It’s the mid-2000s. It’s raining. You and your friends had big plans for the day, but you’re now stuck in your tiny apartment. There’s only a bed, an empty bookshelf, your wardrobe and your desktop in the room. I guess there’s only one thing to do: load up the internet and explore the ever-expanding realm of web games.
While this format of gaming became more widespread in the 2000s, thanks to increasing access to home PCs and the internet, web-games (also known as browser games) found their start in the mid-90s. One of the most notable browser games was Earth 2025, a text-based adventure that allowed players to play online with others as early as 1995.
Two early contenders for the largest web-game ecosystems were the Internet Gaming Zone and ClassicGames.com—the latter of which was later acquired by Yahoo! and rebranded accordingly.
Throughout the 2000s countless sites sprouted up compiling games made by small studios or impassioned indie developers, most often providing hours of entertainment for free (only running ads throughout the site).
From Miniclip and CrazyMonkeyGames.com to BBC Bitesize and many, many more, flash games had exploded. Not only were people enjoying tonnes of free games, but the games were presenting users with their first taste of a variety of different genres, styles and functions of gaming.
Games like Club Penguin connected users. Puzzlers lick Bloxorz left them scratching their heads. And for the first-time educational experiences could be gamified and shared online for free. Further afield, ideologically challenging and serious games like McDonald’s Video Game and Dafur is Dying were solidifying even the most popular gaming formats at locales for complex topics and artistic endeavour.
By the end of the 2010s, many now-famous indie games and developers were finding their starts in browser-based experiences. From legends like Bennett Foddy (QUOP, Getting Over It) to titles like Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers. In short, web-games pushed a lot of boundaries in the popular conception of what it meant to be a game. But, as with anything tied to a specific technological solution, things moved on and soon the golden age of the web game would end.
Throughout the 2010s, countless companies had piled into the web-game space and had begun monetising it. Whether that be through ads, subscriptions or pay-to-play behemoths such as PopCap Games (EA Games), King.com and Facebook introduced new closed-off systems which pulled users in thanks to the promise of polish.
And then the bomb dropped. Apple released the iPhone in 2007 and the concept of the App Store spelled death for the web-game. In the following 5-10 years, the vast majority of successful browser-games would move over to mobile—Candy Crush and Farmville being two key examples. Indie games soon followed with Doodle Jump, Flappy Bird and countless more flooding the market, taking advantage of the fact that mobile devices are, well, mobile.
The rise of the mobile meant that mobile gaming quickly eclipsed the web-game as the primary form of free to play, arcade-style gaming. And, of course, over this period consoles and PC gaming also had its fair share of innovations meaning that fewer and fewer people were turning to browsers for free experiences which were rough around the edges.
Come 2020 and Adobe officially stopped supporting Flash, meaning that most of these old web-games which required Flash to run are no longer playable. Well, that’s not strictly true. There are still plenty of emulators, extensions and workarounds you can use to play these classics but by introducing hurdles to reach such cheap and cheerful gaming experience it’s clear that the majority of newcomers will not likely come across browser games as they were known in the 2000s.
While Flash may be dead and the mobile has drawn many key players and developers away from the web-based platform, playing games through browsers is very far from dead.
Three formats still remain incredibly popular: HTML5, WebGL and WebAssembly all provide frameworks for developers big or small to create in-browser gaming experiences. And games like Agar.io, launched in 2015, only prove that web-based games are still popular, well known and, for lack of a better word, fun!
What’s more is thanks to ever-more accessible game engines like Godot and Unity allowing easy deployment for Web, indie game developers and avid game jammers find themselves often uploading their smaller games directly to the web in order to be played in browser. This is particularly prominent in indie spheres such as those found on itch.io or gamejolt.com.
Thus, while the good old 2000’s Flash games may be far from recovery, if anyone tells you that web-games are dead you have plenty of venues to choose from to prove them oh so wrong.
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