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.
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.
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."
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 email@example.com!