The browser game phenomenon has been around for a long time now, leeching hours away from players to the detriment of managers everywhere who struggle to keep employees on track when there are so many distractions on the world-wide web.
That is it that makes browser games so addictive and, for the most part, successful?
Take for example one of the most recent such titles, Evony.
Evony is a browser based title like any other in the genre. The game requires you to become a powerful Lord, with an overarching quest of saving some princess, or something.
The game itself is so disjointed from the primary quest that it is somewhat of a grail, but no matter, browser games, unlike normal games rarely have a clear beginning and an end.
The end inevitably comes when your wife leaves you and your pets are starving because the game has you in its icy grasp. Why is this such a unique phenomena for browser games like Evony?
Well, as the game pans out in a massively multiplayer online environment, you are competing with thousands of players all around the world. You're required to construct buildings in your various cities, which have certain build times.
The crux of a MMO browser game is that the game carries on while you are logged out, so the idea is to begin construction on buildings, then log out and return later to queue up more buildings and make sure your city isn’t in any immediate danger.
This plays well to the main advantage and attraction of browser games, they are playable on almost all hardware, almost anywhere with a browser and an internet connection. It also makes them uniquely placed to be able to fritter away your work hours.
It becomes blatantly obvious that the difference between a great Evony player, and an average Evony player will be the number of times they login throughout the day to check on their production.
This is the first inherent problem with games such as these, and in my opinion the biggest barrier to the casual market. The majority of people simply cannot sacrifice the amount of time required in MMO online games.
You certainly can’t save your game and return later to find things as they were. Fortunately starting out is made easy in Evony as the game provides you with seven days of beginners protection, which is just enough time to find your feet and join an alliance for protection.
The initial phase of building in Evony is highly entertaining and incredibly addictive, as the game romances you with its pretty visuals and the subtleties of game progression. There is no doubt that the creators have done a fantastic job at making a pretty game, which certainly sets it above the largely text based browser games of the past.
The problem being though that the endeavour on which you are embarking does not become clear until you have already sunk several weeks of your time into the title. Later on in the game, build cycles take several days, and it becomes such a balancing act in having the right amount of food production for your troops.
This is when the close relationship begins to falter for most players. In the time I have been playing, I have seen an enormous number of players quit, but then there are some that are so advanced and so successful that they are still investing the majority of their day, perhaps during their work hours.
It seems a little bit like poker, as once you’ve made a significantly high investment into the round, you can’t fight the desire to see the round out. Evony plays a similar game, giving the impression that if you throw in the towel, you'll have wasted all those weeks. So one fights on, toward some unknown end, with intangible benefits.
Browser games are typically free to partake in. This sounds great, but micro-transactions are taking up a large part of this world now. Developers have seen this as an untapped resource, and in Evony you can invest real money for virtual returns. Effectively you can buy yourself a stronger playing position.
Fortunately this is subtle enough to not grossly disadvantage players who do not want to make the investment (myself included). But it does create a three-tier class system - those who pay, those who invest considerable hours, and those who are only casual players.
This style of continuous play won’t suit casual gamers, or people who want a quick thrill. It requires hours of time, and the pay-off is somewhat subtle. There’s no grand ending, or story driven action to tell you you are doing a good job.
Evony, due to its quaint graphical interface, gives you enough visual input to create your own story, and your own idea of what is going on. The ability for players to form alliances with one another creates mini-empires where players look out for one another, and take on other alliances.
The unity and communication required turns Evony partially into a diplomacy and military simulator. You'll participate in coordinated attacks to whittle your enemies down, and breaching their walls with catapults and battering rams.
As time goes by though, I can’t help but wonder if the effort invested into Evony might not have been better spent finishing up some other game, such as Grand Theft Auto 4, or something with a clear ending. The longer you carry on, the harder it becomes to justify leaving as the investment continues to climb. Without a conceivable end however, how long can this go on for?
I am not all together unhappy about this addiction, however MMO browser games need to find a niche where they can accommodate all players. Where winning doesn’t involve a pure time investment, where the crowning glory isn’t being able to say you, and you alone invested the last three months of your life to Evony, at a rate of sixteen hours a day.
Until casual gamers can join, without being rolled by powerful players immediately, a true mass appeal for browser based games is not going to occur. The fact that they are free, and readily available plays in their favour, but MMO browser games still have a long way to go.
Granted, Evony has done an amazing job at making the game look and feel appealing to all gamers, however once a player scratches the surface and sees the investment-heavy time-killing game mechanics, many are likely to be put off.
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