Free for All: New browser-based converts shine light on issues

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Free for All: New browser-based converts shine light on issues
Fiesta Social screenshot
I recently threw out a prediction that within five years, most of our MMO content will be coming through our browsers. To be more specific, I think that most players in the United States will be enjoying their favorite MMOs within a browser. That can mean several things but does not refer to games like Free Realms, a client-based game that is only signed-into at the browser level. As with any discussion about genres, mechanics or styles in the MMO world, I have to be very specific.

It's pretty likely that a very large percentage of the US playerbase is already playing browser-based games. Look at the American market for games like RuneScape, Battlestar Galactica Online, Club Penguin, Drakensang Online, Evony, and Ministry of War and you might just find millions of players.

Next we need to consider that there are more games coming into the browser market. This new batch is essentially a group of standard, client-based MMOs that are porting themselves to the browser. I tend to be a little skeptical about some of these in the short-term, for several reasons.

Runes of Magic banner
Let's look at Runes of Magic's browser version, a recently tested browser port that I was initially very excited for. The problem with many standard MMOs making the jump to the browser is that performance is often troublesome within the browser. Any game can be embedded inside a browser window, but what good does it do if it is the same experience as the client only with more instability and troublesome lag? We also have to ask why a client-based MMO needs to make the leap to the browser window. Is it for accessibility or to cut costs?

Unless the developers take time to make a specific browser-based version of the current game, many players will run into performance issues that they hadn't before. When I ran the Runes of Magic browser game, I had horrible performance issues. The game can be patched and tweaked to run better, of course, but who would see the words "browser version" and be eager to play? Notebook owners, of course. Someone who owns a standard notebook (not a gaming one) would be very excited to get that new Runes of Magic browser version but might find his basic machine overheating in no time.

Fiesta Online recently took a stab at browser-based gaming with its imported Fiesta Social, a browser-based version that is essentially the same game embedded within a browser window and accessible through Facebook. Make no mistakes, though; this is the same game as the client version we have seen in the past. The problem is that performance is a bit rough in the browser, which makes me ask, why make a browser version if it requires a machine that could run the client version?

The convenience of a browser version is the main perk. A player might want to jump into the game without waiting for a large download. True, the game still downloads in the background while a player enjoys his first steps in the world, but browser-based or streamed versions can shorten the process to get into the game. This might be the main selling point of browser-based gaming.

Tibia artwork
Then we have a game like Tibia, an older MMO that has been hanging in there despite having competitors that can claim state-of-the-art graphics and popular IPs. Recently the developers announced that, near the end of April, the game will make the technological leap to the browser, something that excited me quite a bit. I've enjoyed the game before but have recently been experimenting with doing everything through my browser. I edit photos, write my articles, and of course play my games through the browser. Each game that gets a browser port means another game on my list that will work on almost any device. The great thing is that the game will be able to make the transition to the browser much easier than a graphics-heavy game.

The fact is that many browser-based games still need to keep graphics in mind. Sure, we have wonderful systems like Unity that are responsible for great-looking games like Battlestar Galactica Online, but I will always be a champion for those massive numbers of players (or potential players) who own a very basic laptop with an on-board graphics chip or even for those players who own nothing more than a netbook with a gig or two of ram.

"With perks like new i5 or i7 processors, solid-state drives, and four gigs of RAM, they will be fast enough to do quite a bit. This makes them pricey for now, but surely today's $1,000 laptop will be $500 within a few years."

There's a bit of good news, though. The technology is getting faster, cheaper, and better. If we look at the current crop of ultrabooks -- light, fast and well-made smaller notebooks -- we can find machines that should have no issues running graphics-heavy browser games and even many client-based games. With perks like new i5 or i7 processors, solid-state drives, and four gigs of RAM, they will be fast enough to do quite a bit. This makes them pricey for now, but surely today's $1,000 laptop will be $500 within a few years.

HTML5 is truly stepping into the limelight and will only become more of a standard over the next few years. I'm no programmer, but my understand is that essentially HTML5 allows a lot of wonderful things to happen within the browser and can be independent of operating system. This means that games like Illyriad and 8Realms are only going to become more common; games that can run on an iPad or PC all the same. HTML5 might be the standardizing force that we have all been hoping for. Can you imagine a time when system requirements or operating system worries are a thing of the past? It's happening -- right now.

There are many games that are true MMOs that feature persistent worlds and thousands of players interacting, all while running in your browser. I have made it made my mission to find and support as many of these games as possible because the browser represents a more accessible future, one that might be devoid of hefty $2,000 gaming machines and bulky, hot laptops. I have a feeling that it is closer even than I have predicted. Developers need to develop games specifically for the browser, however, and skip porting their normal games. If they do, we can all enjoy gaming without worrying about overheating or compatibility.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
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Free for All: New browser-based converts shine light on issues