Following a lengthy beta period, in-browser gaming site InstantAction.com today officially opens to the public, and InstantAction is making the underlying technology available to developers.
Distinguishing itself from the myriad Flash-based game portals already strewn across the internet, InstantAction -- a venture of the IAC-owned developer and middleware provider GarageGames -- is comprised of full real-time 3D titles that, in most cases, bear much more similarity to traditional standalone PC and console games than they do to typical web games.
See exhibit A, the 16-player FPS Fallen Empire: Legions
, a slightly-more-than-spiritual successor to now-defunct developer Dynamix's PC multiplayer classics Starsiege: Tribes
and Tribes 2
-- memories of whose innovative, large-scale gameplay remain near and dear to the hearts of many PC gamers. Key Dynamix personnel founded GarageGames, and a number of Tribes
veterans are on the Legions
InstantAction currently features nine games, also including Rokkitball
and Marble Blast Online
, with at least seven more in development. Only four of the nine, and one of the seven, are "first-party." Most of the service's games are created by external developers, and that's where the company's experience providing technology to other firms comes in handy.
But unsurprisingly, investing in high-quality browser-based development is still a leap for some studios, general manager Andy Yang and technology VP Brett Seyler tell Gamasutra.
"In some cases, larger publishers haven't made that psychological jump," Yang says. "They're thinking, 'Digital distribution -- let's go to Steam, let's go to Xbox or PlayStation.' But they're sick of other people owning their customers. There are tons of Madden
fans out there, but they don't own those customers; Microsoft does, [via Xbox live]. How do they reach out to these guys directly? We can cut out the middleman. We can be that disintermediation for the industry."
InstantAction consists of two major components: the InstantAction.com site
and business model, which hosts games and an integrated community (and, even as a "beta," already boasts 1.4 million registered users), and the broader InstantAction technology platform, which can be used to create games that are hosted anywhere.
"The platform itself supports any type of business model any game creator wants to build," Yang notes. "The business model and game design are really firmly tied together. You can't just force a business model on an existing game."
The Business Model(s)
Over the course of the beta, the team has been testing a variety of approaches to revenue through the InstantAction.com site. "We did a lot of experimentation," Yang explains.
"We went with bundled items, bundled level packs. We went with something we called 'action pass' -- buying periods of time so you could play levels over the course of a day or a month or a year. We've been selling in-game items. We've literally, I think, tried almost everything -- every different model across the different games."
Those attempts have been variably successful -- but one broad theme that remained fairly constant, Yang says, is that "the more we've given out for free, the more it's ended paying off for us in the long run."
Particularly on the web, consumers expect the baseline experience, even if it's an experience comparable to a boxed product, to be free, but once they are invested in that experience they might be willing to pay more to deepen it.
"We've made a conscious decision with all of our games to just give all the levels out for free," Yang continues. "Don't limit gameplay. Let the user get hooked. After that, they are willing to buy some of the personalization stuff."
"In one of our titles, [flight combat game] Ace of Aces
, we let them buy packs of planes that are more powerful, faster, and have more powerful weapons. So far it's proved to be okay. You hear some people complaining about it in the forums, but those same people will actually end up buying it."
But some games, like Legions
, already have a relatively hardcore fanbase accustomed to old-school PC gaming, which is largely devoid of gameplay-affecting microtransactions. Initially, items sold for that game will be visual only.
Over time, paid services such as unique dedicated servers and in-depth clan management will be added. Those kinds of services are nothing new, but they are usually offered by external companies; since InstantAction will offer them itself, it can tie them directly into the core website.
"Gamers are used to paying a subscription for their own servers," Yang says, "but they're usually not working with the game developer specifically. So we want to make that integrated experience, and make it as affordable as possible for them on top of that."
"I think the free-to-play model is already showing that games that aren't as polished and don't have nearly as many players as a Call of Duty
can generate more revenue per user then games normally sold to Western audiences," Seyler adds.
"I think, in the end, that model will prove the most effective for online PC games, and we're certainly going to explore it. But we definitely have an eye towards audiences here being really sensitive about purchasing stuff that affects gameplay."
