RuneScape Live Featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
RuneFest 2018 at Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre - David Portass/iEventMedia

At the start of October, Jagex kindly whisked us away to Farnborough – a place well known for its aviation – but we weren’t there for a spot of aircraft spotting, instead, we were there to experience the annual RuneFest event, an honorary event for RuneScape which takes place each year.

If you’ve been anywhere near the gaming scene over the past 17 years you’re probably aware of or have at least heard the game RuneScape. What started off as a browser-based MMO has sprawled into an absolutely massive game with an even bigger community of players that have been a part of its growth over the years.

Sure, you might be saying “who cares, that game is so old”, and I can tell you without any hesitation whatsoever that the 2000+ people, a majority of which paid £150 a ticket to be at an event celebrating this game, its community, and the developers, certainly care. And that’s just a very small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who regularly log into both RuneScape and Old School RuneScape on a regular basis.

RuneScape is certainly a big deal, and Jagex has done amazing things over the years to make sure its community feel valued. Hell, nothing in Old School RuneScape is added to the game unless players hit a 75% majority vote, so there are definitely community values rooted in the company. RuneFest, which first began in 2010, is one of the ways Jagex thanks its players, by bringing them together to a place where they can celebrate the game, take part in events, experience new things, and even meet developers.

Having never attended a RuneFest before, it was a very surreal experience seeing players huddled around JMods (the name for developers and other Jagex staff) like they’re celebrities (which they are in their eyes), as well as transported into a world you could only imagine. And while the event itself was probably one of the most impressive, friendly, inclusive, and well put together events I’ve ever attended, there was one area which absolutely blew me away.

RuneFest 2018 was the first event to be spread over two days. The first night of RuneFest players were invited to the first ever RuneScape Live, a concert featuring none other than The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra who played through some of the game’s songs such as the RuneScape Theme 2018, Harmony, A Hero’s Return, and many, many more, and I’ll admit I haven’t played RuneScape for some time, but this concert left me with my jaw on the floor and the hairs on the back of my neck raised.

RuneFest 2018: Bringing RuneScape to Life with Music - n3rdabl3
RuneFest 2018 at Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre – David Portass/iEventMedia

Alongside The Orchestra was a tongue-in-cheek stage show featuring typical RuneScape humor featuring ModMark as the narrator who took to the stage to tell the story of two players, one RuneScape player, another Old School RuneScape player and how their adventures intertwined. Throughout the show, we were given different acts of this story interwoven with orchestral versions of RuneScape songs. It was honestly a truly breathtaking experience, and a real laugh to boot, there were plenty of references to RuneScape’s rich history too, which admittedly went over my head, but the audience seemed to love it.

With 17 years under its belt, RuneScape has a hefty library of music, so much so that they’ve been awarded a Guinness World Record for the “most original pieces of music in a video game” which, as of July 2017 was at 1,198. Speaking with Head of Audio Stephen Lord and Sound Designer Ian Taylor at the event they admitted that this number had been far exceeded.

One of the things you could certainly tell with the performance that Jagex not only wanted to celebrate the music that’s been the soundtrack to so many people’s lives in the game but also celebrate the journey players have been on or will go on in the future. What’s more, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was all up for taking part in what I’d call a pretty high-class pantomime.

I’d personally say that music says a thousand words without actually saying a thing. Music can change the way you experience certain things, whether it’s an epic adventure in a video game or a frightening scene in a movie. Music is probably the most powerful yet underrated part of visual storytelling. What RuneScape Live offered, was a chance for the music to come alive, music that players have probably heard over and over in-game, but performed flawlessly.

Hearing the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra was quite surreal, quite emotional, but obviously extremely satisfying, quite humbling. A relief…” said Taylor – who also happens to be the third ever employee on RuneScape.

“After all the hard work, and to hear the first notes of RuneScape Main come out, and it’s just like, tingles, goosebumps and things like that. It’s amazing that we’re finally hearing it and we’ve pulled it off. It’s amazing,” continued Lord.

“I had a conversation the night of RuneFest last year and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some years, have an orchestra at RuneFesT”

RuneScape Live had been in the works for almost a year and thankfully the entire team at Jagex was behind the idea.

I had a conversation the night of RuneFest last year and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some years, have an orchestra at RuneFest, and the conversation went something like ‘let’s get an orchestra next year’, ‘yeah let’s do that’, and so that was the inception of it, but I guess it’s really only come up to full speed over the last three months or so,” explained Lord.

Of all the orchestras, however, it had to end up being the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, one of London’s five symphony orchestras most famed for their performances of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30”, or Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No.5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73”, and now Taylor’s “Gnomeball”. What probably impressed me the most was how open they were to RuneScape’s humour and happily took part in the stage performance. At one point ModMark and the conductor got into an argument, and another time the Tuba player pulled a plushie out of his instrument.

