2010 and the Browser MMO

What’s a browser MMO? Today, not 5 years ago?

In the previous post I poked Earth Eternal for claiming to be the “*REAL* MMO for your browser”, and disappointing on that front (although it could be awesome on all other fronts). I finished with:

So … EE may be a great game … and it may be launchable from within a browser … but it’s a long way from a poster-child for browser-based MMOs. It’s still fighting the browser as much as it’s complementing it.

It’s 2010. I know a lot of people in the industry still haven’t accepted even the concept of a “browser-based” MMO, let alone realise where they’ve got to now.

I’m not in the loop on this stuff any more, but it set me to wondering what I’d be chasing if I weren’t doing iPhone exclusively right now.

What about you? Are you fighting the browser?

The Executive’s impression

Game developers aren’t stupid. Executives aren’t clueless. But some are.

In the minds of those who make games but “don’t do” browser games on principle, I’ve found “a browser MMO” often means some or all of:

  1. A text-only game running off a single Perl webpage, where each action causes the whole page to be refreshed.
  2. Non-real-time interaction (because, you know … web-servers aren’t powerful enough to run anything in real-time)
  3. High-latency, jerky, shallow movement of characters and objects
  4. Weak 3D graphics – 5 years or more behind the curve of Console graphics
  5. Fat client downloads that “no-one” can be bothered to wait for, and would be better-off distributed on a DVD

What’s reality? Well, here’s a few observations…

Drop-dead gorgeous graphics … are the norm

For a look at today, go browse some of the Unity demos. Unity is *not* the “best” 3D engine, the fastest, the best language – but it’s nicely balanced towards ease of adoption. It’s very easy for new developers to get into. And so it’s setting a very achievable base standard that’s higher than many people would believe. With anyone able to produce 3D to this level, and embed it in the browser almost as an afterthought, the use of plugins becomes a new landscape.

Right now, crappy Flash MMO’s are still re-treading the ground of Dragon Fable (which is coming up to it’s 4th birthday) et al – albeit that’s now the “standard” and there is better and better appearing. But just as it only took a few games to adopt this approach and show how good it could look, widespread adoption of Unity, and a few high-profile innovative products, will drag forwards the rest of us.

(by “us” I don’t mean professional developers, I mean primarily the amateur and semi-pro teams who don’t yet work for a living – the students etc)

2 years ago I wouldn’t have thought it would be necessary to say this (I assumed that FB would have kicked everyone’s butts) but maybe it’s still relevant: going forwards, I suspect “browser MMOs” still need to be a lot more “browser” and a lot less “traditional MMO” if they wish to stand out.

The facebook question

Browser MMO, huh? So … Why is there no option to use Facebook Connect to login? In 2010, I think that’s what browser-MMO probably means to most people: “it works from Facebook”.

The massive, fundamental changes to Facebook that are coming in this year may push a lot of content-providers off FB, and back to the web – but users will continue to demand single-sign-on access, and shared access to friends lists. This already works, off-site, thanks to Facebook Connect (both for websites and for other hardware platforms, e.g. iPhone).

I may be completely wrong, but my suspicion is that many developers still want to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the large number of accounts on) Facebook (to get lots of users in our game without having to do so much advertising)”.

…while (again, merely a suspicion) users want their games to “use Facebook”, by which they mean:

“use (the apps, data, and list of friends I already have on) Facebook (to reduce the effort I go through to play the game)”

The problem here is the developer is chasing more signups, and the user is chasing ease-of-access. IMHO, the FB changes are going to cut off most of the former, leaving the question: who will do best at fulfilling the latter?

The Glottal-Stops and Square Pegs of User Experience

When people surf to your MMO direct from the Web, do they get a feeling akin to the glottal-stop? Do they feel like they mentally “stumbled”, as the paradigms and user-interface go through a sudden change?

Embedded within an ordinary web-browser, does your MMO look like a square peg forced into a round hole?

The effects are subtle, but they decrease virality, decrease engagement. The effects are tiny, but with millions of web-users out there, they can be cumulative. Each time a user experiences this, you marginally shrink your maximum user-base, and you push your conversion rate down.

Why was I so shocked that Earth Eternal is (silently) Windows-only? (as is/was Free Realms, for that matter)

Well, largely because it reminded me of years ago, when you’d occasionally go to a website only to see:

“This site is only valid in Internet Explorer; you are not running that browser, so you are seeing this special page instead of the site. Please download IE now and then come back.” (or Netscape, or “desktop, but you are using a mobile phone”, etc)

History suggests that this is not a viable strategy when you’re fighting it out on the web…

I’ll know it when I see it

I’m waiting for one feature in a major MMO. I’ve seen it in a few “amateur” MMOs, and you get it on Facebook apps etc. It’s a fundamental expectation from the Web, and it is incredibly powerful:

Each piece of interesting content is *named* … it has a unique URL … so that I can directly tweet places, events, people, and things. I can bookmark conversations I’ve had. I can archive, I can cite, save, and return.

Bonus points for incorporating a bit.ly service in the client, so I can literally copy/paste direct into twitter

I’m hoping it’s out there already, and I just haven’t spotted it yet. When it comes, someone let me know; until then, I’ll be spending more time in flash games, and less in mainstream MMO’s. I prefer my gaming to be Web-compatible, thanks…

6 thoughts on “2010 and the Browser MMO

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  2. Lutz Winter

    Hi Adam,
    providing a permalink for in-game-objects and characters is one of the key-features of our upcoming MMO Coobico, we’re still working on an alpha-version, though, and will still take some time. Actually, we are currently evaluating to switch from Flash to Unity since Flash is just not powerful to render competitive, contemporary 3D-graphics.

    I have reiterated on your article at our development-blog at coobico.com — I am making the point that your thoughts actually apply to *every* serious browser-game: with the advent of new browser-plug-ins like Unity and others, the bar for good-looking browser-game-graphics is raised dramatically. The more people playing such 3D-games, or using services like Gaikai and OnLive during he next years, the higher the expectation will be how a “good-looking” browser-game should look like.

    Cheers,
    Lutz Winter

  3. Steven Davis

    Adam –

    Have you seen any data on market penetration for Unity’s plugin? After all, Daniel James @ Three Rings went away from Java and towards Flash because of the loss of users due to “click to install”… a very important factor for any browser game.

  4. Adam

    @Jurie

    No, I hadn’t – but thanks for that. It’s an interesting game, and quite fun.

    But … it’s not (IMHO) a Twitter game.

    I’ve been plotting a real Twitter game recently with a friend, and I’ve been very disappointed by waht’s out there. A lot of it is just excuses for spam, and even the “quality” stuff like fallenlondon is really only using Twitter as a spam-channel, not as part of the game – which I think is sad.

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