Browser gaming has been around as long as internet browsers themselves have and throughout their history of almost entirely fan-made or indie created content they have spanned a plethora of gaming genres and concepts even greater than console and PC gaming. Before there were indie bundles and distribution platforms like Desura and Steam, there were sites like Newgrounds where prospective game developers and animators to freely expose their creations to the public and there’s no doubt many of them have gone on to bigger and better things since then. It was either that or a personal website like the one Mojang has setup for Minecraft.
These are some of the more notable landmarks of browser gaming history and the newer technology of today.
Pico’s School – 1999
Created by Tom Fulp (the founder of Newgrounds.com) in response to the recent Columbine school shootings, Pico’s School was created with Macromedia Flash 3 was the first in the Pico series, depicting a boy named Pico defeating three goth kids who have killed everyone in his school. Despite being short and simplistic for a game, this was back in 1999 B4C (or ‘before 4chan’) when the internet was a much tamer place and a violent game like this actually stood out among the fairly small amount of content. The popularity of this game also contributed to the success of Flash as a game development platform and to the success Newgrounds eventually achieved which in turn sparked the success of many indie games since then. It’s worth noting that Alien Hominid among other successful games were originally uploaded to Newgrounds as flash games before being sold on Steam, XBL and in indie bundles.
Neopets – 1999
Neopets was all any kid ever did back in the day when they weren’t collecting Pokemon cards and play Goldeneye 007. Pre-dating sites like Gaia Online, it was the first successful browser ‘game’ that consisted entirely of meta-gameplay and was one of the first games to feature micro-transaction shops. It also contributed greatly to the booming success of Pokemon in America by introducing the population to the concept of caring for and training their own fictional pets. Today Neopets still exists today but in a much larger form ever since it was purchased by Viacom. There’s Neopets merchandise in stores across the globe and the site itself still rakes in millions each year but it still manages to conform to the old gameplay that made the site popular in the first place. Although it lacks universal appeal today, it still paved the way for an entirely new form of browser gaming to develop within the industry.
Runescape – 2001
Up until the release of World of Warcraft, the most successful MMORPG of all time wasn’t some game with cutting edge graphics and a hefty cost in hard drive space. It was a simple Java powered game with rudimentary graphics created by Jagex which at the time consisted of only Andrew and Paul Gower. Although it doesn’t seem like much to the average onlooking MMO veteran, it’s a gold mine of adventure for younger gamers. In fact, Runescape’s massive success stems mostly from the fact that it requires very little in terms of computer specs to run well (even after the graphical update back in 2006) and it can be played on any computer with an internet browser and Java installed.
The other factor of its success is that many mechanics in Runescape are found almost exclusively in Runescape and its take on guild PvP was years ahead of its time. It was the first multiplayer browser based game to feature an epic scale map, massively multiplayer combat and an interesting a questline that actually engaged you and had you interested in what you were doing. It also has one of the worst death penalties of any MMORPG ever made. When you die you permanently lose all but your top three items in your inventory and whatever is stored in your bank. Needless to say, casually carrying around every worldly possession you owned with you might seem commonplace in today’s MMOs but in Runescape it was the worst idea ever. This kept everyone on their toes and the implications of PvP felt heavy. Can Runescape compete with modern MMORPGs? No, not anymore but for its time it accomplished a lot considering the limitations in place for browsers back then.
Coke Studios – 2002
Before Second Life launched and reigned supreme as the dominant social gaming platform, Coke Studios (also known as Coke Music and MyCoke) was the most active and well polished one out there. It was launched as a mass advertising campaign for Coca-Cola and was plastered with adverts for both Coke and other sponsors. Despite this it retained class and a constantly active community and it worked well to provide Coke more business. It was almost entirely community driven in terms of the economy and the kind of activities you would find people participating in; mostly derived from the different kinds of things you could with furniture placement etc. Players would network, form high profile clubs, develop friendships, make money to pimp out their own homes and create songs to play for the public.
In 2007 Coca-Cola shut down Coke Studios and replaced it with CC Metro, an offshoot of the social game There while the creators of Coke Studios went on to develop Habbo Hotel. Fans were outraged about this sudden switch and CC Metro ultimately failed and was shutdown when the company that developed There went bankrupt. To this day fans still petition Coca-Cola to bring back Coke Studios and some have started revival projects of their own considering the copyright for the game expired a few years ago. Modern iterations of the game like Habbo Hotel and YoVille provide around the same style of gameplay but have mostly failed to capture the same quality that Coke Studios provided.
Meat Boy – 2008
The predecessor to Super Meat Boy was the prototype version named simply Meat Boy. It’s a great example of an indie developers success that originated with developing for sites like Newgrounds and is just one of many games that have inspired many to break into game development at an early age. Super Meat Boy itself has sold over one million copies which, alongside the booming success of Minecraft, is the kind of success indie developers could only dream of back in the day.
Unity, WebGL and HTML5 – 2011
Flash has provided the internet with many great uses over the years (even if some might hate its resource hungry nature) and it has lead to the development of some amazing indie games, but it is definitely showing its age as of late. Luckily there are some great new technologies popping up that allow for much more flexible and integrated browsing experience and redefine what we consider to be ‘browser compatible’. The Unity3 engine isn’t the only browser based gaming engine around, but it’s definitely the most popular so far. It’s fairly new but many games have been released already that use it such as Battlestar Galactica Online, Fusion Fall and Uberstrike.
WebGL is a new library based on OpenGL that is quickly becoming the new Flash for indie developers and it opens up many opportunities for browser gaming development because of its use of HTML5 that Flash could never come close to. The visuals may look a bit reminiscent of Quake III Arena but that’s to be expected with a brand new engine and the novice hardware rendering capabilities of modern browsers. Mozilla even put out a browser MMO recently called BrowserQuest to demonstrate the gaming potential of the HTML5 Canvas features.
So what will the future hold for browser games? A bright one, that’s for sure. All we really know is that we’re finally transitioning away from Flash as the rich media standard, but to what new standard exactly? Will browsers be able to deliver console quality games anytime soon? Not yet, but the prospect of that delivers some interesting new possibilities for universal compatibility in gaming. As a booming new market of smartphone and tablet games take over the market previously dominated by Flash games, PC indie devs are migrating to their new homes outside of Flash and Java to begin taking on bigger challenges. The circle of digital life continues.