It’s the end of the era of games that look like “spreadsheets”, says Jeremiah Freyholtz, designer at Tilted Mill Inc., which runs the free-to-play browser-based game Nile Online (Playnileonline.com). He speaks to Lounge about the economics of browser-based multiplayer titles, how to handle squabbling players and learning mathematics while playing games. Edited excerpts:
Why make Nile a browser-based game? Do you see them becoming as complex and varied as stand-alone games or games on other platforms?
I’ve always had a lot of interest in the Web game space in general, but when it came to browser-based games, I rarely really got into them because they are generally too spreadsheet-like or archaic, despite how much I liked the premise.
With Nile, I wanted it to have a nice graphical presentation and not feel like a “browser game”, but a game that you just so happen to be playing through a browser (and without requiring any plug-ins). There are no “pages” that you are cycling through. The game is built similarly to Web apps like Gmail—everything is loaded and updated seamlessly. You don’t have to reload to see the game update.
The great thing about browser-based games as a platform is the accessibility, ease of updates and potential audience. If you can view a Web page, chances are you can play Nile Online. We’ve even had reports of people playing it via their iPhone!
Also, unlike other games we’ve made, this is a game you can play with just minutes at a time while at work or school, or in-between checking your favourite sites at home.
How does Nile improve on existing empire-building browser-based titles such as Travian ( www.travian.com) or Ikariam ( www.ikariam.org)? Also, how do you deal with making the game fair and balanced once you introduce the option of building military forces?
One of the big differences with Nile is its focus on playing cooperatively, and not competitively. There is an in-depth market and trading system underpinning the game, and everyone needs something from someone else.
Also, your cities cannot be attacked. You could play for months and never get involved in combat. But, if you want to construct monuments (one of the long-term goals of the game), you’ll need to build up an army to take over a monument plot and subsequently defend it from other players. This results in an ongoing King of the Hill-style game, because the monument plots are relatively limited in number.
Going forward, what kind of revenue model do you have in mind for Nile Online? Will it continue to be free to play with micro transactions, or will there be tiered accounts or subscriptions?
It will continue to be free to play, but it’s supported by advertisements. If you subscribe, the ads go away and you receive various cosmetic features. This is a deviation from many existing free-to-play games where you pay to get an advantage over other players. That’s an unattractive model to me because it would make me feel like I’m cheating if I’m paying, or at a disadvantage if I’m not.
Also, we hope that players who enjoy Nile Online will check out our other games!
You spoke of the complex economic model underpinning the game. Do you think games are powerful mediums in that regard—in being able to teach complicated ideas while being fun at the same time?
Oh, they absolutely are powerful in that regard. Even games that aren’t billed as “edutainment” offer educational qualities. I have fond memories of playing Oregon’s Trail in school, as well as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and even Number Munchers. Everyone in my class looked forward to the one day a week that we got to play them. But it wasn’t because they were teaching us things like history, geography and math (and they were)—from our perspective, they were just fun to play.