The world of browser games is soon to be all shook up with the launch of Flash 11, which adds a new GPU-accelerated rendering API named Stage 3D (previously codenamed Molehill).
Adobe claims that Stage 3D's GPU acceleration will render 2D and 3D games up to a whopping one thousand times faster, allowing for shiny 3D games at 60fps. Older computers without suitable 3D cards get a boost too, as Adobe says software rendering will be 2-10 times faster than in Flash 10.
This won't be the first usable browser-based 3D, mind, not by a long stretch. The Unity engine has allowed proper 3D browser games for years now, but the Unity plugin can't hope to match the reach of Flash. Developers can be reluctant to make games which require a special plugin, when they know that the vast majority of users will already have Flash installed.
According to Adobe, "nearly half of the web" updates to a new version of Flash within four weeks of release, so very soon, enough Internauts will be able to play 3D browser games for developers to feel far happier making them. Unfortunately, we can probably look forward to a bumpy transition phase when many developers start making terrible games and hoping the novelty of 3D is enough to carry them, as we saw when in the early days of PC 3D accelerators and 32-bit consoles. Still, exciting times!
As for Unity, it's rolling with the punch, viewing Stage 3D as a new opportunity rather than strictly a competitor in the browser games space. An upcoming version of Unity is adding the ability to publish games to Flash, wrapping them in Flash so they don't need the Unity plugin. As Unity is a full game creation tool rather than simply an engine, it hopes developers making 3D games will do so in Unity.
There are, of course, other Flash 3D game engines and frameworks, but Unity is well-established, especially with indie developers.
Here's an example of a polygon-tastic 3D Flash game, a Flash version of Frima Studio's PSP game Zombie Tycoon:
Adobe announced yesterday that it'll arrive in "early October," along with its standalone counterpart AIR 3.