Currently the most popular free online games on the Internet consist of 2d games created in Adobe Flash. Popular with many free game portals, these games are often fun but can seem primitive compared to the complexity and potential of browser based 3d games. The tools available for you to develop games inside a browser consist of a lot of options but I will focus on 3 major software packages. As a professional game developer, I will outline some of the choices developers have available to them to create games that work inside a web browser and a brief overall history.
Browser based 3D gaming is an old concept first popularized with Adobe Shockwave which was first materialized in 1995. Originally called Macromedia Shockwave, it was the first and most successful multimedia player format until now Macromedia Flash (now known as Adobe Flash) came onto the scene. In the beginning Shockwave was created for making a wide variety of online media content but today has come to primarily focus on online games and their development. There is a difference between Flash and Shockwave development that is important to note. Flash files are typically faster to load and only consist of 2D graphics. Shockwave files are a more versatile development environment which allow greater complexity, more detailed animation hierarchies and more in depth overall interactivity. Shockwave is such a versatile tool that often it is disregarded as a tool to develop solely web content. A little known fact is some of the retail games I have personally worked on used Shockwave to create entire full length PC games such as CSI 2: Dark Motives and CSI: Miami.
Part of the appeal of Director for an authoring tool for game development is the wide install base it enjoys in mature markets such as North America and Europe. Adobe has given the number of Shockwave ready Internet-enabled PCs at 60%. Over 480 million Internet-enabled PC's have installed the Shockwave software making ease of access for shockwave games a great benefit for developers. Also the ability for developers to create external plug-ins called "Xtra's" opened the door for greater flexibility in development. Combined with the existing years of documentation and tutorials out there, Adobe Shockwave is a great option for game developers. The downside to Adobe Shockwave is the outdated networking support and lack of certain basic elements such as 2nd UV coordinates and CBV coloring.
New to the 3d browser based game stage is the product known as Unity. Unity features a much richer tool set solely focused on creating interactive games. The graphical engine integrated is leaps and bounds above the quality found in Adobe Shockwave player. Unity boasts multi-platform capability which means it can be used to create products for Windows, Macintosh, Wii, Web-browsers or Iphone. Unity's decision to focus on creating a versatile game authoring tool is clearly evidenced by its superior proprietary tool sets for navigation and placement of game objects. The terrain tool set included with Unity is almost reason alone to justify the purchase price, as you are given the option of paint brushes to sculpt out realistic landscapes, blend life-like textures and generate lightmaps to enhance realism. As a games artist, I know that a lot of time is spent creating these type of landscapes and this is a huge time saver.
The ability for developers to create products that can be simultaneously ported to Wii and iPhones make Unity an extremely powerful tool. This maximizes the return on time invested with multiple products. Unfortunately until the release of Unity 2.5 which has been under development for almost a year, developers would have forced to work in a Mac only environments which is not usually what small developers use.
Another authoring tool available similar to Unity is Stone Trip's Shiva. This tool is a graphical user interface tool and can also create products for Windows, Macintosh, Web-browsers or iPhone but not the Wii easily. In fact almost all of the same features offered by Unity are matched by Shiva including that exceptional terrain editor. A free version is available for anyone to try out which is also a nice feature for cash strapped independent developers. This free version is limited only in that you can not publish the final version but gives anyone the ability to try before they buy. The only downside I can see to this great product is the format competition it currently is up against. Of course this obstacle can be overcome with the right products developed or a great title released.
With a bit of patience and doing the appropriate research, independent game developers have more choice now than previously in creating 3d browser games. These are not all of the available options but just three of the more interesting ones I have come across.