Browser Gaming is the (Near) Future

Sam Peurifoy
6 min readJan 11, 2023

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Browser gaming is coming back in a big way. Driven by five key trends, which includes the obvious pushback against the 15–30% platform fees charged by mainstream platforms (in addition to other less-obvious factors), droves of developers and users will soon happily migrate back to their old stomping grounds. It’ll almost feel like Flash never left.

Source: Midjourney

Five Loose Threads, One Big Result

A confluence of five key developments will drive game distribution back to browsers over the next 2–3 years. This is counterintuitive — games have increased in graphical and mechanical complexity since the early 2000’s when browser-based gaming was the default, and, given hardware and software constraints, it would be reasonable to assume game distribution would seek to permanently leave browsers in the dust in the modern era.

But that’s not shaping up to be the case. The five developments listed below around user behavior, software improvements, and publisher-developer dynamics are sending clear signals to the contrary.

Browsers are coming back in a big way.

1. Pushback on Platform Fees (i.e. Apple Store, Epic Games, Steam)

Core distribution platforms (like Apple Store, Epic Games, and Steam) charge relatively high fees (15-30%+) for distributing games, and developers are fed up with it. Users are too, as most studios blame those fees for higher in-app prices ultimately paid by players.

Beyond costs, mainstream distribution platforms overwhelmingly impose murky restrictions¹ around new technology (i.e. blockchain, NFTs, etc), and developers looking to push the envelope on what’s possible inside of a game environment may abandon ship and seek more creative shores.

2. WebGL’s Big Brother, WebGPU

WebGL, the current standard for high-performance in-browser graphical rendering, may be replaced by WebGPU in the next few years, which would permit 3.5x+ better performance in-browser, in addition to a number of modern quality of life improvements.

Rendering and general compute inside of a browser will never be one-to-one with the performance you get out of a program directly installed on a sturdy gaming PC. But it doesn’t need to be — some of the world’s most entertaining game loops (i.e. Stardew Valley, Minecraft, etc) can run on a TI-84 calculator. There’s more to a good game than 8k shaders, and WebGPU has more than enough firepower to get the point across.

3. AAA Investors Strike Back

AAA game studios continue to come under pressure as high user attrition rates and even higher development costs cause concern around potential for investment returns. This is partially a consequence of certain parts of gaming growing faster than their target audiences — only in the last decade has the stigma of “gaming” started to dissolve entirely from the public zeitgeist and start to shift gaming demographics. But it’ll take some time before mom & pop are sitting down at the family dinner table to play the latest AAA blockbuster with the whole fam.

The impact is that we may see a content squeeze at the high end of the output spectrum, leading to less compelling AAA content in the next few years. Instead, investors will deploy capital to scrappier, faster-returning & more monetization-driven gameplay experiences, which are usually synonymous with mobile (and, now, browser).

4. AI Tools — Power to the Indies

AI tools (e.g. ChatGPT, Midjourney, Scenario.gg and others), game engine templates, and open source projects have leveled the playing field between indie developers and massively funded studios, which narrows the gap between what a “funded” game and an “unfunded” game looks like.

Time will tell, but there are already compelling anecdotes from game builders noting substantial cost savings thanks to faster art iteration, easier animation, and more prolific storywriting. Taken together, these tools may increase both the quality and quantity of output in indie categories as developers reallocate resources to faster or meatier gameplay.

5. Blockchain & Digital Ownership

Digital asset ownership in games is complex and controversial, to say the least. But the trend is unmistakable — a shared public ledger with verifiable ownership is here to stay thanks to extensive benefits around user self-sovereign ownership, composability/interoperability, and trustless financialization. Game developers are keen to experiment, and early users have been fervent participants.

But blockchain UX today is rife with very serious friction problems that prevent “ordinary consumers” from entering the fray. Those issues, at least today, are most easily ameliorated by browser-first experiences, largely thanks to extension-based wallets directly in users’ browsers. This is a short-term advantage of deploying a game inside of a browser that will put scrappy games in the lead in the near-term, but may be competed away in 2–3 years when better consumer blockchain UX is implemented.

Direct-to-Consumer and Disaggregation

The net of this confluence of factors is that over the next 2–3 years a large number of quality projects will seek to deploy direct-to-consumer games via browser distribution, and technological improvements will support a new wave of user interest in these projects as players find themselves pleasantly surprised by reasonably strong graphics, lower prices thanks to fewer platform fees, and the benefits of digital ownership & blockchain.

This complements the continued dominance of mobile gaming.

Browser-based games are highly compatible across different mobile devices with less bugfixing and tuning required than would be for a cross-operating system port (i.e. it’s easier to play a WebGL browser build on an Android and an iOS device than it is to play an Android build on an iOS device). Mobile gaming adoption will not slow down anytime soon, and browser-based gaming presents an even lower-friction entry point for developers to convert the marginal new non-gaming user.

We’re seeing some very early examples of wins that are setting the standard in the browser-first category, namely Ev.io and Mini Royale, both of which have consistently garnered hundreds of thousands of active users, while other games that require download or launcher-style distribution have languished (despite being of relatively similar gameplay quality).

But browsers won’t be putting the Apple Store out of business, yet.

Mainstream users still sit with the traditional publishers. And, given the very real computing constraints inside of a browser, I don’t expect to see the world’s next Elden Ring deployed in a browser anytime soon. There will always be room for experimental and cutting-edge gaming for a niche audience.

But I do expect the world’s next Genshin Impact to be deployed in a browser. And, while Elden Ring may have won Game of the Year, Genshin Impact hauled in 4x the amount of revenue ($4bn vs $1bn) while running up almost identical costs in development ($200mn) thanks to its monetization-first gameplay and ease of accessibility. Browser-based gaming pours rocket fuel on both of those vectors. And, given the way the wind is blowing, if I were a betting man, I’d follow the money.

Note: Kudos to friends over at Konvoy Ventures who also wrote a compelling piece on the important of browser gaming in the modern era, check it out here.

¹Apple has variably argued that blockchain gas fees themselves must be paid through their in-app purchase system, which is technologically infeasible. They recently halted Coinbase Wallet on iOS over this.

Sam is the CEO of Playground Labs, a web3 protocol dev organization, and Partner & Head of Interactive at Hivemind Capital, a crypto-focused multi-strategy fund. Follow him on Twitter.

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Sam Peurifoy

Investing in & building new worlds. Views mine, not advice. Gaming VC @HivemindCap, chief tinkerer @xPlaygroundLabs.