A Persistent Browser-Based Game (PBBG) is a game that:

  • offers a persistent game universe that moves forward even when you’re not playing.
  • can be played in a web-browser.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about PBBGs, as both a player and a developer.  In my teenage years they were my introduction into online gaming, and some of the best gaming moments of my life have been in PBBGs.  I fondly remember a grueling time in Imperial Conflict when I spent 19 days leading a war against a much larger alliance that had decided to stomp us.  This was a different level of gaming than any Nintendo title or board game I’d ever played.  It didn’t even feel like a game anymore, it felt like a shared duty for our alliance to defend our territory, our name, and each other.  We had to fight smarter, do more with less, and if we couldn’t win in the end we were going to make our assailants remember us for future encounters.

This was immersion at its best, and something I’ve still yet to experience as deeply outside of PBBGs.

Of course, persistence is only half of the picture, and being browser-based is a significant distinction from other game experiences.  What separates PBBGs from their console and application based brethren is their accessibility.  Back in the day, the draw was that you could play them on any machine that had a web browser.  Before smartphones gave everybody a browser in their pocket, people were playing PBBGs in school libraries and at work.  This is part of what made them so popular.

And then, mobile gaming happened.

Beaten at our own game

PBBGs brought accessibility to the table, but accessibility would evolve in a big way with the launch of iPhone’s App Store in 2008.  While Apple didn’t invent mobile gaming — mobile games existed in the mid-90s — they did launch it into a new era, to put it lightly; and in doing so they changed one of the most critical aspects of digital gaming: where people play.

A world of worlds to take with us anywhere.

PBBGs, and browser-based games in general, now had viable competition for “play anywhere” experiences, with mobile offering even more options.  Playing at school and work was old news; you could now play games on the bus, on your lunch break, and yes, even on the toilet.

While PBBGs still technically worked in a mobile web browser, the experiences often paled in comparison to native mobile apps, and many games simply looked horrible on mobile because they were never designed for that viewing experience.  Playing a game in the browser, once a liberating experience to play anywhere, had become a glaringly restrictive experience as the definition of “anywhere” changed and the experience failed to translate.  Sadly, the strength of being built for a web browser had become a weakness.

Although web technology would eventually catch up, with mobile-friendly responsive designs becoming more common in the early 2010s thanks to Media Queries, most PBBGs failed to adapt.  Many still haven’t caught up, which is evident by the number of our games that still lack a mobile-friendly web design, let alone an actual mobile app.

It’s not for lack of knowing, at least not always.  Many developers out there understand the need for a proper mobile offering but lack the resources to make it happen.  Even larger publishers failed to keep their PBBGs current.  Jagex, of RuneScape fame, acquired a popular 2000s-era PBBG named Planetarion in 2010, but in nearly a decade since they still haven’t developed a proper mobile experience for it.  It’s not hard to imagine, given the shift in the market, that it might be because they don’t see it being a worthwhile investment.

Planetarion on mobile in 2019

An honest look in the mirror

It’s not fun to admit, but things don’t look so great on the surface.  The PBBG scene that was once hugely popular in the mid/late 2000s has seemingly faded into obscurity.  Those of us remaining have found ourselves in a hyper-niche market in the already notoriously competitive gaming industry.  What’s worse is, we've acquired a reputation for poor quality as professional studios shifted their attention elsewhere, leaving a vacuum that is continually filled by novice developers.  This isn’t their fault of course, but the low barrier of entry to develop PBBGs is both a blessing and a curse.  To be blunt, with professional studios focusing elsewhere, we’re left with a lot of games that look and feel, well, amateurish.

This is a particularly difficult challenge to overcome as many of our games are ran by tiny indie teams with little to no budget, and sometimes ran entirely by a single person.  However, there’s an unexpected upside: through this grind we’ve built an intimate community of developers who greatly support each other despite technically being competitors to each other.  We’re in the trenches together fighting against the odds.  We too have to fight smarter and do more with less.

Despite all of these hardships, our games still remain and the players still come. The appetite is still there, and we would find an even larger audience if we can do a better job giving players what they’re looking for.

So how do we actually do this?

Failure is opportunity

The good news is that it's never too late to adapt.  While the PBBGs of old can be excused for not offering a serviceable mobile experience, there is no good reason that our games by now shouldn’t be using mobile-friendly designs at a bare minimum.  Really though we should be aiming to create mobile apps too as a complementary interface to our game universes.  Mobile isn’t really a competing platform at all, it’s just the natural progression of our aim for accessibility.  There is no technical reason that a persistent browser-based game can’t also be a mobile app, though getting there presents plenty of challenges.

Thankfully, Web APIs in particular have matured enough that serving multiple platforms is more than viable.  We can and should support web browsers, mobile apps, etc.  Even chat bots can be written to interface with our game data.  Our past is rooted in accessibility, and if we want our best days to be ahead of us, then we must realize that our collective revival hinges on reclaiming our sense of ubiquity.

Torn (torn.com) is a PBBG that also offers a mobile app.

Of course, it’s not just where our players find our games that matter, it’s also the experience itself.  We have an opportunity to raise the bar for not only ui/ux and other matters impacted by web tech, but also just game-related things like mechanics, writing, and world-building and business related things like marketing, growth, and monetization.  We must keep our players engaged, and not just for nostalgia’s sake but for the sake of the games themselves.

If only there were a way we could organize ourselves, advise each other, and help each other grow for the benefit of the entire PBBG community. 🤔

The best is yet to come

This blog is the next step in an ongoing effort from our community to help our developers better realize their visions and yes, even profit from their hard work.  PBBGs, like many games, are just as much an art as they are a business and we aim to guide our developers on both fronts.

We’re not just here for the developers though.  We’re also here for you: the player, whether you're a past, present, or future player who has yet to experience your first PBBG.  Without you we have no purpose.  What good is a game if nobody plays it?  We’re here for more than just feedback too; we want to keep you connected to the developers themselves.

If a single person benefits from our efforts, we are all better for it.

I’ve been saying for awhile now that we’re on the cusp of a new era of PBBGs; a second golden age.  I still very much believe this, but it isn’t going to happen unless we challenge ourselves, reflect on the state of our games, and above all: communicate with each other.  That is why we’re going to be publishing posts from developers and players alike who wish to share their perspective, opinions, and in-game experiences.

"Send your fleet. SEND IT!"

To our PBBG developers out there: keep grinding and keep your head up.  I know it’s hard and that it can feel thankless, but you’ve got support behind you and we will help you achieve your goals if you’re up for it.  To our PBBG players, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.  Thank you for being here with us on this journey and thank you for being engaged.  Our games are only going to improve as you continue to provide your feedback and make your voices heard.

We really do have something special here.  The staying power of our games cannot be denied, and our future looks bright so long as we are willing to shine the light of critique onto ourselves.

What happens now?

Whether you’re a PBBG developer, player, or just a casual observer, we’d love to hear your thoughts too.  We welcome you to join the conversation. :)