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Are we already in the HTML5 games Plateau of Productivity? - Raul Otaolea

Are we already in the HTML5 games Plateau of Productivity?

During these last twelve months, some of the greatest advances in web technology in the past decade have, without a doubt, taken place. There have been so many new things that it deserves a look back and a look ahead, which is what this post is all about.

Like all technology that questions the status quo, HTML5 has caused a lot of controversy between its supporters and detractors, filling out innumerable pages of digital media. Given all this media noise, it’s a good idea to remember methodologies like Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which allows us to step back and analyze how a technology evolves in terms of market adoption and expectations. In our case, it helps us better understand where HTML5 really is right now as a technology for creating web-based video games industry. Therefore, I’ll try to put the different phases of Gartner’s cycle in time, referring to some of the most relevant events. Obviously, this is a personal opinion and other points of view fit in, so I’m not going to try to be exhaustive, but rather just try to give an overview and stimulate debate. Any grain of rice is more than welcome.

Technology trigger

As you can see in the above image, the first implementations of HTML5 came with Firefox in 2009. However, it wasn’t until 2010 when Chrome set a higher pace in creating the standard with the inclusion of tags like canvas, audio and video. Later came geolocation, web sockets, WebGL and continuous improvements in the performance of its Javascript V8 engine. As I see it, all these breakthroughs meant the beginning of the Technology Trigger stage, which is characterized by a large presence in digital media but without there being any products that refute its commercial viability. Beyond the advances in the implementation of the standard, what was most likely the first well-known operation was the acquisition of the Finnish startup RocketPack for $10M by Disney.

Peak of inflated expectations

Given the rapid evolution in the standard’s coverage and the official announcement by W3C of a date for the finalization of the standard after… 15 years of development!, expectations for HTML5 were running high. It was here, in 2012, when, in my opinion, the Peak of inflated expectations began, with the creation of startups like GameClosure with around $12M. Or movements by publishers, such as the investment of $5M by Boostermedia in HTML5 games, followed shortly afterwards by Spil Games with another $5M. There were also big failures, such as Wooga, which abandoned its HTML5 video games, or the extremely well-known comments by the founder of Facebook admitting their mistake for having bet on HTML5 too soon. Something similar happened to Goko, which raised around $8M to create HTML5 video games, and which had to be withdrawn after only two days running due to technical problems.

Trough of disillusionment

After all that activity, around the end of 2012, the Trough of Disillusionment began, motivated largely by the immaturity of the initial versions of HTML5, which didn’t allow the video game sector to give it its full backing. At this stage, the comparisons between HTML5 and native focuses were continuous, each side saying how great they were while pointing out the other’s faults. The main criticism against HTML5 was is lack of performance, its horrible sound management, its programming language which was not apt for big developments, a still unconfirmed business model, etc. On the other hand, its advantages were its capacity to work with many devices and browsers, its huge developer community, its ease to turn any video game into a native one via hybrid applications, its ability to be immediate updated, and for dessert, a new platform as an alternative to the saturated native markets.

My position has always been that the web is per se a video game platform. Therefore, there is no place for arguments about whether HTML5 is better or worse than native solutions. Each platform has its idiosyncrasies, its advantages and disadvantages. It would be very strange to compare consoles with mobile video games, or PC games with console ones. We can compare the Xbox to the PlayStation to say which one we like best, just like on the web we tend to go for one browser or another. But you can’t compare apples to oranges.

Slope of enlightenment

Finally the end of 2013 came, and with it two milestones. The first was the inclusion of WebGL, by default on Android Chrome and iOS Safari, the two most used browsers on mobile. With this leap forward, both PC browsers as well as mobiles could support graphic acceleration with hardware, which was an absolute requirement for the web to turn into a viable game platform, making technologies like Flash, Silverlight, JavaFX, etc. obsolete in one fell swoop (in fact, the news a year after that moment was not boding at all well for Flash even on PCs). The second big milestone was the finalization, after 15 years of development, of the HTML5 standard. And with it, in my opinion, came the beginning of a new stage in the Garner cycle, the Slope of Enlightenment, where we are now, and the prelude to the true explosion of web-based video games.

However, the novelties and evolution of technology don’t end here. Since the finalization of HTML5, many new things have happened. Especially notable is the finalization of the Javascript 6 standard (more formally, ECMA-262 6th edition, or ECMAScript 6, or ES6, or ECMAScript 2015 or …) in June 2016. Javascript, HTML, and CSS are the three pillars of web programming. The new version of Javascript is a major step forward in the modernization of the language, responding to the historical demands from the community, especially with respect to the object orientation, the scope of variables, and a series of characteristics that allow for the organization of large projects. However, the companies behind browsers have still not totally implemented the new version, so the time they take to invest in doing it will be critical in making Javascript 6 another great leap forward for the web in general and for web games in particular.

Plateau of productivity?

In addition to the advancement in standards, there are other important breakthroughs from companies. At the GDC 2014, Mozilla presented ASM alongside Epic Games. ASM is a highly optimized subset of Javascript which allows C/C++ code to be ported to the web. Epic Games gave a presentation of a 3D demo compiled in C++ and then taken to ASM to be seen it in a browser. It was the first piece of evidence that the web will be the next gaming platform. Nevertheless, ASM is limited in many respects if we compare it to other programming languages. This is probably the reason why another great movement has been coming from Mozilla, Google, Microsoft and Apple to create a new standard called WebAssembly or wasm, also under the W3C umbrella. With wasm, it will be possible to increase the characteristics that Javascript offers via modules, and it will allow low-level programming primitives commonly present in other programming languages (read the excellent interview with Brendan Eich about this topic). This means that much more ambitious video games can be created with a much faster loading time than today. WebAssembly is definitely the definitive support for turning the web into an unprecedented video game platform, since video games that currently only work in native environments can now be ported to the web platform.

And the news doesn’t stop there. Browser vendors started to deploy the second version of WebGL, called WebGL2, which allow for even more graphic computing power. Moreover, Apple has recently proposed to create a new standard API to get advantage of the modern GPU features as Direct3D, Vulkan or Metal do. Another standard called WebCL is also being implemented for parallel computation to better exploit devices with CPUs or GPUs with several cores. Along those lines, we also have to mention SIMD, Single Instruction, Multiple Data, a technique included in many processors that allows for the parallel execution of instructions for data vectors, thereby increasing performance in mathematical operations and graphics. OSS projects like Cordova allow web applications to be converted into native applications (commonly called hybrid apps). And finally, there is Microsoft’s return to the web panorama with its new browser, Edge.

From a business perspective, it also has to be mentioned the recent Facebook announcement about their new HTML5 cross-platform gaming experience on Messenger and Facebook News Feed. However, right now, games don’t feature ads and don’t allow in-game payments, so Facebook will need to eventually offer developers ways to make money if the want to keep them building for it. In any case, it is a huge step forward for HTML5 games and will give plenty to talk about.

Therefore, the future for web video games is promising, and time is bringing together the vision that I had when I entered the web gaming, which was none other than the web is the next video game platform. So when will the plateau of productivity begin? Good question. What do you think?

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