As part of our continuing series on women in esports, we got a chance to chat with Emma Hall, the technical developer for RuneScape. Emma first joined Jagex in 2015, her first role straight from Nottingham Trent University, where she received a 1st Class BSc in computer science and games technology. A technical developer for RuneScape, Emma is responsible for supporting improvements over legacy code, as well as content design and development. Away from the studio, Emma is a keen LARPer and writer. We spoke to Hall about getting into the business, RuneScape, and the future of esports.
How did you get into gaming and computer science?
It probably started when I was about 5, when my brother got his first PlayStation, and I used to watch him play. It wasn’t really an interest at that point, just something I used to do with him. It wasn’t until I was 13 and I got my hands on my own PlayStation 2 that I really started getting into games. I’d seen the adverts for Kingdom Hearts II, and I just had to have it! I’ve loved gaming ever since.
It wasn’t until I was 17, though, that I started to consider it as a career. I had been hell-bent on going to university and studying psychology (something, something, Criminal Minds, something) for many years, and then suddenly it hit me. I liked writing stories in my free time, I loved playing games. There was actually a way that I could do this together… as a job. I started applying to universities at this point with literally no prior knowledge of programming or the gaming industry, and for some unknown reason, someone saw something in me and offered me a position in a computer science and games technology course. It’s probably an unconventional story in the industry, but it just goes to show that you have a passion for gaming, there isn’t much you can’t achieve.
Can you talk a bit about going straight from college to Jagex?
I had been graduated from university for about two months before I got my job at Jagex. It was a strange period, working on and off in a local bar, having this feeling of impostor syndrome (probably related to having basically zero experience compared to everyone else I’d met in my university course) and half-heartedly applying every now and then to a games company. At some point, I came across Jagex and immediately recognized RuneScape as that game my brother used to play with his friends from school (he used to lure his friends into "The Wilderness" and then steal their stuff… I wasn’t sure why they kept playing with him).
I applied, and within the space of a month, I moved to Cambridge and started my first real job. It was an immense shock to the system! I was surrounded by people who had worked in the industry (and even the company) for 10+ years. They had this huge wealth of knowledge that I didn’t even know how to start going about acquiring. Luckily, I was supported perfectly on a day-to-day basis, and slowly but surely my impostor syndrome disappeared, and I began to feel right at home.
Tell us a bit about what you do at the company.
I am currently a technical developer for RuneScape, which is 17 years old and as such has thousands upon thousands of lines of aging code. My main role as a technical developer is to maintain the code base, modernize and ensure new content is efficient and easy to maintain. On top of this, I also design and develop new content for the game.
I’m also trained in mental health first aid as part of a group of "wellbeing champions," which serve as contact points for staff if they are experiencing problems with their mental or physical health. We can support them on a day-to-day basis and provide resources to help them with whatever problems they are having.
What is it about RuneScape that people love so much? Can you give people who might not be familiar with it an overview?
I think one of the main selling points of RuneScape is the nostalgia. There are not many gamers out there that haven’t played RuneScape at some point in their lives, and it’s a throwback to childhood excitement. On top of this, RuneScape is a huge fantasy retreat with epic storylines and years of personal progress to make. I’ve been playing almost daily for at least the past four years, still haven’t reached max level, and I’ve barely even started on the quests. It’s a rich environment with beautiful storytelling and a real feeling of making an impact on the world around you. The community is vibrant and active, with no shortage of people willing to help newcomers or anyone that is a little bit stuck. There is something in the RuneScape world for everyone.
Can you talk about RuneScape's place in esports?
Over the past few years, the RuneScape franchise has expanded massively into the esports area. Old School RuneScape, our 2007 version of the game, dominates this area within the company, holding tournaments called "Deadman," where thousands of players slowly build up their accounts until the final last man standing brawl where all your efforts pay off. There is a high Twitch presence for this, especially around the finale. RuneScape is one of those games that is easy to play but hard to master, and our place in esports rewards the most masterful of our players.
What do you think is the future of esports?
Honestly, I would like to see esports becoming a widely accepted sport within society, where someone can make a real living that people respect in the same way that physical athletes are respected. I can already see this coming to pass as tournaments for games like League of Legends, Dota, and Heroes of the Storm are becoming bigger and bigger, and with it, more and more mainstream. People are finally recognizing the gaming industry as a leading part of the media industry, and with this comes an acceptance of working within it. I am really excited for the day when a child can say they want to work in esports and it’s supported. I believe that it will someday come.
How do you see women's roles changing in esports and the gaming industry?
This is a difficult question to answer. In my experience, I have never felt like I was treated any differently to another colleague that is male. The only situation where I felt as if I was ever treated differently was whilst I was at university and was told that I was more likely to get a job in the gaming industry because of my gender.
I would like to see an increase of women in the industry, yes, there is a huge disparity at the moment, but I am firm of the belief that women should not be hired just because they are women. They should be hired because they are right for the job. This form of positive discrimination is as damaging as its counterpart. I believe that as the gaming industry becomes more mainstream, and programming becomes more and more prevalent in early schooling, we will naturally see an increase in females that are interested. Having a presence at career fairs is always good, but it’s too late at that stage. We need to reach females at an earlier age. Only then will we start seeing a change in the roles that females play in the gaming industry.
Can you talk a bit about your LARPing and how you got into it? Is it a natural progression from gaming, in terms of an immersive world?
I only recently got into it through some friends that I work with that attend an event called Empire. I definitely think it comes from my love of gaming and fantasy in general. It’s a form of escapism in the same way; you can go somewhere and pretend that you are someone completely different, forgetting completely about any worries or the stress of day-to-day life. You can be the person that you always wanted to be, surrounded by like-minded people, and together you create this story – there’s something incredible in that.