It’s was also this blend of high-class (from the orchestra) with unwonted humor (from Jagex) which once again echoed the story told on stage. It wasn’t just the Royal Philharmonic playing music whilst someone dressed as a dragon danced around like a plonker. It was the paring of two things from different worlds which made the performance even more spectacular.

“[RuneScape Live] was quite ambitious when we were sort of thinking about it because, for a lot of people, it’s enough to have a concert, but it wasn’t for us, it’s because we like to try and do something a bit different really and have fun with it. Some of the music that was played last night was still some of the original 15-year-old music, the MIDI files,” explained Taylor.

“We tried to provide that contrast last night, so we had the full orchestra, and then everything in between was old school MIDI sounds and MIDI music just to provide that contrast,” added Lord.

“And that was one of the key things about what whole performance, it was supposed to be the new versus the old as such, so hopefully we went some way to kind of describe it a little bit and to try and encompass it and say ‘hey, we love it all’ y’know, and hopefully that worked,” said Taylor.

RuneFest 2018: Bringing RuneScape to Life with Music - n3rdabl3
RuneFest 2018 at Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre – James Lawson/iEventMedia

“I love the fact that we had a beautiful sort of lilting orchestra piece and then the next minute an old-school MIDI boss battle music with the guy on stage, it was really good fun,” Lord said. “We wanted to be respectful to the fact that we had the Royal Philharmonic there, but to be honest, they were up for anything, they were such good fun. So when it’s pulling plushies out of Tubas and having a bit of banter with us, they wanted more of that, they were excited about coming and doing it as we were about having them.”

Though adding to this, Lord also revealed during a panel of the Audio Team that the Royal Philharmonic had only played the music once before that night.

Of course, all of this music had to come from somewhere. As a musician myself, I wanted to talk about the composition process from creating simplistic MIDI tracks to composing the huge orchestral scores we heard at RuneScape Live, and it all boils down to one thing. Melody.

“At the core it’s just a simple melody, so the reason why a lot of this stuff works is because of Ian’s original compositions, it’s just a simple tune, if you’ve got a simple tune like Harmony or Autumn Voyage or The RuneScape Theme, then that’s your basic building block. We obviously write music for a living but full-time orchestration is an external job,” said Lord.

“So we’ve worked with composer James Hannigan who has done things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Dead Space, things like that, and he’s worked with an orchestrator, Alan Wilson, who actually comes up with all the parts for the orchestra, it’s beyond our abilities to write for an 80-piece orchestra, it’s a huge huge talent and it’s a lifetime’s work for people who do that.”

“I’ve always been a massive fan of computer game’s music from the Spectrum onwards,” said Taylor. “I’ve always kind of been into games and certain soundtracks like the Final Fantasy series, Monkey Island stuff, the LucasArts stuff, it’s always been a big influence, as well as hopefully a healthy mix of electronic music and a bit of everything else, this is just personally the stuff I’m talking about, I’m a big fan of synthesizers and sound effects, sound design and that sort of stuff as well, is a big driving force behind stuff, so we’ve got some of these themes but not all the music we write is straight down the line, it’s a tune in that way, but obviously being for a game it can be any kind of texture or emotion, a sort of feeling, it can be weird, quirky or whatever, hopefully it’s sort of a bigger picture, it’s not just one type of music.”

“guess we’re lucky working on RuneScape that it’s so eclectic that anything goes”

Speaking with the duo it became clear that working on RuneScape allowed for a level of creativity not usually found with video game audio. The game allows the team to work on all types of music, not just your typical medieval ditties which utilise the usual folk instruments.

“I guess we’re lucky working on RuneScape that it’s so eclectic that anything goes, we go from medieval music to dubstep to orchestral, and because it’s so varied, we get to do what we want, really. The emotions in the game, it covers every emotion, from something really serious like the main God dying to simple irreverent little things like rolling cheese down hills,” said Lord.

“And this is the sort of thing we wanted to get across in the performance last night as well. The whole point was to have these beautiful, lush orchestral, emotional kind of pieces, and then just going to this crazy stupid panto-style, that’s very RuneScape,” added Taylor.

“We wanted to make it RuneScape, we wanted to do it our own way, we’ve seen live performances at this thing, but let’s do it RuneScape style, and hopefully we achieved that,” continued Lord.

With RuneScape itself spanning 17 years, creating music for the game has shifted dramatically. What initially began as simple MIDI tunes limited to just 8 tracks, the team now have the ability to use virtual instruments  and Digital Audio Workspaces (such as Cubase) to recreate any sound they wish, the team has also used some pretty interesting instruments over the years, bringing together a unique collection of things, from ude’s to bouzouki’s.

“In my team, they can use what they want. People have their own favorites, we have a guy who uses Reaper, Cubase, that sort of thing, whatever people are happy with, it’s just a tool to for creativity,” explains Lord.

