[Editor's Note: Contributing writer Derek Kean works in the community team at 3D Fashion Games World, Frenzoo. He can be contacted at: derek at frenzoo dot com.]
The idea is simple but radical: turn everyday web browsing into a game - a group experience together with other surfers.
While searching Google or browsing your friends photos on Facebook you could be playing games, undertaking quests or chatting with other avatars also at the same sites.
The concept of collaborative browsing isn't new, witness social browser Flock or social recommendation services such as StumbleUpon. In the past months the gameplay element of collaborative browsing has sped forward with venture backed players launching services and a handful starting to gain good traction. The fledgling genre, sometimes called Passively Multiplayer Online Games (PMOG) or parallel browsing worlds are an innovative take on free to play virtual worlds.
Instead of web communities such as Gaia or Stardoll where you log in and remain on the destination sites, PMOGs are plugged into everyday web behaviour. Giving new life to existing pages, rather than trying to construct a full virtual world of its own, these "meta" services ride on top of web surfing and layer gameplay, content and community around them.
Together with user generated content and communities, the experience can feel more personalized than in traditional online games and adds a new dimension to the pages you see every day. Privacy and other deployment issues aside (all need plugin/client downloads for the full experience), they are an interesting development and have the potential to redefine the web browsing experience for a new generation of consumers.
It's early days for PMOGs and there are different approaches being taken, from pure avatar chat through to scripted gameplay and questing whilst surfing the web. Let's take a look at 5 of the players in the space:
|Rocketon||www.rocketon.com||Mac and Windows - IE and Firefox plugin. Also a Lite web version for all browsers.||100,000+||F2P, Virtual Currency ("Rocket Dollars")|
|ExitReality||www.exitreality.com||Windows only plugin - IE, Firefox and Chrome||Not disclosed||F2P, Contextual & 3D Advertising|
|Mac and Windows - Firefox & Flock (Mozilla) only.||10,000+||Contextual Advertising and Sponsor 'badges' (not currently live)|
|Yoowalk||www.yoowalk.com||Flash on page||40,000+||Undefined- Possible Advertising & Space rental|
|Weblin||www.weblin.com||Client Download||2million+||Virtual currency for in-game iteams, and Banner Ads|
A parallel virtual world for 2D chat & flash games, Rocketon works as a 'top layer' to any website you are browsing. This enables each page in turn to become a virtual chat area. The avatar is customizable into any dimension and either human or animal/monster form. Since this works on top of the page, it is not heavily reliant on outside codes, and does not need to utilize a large amount of processing. The ability to switch between avatar walking or chatting and browsing the web is done by a button on the bottom left, which also serves as the chat bar and game starter.
The interactions that are enabled with Rocketon include surf following chat, where you can move from page to page while chatting and passing links, where-upon your avatars can meet up again. The ability to share your web experience with avatar chat and games definitely spices up many popular destinations. The only downside is you must visit Rocketon.com first, before going to any other websites.
Turn every web page into a 3D space. The workings of ExitReality are based on the VRML markup language, which as been around for a while, but neglected in recent years. Exit Reality is based on this language and is able to model any website into a standard room with both 3D and 2D content. Once web sites are optimized for ExitReality, a virtual room is made available.
There are many large web sites currently involved in this 3d World, including MySpace and Facebook, who allow each user page to have their own “virtual hangout room”. The ability to interact with others as well as with the environment makes this web browser feel more of a MMORPG, than a POMG. Each site that is optimized using ExitReality can choose from a variety of landscapes, from a treehouse to a beach house. And for savvy users you can edit your own space.
The Nethernet (or PMOG.com) is a passively multiplayer online game with a structure similar to the likes of StumbleUpon mixed with World of Warcraft. In this arena, players are free to roam any website, utilizing a toolbar in-browser to interact with other players. The web discovery aspect gives users the options to share any website they are on via setting 'portals'. Players are able to create missions to give badges and rewards to other players, thus sharing their selected sites.
Since any game has two sides to choose from, you are allowed to align with the seemingly good or bad. The good aim to share the web and it's randomness with the community and the bad are there to 'mine' the sites and cause chaos (also the name of the bad side). You are allowed to choose an avatar to represent yourself, but the gameplay does not include on-site avatars, and once the tool-bar is installed, there is no need to use any website portals to log in, or to browse through.
Taking the interactive city form is Yoowalk, an online portal for web browsing. With the interface at Yoowalk, the design is centered around a city where you are able to walk around each block and jump into websites that have been added to the directory. Each site that is indexed is given a virtual room where their content is delivered on the walls, and then after a click you are taken to the information requested.
Yoowalk is a flash player that gives virtual streets filled with different sites organized by country and topic, if you want USA news, you can navigate to a number of popular news sites. The user interactions let you chat with users via the flash portal and you can use your avatar for mobility, or you can speed the walking by clicking 'fly'. The gaming aspect is limited, but the user-interface is designed for web browsing rather than games. Different rooms can be made by each site; Google has a video room, main search, News, Maps and Mail.
Weblin is a passive multiplayer chat in the realest sense. Your avatars are static on the bottom of the page, which helps when trying to actively surf your websites. Where others promote games and virtual rooms, Weblin is best for chatting with people who are currently where you are. You can add friends that will allow you to chat wherever you may be, but the main interactions are between yourself and others on similar top level pages.
Actions that users can do to websites include re-painting the site, flooding the page, making the site clouded, as well as raining roses or exploding the page. Weblin is the most popular with over 2 million users, and it shows. The interface is the least intrusive, with the avatars staying at the page bottom, and effects showing up rarely. Despite the client download and plug-ins users can enjoy a easy to use chat system that doesn't require surfing through a gateway site first, or running intensive graphics.
It is clear to see that the big players in the early stages of PMOG growth have taken very different approaches to how web browsing can be made interactive. From the casual web quests, to the on-page chat and antics with your avatars – and even changing the web itself to a 3D world, the ingenuity and innovation in these players is significant.
By their very nature, to be successful the services must build a critical mass of users to avoid the "ghost town" syndrome - and some are making great progress already. Looking at the numbers, and simple traffic statistics show that PMOG communities are growing, with over 2.3 million users within these five networks alone.
The strong indicator of how these sites are to be in the future rests in the hands of continuing to make each site add value to the web experience, and give the burned out web surfer a new wave to ride.
Because sharing communities have seen explosive growth for helping 'spread the word' (digg, reddit, delicious), and helping to explore the depths of the internet (StumbleUpon), the PMOG takes the human need for information and adds fun and interaction with others in real-time.