March 10, 2009

Browser Games: Tighten Up the Graphics

The computer is arguably the most widely distributed gaming device today (with the mobile phone being the other candidate), and the browser is by far the most viable platform on the PC. With the relatively recent surge of casual gamers, web-browser games have become immensely popular and wide-ranging, yet the hardcore player generally sticks to consoles or off-the-shelf PC games. As hardware has improved, triple-A titles have also evolved, with graphics becoming almost photorealistic – yet their browser counterparts have for the most part stuck with two-dimensional visuals and all too often one-dimensional gameplay. This week, however, I examine a game that not only has depth to its design but also has depth of field. In Blush (pictured below right), by Flashbang Studios, the player controls a graceful squid swimming through a whimsical neon sea, collecting eggs and attacking ocean co-inhabitants with its tentacles, all within a four minute time period. While most reviews of Blush have been extremely positive, many bloggers and community members have complained about the timer saying it is “no fun” or it “doesn't leave much time to explore.” One particular critic of the countdown mechanic wrote a very thoughtful analysis on the game, so I decided to debate the topic as a comment on her site. Controversy about the timer aside, most community members have overwhelmingly positive opinions about the game, yet its design alone, while innovative, is not extraordinarily so. What separates Blush is the fact that it is built on the Unity Engine, a 3D platform for the web-browser. Strikingly beautiful, Blush transports the player into an immersive, mystical undersea environment. In his post on the blog Play This Thing!, Patrick Dugan claims that Blush is an indication of what is to come in the browser game scene. My response to this prediction, as well as my comment about the game’s timer mechanic can be found below and at the respective sites.


I am happy to see so many positive reviews of Blush, another truly impressive entry from Flashbang, and one that I think boosts their stature and maturity in the game development community. While the previous titles on Blurst, such as Minotaur in a China Shop and Offroad Velociraptor Safari have pushed the limits technologically and are engaging and charming experiences, the “stunning” and “surreal” aesthetic that you mentioned certainly put Blush on another level. I am also glad that amid your mostly shining review, you make an observation that echoes what many players feel: the game lacks an un-timed version. The player is rudely jolted out of the serene flow after a measly four minutes of play; however, after some thought I would argue that without the timer, the game would not be as satisfying. A large part of Blush’s pleasure derives from the feeling of wanting more and that sensation would diminish given free reign of the environment.

The timer is one of my least favorite devices employed by designers, and Flashbang uses it as a crutch over and over again. In Minotaur in a China Shop, they exercise it with a little bit of subtlety, as each of the five days has its own time limit, and the security guards usually shower one with a barrage of arrows before one even notices the clock, but Offroad Velociraptor Safari has a nearly identical countdown system to that of Blush. My problem with the timer is that it exposes the underlying game system, lessening the immersion and thereby cheapening the experience by reminding the player that this world is not real. I think a more environment-oriented representation of the timer, like the view steadily darkening or the edges of the world creeping inward, might have better served Blush than its current clock, but without some concept of time, the player might become bored. The play area feels almost limitless during the short spurt of gameplay, but as the very illuminating behind the scenes footage indicates, it is in reality rather modest. I counted no more than seventeen game objects made up of only three unique types in the entire game world. Do you think that the player would sustain interest after exploring the depths of this sandbox? You mentioned adding levels as an option, and I would eagerly welcome this solution, but designing additional levels takes time, and with Flashbang’s pledge to develop six games in twelve months, they do not have any to spare. At any rate, I think the fact that the community yearns for an un-timed version in order to explore the entire environment proves that the designers successfully provided a user experience that satisfies and compels players, leaving them hungry for more.

“Blush: It Will Make You”

First I want to commend you, Patrick, and everyone else at Play This Thing! for bringing so many unique and innovative games into the public eye. It is refreshing and rare to see a site focus on the obscure rather than the mainstream, and every day I look forward to your uninhibited perspective about an unknown indie title. In this particular article, your comparison of Blush to flOw is well stated, and I tend to agree that the former borrows from, yet changes the latter, creating something entirely different. However, you also touch upon an issue that I think extends beyond the almost niche (yet extremely compelling) focus of this site, and applies more directly to the broader community when you say: “the game is more significant as a demonstration of what web-gaming can become than as a specific design.” Moreover, I would suggest that games such as Blush will push the browser as a platform in a more mainstream direction.

I suppose browser gaming is already mainstream, as everybody and (actually more often) their mother plays Bejeweled or Bingo Luau to pass the time. What I am wondering is, do you think games using technology like the Unity engine will turn the browser into a more hardcore-friendly environment? The games displayed on Blurst, like Blush and Offroad Velociraptor Safari are looking like pretty sophisticated 3D games compared to the run-of-the-mill flash game; Jetpack Brontosaurus (pictured above left) plays almost like Spyro the Dragon for the original Playstation, and probably looks a little better, albeit at about fifteen frames per second. These Flashbang titles, while immersive (thanks to their beautiful visuals and clean design), certainly were produced with the casual player in mind, employing simple control schemes and enforcing (often a little clumsily) a less than five-minute play session. What happens, though, when someone decides to make a more complete experience using Unity or a similar engine? As this generation of hardware seems to be nearly maxed out in terms of graphics capabilities, and with the next generation nowhere near on the horizon, do you think that browser games will start to close the technological gap? And if so, will the easy accessibility of these more extensive experiences captivate casual players, or will it simply attract more hardcore gamers to the platform? With consoles becoming increasingly expensive to develop for, I think developers will turn more of their focus towards cheaper mediums, as long as they can figure out a way to monetize their efforts.

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