Table of Contents
- Death of Flash
- The new era of browser games
- List of my recommended browser based games
- Ending notes
Browser-based games in the modern internet
Browser-based games had such a unique evolution. Started out as games where there was no visual update on the game world, where if you wish to get updates on what is happening on the game, you have to manually refresh the page or interact within the game so that the page refreshes on some sort.
Examples of these design are still present on a couple of modern browser games, such as Kingdom of Loathing and Sigmastorm as seen in the figures above. In Kingdom of Loathing, it shows iframes to seperate different UI elements and you essentially interact with game elements using hyperlinks where each link corresponds a user action (Ofcourse they are neatly hidden in images to make it presentable).
Once interaction is made, the page refreshes. This is also similar to Sigmastorm but instead of having game elements being interacted via hyperlinks, user actions are instead being done in hyperlinks. The game is represented in a grid, If you want to move, you click on the arrows in the map, if you want to interact with what that current tile has to offer, you click on the links that are available in the location details.
Each action will refresh the page in some way shape or form. Sometimes it does not have to be the entire page, just like in Kingdom of Loathing's case where iframes are instead updated. It is a pretty interesting trick but such designs are limiting for game designers.
Since in contrast, non-browser games are usually detailed and offers live visual updates on what is happening on the game world with no user-interaction necessary. The closest one you can have with such design is to install an auto page-refresher on your browser.
Then here comes browser-plugins such as Flash player, Shockwave, Java applets and etc. These plugins offered something that normally browsers do not. It extended the features of what the browser can do with the requirement that these plugins are needed to be installed to make these pages work.
Shortly, games like Club penguin, Habbo Hotel, Runescape, Drakensang and etc started popping out of nowhere, offering the same same experience that downloaded MMOs have but right in front of your browser. Ofcourse they are not as detailed as their downloaded counterparts because of space and internet bandwidth issues but the fact that they can be accessed as long as the plugin is installed was good enough to spread gaming to the masses.
However a paradigm shift away from browser plugins started around 2013-2014. Initially the movement started when Steve Jobs outright rejected Flash player on iPhone back in 2011, the tech sector has been working aggressively after that to replace Flash player with something more native and built-in within the browser.
As browser-plugin applications started to die out in-favor of the native ones available within a browser, so did the browser-plugins themselves. But browser games were mainly still developed in Flash as it was the most dominant platform to create games until the death of Flash was finally settled around January 12, 2021 where most browsers completely stopped using plugins.
Now with such a long introduction, the question now is. With the evolution of browser-games from native to plugin back to native. How far has it become? Did the shift away from plugins do good for browser-based gaming? Or did it cause a significant hit to the browser-based ecosystem. Let us discuss.
Death of Flash player
The death of flash was long announced. Heck before its announcement, as everyone in the tech sector has witnessed the evolution of HTML as it slowly replace and acquire the features that was unique to these browser plugins. It was already speculated that sooner or later plugins support will cease to exist for the browsers and thus it was discourage to create applications relying on the browser plugins.
Browser-based applications that relied on those plugins has already planned to move out from them in favor of either utilizing HTML's current new features or become a downloadable application. In the former's case, one example is Habbo Hotel which offered both a downloadable client and HTML5 client while the latter is Runescape where it went into a standalone client.
Other good examples of games that transitioned away from Flash player to HTML5 are Facebook games such as Candycrush, TetrisBattle and Farmville. Initially these versions use to be powered by Flash player but slowly transitioned to HTML5.
The new era of browser games
Now that HTML5 is the only way moving forward to play browser games. It did pave way to things that were not imagined before. Such as Web assembly. Web assembly introduced speeds on web-based applications that was not available there before. A good example are two MMORPG browser based MMORPGs, Flyff Universe and Genfanad.
Flyff Universe is an HTML5 port of an old MMORPG named Flyff. But this one, it was ported via web assembly and assets are downloaded and cached on the fly. Flyff Universe is basically an improved version over the original. It even introduces graphical techniques that was not there in the original such as Render-scaling, advanced shader effects and longer render distance.
The performance off Flyff Universe is very impressive. Even an 2015 Macbook Air can play this game with little to no issues.
Although the graphics is not as complex as Flyff, the same Macbook Air struggles to play the game in even 20fps. I only get 15 fps even in a non crowded area. This goes to show how great web assembly is in terms of performance. Game developers wishing to create complex scenery can rely on web assembly to speed up their process.
What is great with web assembly is you do not need to learn web assembly. You can use an existing language such as C/C++ or Rust and use their compiler to compile it to wasm code. Thanks to this, HTML5 ports of games such as SuperTux2, FreeCiv, Doom and even Ragnarok Online is possible with minimal effort (no need to rewrite an engine from scratch).
Actually you don't even have to go that far. Unreal engine and Unity for example are both capable outputting game projects to wasm. The former relying on plugins while the latter is built-in.
As seen in the figure above, game developers are able to develop in graphically sophisticated games from a well known game engine and export it easily to HTML. Really impressive how far we have come in game development. Allowing us to deliver games in variety of platforms.
