Main image of article Death to Downloads: Browser-Based Games on the Rise

War Commander

Here's another nail in the coffin of console games. The folks at Mozilla and Will Harbin, CEO of the gaming portal Kixeye, are banking on the idea that more people are picking up hammers as they ultimately gravitate toward browser-based games rather than download versions to consoles or mobile devices. At last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Mozilla unveiled its highly optimized version of JavaScript for 3D browser-based games. The organization wants to show game developers that the Internet can serve as a platform for high-end games, and it has teamed up with Epic Games to prove the point by porting Epic's Unreal 3 Engine to the Web. Unlike Epic's 2011 Flash browser experience with its Unreal 3 Engine, which required users to wait for assets to download, Mozilla's souped up JavaScript doesn't require plugins. Also, Mozilla claims it allows developers to run their games at a speed that rivals that of native applications, even though they don't reside on the device.

Kixeye Kicks Downloads

In a presentation not-so-subtly titled "Death to Downloads," Kixeye's Harbin delved into the potential of browser-based games, exploring ways to run free-to-play games as a service instead of hitting a player's wallet every time they want to download a title that would reside on only one device. "It's super powerful to be able to play the same game anywhere," Harbin said, adding, "accessibility always trumps fidelity." The free-to-play approach also allows developers to easily make rapid changes to their titles, building on its basic concept with repeated tweaks. Harbin speaks from experience. Remember the debut of Kixeye's War Commander? War Commander took five months to develop and bombed when it launched. But Kixeye's crew decided the best approach to saving it was to build on the game's core concept — fighting for earth's last remaining resources — instead of starting from scratch. Kixeye added features like synchronous multiplayer battles and embedded social tools. "We thought, what could we add to make the game fun?" Harbin recalled. Often, he said, the best approach for developers is to follow their gut when they're trying to address poor performance. Kixeye's synchronous play, while uncommon among browser-based games, won fans but also came at a cost. It took the company five times longer to develop than an asynchronous game, and as a result carries three times the cost. Still, the extra time fell into the right priority bucket, Harbin said. "Players fall in love with the core gameplay loop, not how pretty the game is."

Morphing to Hybrid Games

Where's all this heading? To start, Gartner mobile-gaming analyst Tuong Nguyen doesn't believe browser games will overtake downloaded native games. “The biggest issue is you have to be constantly connected to play the game," he said. "There are times when you can’t get access to the Web.” So, game companies have started working on hybrid solutions, which combine native app downloads with the immediacy of the Web. “A lot of people want to adopt this model, but they’re figuring out if it’s worth their while and if the revenue is there,” Nguyen said. As a result, Nguyen expects downloads to survive for the short term. “I still feel that native apps have a secure place in the ecosystem for another few years,” he said.