RuneFest 2018: Bringing RuneScape to Life with Music - n3rdabl3
RuneFest 2018 at Farnborough International Exhibition and Conference Centre – David Portass/iEventMedia

“That even comes down to the virtual instruments and stuff like that as well, we’ve got a great selection of stuff as well, like the Native Instruments Komplete stuff, the EastWest ComposerCloud, and stuff like that, we do sometimes have our own little ones like one of the guys has got an Omnisphere and stuff like that, and then I quite like the Camel Audio Alchemy,” adds Taylor.

“We like to bring in musicians as well just to add that real element, like a lot of our recent compositions will be bringing in external talent to come and play cellos and violins and accordions and stuff like that, we don’t do it all ourselves,” revealed Lord.

The audio team has also created their own VST (Virtual Studio Technology or virtual instrument) synthesizer called JagFX which the team used to create sound effects before they were able to put audio tracks into the game.

However, nothing quite beats the sound of an actual instrument being played, and they’ve played some interesting instruments over the years in order to really push the sound in RuneScape.

“When we did the Menaphos soundtrack I had to learn how to play an Ude, and it’s got what, 13 strings? And it’s got no frets. Thank god for Cubase pitch correction, but perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that, but there we go. That was a tough one,” laughed Lord.

“The bouzouki as well, we’ve got. We’ve tried to, over a period of time, tried to enlarge our collection of instruments in the company, and every now and then when the budget comes through we’ll be like, is there something we can get that we’re going to use? And will actually be useful for what we’re going to do as well as musically something nice to play and develop on. Accordions and drums, that sort of stuff,” added Taylor.

“We know most new instruments and software, they give you a new lease of life,” said Lord.

“But then you may have 10,000 presets with a plugin synth, but for me it’s kind of like, if I get a new drum, that’s just as kind of challenging. You’ve either got this vast library in front of you that you have to try and pick at or you’ve got one thing that does one thing well, and you’ve got to try and coax out the best out of it,” Taylor added.

“We’ve got a nice little bunch of musicians at Jagex now, so we’re providing the opposite to last night so we’re going around the venue today with bouzoukis and guitars and mandolins just doing acoustic versions of what the Royal Philharmonic did last night. The Encore,” quipped Lord.

“Old School and RuneScape 3 are very similar in that it’s the same melodies, the same core there, but it’s the different production values”

Of course, any RuneScape player will know that there’s a difference between RuneScape and Old School RuneScape, especially as Jagex are developing and adding in more things unique to each game. But composing music for each game is surprisingly easy, explains Taylor and Lord.

“Old School and RuneScape 3 are very similar in that it’s the same melodies, the same core there, but it’s the different production values, but it’s the same type of composition and it’s the same emotions as well, but it’s just treated differently, one’s got an orchestra, the other has a set of general MIDI sounds playing it, and no composition is more valid than the other, they both have their merits, and we love going back and dusting off the old general MIDI stuff,” said Lord.

“We do a lot of reworks over the years as well, taking the oldest stuff and trying to go, kind of half-way-house, each time using the tech we’ve got available to us to hopefully try and make it sound better. Talking earlier about the intricacies of writing for an orchestra, well we’ve tried to do that. If you’ve got 16 tracks for the general MIDI then that’s it, that’s all you’ve got. Personally, I’d have loved to have put parts A, B, C, D, on the strings, but you couldn’t do it unless you cut other stuff out, so we try to go as far as we can with it, and obviously the ultimate is where you’ve got like, 80 players,” added Taylor.

“But sometimes less is more. If you’ve got a limited palette of sounds you’ve got to be more creative with the sounds and melodies that you produce in the first place,” concluded Lord.

Looking at the future of RuneScape there’s plenty more in store for the game and for anyone interested in its music. Both Taylor and Lord reflected on the night before and looked towards the future, especially as some pretty big things are happening.

“It was packed last night and every person that I looked at was totally into it, and how can you not be with the Royal Philharmonic blasting, their music was just perfect. So that kind of sentiment and emotion it conjures up in people, it’s so powerful and as musicians, music can just move you like nothing else, and if it can bring that into the whole gaming experience it can just make everyone’s experience better so why wouldn’t we do more of it and sort of build on the soundtracks and show off our music to the world, because I think RuneScape’s got some pretty awesome music,” said Lord.

“And in the meantime, RuneScape is a living game right, so there’s always something else we’re going to be working on, both versions of the game as well, and so that’s one of the great things is that, who knows, maybe we could write a completely different suite of tunes which may be either fully orchestrated or performed somewhere. We don’t really know yet, that’s some of the great things working for a living, constantly updated game,” said Taylor.

Speaking of the future, Jagex has recently launched two albums of music on CD and streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes (and coming soon on Vinyl). This is something that’s been requested by players for some time, and it isn’t stopping there. Lord explained how these are just the first of hopefully many compilations of RuneScape music that’ll be coming to players in the near future.

I came away from this event with an even greater fondness for RuneScape. Having that nostalgia was only heightened after attending RuneFest and has even driven me to give the game another spin – especially as Old School RuneScape is coming to mobile later this month.

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