RPG Vault Focus: Browser-Based MMOGs

by Richard Aihoshi

June 18, 2008

Original Article: http://rpgvault.ign.com/articles/882/882493p1.html

During more than a decade covering primarily the RPG and massively multiplayer genres, we've been fortunate to meet legions of talented, creative developers. We've also had innumerable opportunities to listen in on and even to participate in thought-provoking discussions about a wide range of related topics. A lot of these occasions have been informal and spontaneous; they've often taken place at conferences and trade shows, frequently among small groups of two or three people. Although published articles can probably never hope to capture the ambience of such conversations, we felt it would be interesting to offer a form of them.

Although a few massively multiplayer titles receive the majority of exposure in game publications, the category as a whole is far larger than many of us might think. We may know there are now lots of downloadable free to play options. However, we're less likely to be aware that many browser-based choices are also available, or to know they can attract considerable numbers of users. For example, Maid Marian Entertainment's Shockwave-based Sherwood Dungeon has over 1.5 million accounts. Gene Endrody was kind enough to provide these expert insights on the sector in which his tiny company competes, apparently quite successfully.

"The web-based MMOG has been going through a renaissance. In this segment of the industry, where the rules are still being written and media industry giants don't have a stranglehold, it's still possible to be successful as a small, independent developer. The web browser provides an environment that dwarfs all other gaming platforms while appealing to a vastly diverse audience.

And yet, we're still the oft-forgotten ugly stepchildren of the industry. Gamers frequently describe browser-based MMOGs as retro-looking, 2D, sprite-based, "cutesy" experiences played in a little box on a web page. Will this always be the case, or can we envision a future where the next World of Warcraft killer app comes in a web page, and not off a shelf?

The massive success of endeavors like Runescape, Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin demonstrates that web games have potential beyond just short, throwaway experiences. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that in terms of total active players, browser-based MMOGs are actually kicking the crap out of their boxed counterparts. Notice I said, "total active players" - boxed games continue to generate more revenue due to much greater earnings per player. The higher expectations and commitment level of retail MMOG players means publishers can charge them more, which is ultimately necessary due to skyrocketing development costs. It seems this is discussed ad nauseam at conferences, but there's little debate that web-based titles have become a thriving segment.

Companies that make web-based MMOGs often have more in common with dotcom startups and new media firms than other developers, with funding more likely to come from venture capital than game publishers. The category seems to be charting a course influenced by Web 2.0 principles rather than their high-budget cousins, following trends like social networking, user-generated content, remixing and mash-up. Three Rings' Whirled and Raph Koster's Metaplace stand out as recent examples. Of course, to be truly innovative, we have to get over our fixation with "dress up my avatar, decorate my apartment" clones. Habbo Hotel did it first and best... now let's leave it alone!

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There's some debate over the differences between browser-based plug-ins like Java, Flash, Shockwave and Silverlight, but it's really just semantics. This space is ultimately defined by the inherent limitations of the browsers. Team preference towards certain programming environments and browser penetration rates seem to be the determining factors. Web-based MMOG makers are a divergent group to say the least; however, it's commonly held that 3D will exclude a percentage of the potential audience, and that the game behind the graphics is what's important, not the eye-candy. 2D or 2.5D isometric graphics can take advantage of Flash's or Java's uniquity, and have the broadest reach with the lowest hardware requirements.

Nevertheless, for Sherwood Dungeon, we decided to ignore conventional browser wisdom and take a road less traveled. We chose to focus on creating immersive experiences that leverage Adobe Shockwave's 3D capability. I like the visual presentation of games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft. We wanted to keep the traditional full screen 3D experience, but get rid of the retail boxes, store lineups, downloads, patches and registrations.

Without the burden of downloading and installing a large client, or having to drive to Wal-Mart, a lower level of commitment is required for the all-important first experience. This attracts a vastly diverse audience, including self-described non-gamers. Web-based games have an uncanny affinity for viral marketing through blogs, portals, e-mail, forums, instant messages and social networking because anyone can become a distribution partner simply by providing a link saying "Hey, try this cool game."

"Imagine clicking a link on a web page and being transported instantly into a 3D world with the fidelity and depth of a triple-A retail boxed MMOG." This elusive dream initially attracted us to this space. If we could remove all barriers to trying our game, maybe people wouldn't notice we're a husband and wife team making games independently in our attic. It turns out players loved that we're a cottage industry operation, and as we continued pushing toward the goal, our little independent project grew organically to over a million unique players a month. Through incremental updates since 2004, Sherwood Dungeon has been an ongoing experiment to raise expectations about the level of 3D quality an MMOG can deliver within a browser.

Interestingly enough, it's just the browsers' restrictions that effectively level the playing field between us and larger developers. Having an army of artists and vast cash reserves doesn't provide much advantage when the game needs to be small enough to run within a web page. If Sherwood required a large installable client, we'd be competing with companies like Blizzard and Sony... which would be insane. But in the web gaming space, being small and nimble with low overhead gives us an advantage, and makes our goal of having one of the most popular web-based 3D fantasy games achievable, for us as an independent."

Gene Endrody CEO and Founder,
Maid Marian Entertainment

As the founder of Maid Marian Entertainment, Gene Endrody creates massive multiplayer 3D games you play in a web browser. Winner of New Media BC's PopVox 2007 awards for both Best Game and Best of British Columbia, Sherwood Dungeon MMORPG is played by over 1.5 million unique players a month, and hosts up to 5,000 simultaneous users during peak times.