List of my recommended browser based games
There are a tons of browser based games out there. So take this list as my recommended picks instead of being like the absolute best browser games out there. Mind you that I mainly play downloaded games with a few notable exceptions. So I may have missed some great browser games that I am not aware of that exists.
Additionally, these list are mainly multiplayer ones. So if you are looking for a single player browser-based game, then this list is not for you. Mind you some of these games may have an offline/play with AI feature but they're mainly multiplayer games.
I am also omitting out browser-based games that are not officially ported or endorsed by their intellectual property owner.
Flyff Universe is a fantasy MMORPG where you control an avatar and partake quests, acquire items and defeat monsters. What is interesting about Flyff is it is one of the few MMORPGs out there that allows players to fly and explore what the content has to offer.
Once you get to level 20, you are able to purchase a broom (or use a premium mounts from the premium shop) and fly across the different contents of the Flyff Universe
Genfanad is a fantasy MMORPG that is inspired by Runescape Classic. For those unfamiliar, Genfanad offers a unique combat mechanic where a combat round is locked for the first 3 hits of both the combatants. This means that if you attack a monster, you cannot run away or heal before both you and the monster have done 3 hits.
It also offers a variety of activites such that the world of Nuublandia has to offer. Such as woodcutting, mining, whitting, forging, cooking and etc.
Tetrio is a very popular tetris client. It caters ranked 1vs1, 100 player elimination round, 40 lines and etc. It does not offer any sort of story, just your typical tetris game.
Bemuse is one of the go-to online web-based rhythm game for the rhythm casual enthusiast. It offers 5 keys and 7 keys with a variety of songs completely free. Some of it songs have animated backgrounds too, which is dope
Forward assault is one of the popular counter strike alternatives you can play in the web. It offers similar mechanics to counter strike while also giving detailed graphics.
Forward assault is mainly a multiplayer game but it also has single player AI, rank matches and public lobbies.
Battle Dudes is a unique shooter where instead of giving you a 3rd person view, it instead gives you a top down view.
Also unlike Forward assault which is greatly inspired by counter strike, Battle Dudes gives you access to bazooka launchers, vechiles and tanks.
Tzar: Burden of Crown was one of the popular medieval RTS games back in the day. Similar league to Age of Empires. Tzared is an HTML5 port of the same game. The HTML5 port however only offers skirmish battles against the AI or head-to-head multiplayer battles.
If you wish to play the campaigns, then you have to buy the game from GoG or Steam.
Lichess is one of the popular chess servers out there. Although FICs is the established chess server if you want to play chess for free for years now, what sets Lichess apart is that it bundles the chess client as a web app.
In addition, Lichess offers several features such as different chess modes, rated, non-rated, correspondence (where you invite a friend and play there [even if said friend doesnt have a lichess account]), tutorials, puzzles and even a free chess engine analysis. All for free
As you can see, you can get yourselves entertained even on the new era of browser-based games. Certainly the shift of these games away from plugins pave way to unique implementations that was not possible before. For example, Flash may have been a dominant platform to develop browser based games on, it was limited on what it can do. Although later in Flash's life it was capable of rendering in 3D. It was not the best platform to create 3D games on.
I remember that even if Flash was able to do 3D rendering, the hardware acceleration aspect was not available across all operating systems. Which means certain games are not playable when played on Mac or Linux. Not to mention the availability of the plugin it needs as well.
Ofcourse it was not only Flash that was there but also Adobe Shockwave and Oracle Java. Shockwave being the superior choice in 3D games but was not as well known because of management decisions. Frankly it was true that Shockwave games were mostly slow to load because it packed more assets for players back then to download, but it was able to push more stuff than what Flash can.
Java applets on the other hand was on the same league of competition as Shockwave, but more popular. and by I mean the same league, was able to pack sophisticated 3d graphics right in your browser. Part of the reason people do not remember Shockwave is because of poor leadership reasons, however base on experience, Shockwave was far more popular than Java applets for games.
So imagine, if you want to play a couple of browser games back then, you not only have to install flash player, but also possible shockwave and java too. Not to mention these plugins had limitations. Like Flash player being limited in what it can do with 3d, or Shockwave being locked down to Windows only or Java being difficult to program games with in general because if you want to appeal a larger set of userbase, you have to optimize the game. Which is why, Runescape originally had to load in regions, where when a player reaches the edge of a region, it loads the next closest region and unloads the currently loaded one.
The creation WebGL and Webassembly paved way to possibilities that was not there before. Being able to port full pledge games right in front of your browser. Which is an interesting thing to consider on as these technologies allow the distribution of games regardless of Operating System.
So what can I say? the shift away from plugins certainly did good for browser-gaming in general. Although it was sad to see a-lot of these great games go. There have been archiving projects  that aims to restore these plugin based games at a playable state, and to that I am grateful.
Especially some of these games that was restored have had their micro-transaction shop revived with everything free in it. Which I find very very cool.