InstantAction.com – the predecessor of F2P games (that you’ve likely never heard of)
Way, way back in 2002, a company called GarageGames started selling a then-AAA game engine called the Torque Game Engine (TGE). In case you don’t know what’s so special about this engine, it’s the one which Dynamix of Sierra On-Line fame used to create Tribes 2, the mega-popular sequel to Starsiege: Tribes.
The cool thing was not only did it cost $100 per seat (individual user), making it much more affordable to indie game developers than licencing, say, Unreal Engine 1, there was a free demo for the TGE which had almost complete feature-parity to the full version and had very few licensing restrictions (with the possible exception of royalty fees; I’m not sure). In other words, you could take the demo version of the TGE and develop and release an actual game – you could even make a demo version for your game! Keep in mind that this was 7 years before Epic Game released the Unreal Development Kit (UDK), which was very similar to how GarageGames did things with the TGE – with the exception that the UDK has complete feature-parity the the regular Unreal Engine 3 – and it becomes evident that GarageGames was light-years ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, it would seem GarageGames was too far ahead of its time – about 20 or so games were actually made (I’m not privy to the exact number), and while a few of these games won various awards for gameplay and innovation, it wasn’t enough to keep GarageGames afloat. Thus, in 2007, GarageGames was bought out by InterActive Corporation and renamed InstantAction.
InstantAction.com, the company’s landmark website, was just as forward thinking as GarageGames’s licencing model for the TGE – except in a different way. Instead of offering unparalleled licensing fees, InstantAction.com allowed visitors to gain access to a free collection of arcade-style games, ranging from top-down arcade space shooter ZAP! to an exclusive PC port of GarageGame’s popular XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) game Marble Blast Ultra, the then-latest title in GarageGames’ series of modern-day remakes of the 1980’s arcade and console game Marble Madness. What made the site special was how it allowed its visitors to access these games. Utilizing a special plugin, called (confusingly) InstantAction, InstantAction.com allowed you to play any game, regardless of what game engine or programming language it used, to be playable through your browser. All you needed was to download the game of your choice – all of which were under 100MB in size – and you were able to play the game as though it were running on your desktop – including multiplayer game modes!
Of course, this was all well and good, but the site needed a way to make money from the games on its site, a process called monetization. To do so, the games on InstantAction.com slowly began to have parts of them, some cosmetic, some major, locked off. Want to use these cool-looking marbles? Cough up some change. Have an urging to join your friends on a multiplayer map? Sure can – unless the map is part of a paid set, in which case, get out your credit card. Want to get that bigger, better tank? Not unless you pay up.
When people started complaining about having to pay for content, especially as more games were added to the service, InstantAction attempted to rectify the situation with things like sales and a subscription package, which gave you access to all current and future DLC for a monthly fee. After a couple of years or so, it became obvious that InstantAction had failed to successfully monetize InstantAction.com. Thus, likely as a prelude to their eventual demise, InstantAction.com released all DLC for free. And, as the saying goes, there was much rejoicing.
In March of 2010, all of the original InstantAction.com games became relegated to a category of games called “Arcade” and taken down, with the promise that they would return. In their stead, InstantAction announced that they had struck a landmark deal with LucasArts to integrate The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition with the latest version of the InstantAction plugin, which, unlike the previous versions of the plugin, allowed games to be played as they were being downloaded. Now this was revolutionary! Before, only a single PC title had this ability: the Windows Vista-exclusive port of Halo 2 using a special installation technique which was never used again on any Windows title. Now, any game could utilize a similar installation technique, and people could play it in their browser to boot! Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. InstantAction closed down in November 2011. While the company was eventually resurrected under its original name, GarageGames, by another company, the InstantAction plugin was abandoned, thus marking an end to InstantAction as it was once known.
Now, as you read through that long tale, did anything sound familiar?
Yup. Before you could pay for a subscription to unlock everything in a game, InstantAction.com did it. Before you could buy your way to victory, InstantAction.com did it. Before you could play full, non-Flash games for free in your browser, InstantAction.com did it. Heck, before map packs were made popular by Call of Duty, InstantAction.com did it! Of course, all these things are (or were) popular nowadays, but InstantAction.com was way ahead of them. That’s what I found quite remarkable about InstantAction.com in retrospect – it predicted, if not pioneered, the future in a very unconventional way.