dark, some daft.

“Scape Main”, from 2004:

There have been seasonal versions, including “Scape Santa”:

Here’s a tragic version arranged by James Hannigan and played by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra:

Lord clarifies: “We’re wary to go too far from what players perceive as the fundamental RuneScape sound. We can improve the production values, but those themes need to be preserved so that players can relate to newer tracks. If it’s those same notes in there, and it still carries that same emotional content, then that’s OK.”

One thing you can count on the extensive RuneScape music library for is groan-inducing puns and wordplay. “The Brass Is Always Greener”, “Altar Ego”, “Always On My Rind”, and “Mastermindless” are some favourites I’ve spotted so far.

In a word: Eclectic

Pushed for adjectives to encapsulate RuneScape’s music across the last 16 or so years, Lord can only think of one: “eclectic. The catalogue covers everything from medieval, to orchestral, to dubstep, to rock... The game can be deadly serious one moment — an emotionally weighty story about the death of a god — and the next moment a player could be doing something very silly with penguins.”

Adam Bond’s EDM track “Gregorovic” is unlocked in Sliske's Necropolis:

As mentioned already, the bedrock of Taylor’s music, and RuneScape music in general, is made up of strong melodies. Lord cites the scoring philosophy of Hans Zimmer: that most of the film music legend’s tunes can not only be played with one hand — they can be played with one finger. Lord explains: “If you overcomplicate a melody then you lose that immediate impact. Keeping it simple is often key. That said, we tread in both camps: creating melodic, entertaining, sometimes humorous music; and also more contemporary, atmospheric, abstract stuff.”

Ashton Mills’ “The Azure Caverns”:

Taylor: “It’s hugely varied. It gets harder and harder to put my finger on what RuneScape music is now. The world is so expansive. One area of the game, featuring hours of music and content, can seem completely different to another — graphically, musically, and thematically.”

Stephen Lord and Linda Houd’s song “One Voice” from The Arc expansion soundtrack:

Keeping it Old School

In early 2013, Jagex released Old School RuneScape (OSRS): a separate, concurrent version that resets the game to August 2007, a moment in time that fans’ collective nostalgia fixates on. Whilst the company also pushed forward with RuneScape proper, there was now an official place where some players could happily live in the past. OSRS is still updated with quality of life improvements, although every change is voted on by the player community. (The last few days saw the launch of OSRS on mobile.)

Musically-speaking, the launch of OSRS threw up a bit of a challenge for Taylor, Lord, and co. How best to revive the older, MIDI-based soundtrack? And should it be supplemented? Lord explains: “With OSRS, we still use the same technology that was used back in the day, but our in-house technology had changed so much that it took us a while before we could actually get versions of those old sound tools working.”

Concept art from upcoming OSRS update, The Kebos Lowlands:

For Taylor, casting his mind back to 2002-2007 and writing new music in MIDI was… confusing. “The good thing about [up to date] RuneScape is that it’s so varied and there’s so much at our disposal. We can go as far as we want. With OSRS, it was like visiting an old friend that you don’t necessarily want to see again, but you’re still quite fond of.

“We have to be especially careful about what is added. Every bit of content is voted on by the players, including the music.” Indeed, in what must have been a slightly nerve-wracking moment, Taylor submitted a new boss track to the community — “The Fat Lady Sings” — and over three-quarters of players approved.

Despite this stat-driven approach — and the team at Jagex love their statistics — there is still plenty of soul in the work. Taylor says: “You always give a little bit of yourself when you’re creating something. It’s just as important with OSRS for me to come up with interesting music, even within those limitations — although we have lifted the 60kB file size, thankfully!” Naturally, Taylor has developed as a composer since 2002, making it easier to ring more out of the MIDI instrument set than before.

Again, Lord expresses his admiration for Taylor’s early work in establishing the sound of RuneScape: “Because of the limited sound set of the original tools, it meant that the tunes had to be more memorable; there wasn’t the technology and the amazing contemporary sounds you’ve got these days to rely on. That’s why that early music is still so dominant within the whole of RuneScape.”

End game

Art from the 2018 Halloween event, Til Death Do Us Part”

Taylor is particularly proud of the fact that all of RuneScape’s many, many pieces of music were originally composed, as opposed to being licensed in from a sound library. That commitment to making music from scratch has meant that Taylor, Lord, and team have been able to carefully curate and shape the soundworld of RuneScape, undoubtedly for the better.

There may or may not be another MMO as large and persistent as RuneScape or World of Warcraft again, but just in case, Lord advises future MMO composers to set out their stylistic stall from the very beginning, and establish a firm direction of travel. “You’ve got to find very early on what the identity of your game is, and then everything comes out of that. RuneScape’s music started simple and catchy, and everything stems from that still.

Taylor also recommends that composers “go with your gut, go with your heart, and don’t be afraid. Stretch yourself as far as you can go and get out of your comfort zone. At the end of the day, we’re the creators of dreams; we’re the storytellers. If you want to do this, you shouldn’t be afraid to do what you love. Hopefully, other people will love it too.”

Ian Taylor is a sound designer, lead composer, and audio developer at Jagex. Twitter: @JagexIanT

Stephen Lord is Head of Audio at Jagex. Twitter: @JagexLord

We’ll be hearing from Taylor and Lord again soon to find out what prompted them to push the button on several RuneScape music releases, including the CD and vinyl editions of RuneScape: Original Soundtrack Classics and The Orchestral Collection

We’ll also be catching up with James Hannigan to find out more about his original RuneScape 3 orchestral music, as well as his re-arrangements of classic RuneTunes, and the recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios.

For the first time, RuneScape music is available on physical formats via Laced Records.

Four albums, including RuneScape: Original Soundtrack Classics, The Orchestral Collection, The Arc, and Menaphos, are available to stream (and buy digitally) on major music platforms — here are all the links.