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Justin Webb: The Biggest Non-Secret No One’s Talking About

Column By Justin Webb on March 30, 2010

The double negative in the title aside, something fascinating is happening in the world of online browser games. Somehow, EA (imagine that) might just be about to completely change the way games get played. I know it’s a golf game, but please, point your browser here and give it a quick try (Don’t worry, it’s free right now).

You may have to create an account (however, if you’ve played Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2, you probably already have one.) Once you’re in, click PLAY NOW. To get the full effect, you only need to play one hole. It really is something. I’ll wait for you to get back.

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Surprising, huh?

So, what just happened?

Well, you just played a AAA-quality game in a browser. In that game, you were controlling a character that leveled up, had skills, and earned achievements. Your character information got saved off on a server somewhere. And you didn’t have to download a client. I’m sure that in future iterations, you’ll also get to customize your appearance and “equipment”. Let that sink in for a moment.

If you didn’t go check it out, but kept reading instead, I forgive you. But you really should go back and take a quick peek. It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. It doesn’t matter how awesome anyone tells you it looks, until you see it for the first time yourself, you won’t believe me. If you’re still on the fence, go check it out real quick. I’ll still be here when you get back.

That’s an astonishing piece of tech on par (excuse the pun) with the console version. The word on the street is that EA also has a Need for Speed and a Madden version ready to go too.

Of course, Tiger Woods Online (TWO) plays just a small part in the inevitable changes that are about to sweep through the world of gaming. There’s been a phenomenal amount of buzz recently about ONLIVE, which claims to allow users to stream new AAA titles to PCs without any specialized hardware and only a minimal client. However, ONLIVE somehow seems a long way off and, perhaps, too good to be true. TWO shows that it is possible, and, even better, it’s something you can play and experience right now.

MMO users have been able to sample versions of this kind of tech recently too. FusionFall and Free Realms both employ some streaming tech. Free Realms streams the client over time so that players can begin playing immediately, while FusionFall is entirely browser based (although it does dump about 500MB of files onto your PC – an “invisible” client).

What TWO does is show us that that you can play sophisticated games (that would traditionally use some kind of client-server technology) straight in your browser. So, what are the MMO implications? Browser games are HUGE. Farmville has shown us that with the right marketing, a game on Facebook can accumulate an enormous amount of traffic. For example, some estimates have the user base of Farmville at over 80 million players. Admit it, your mom plays it. While Facebook (with Farmville) has shown us that it’s possible to make a browser-based game and have a gabazillion people play it, so far, the casual-friendly social-networking behemoth hasn’t had many offerings that make hardcore MMO fans salivate.

But that might be about to change. The TWO tech shows that it’s possible to deliver a graphically superb online-game experience through the browser -- something that Facebook apps haven’t really done up to this point. And Facebook is incredibly good at getting people together (and when they are together, using them as “resources” in games). As the tech improves, we are going to see a new generation of browser-based MMOs (some on Facebook, some not), with production values on par with the AAA titles we play now.

However, the most important thing (to developers) that TWO brings to the gaming table is immediacy. With no client to download, players can get into the game immediately. Client downloads can be a major barrier to entry for a new MMO. With clients in the five Gig range, getting one installed on your machine the day a beta (or head start, or regular release) opens can be a trial. How often have you tried to play a new game and the client has taken more than four hours to download? How about more than eight? Disturbingly (for developers), many players who try to download a client never actually end up playing the game, either because they quit the download after a bunch of hours, or simply weren’t as excited about it the next day when the download finished.

Arguably, golf isn’t a particularly complicated game to simulate. Every time you swing the club, there’s really only one calculation to do – how hard and in what direction did the ball go, plus any other vectors that might be applied to the ball while it’s in motion, such as spin, wind, and topography. So, it’s hard to gauge what the tech can handle. This is probably why TWO is EA’s first game of this sort out of the gate.

In comparison, a fight against a monster in an MMO sends a lot more data packets to the server than trying to hit the green with a seven iron. But not that many more.

Up until now, the browser genre has played “little brother” to its more sophisticated PC and console older siblings. It reveled in providing flash-based short-term relief for gamers with a limited-attention span. There’s been some awesome browser games (for example, check out jayisgames.com or onemorelevel.com), but the overall design of that genre has been predominantly about providing a game play experience of a few minutes, not several hours; or as something to do while you’re having lunch. TWO shows that browser games can now compete with the consoles for complexity, production value, and depth.

Whether this technology can portray a virtual world, and perform all the calculations that are inherent in the MMO experience, isn’t important today. What is important is that the tech exists and that its baby steps are impressive. It gives developers an avenue to deliver quality gaming content quickly to the user, and offer interesting associated web-based features and functionality on the same platform. Given the quantifiable success of the MMO genre, browser-contained MMOs will follow. It’s only a matter of time.

FORE!

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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