GamingInstant Action is that rare site: one that offers free high-end browser-based games for both PC and Mac gamers. These titles offer 3D graphics and a diverse gaming experience. Instant Action offers 3D puzzlers, futuristic first person shooters and tank combat simulators, as well as 2D action games.

Instant is a tempting proposition, but it seems to be a well-kept secret. Why are its game lobbies like wandering through a digital ghost town? A populated set of servers could go a long way to entice more players to come. So why aren't they populated?

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Taking Fallen Empire Legions as an example, I guess I'd have to say it's trying to sell a product that everyone else has already bought somewhere else. It's hard to get people excited about a free cross-platform first person shooter when the graphics aren't of the same level as Team Fortress 2, Counterstrike: Source, Call of Duty 4, et al. Hell, I'd even play Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 Arena instead of Fallen Empire Legion.

As a general rule, the major titles for the site are cheaper knock-offs of games you want to play. While high end games are well-crafted units, the games at Instant Action come off as the cheap prizes you win at carnivals. They look like real games on the surface until you're up close and realise there isn't much to them.

Rokkitball I applaud for being an original idea, or at least one that people aren't used to. The game is a 3D multiplayer where you have to guide a ball into an enemy's goal. The catch is that the player with the ball is temporarily unarmed, and everyone else has a rocket launcher they can use to stop the opposing player. The game becomes part team-based FPS and part football simulator and was a good 30 minutes of fun.

But as fun as Rokkitball is, it's hard to guess the intended audience. Sport fans? FPS fans? Both? The other games on Instant Action seek to similarly bridge the gap between divergent gaming niches, like casual and hardcore gamers, and the results are likely to be missed by both groups.

Steve Meretzky, one of the leading voices of casual gaming, describes casual games as historically being "easy to start, free or inexpensive, reveal complexity gradually, not frustrating, offer non-violent themes and have short-play sessions". All of these qualities describe the games on Instant Action, with the exception of the non-violence rule. Yet, the graphical complexity is superior to most casual games and the games' content is focused on genres more associated with hardcore games than casual.

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The site's unclassifiable games make them unique, but also lacking in qualities necessary to capture certain shares of the market. Fallen Empire Legion, for example, strikes me as a watered-down version of Tribes 2. But trotting out such knock-offs won't likely draw many of the hardcore crowd. The games aren't complex or original enough to appeal to the hardcore game demographic so they need to stay attractive enough for the casual game audience.

And, while the last few years have proven that casual gaming is a growing industry and casual games don't necessarily have to be kid-friendly, brightly coloured fluff, I don't know if casual gamers are willing to pop in to Instant Action to spend their time on declawed 3D action titles.

If some of these games ring familiar, it may be because Instant Action is the work of GarageGames, the purveyors of the multi-platform game development technology Torque Game Engine. Marble Blast, for example, was a free game included on some shipping Macs for a while. And others, like Think Tanks, have been around as shareware for years.

Only launched in the last couple of months, Instant Action still has vast potential for growth. More titles will attract more users, and bigger communities tend to attract even more users. Though the lineup currently is inconsistent, Instant Action deserves credit for producing games that are a step above casual offerings and yet still are easier to pick up than most hardcore titles. As gamers become less classifiable and more diverse in their interests, Instant Action's strategy may look better and better with time.

Chris Holt writes for Macworld