Hardcore browser games
There is an interesting interview about InstantAction in Gamasutra recently. The site beta is over and the service is now officially commercial. Instantaction has 1.4M registered players, and announced seven games in development in addition to the nine already available.
We are personnally very convinced by the “hardcore browser games” proposition, and the multiple declinations happening at the moment. As more and more online services are turning to the browser (according to our estimates, around 70% of PC online projects developed in Europe, live or in development, are browser-based), the 3D high-end sub-segment is particularly interesting.
InstantAction is an hybrid solution, offering an integrated game service (with community, shop, stats, etc) in the browser, but still requiring to install a plugin and download the games (although it’s all done automatically). Games can be using any kind of engine and still be played in the browser – they are targeting low specs, although the tech can be applied to any game, even the most high-end ones. The platform is very open to third party developers, and also sold as middleware for operators wanting an a la carte service.
QuakeLive launched its open beta last week and has encountered a big success, having to scale its hardware up to accomodate everyone in the queues. They were already at 8,500 concurrent users and almost 300K registrations a few hours after launch. When trying it at launch, there were 25,000+ players in the queue. There’s an interesting interview of John Carmack at Gamasutra, indicating that the game can run on netbooks, and that ID is thinking of monetizing further than ads by adding an optional subscription for features like “server rental” (which would in fact be more akin to a private custom space and features, ID Software controlling all the hardware through GNi). Gamers would be able to use their own rules, play mods, and generally having their private game and control on howthey play and who they play with.
Interestingly, that’s also an option that Battlefield Heroes is going towards , but this time offering players to rent physical servers through third party providers. This is a classic feature for non-persistent online shooters (like the previous Battlefield models where you could rent ranked servers from EA and affiliate companies, or unranked servers from everybody) . It will be interesting to see how well it will work for this new audience, but there is no doubt a strong demand for this kind of features from the high end FPS users and it might be a key point to retain them, by offering them to pay for something they’re used to. No doubt it will be a privilege to be allowed to play on famous clans’ private servers. On the other hand, making the elite players visible to everyone and emphasizing their achievements is also important from a community point of view, so there’s a balance to find here.
All three services are far from maximum accessibility – you still have to download and install a plugin, restart your browser, and patch for a while. It’s not such a big problem as it could be for other genres because the audience is savvy and motivated enough (eg “hardcore”) to get past this. The services still have much potential to attract a much wider user base than traditional FPS games, by emphasizing gameplay accessibility and careful matchmaking and targeting low specs. In this kind of services, the frontier between the web and the application is more or less blurry – in some it’s two very separate things, in others it’s more integrated in the web experience.
The browser-based element here is not so much able to lower the barrier of entry (although the auto-install helps, but the target audience for those games is likely to know how to install an application. On the other hand, office workers, students, and users of public computers generally have access to plugins/ActiveX controls, while they might not have access rights to install a program on their machine, though) than to lower the barrier to reentry (ie player retention), viral transmission, connectedness, multitasking (bad points if it’s full screen only and you can’t switch back and forth to other tabs/windows/desktop apps) and interaction with the rest of the web. InstantAction, for instance, generates URLs to invite a friend in your current match. These “hardcore” games demonstrate the part of the value in being browser based that is usually overshadowed by the accessibility that Flash offers.