RPGs are, by definition, an opportunity for gamers to put themselves into the role of a different person. Role-playing games are specifically known for letting the player make decisions as if they were a different person. To facilitate that, many RPGs start the player out by defining some basic things about who their characters are. Most people will be familiar with the process of choosing a class, assigning attributes, fill in some details about the character's background. Spending hours fiddling to get the nose shape just right is part of the experience.
RuneScape in that regard is pretty lacking. While the character creation process lets you choose an appearance for your character, no real decisions affecting gameplay are made (hold your horses, Ironman accounts, I'll get back to you in a bit). Everybody who enters the game starts with the same stats and the same gear. RuneScape characters are a blank slate that you can mould and shape however you want. Not only that, but throughout your journey in Gielinor, there are no gameplay choices that push the character in one way or another (besides some narrative choices). When I talk about class systems going forward in this post, keep in mind that I mean traditional class systems as much as systems like skill trees that make each character unique gameplay wise in a significant way.
Instead of being locked into a given gameplay style, RuneScape gives every character 28 different ways to progress. You can do a bit of all of them, or just focus on the one or two you like. It always comes down to the following: in RuneScape, every player can be equally good at everything. Everybody can hit the maximum level in each skill, and - given enough wealth and/or time - attain all the unlockables and items. This approach solves one very big problem that most games with upfront character creation have: the player doesn't know the impact their decisions during character creation will have. How can you know whether you want to be a wizard or a knight if you don't know how that affects your gameplay? Even if you did have the information, you might not always remain excited about being a high octane spell slinger, and maybe you want to throw healing spells around for a change. Do you start over?
Games get around these problems by allowing players to change their characters throughout the game. Sometimes at a cost, sometimes in a limited fashion, sometimes without any restriction at all. Other games remove the focus on initial character creation, and allow a player to specialise as they progress through the game instead. Still, in RuneScape, wanting to be the tank for once only requires you to swap out some equipment.
Does this make RuneScape's model automatically superior? For a long time, I thought it did. I thought that maybe this freedom was what made me play RuneScape instead of other games. Coming up on its twentieth anniversary though, I think we are starting to see where RuneScape's model falls apart.
One of the main advantages of RuneScape's approach is the level of freedom. Feel like poking some holes in monsters with arrows today? Just grab your bow and shoot away. Looking for a calmer activity? Time to go fishing. There is a flipside to this freedom though. A character can be equally good at everything, but it is also expected to be equally good at everything. The game lets me pick that content that I want to play, but to enjoy the game to its fullest, I must also play the content that I don't want to play. If you want to use Ranged and only Ranged, the game is going to put you at a disadvantage in many circumstances.
This is the big truth of class systems, and any system that lets you only pick one option exclusively: while it forces you into interacting with some mechanics, it also allows you to ignore others completely. I have friends who swear by playing a martial class in Dungeons & Dragons, who don't want anything to do with magic spells, while others have the most fun spending hours reading through spell descriptions, and think whacking things with a pointy stick is nothing short of boring. If you're a jack of all trades that doesn't want to commit to one class, there's always multi-classing. The class system allows these players to play essentially completely different games, but still within the same system, and - most importantly - together.
Which leads right into the next point: if every class was equally good at everything, they wouldn't be interesting. A wizard may be able to do massive amounts of damage, but put them close to a few fighters and their silly looking wizard hat is not going to do much for keeping them alive. RuneScape, and MMORPGs in general, have the extra layer on top of the role-playing game in that they are meant to be played together. A wizard and knight could team up, and cover each other's weaknesses. This isn't really the case in RuneScape. Again, everybody can excel at everything. Where in games like World or Warcraft, you often have parties with different classes to fulfil specialised roles such as a tank or healer, in RuneScape these roles are nothing more than an upfront decision about who will do what. This is a huge loss, since having people with different abilities combine their powers leads to interesting and imaginative combinations in ways that the uniformity of RuneScape players just can never hope to attain.
A final disadvantage of RuneScape's system is that since you can become good at everything, once you're done with that, there is no reason to replay the game. Where in a game like World of Warcraft you can try your hand at a completely different style of play by switching from a healer to a glass cannon, in RuneScape starting from scratch won't really make you go through a different experience than the first time. While there are probably some accounts made purely for replay value (e.g. quests), I think the vast majority of second accounts created in RuneScape are made with the idea of imposing some sort of additional challenge. This is where the concept of Ironman accounts comes in, but also skiller accounts or pures are of the variety of self-implied challenges. This shows that players want there to be alternate to play RuneScape, and are we not just talking about a class system at this point?
With its skilling system, RuneScape has set itself up as a unique game in the wider genre. Yet I don't think that it is the lack of a class system - or any skill trees - that gives RuneScape its appeal. It is the fact it has an interesting skilling ecosystem in the first place. Building in mechanics where you have to choose if you want to be better in A or B wouldn't undermine that, but enhance it. For many years, people have benefitted from having every content available to their characters, but with players running out of content, only the future will tell if the lack of a class system will keep RuneScape interesting.