Musings on browser-based MMO games


After my last rant, several friends expressed interest in helping me create a browser-based MMORPG. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. As I pointed out repeatedly on this blog, any gamer naturally dreams of creating their own MMO some day. Now, if you're going to make one of these, a browser-based game is the easiest option by far. Especially if you're an experienced web developer, and we are.

The question is, what game to make? The possibilities are endless... but so is the array of competing titles. To navigate the chaos, let's look at some of the existing options. What do they have in common? What works? What doesn't? What do they lack?

These are my answers. Yours will likely be different.

The first browser-based MMO I remember playing was Black Nova Traders, a space trading game that like all its brethren straddles the line between economic simulation and RPG. While the concept is sound (is there anyone who hasn't wasted countless hours playing Elite back in the day?) the game suffers from a few downsides, most importantly the fact that it stalls after a while and has to be reset. The navigation system doesn't seem like a good idea to me either. Also, interaction between players is essentially restricted to messaging and PvP, which due to the constraints of the medium isn't even, well, interactive. That, as you'll see, is a recurring theme with browser-based MMOs, one I hope to avoid in my own game. On the plus side, the game offers a big map with a variety of things to do, so it can be pretty fun for a while.

Somewhat at the opposite end sits Legend of the Green Dragon, a port of a BBS door game which was itself essentially a combat MUD (think 1999-era EverQuest without the graphics). The gameplay is as simplistic and repetitive as you might expect from that description, and if I remember correctly you can't even play with your friends until reaching a certain level (and then you have to be in a guild). At least the game doesn't take itself seriously, and with no graphics or AJAX it's probably playable even with a text-based browser.

Much more technically advanced is Pardus, a game I reviewed last autumn. Unlike the others, it has a gridlike map, as opposed to discrete locations. It also has player building and random missions, two features that would be absolutely great if done right, which they aren't. Still, the game is damn good and has a faithful player base to show for it. It's just not for me. All that PvP.

Last but not least we have all the strategy games in the vein of OGame, Travian and more recently the deceptively named but technically excellent Lord of Ultima. These must offer the most opportunities for player interaction, and consequently the highest retention rate, but they are also the most technically challenging (I studied the problem). If I still had the patience to play complex strategy games, making one of these would be a real option.

Still, the one game we're most likely to use for inspiration is Echo Bazaar, which I have played continually for several months now and has the markings of a future classic. So ours is likely to have:

There are also a couple of things I would like to have myself:

As for the technologies involved, it's too early to tell, but I'm frankly bored with PHP and MySQL, and would appreciate a change; on the other hand, it would have to be something that can run on ordinary shared hosting accounts, which limits the options quite a bit.

But that's another story, for when we get past the brainstorming stage.

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