Developers that opt to license the InstantAction technology can opt not to host their games on the InstantAction.com site; in some cases, InstantAction will be working with studios directly to build unique, standalone sites that have similar functionality but their own identity.
InstantAction says its technology can support games made using any existing real-time rendering tech, namedropping Unreal Engine, id Tech, CryEngine, and of course GarageGames' own Torque.
That lofty claim is somewhat mitigated by the fact that, since all rendering is done client-side, users' computers still need to actually be capable of running those games -- and for a lot of game makers, a big draw of the web as a game delivery mechanism is that it can reach audiences that aren't already equipped with the latest graphics cards.
"If you play Crysis
, you still need a good machine," Yang laughs.
With that in mind, the games' targeted specs are clearly deliberately kept far from that level of extravagence. Even the attractive, higher-end Legions
will run on graphics hardware that was affordable more than four years ago, and many of the games run on the integrated graphics chipsets common in budget PCs not intended for gaming.
Built into InstantAction's tech are tools, similar to those used by Valve through Steam, that allow the developers to track its users' level of hardware, and thus target to the spec most appropriate for each game's likely audience. Those tools are also used to track gameplay data, useful for design and balance feedback.
"It all comes down to a business decision," Yang explains. "We analyze data internally so each of our development shops -- internal and external can decide [on requirements]. From a technology and platform perspective, that's just data that we hand off."
"Internally, we have stricter standards. If you buy a laptop from Costco, that hardware is all you get. We are going after that lapsed gamer, not the guy who has a custom-built PC setup at home. The idea is, 'I can play from work. I've been playing an FPS from my work machine.' I think we are hitting that pretty well."
In addition to the main game technology, InstantAction provides a suit of features the increasingly-popular social features similar to those of console online services or PC-based services like Steam, such as matchmaking, stat tracking, leaderboards, and achievements.
The combination of those elements, and the fact that developers can integrate them as much or as little as they would like, means InstantAction's role in relation to third-party developers ends up being something of a cross between a middleware provider and a platform manufacturer.
Though InstantAction.com has been in operation for nearly a year, the underlying technology has only been available to a limited group of early partners, as the company has tried to iron out the difficulties of full-scale in-browser gaming.
"Part of why we waited this long to offer the technology is because really I think it would have been irresponsible to offer it when we launched InstantAction.com before having really vetted it working with a third party," Seyler says. "We had to make sure the integration process was smooth and relatively painless for them."
The team claims one developer recently took an existing PC game and modified it to run in a browser after about an hour of work, though the specific developer and game was not disclosed.
Now that the site and technology are officially live, InstantAction has revealed some of its future plans, which include user-generated content as well as official support of Facebook in the second quarter of 2009.
Why Facebook support, when InstantAction already has its own community features? "If I have to enter my friends list again to any other service, I'm going to shoot somebody," Yang responds. "Facebook is increasingly the social standard. So why not plug into what's out there already?"
"We plan on making sure we are fully integrated," he continues. "You can import all of your friends lists in both directions. If you're an InstantAction user, there will be a button that says, 'Sync with my Facebook account.'"
"I can be on InstantAction and see which of my Facebook friends are online on Facebook. I can send them invites, we can go back and forth. You can actually play the game within Facebook. We will be the first 3D multiplayer real-time game on Facebook. Well, we hope we still will be, by that time."
Also in the works is iPhone support, which will be coming more gradually. Eventually, InstantAction plans to provide an iPhone development SDK that allows games to plug into the existing underlying system, so players can access the same account from the web or the phone, and even play multiplayer games across those platforms.
As far as other development partners, the team isn't making any announcements. Publisher Atari, whose recently-installed president Phil Harrison has extolled the virtues of social and online gaming, was mentioned several times during the interview, and when asked about the company directly, Seyler was suggestively vague.
"We have talked with Atari in the past year," he replied. "I don't have anything I can announce, but I am really glad to see they are publicly recognizing that the shift to online for PC games is an inevitable one."
"It is good affirmation for us to see that a company like Atari, being forward-thinking now with their IPs, is looking in the same direction. That is really encouraging for us."