The challenge system is the latest of a certain kind of update most players might not even be aware of. They don’t happen too often, but they’re one of the most interesting ones if you don’t actually look at the update itself but rather how it tries to fulfill the purpose it was made for. One last hint: The social slayer update could also be categorized in this group. The purpose is not just to add content but to actually alter player behavior. For social slayer the interest was to encourage socialization as the name suggests. The challenge system is supposed to support more diverse training by using different methods instead of being locked down to one because it is the most efficient one.
There are two basic questions that can be asked. The first is whether Jagex is even able to properly influence player behavior in the way they intend to or if their attempts are bound to fail. Provided that Jagex does have an influence, you could ask the second question: Should they meddle with the way the game is played or just leave the users alone?
Let’s tackle these questions one at a time. First: How well can an update influence player behavior? This is not an easy assessment to make, due to several limiting factors. One of them is a lack of observation — it is often difficult to say what influence an update has, especially if you did not try it yourself. Then you have to consider the fact that it’s not always clear what the intentions behind an update are. Just because it looks like they’re trying to influence gameplay does not mean they actually planned to. And last but not least is obviously opinion. What some see as a huge change can be minor for others. Something which is positive for you may be negative for the next person. Thus, if you disagree with my view or want to add anything, I encourage you to post on the discussion thread.
As far as I see it, most of these kinds of updates only had a superficial influence. Social slayer was a nice idea, but most players teamed up with old friends instead of working together with a stranger who could possibly have become a new friend. What irks me more is that in a typical RuneScape fashion, most players rushed through co-op tasks until they had their desired reward and then let this piece of content drop by the wayside as they couldn’t get anything more out of it.
Challenges are not much different. While they remain being used due to their daily aspect, it’s just another task you do, just like using the Jack of trades aura or buying battlestaves, but not something that really has an influence on training methods apart from shortening the path to 99 a bit. That doesn’t mean that these were bad updates, but their impact was smaller than I would have liked it to be. Of course, changing player behavior is not all that simple, but the design could be better too. A good example of that are clan avatars. The most widely used buff is the experience boost, intended to get clans to skill together to enjoy the 6% bonus. However, the area for this effect is far too small, so you basically may not move. As such, it’s only viable for bank standing skills, if even those. It’s generally not worth the hassle to try to get the bonus. On top of that, avatars have been divisive for a number of clans as members feel that some wardens unfairly use the boost for their personal gain without trying to share it with others. But even if that was fixed, I doubt avatars would suddenly lead to the entire clan skilling together. Generally, I’m not a fan of trying to fix very specific issues of player behavior. Usually, the underlying causes are not considered strongly enough and the fix ends up just being some varnish over a rusty spot.
I find it to be a better way to provide a framework on which the players themselves can drive the change forward. This may be harder to control precisely, but it’s often more effective. Updates like the clan chat system have had a much bigger influence and yet there’s still space for new improvements.
This brings us to the second question. Provided that Jagex does have an influence, should they use it? As long as they don’t restrict the current way, they don’t do much harm, but the question remains if they won’t focus on something the players don’t even see as a problem, or it only fixes one aspect of a bigger issue. As described above, I think the more elegant solution is to let the players fix it themselves. Provided they see it as a problem, they will deal with it if they have the necessary tools available, and in the process of doing so will experience the satisfaction that they dealt with it themselves. Obviously, the “necessary tools” are hard to define and may be difficult to supply, but I believe the result will be worth the hassle. It’s better if we meddle with our behavior than if Jagex does.