Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

The Issue With Browser Games

I’ve (unsuccessfully, sigh) applied for a job at a browser game company recently and played some of their games in preparation for an interview. One thing that I immediately noticed was that multi-player browser games really haven’t changed since I played Planetarion a decade ago. Yeah they look better and have a few more features, but really the game is essentially the same. Is this just a market that doesn’t reward innovation or is there an inherent problem with browser games that prevents them from getting better?

Planetarion anno 2000 ...

The games I’m talking about here all follow one basic formula: You gather resources through structures in your home base that can be improved for a cost to produce even more resources. You build units (better ones can be researched over time) that then allow you to plunder other bases for even more resources and build even larger armies. This is how Planetarion worked in 2000 and this is how Lords of Ultima and its ilk work in 2010. There is a somewhat different type that has come up in the past few years in which you simply build up a single character that gets to fight other characters for profit. I will ignore this type for now since I’d hardly consider them games, but we will see in the end that many of my points apply to them as well.

One limitation of browser games has always been technology. Anything that could be considered action or real-time is pretty much out if you don’t want to use technologies like Flash or Java, at which point your game wouldn’t really be a browser game anymore. Additionally, real-time interaction would demand a wholly different (and much more expensive) server structure than the browser-games we get today. Technology has advanced over time of course (some would say rapidly), yet the only difference that seems to make is graphics. Planetarion was all HTML tables, virtually no graphics, and you had to hit F5 every few minutes to see if anything changed in the game. Today we have games with scrolling maps, positioning of buildings on a grid, and AJAX synchronization with the server.

None of these technologies are used to actually change the way the game is played. Surely we have the technology to make some decent turn-based tactical combat or implement a game similar to Civilization in our browsers. This is where the second big limiting factor of browser games comes in – they are asynchronous. The basic idea of all these games is that you can log on at any time you want for a few minutes, make some decisions, and the game will play along while you are back at work (or asleep). Unlike traditional MMOs, browser games are built around the idea of giving orders that are then carried out while you are away. This is a great strength, especially when appealing to a more casual market, but it’s also the greatest weakness of these games.

... and Grepolis anno 2010. They might look different, but they are very much the same game.

When your orders take hours to get carried out and things are simplified enough that they can easily happen without human influence, then the game itself is inherently boring. You can’t really do anything in these games and the few things that you can do are simple and lame.

If I had to find a solution for this problem, I would start by making a game that is actually fun to play and then allow players to automate certain processes in their absence. If you had a traditional adventure-based MMO, you could automate farming and crafting for example. That way players could log in for enjoyable adventures whenever they have time, but still be productive when they are away from the game. One could even create a multi-pronged game in which the browser itself only allows access to the automated part of the game, but a separate client could give you full world access for your adventures. That way you can keep building your character or empire when at work or on the train and enjoy a nice dungeon crawl in the evening on your PC.

Imagine the market possibilities if you gave the FarmVille crowd the possibility of installing a full client at home, slowly showing them that they might find real games interesting as well.

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