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Hardcore browser games

9th March 2009 by Diane

hardcore-browserThere 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.

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  • http://www.playnoevil.com/ Steven Davis

    The “plugin problem” is pretty severe. It is also a big issue in Asia (which may or may not have been a factor in Habbo Hotel’s limited success in China… and that was with the relatively popular Shockwave plugin).

    Does a “hardcore game” need a plugin?

    The continued confusion of game genres and “technologiness” does not help. There are certainly many Flash games that are “hardcore”.

    In the mass market, plugins have been stagnant for years. Flash, Java, Shockwave… have been around for quite a while and there have been no new contenders. Virtools made a play in this space a couple of years ago, but doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.

    A fair question is “if I have to ‘click to download’, should I just install a full application?” The answer seems to be “Yes”. Look at Steam – It escapes the browser limitations (creating its own environment) and gains the ability to do many things that being within a browser constrains (like allowing the launch and management of multiple programs). Even more basically, look at all of the Asian MMOs that require a full download – no one seems to have lost anything by breaking out of the browser. The whole “Rich Internet Application” thing seems to be following the same trend by leaving the browser behind.

    What do you really gain by being in a browser?

    The URL for a friend example with Instant Action could, most likely, be easily handled by a standalone application as well.

  • http://www.icopartners.com Diane

    Thanks a lot for the comment Steven!

    The plugin problem is more due to the fact it’s hard to do good 3D in Flash or Shockwave – if these games could do without a plugin, they certainly would.
    I’m less sure about the Asian client-based MMOs losing nothing by not being in a browser – from our experience, it is a big barrier for a F2P game in the West (and countries like China seem to go more and more web-based too). Actually, in Western countries a lot of non-RPG downloadable online games have failed to gain any traction, and a lot of companies are trying everything they can (Bittorent, Pando, specific downloaders, retail, covermounts, thin clients for pay to play games’ trials…) to get the client on players’ machines. Customer acquisition costs are really high for those games, and a lot of the solutions above (Bittorrent, etc) are not realistic options for a non-hardcore audience.
    The separate application question is different – Even though the plugin really lowers the accessibility of being browser-based, I think there are still some advantadges in being in a browser versus being a separate application. It’s true that you lose the ability to have your own environment, but you have also advantadges at install (you can sometimes install browser plugins in office/school PCs were you couldn’t have installed a separate application, and a lot of plugins installations also have less steps than regular executables installs, making it smoother for the user and blurring the line between the web and app ) and you are also more accessible once the plugin is installed for the users to come back to your game and interact in its environment – unless you configure your app to run by default at computer start (which can be quite intrusive), it’s hard to replicate that in a separate environment. For instance, personnally I would be much less enticed to click on a URL invite to an InstantAction match if I knew it would start an app rather than opening a new browser tab. Also, I agree this has more to do with the way they are built than the fact of being a separate app, but a lot of game apps tend to make multitasking very difficult. I agree being browser based is not necessarily a panacea though, there are also more things you can optimize.

    Sorry for the genre/technology confusion, we should have worded it otherwise – we wanted to highlight the fact that high end/demanding genres like FPS were moving to the browser, not describe a change in the audience of browser games in general (as you rightly point, Travian, Tribal Wars, etc have been here for years and are really hardcore).

  • http://www.playnoevil.com/ Steven Davis

    Interesting metric from Dave Perry on the download / click to install problem:

    I know from the free-to-play games business that we lose approximately 60 per cent of our players, and we pay for that. We have this funnel where players start downloading the game, and they start falling down the sides during the download process. It’s stunning how many complete the download process – the whole thing – and then never click on ‘install’. They get distracted, it took an hour and a half and they’ve gone off and done something else. There’s a certain amount that actually click install and then run out of hard-drive space. And then they need to get the latest drivers. And we require registration, and people hate that. And at the end of the day, when they show up in the game, we’ve lost 60 per cent. So we have a much bigger audience that we’ve paid for than we actually get. We’re left with 40 per cent and we’re hoping they will continue and actually make us money. If we can solve that, we get 60 per cent of our audience back.

    http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/head-in-the-cloud?page=2

  • http://www.icopartners.com Diane

    Thanks for the link, I missed his interview, it’s very interesting. 60% loss between registration and in-game actually isn’t too bad, our experience was worse than that. As things scale, every little percentage adds up – removing any kind of barriers to entry is essential for free to play games. Attention is another form of currency, and some free to play games have insane player acquisition costs based on that.