Recommending Browser Shareware

I thought that I was done with my browser game reviews, but I’ve been continuing to play, and I’ve encountered an interesting phenomenon – browser shareware. These games operate at a rather high level of ambition, and are in fact available as stand-alone applications for pay. The browser version of the game is just a marketing device to hook the player into paying the 10ish dollars or so that these games seem to generally cost. This is interesting, as shareware isn’t nearly the phenomenon that it used to be even ten years ago, and these games have to compete with a cornucopia of excellently thought out free games.

My brother Markku recommended Creeper World to me a while back as is his wont. The game’s full name is Creeper World Training Simulation, which – alongside the ambitious plot – sort of hinted at the game’s shareware nature. I found out about the shareware angle after finishing the free Flash game; it was amusing, I hadn’t considered the shareware approach myself for browser games. When I stumbled on Now Boarding (or rather, Now Boarding Episode 1) yesterday and found out about its similar shareware angle, I had to conclude that this is apparently a feasible model. However, a shareware browser game needs to be really good to compete with the likes of Space Game – do these two games have what it takes?

Tabletop realtime strategy

Creeper World is essentially a tower defense game with ambitious, traditional RTS game elements. The tower defense aspect is in how the player fights his war with immobile units against an automated, asymmetric threat. The ambition comes up in that the game has a resource collection model, the immobile defense forces can be resituated for offensive purposes and the enemy does not come in neat waves unrelated to each other: rather, the enemy is a goo (“creeper”) that flows over the play area and destroys everything it touches. The kernel of the game is in the board topography, as the creeper flows down, pools in the low places and takes its time rising up to reach the high spots, which are therefore your default defensive positions. The ultimate goal is to blast the creeper away with various weapons that perform differently against deep pools of creeper or thin sheets, and so on. The game is rather dynamic as a war game even without any sort of artificial intelligence in the opposition – the game’s rules are the only opposition, and each scenario is like a puzzle.

I found Creeper World rather smart as a game, and I even liked the pathos in its space opera backstory. The puzzle-like scenario structure works for me psychologically much, much better than the infinitely increasing difficulty of typical tower defense games does; in this game your task is to figure out how a given topography can be conquered against the creeper, and once you do, you get to start again in a more challenging configuration. The core activity is not math-intensive like in the typical tower defense game – rather, it’s tactical, concerning priorization of goals, structuring forces and choosing the time to strike.

Airfield simulation

Now Boarding seems to be floating around in two distinct versions, probably as a result of a shoe-string production process of some sort. The end outcome, however, is a classy airport simulation of the sort where you’re given a budget and then spend it in various ways to optimize the flow of passengers and their happiness. I’m using the word “classy” here because the game puts a lot of effort in a friendly user interface and tutorials. While this is not an easy genre to sell, the game makes all the spreadsheet math look like playing with toys.

Perhaps the most successful part of Now Boarding is that it hooks the player by offering the most important thing in the genre, which is megalomanic growth. You might start with two small planes and servicing three cities, but by the end of a scenario you could be swinging a dozen or more cities and planes in increasingly more complex logistical challenge, with a large staff of automation slowly taking the place of your own patient clickety-clicking. This last part is my favourite: in most of the logistics games I’ve played the role of the player is static in that the same steps you micromanage in the start are the ones you’ll be micromanaging at the end of the game, even if your limited speed with the mouse should become the bottleneck of the whole operation. (Anybody who’s ever tried to play Civilization from start to end should be nodding along here.) Here, though, everything except route planning, the heart of the game, can be turned over to the staff you can hire, which allows the player quite some flexibility in developing his own role in the airfield organization. And it all makes sense as a gaming choice, because the automation is part of the game’s rules and you pay for it, so it’s not a choice between turning on automation to miss the game, or choking in trivia because you want to play the game fully yourself without training wheels.

Shareware option

I like both of these two games, they’re easily worth the money the publishers ask for them. However, I doubt that I’m going to buy them, even if they’re rather cheap, considering how few computer games motivate me to play them. Three reasons play into this:

  • The context of the purchase offer didn’t click for me in either case. I might not be looking hard enough, but for some reason I only seem to find out about the shareware nature of these games when I’ve played the demo version through and I’m directed to the publisher’s website. I definitely have nothing against this business model, but it turns me a bit bitter to be jumped by this in the middle of enjoying a game – if I knew that I was playing a demo before I went into it, I’d be much more likely to be in the frame of mind for a purchase at the end. So while it might superficially seem smart to downplay your game’s crippleware status so as to not scare away the audience, I don’t know if it works that way in the end – a game that I might have purchased had I given the choice up-front might be missed by me because I’m getting into the game at a moment when I’m not oriented to make a financial decision.
  • I’m not used to buying things off the ‘net. This is a pure matter of custom – if I had more things that I want, then I’d be more often in situations where I’d buy them through the ‘net, which in turn would mean that I’d be more used to buying things this way, and therefore would have less threshold in making the purchase decision. I’m just not much of a consumer. I’m pretty certain that had I encountered either of those games in, I don’t know, a game convention or something like that, I’d probably have dropped the money pretty easily. Then again, that’s a problem, as I don’t really go to video game conventions – and if I did, I suspect that I wouldn’t have the chance to play a demo for five hours to make up my mind about buying the game.
  • The competition is harsh. I can totally imagine that if I was younger or less informed or for some other reason had less selection in my pastimes, then I’d pretty quickly get over the above points to invest in a game I’m enjoying. As it is, though, the browser game media alone seems to offer massive options. Those two games are roughly as good as the best I’ve seen among browser games, but they’re not so much better as to reduce me into a hopeless addict at this point in my life. As it is, browser games are a minuscule slice of my cultural pursuits, so it’s rather unlikely that any single game could elicit more than entertained acceptance from me.

Hopefully there are other, more consumership-oriented people in the audience for this sort of game. I rather like how they combine browser game aesthetics with a full game creation procedure – these are not games you can whip up over the weekend on a dare, but rather something that would have been considered A-list even during the ’90s. I like the idea that there are still people out there trying to make money with extremely honed playability and ideas instead of graphical flash and exclusive marketing machines.

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