The web browser has a storied history in the gaming industry – from the early days of browser-based MU*’s, to the Newgrounds and Shockwave portal booms, to WebGL, and now the potentials of cloud-based gaming. In this article, we’ll examine how the web browser has remained relevant and impacted the video gaming industry over the years and will continue to do so in years to come.
It may not be something we think about often, but browser games have impacted the gaming industry in many ways. Many popular PC and Android titles have their roots in browser games, borrowing concepts and gameplay from little-known or once-popular Flash titles. It can also be said that browser gaming has a great future across multiple devices, as technology advances and browsers become capable of rendering HD graphics.
If we harken back to the era of Flash portal websites like Newgrounds and all of the hours we spent playing zombie games on its game portal, we can pull up a long list of titles or clones that suddenly became tremendously successful once ported to modern devices. This is because the reach of sites like Newgrounds was mostly limited to a specific demographic: young, male, computer nerdy. Mobile devices obviously have a much larger reach.
Thus, over time we saw small Flash games like “Crush the Castle” be cloned into Angry Birds, spawn some cartoon miniseries and franchise toys, and become worth over a billion US dollars
This isn’t a knock on the mobile game industry – borrowing concepts or re-inventing things is a part of progress. It’s just that many people think the browser gaming era is over, but it actually hasn’t gone anywhere at all – and in fact, its due for its biggest boom yet.
Consider this – In recent years, browsers have been updated to be able to render high-definition 3D graphics. We’re not talking about Quantum Break in 4K resolution level graphics, no, not quite there yet. But if you follow recent developments in Unity WebGL, we’re getting there. Actually, we’re already capable of it, there are just a few hurdles.
The thing about WebGL is that its already capable of next-gen graphics – optimized polycounts, full dynamic lighting, 8x MSAA shaders, it’s completely possible to display next-gen graphics in browser games. The issue is the browser game audience.
See, most people searching for browser games are doing so on low-spec machines. If their computers could handle Quantum Break on max settings, they’d be playing that instead. Or they have a high-end machine at home, and they’re goofing off at work. Either way, most people searching for browser games are not searching for browser games with next-gen graphics.
The second issue is the download size – most browser games try to hover around 2MB – 20MB for HTML5 games. Some of the most popular IO games, for example, can be less than <1MB. First-person shooters in Unity WebGL can be around 500MB because they look like early versions of Counter-Strike. This is because, even though they could look like Battlefield 1, nobody is going to “download” a 20GB browser game.
So, as you can see, browser gaming isn’t limited by browser technology – its limited by what the average browser game player’s machine can handle (and how long they’re willing to wait for game files to load in their browser).
This isn’t going to be the case forever – a sudden surprise announcement of affordable 500GB optic-fiber plans for everyone could change things overnight. But even if Unity WebGL (and similar engines) aren’t being used to their full potential in the browser gaming industry, the browser still has a major role to play in the gaming industry overall.
Consider the looming approach of cloud-based gaming. This is where you literally stream PC game titles to your PC from a cloud-server. You don’t download the game physically to your computer, you’re actually remotely controlling the game as its hosted on a state-of-the-art computer in some datacenter. Many are calling this the future of gaming, and the browser will have a major role to play in this.
Many cloud-based gaming companies are going to deploy standalone desktop clients, which utilize H.264 video encoding and decoding. H.264 streaming video is really the best option for cloud gaming because even though there are other video codecs out there, H.264 delivers the best in bit-rate compression. Not only that, but cloud-based gaming clients need to rely on hardware enabled video encoding and decoding, which means that your GPU will take some of the load – and H.264 is the most widely supported among hardware vendors, which gives it a distinct advantage.
Of course, a desktop client isn’t necessary at all for all this. Browsers can just as easily display high definition H.264 video at a steady framerate, or else nobody would be able to watch YouTube in 4K definition. Thus, browsers could play a critical role in cloud-based gaming, which is being heralded as the future of PC gaming.
To tie this all up, browser games obviously had a very large impact on not only a growth in browser technology but an impact on the gaming industry as well. We might not be looking at a future of browser-based cloud gaming if it wasn’t for those little Flash portal websites that kept us clicking at our work-desks in the early days.