Many new "browser-based" MMOs like Free Realms are proving to be an effective and accessible alternative to traditionally-installed MMOs. Is it just a fad, or the future of gaming?
There's a war coming. You may have already seen the signs. If you listen closely, you can hear the war drums faintly beating in the distance, as both armies close the gap. One side is a relative newcomer to the scene; represented by older games like RuneScape, or even ancient precursors like Legend of the Red Dragon, from the days of BBSs. They're "browser-based" MMOs, and they're about to clash with "traditional" MMOGs in one of the biggest battles the gaming industry has ever seen.
Probably the most popular example of a "browser-based" MMO is Free Realms, which just broke 4 million registered users last week. New ones are popping up left and right, like the MMOFPS Battlefield Heroes or the superhero-styled FusionFall. Game companies are reconsidering the old "retail box model", and even direct-downloads, for these new, browser-driven MMOs. And it's primarily for the sake of accessibility. A decade from now, the new generation of young gamers might not be able to tell the difference between an installation CD-ROM and a beverage coaster.
Although the two terms are often used synonymously, there is a distinction between "browser-based" and "Web-based" games. Web-based games have been around almost as long as the Web itself. Obviously the quality of the games has risen alongside the technology; many Web-based games released today feature such impressive Flash or Java coding that you might not be able to tell the difference between them and "conventional" PC games. But there is a distinction.
A few modern-day Web-based games or MMOs you might be familiar with are Club Penguin, The Kingdom of Loathing and RuneScape. Actually, RuneScape is an example of both, because it started out as a Web-based game and evolved into a browser-based game. Today, the difference between the two types of games usually depends on how they're coded. The line is really blurry and there are probably a couple dozen games that our readers could point out as exceptions to the rule; but usually, today's browser-based games are defined as being installed via a plug-in.
Since it's one of the most popular games in its genre right now, I'll use Free Realms as an example. Unlike a Flash- or Java-coded game, the Free Realms graphics engine and gameplay client is downloaded as a relatively small "plug-in" to your Web browser. It also acts as a bridge between your game client and the game server; many of the world textures and models are downloaded "on-the-fly," instead of permanently residing on your hard drive. There will always be some persistent data on your end—maybe a couple hundred megabytes or so—but overall, it ends up saving a lot of disk space and the installation times are much quicker.
The minimum system requirements for Free Realms and other browser-based MMOs are relatively low, compared to games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. If you think of World of Warcraft-era graphics, you're on the right track, which is also why you'll see a lot of browser-based MMOs described as "cartoony-looking". Most of these games can be run on integrated graphics cards, opening up a whole new world of gameplay to people who otherwise wouldn't have the hardware needed for modern-day MMOs. Plus, the majority of browser-based games follow the "free-to-play" model, making it even easier for anyone to play.
It's all about accessibility. I've begun to feel like a broken record when it comes to that word. I've used it repeatedly to describe the shift in gaming trends we're beginning to see in the MMO industry. But it really is where the action is at right now. Just like the old business saying, "Location, location, location"…in the gaming market it's becoming more about, "Accessibility, accessibility, accessibility!"
Even though I'm a big fan of Warhammer Online, I can't help comparing the game's paltry 300,000-or-so subscriber base to over 4 million registered Free Realms users, even when you consider that most of those 4 million players haven't spent a dime yet. It might not be the best example of success, but it's a great example of accessibility.
Despite the fact that direct-download purchasing has made it easier to buy and install PC games and MMOs, consumers generally still research and consider a game before deciding whether or not to snag it, unless it's something they've specifically been waiting for. On the other hand, browser-based MMOs are so easy and fast to set up that they're much more susceptible to on-the-spot, impulse-driven playing. Just register, download a quick plug-in and you're playing in less than 30 minutes. Since most of them are free-to-play, you don't even have to bother with credit card details until you're ready to become a premium subscriber or buy special micro-transaction items.
It probably sounds like I'm spouting off marketing material straight from a publisher's website, although I promise you, I'm not. It's just that the whole browser-based MMO concept lends itself so well to market-wide saturation. And that's the point. You don't have to spend two hours swapping installation discs. You don't need 10GB of free disk space, or a cutting-edge GPU and processor. Hell, you could probably play most of these games with a budget-model PC from 2003, connecting from a crappy DSL line in Dubai and still get decent frame rates and latency.
I can't pretend I'm the first one to make the comparison, but it's a similar level of accessibility that made World of Warcraft such a smash hit. Another major factor is the "path of least resistance," meaning that most of the browser-based MMOs I've played so far are designed to offer quick, rewarding fun without a bunch of time-consuming obstacles to get in the way. Veteran MMO players might scoff at "easy mode" gameplay like this, but it offers newcomers a shallow "kiddie pool" to splash around in, without sinking every 20 minutes.
The next logical question is, "Yeah, but can they still be fun for all kinds of players?" The answer, of course, will depend on your taste in games. But from what I've seen come out of this industry so far, the technology is in place to create some really stellar games. You'll have to be content with sacrificing photo-realistic graphics and cutting-edge physics engines, at least for the time-being, but all of the ingredients it takes to cook up a fun game are sitting on the shelf, waiting to be thrown together. In a recent preview of IGG's 2029 Online, which isn't browser-based, I suggested that even those older-looking, isometrically-designed MMOs can still be a blast to play if they're designed well.
The biggest obstacle that browser-based games face is the quality factor. Just like we've seen with the Flash and Web-based games community, the platform has become so ubiquitous and easy to deliver that it's often difficult to sift through the good and the bad. As browser-based plug-in MMOs begin really catching on, every publisher on the block will want in on the action. They'll start pumping out MMOs of all genres and styles, baiting the hook with a free-to-play model and relying on "a few players here and there" to actually spend money on premium subscriptions or micro-payments.
That scenario isn't too different from the one we're currently facing with conventionally-installed MMOs; which is why sites like ZAM exist—to help you wade through the murk. Even if the technology catches on and becomes as commonplace as your average Flash game with the word "Ninja" in the title, it's still a valuable option for gamers to have. Games like Free Realms are opening up the world of MMOs to people who can't even tell you what the acronym "MMOG" stands for.
Whether you think that's a good or bad thing for this industry, browser-based MMOs are on their way. They're gaining viability, and it won't be long before they'll be barreling at us like a 10-ton truck, redefining a pretty damn substantial corner of the PC gaming industry. All we can do is hope that the gaming community-at-large doesn't start throwing money at lackluster releases, encouraging a torrential rain of garbage from fly-by-night publishers.