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The Devil's Advocate: Browser Games Ascending

Column By Drew Wood on July 27, 2011

Disclaimer: The Devil's Advocate is a place where the MMO-Loving world can go to hear the unpopular opinion. Please note that this article does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of MMORPG.com, columnist Drew Wood, or any of the game companies that may be discussed.  The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.

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The Broswer-Based MMO has no business being in an already crowded genre. The games will never be able to match the quality of looks, presentation, or production of downloadable client titles, let alone AAA titles.  With so many MMOs on the market, the audience is split and no single hit will break away from the pack. The money is in AAA Titles and AAA Titles alone.

On the contrary.

While it is no secret that the browser-based MMO market is saturated and the number of games has risen dramatically over the last three years or so, nothing says that the quality of these games is not on level with the downloadable client games and possibly even some of the AAA titles as well. I'm not going to sit here and tell you which browser-based or downloadable games are better than which AAA titles or vice-versa. I’d rather look towards what the browser-based and the downloadable client MMO titles are currently capable of doing.

A browser-based title can be quite different from the “norm”, ranging from a wide variety of genres to different and interesting IPs to unusual settings to outstanding quality. These games also run the gamut in terms of covering essential MMORPG categories and they have similarly expanded into MMORTS and MMOFPS games as well.  The Unity Engine, now more than ever, makes it possible for true 3D gaming to come forth in a browser.  Since its latest stable release in March of this year, Unity's game engine has led to the creation of many browser-based MMOs of quality beyond what we are used to seeing.  Battlestar Galactica Online, for example, is a browser-based game that utilizes the Unity game engine and it looks pretty good, particularly in the space battles. BGO plays quite well and easily too and gives us in return a fun space-sim with some pretty intense PvP to cap it all off.  All of this arises out of a browser game where the capabilities of such have been pushed farther then they were two years ago.

The Unity engine has elevated browser-based gaming to its “next generation” by allowing the Web Player Plugin to be used widely across all (or almost all) iterations of the web browser. Unity is able to provide quality 3D graphics, built in light mapping and other features and does these better than most other graphics engines.  It appears that the only place to go in terms of technical quality for the browser-based gamer is up.

It could easily be argued that the format and layout of browser-based MMOs varies from that of the traditional AAA title and, for the most part, the argument is correct.  Many browser-based MMOs don't subscribe to the same formula as most boxed titles. But how far off from the norm are browser games?  The market has shifted and changed so much in the last few years (constant pandering to genre favorites aside) that one wonders what will stop these smaller independent browser-based companies from creating the world's next WoW playable from the comfort of Firefox or Chrome?  At this point, I’d venture that nothing but time will slow these companies down.

While browser based games give a slight nod to the Free-to-Play/Pay-to-Win/Free-to-Play-Kinda movement coming out of MMO gaming recently, the two are not necessarily synonymous with one another.  Once developers, many of whom often lose money on their first venture into the AAA field, realize that the safer route may be going full on into browser game development, the quality will rise and improve even further surpassing by leaps and bounds the stuff that is already out there. As we discovered in Bill's recent article, some of them are quite good already.

The downloadable client games are the first indication that this is happening.  Previously, notable download-client games were often subpar in quality, lacking the polish of a contemporary boxed game, or paying homage to a previously popular game style.  As we move forward and as the market changes, we may suddenly see games that can compete with AAA titles. Games like APB: Reloaded or World of Battles coming down the pipeline immediately spring to mind.  With browser-based titles having stepped up their game in the last few years and coupled with the free downloadable client MMO market making a name for itself by producing near AAA quality games, the shift is not only possible but is pretty much unavoidable. Maybe it will be some time before these games can compete with the likes of WoW or Rift, but make no mistake that it is around the corner. Pretty soon AAA boxed games (or those purchasable through Steam, etc.) will fade into the background.

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The Devil's Advocate
The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.
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