The Browser MMO phenomenon

Without a doubt, Internet brought computer games to a whole new level. With them, playing ceased to be a one-person activity and gamers were given a way to communicate, share their common passion for that game and of course, play together.

Internet also revolutionized communications. With the help of browsers, people from around the world had almost instant access to nearly anything, texts, movies, pictures, news and basically any other source of information. Everything went just fine until, one day, someone had the brilliant idea of merging those two, thus creating the first browser based online game… and the rest is history.

With a timid start, but helped by the evolution of technology (especially Flash and Java), browser based MMOs evolved from simple numbers and text interfaces to high quality 3D web applications gaining more and more popularity. Further in this article, we're going to analyze the reasons behind it, how it all began and what may await us in the future.

The first generation of browser games was based on dynamic HTML (or DHTML) which had the capability of creating drop-down menus and rollover images. The first game to work in a browser was Earth: 2025, a turn-based strategy game launched way back in 1996. It used the popular tick system in which a turn passed after a set amount of time. After that, more and more games appeared and new technologies were developed. In 1999, maybe the best browser MMORPG, Runescape, which even today has millions of players, was launched together with Utopia, MMORTS and Hattrick, a football team simulator. From there on, the number of games as well as the number of players kept on rising, with browser games today being an important part of the gaming industry.

There are some reasons why what was considered to be a geeky kind of game, managed to become so popular. First of all is accessibility. Basically, a browser supported game can be played from any computer with an internet connection (even ancient dial-up) and a working browser. You are no longer tied to a downloadable client, operating system or hardware configuration. You can play your game from home, work, school or traveling. It is an ideal type of game for people constantly on the move who can't always use their home computer but still want to play. This kind of people also don't have too much time on their hands so browser games are a perfect fit as most of them only require a few clicks a day, for a casual player at least. Of course there will always be hardcore players who stay on-line day and night watching their village or character and trying to use the best strategy in order to be the best, but both types can live together and, unlike other games, even cooperate.

But what kind of people plays browser games? Well, most of them are oriented towards the casual players, persons who usually use a computer at work and only want to relax a few minutes from time to time or want to have something else to do besides creating or editing documents. The secretary that usually plays Zuma will like games like FarmVille, while the guy that spends his time playing Solitaire and MineSweeper would enjoy a more aggressive game like TribalWars, for example. As you can see, they don’t fit the hardcore gamer type you are used to. Their experience with computer games is limited. But they usually are familiar with the Internet, so browsers are an ideal place to hook them up. Quite simple in the beginning but with many strategical alternatives, these games are usually easy to learn and are n00b friendly, perfect for any beginner.

Game companies are right to approach this new market. The main reason is the numbers. There are many more people that only occasionally play on the PC than those who do it regularly. The bigger the market the more the chances to earn money with your game. Also, casual players are more willing to pay for certain advantages either because they cannot afford to spend too much time with the game or because they are easier to convince, while experienced players are more reluctant to these strategies and more careful with their money.

One of the best examples of casual MMO that became extremely popular is FarmVille, with over 70 million players. It has neither stunning graphics nor revolutionary gameplay, but… simplicity. It can be played by anyone who can read and hold a mouse in their hands, it has cute simple drawings that appeal to almost anyone and an easy to learn gameplay but which offers a lot of possibilities and freedom regarding the development of your garden. Embedded within a huge social network like Facebook, which enables players to share their achievements and also help their friends, ensured that a simple idea became a hugely popular business.

Even if a browser game doesn't have the success of the client-based games, you must consider the initial investment. While a “normal” MMO sometimes has a budget of millions of dollars, a browser may be launched with a minimal investment into a server, a domain and some coding, maybe some advertisements too, without taking into account the time and number of people necessary for the development. With both having an equal chance of success, it's more than obvious that a browser-based MMO is much more profitable in case it survives, and a lot less costly in case of failure. So it's no wonder that more and more browser games are launched with topics varying from war to fashion and from farms to space exploration.

But don't think that everything is perfect. Like anything that looks too good to be true, browser games also have their flaws. The most obvious is the actual platform that the game runs on: the browser. Normally they are not designed to be used for games so they don't offer too much variety. It's true that with the latest technological developments these types of games even managed to be played in 3d, but there is a long way ahead until they can reach the complexity and quality of the client online games. From this results another flaw of browser games – repetitive gameplay, mostly in pictures with text games. In the beginning everything is new and you are curious about the game and how things work, but once you figure it out, you realize that you only have to do the same thing over and over again. And because the main goal of these games is to pull you out of your daily monotony, the interest for playing is lost…

One other fact against browser online games is that while players can interact by using forums and mail messages you still have the feeling you are playing alone against a machine. In fact, for the most part you do, as the resource gathering, the results of battles and other interactions between players are randomized by a computer instead of resulting from direct player interaction.

From its early beginnings, browser MMOs kept on evolving. At first they were nothing more than some images and text with several options for you to choose from. As web applications and browser were further developed, so did games. Text became menus and images transformed into maps and real-time representations of our planets/villages/heroes. With the help of Java and Flash, animations were then implemented. The introduction of plugins meant a true revolution for browser games as now they were able to use 3D graphics and more complex gameplay. Even though an application has to be downloaded its size is small, can be installed quickly and is usually embedded into the browser so the platform for the game is basically the same.

We can't know for certain what awaits us in the future. All we know for sure is that browser games are no longer to be treated lightly, as they a distinct part of the gaming industry, which has matured greatly in the last few years and evolved from simple text messages to full 3D graphics and from the classic tick system to real time action. New technologies may close the gap between stand-alone MMOs and browser ones even further and who knows, maybe someday we will no longer be able to distinguish between the two. Until then there is a long way to go, meanwhile, browser games are continuing to grow and to attract more and more people who you could have never imagined before playing a computer game. Either you like it or not, this genre is becoming more and more popular and slowly but steadily leaving its mark on the future of casual gaming and more.

by Sicaru Adrian

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