Categoría -Web video games

The Fall and Rise of Social Video Games on the Web

When we hear the term social video game, we intuitively think about video games whose main feature is interaction with other people. However, this definition has changed radically over time. To understand its significance and possible evolution, in this article I’ll be talking about the transformation this concept has undergone from its origins around 1998 to today. With this global perspective, I’ll finish by sharing my vision about the future of social video games.

Social Video Games before Facebook

The creation of video games was a huge innovation that offered a completely new user experience. Curiously, despite the fact that video games seems to be a digital translation of games, they have a very different nature and meaning. This similarity of names has created and still creates a lot of confusion, since there is a tendency to believe that video games offer the same experience as games but digitally, when in fact, in most cases, this is not true. Physical games are inherently social by definition. On the other hand, despite the fact that video games brought such radical innovations as the infinite possibility of imagining new spaces and ways of playing, they lost one of the main aspects of games: their social component. That is, we went from physical games where socialization was the raison d’être, to video games where socializing was no longer a priority, but where attractive, fantastic new worlds could be found for young players to discover new experiences that would challenge their imagination. Following that line of thought, the industry soon filled up with video games that could be played alone.

However, there has, in the industry, always existed the need to include that original social spirit. This came about via multiplayer video games, which allowed players to share the experience with friends, one way or another. The appearance of the first social video games was the result of bringing the physical games that we all played in our childhood to a greater or lesser extent to the web: games like chess, checkers/draughts, Parcheesi, bingo, Scrabble, Monopoly and Hearts; really any game that could be played with cards or on a board that was designed for more than one person. It was like an online Compendium of games, where games were created to entertain a whole group, be it of friends or family.

Before Facebook, there was no formal or at least widespread definition of social video game. I remember back in 2002, at a meeting at the web video game startup where I used to work, which ended up being a leading company in the field, we were arguing about how to name what we had created in order to differentiate ourselves from other video games and competitors. After an intense debate, we agreed to define them as social, dismissing terms such as “classic”, “online”, “for all”, “multiplayer”, “family”, etc. For us, social interaction and bringing together more people to play was the meaning that defined what we were doing: socializing via video games.

In this new category of video games, the social component, understood to be the interaction between several people during one match, was the priority over any other feature. It was even more important than fun the video game itself provided. It was a return to the original concept of a game, where interaction between people was at the core, and where the goal was to maximize the players’ experience exploiting that interaction. As a consequence, the differential feature was in focusing on the human needs and inquisitiveness inherent in interpersonal relationships, elements that are universal and timeless, and thereby transcend genres, countries, and cultures. From them stem game mechanics like collaboration, competition, sharing, cooperation, challenge, etc. that could only come from interactions between people. Studies of this type of video game focused on gameplay in socialization, an inexhaustible resource, because that’s what defines us as people. By shifting the focus from game playing to socialization, engagement became infinite.

In this time period, from 1998 to 2004, several companies popped up, trying to bring this concept of social game to the Internet. One of the first was pogo.com, which in 1998 offered virtual rooms specific to different games, where the users could find tables where they could sit down to play a game with other people in the community. The portal classicgames.com, which was later bought by Yahoo and turned into Yahoo Games, offered similar entertainment. Also juegon.com and ludoteka.com were born in that timeframe prior to Facebook.

However, these and other websites evolved to be generalist video game portals, including all types of video games, in addition to online multiplayer games. They widened the concept of “social” almost to be the same as “community”, where the bulk of interpersonal interaction was no longer in the video game itself, but rather in the platform that they were surrounded by: services like friend lists, rankings, chats, table searches, competitions, etc.

From a bit more technical point of view, all these video games were online multiplayer games, mostly playable on a desktop browser, and developed primarily in Java or later in Flash. The terms multiplayer and social were used interchangeably, since both needed more than one person to play. However, social video games emphasized the relationships between people, while multiplayer games were focusing more on the video game’s gameplay, where people played together to get a more immersive experience. As an anecdote, there was even the problem especially when things were just getting started when a user couldn’t start a game because of a lack of people. One widespread solution, though decidedly unpopular among purists, was to create robots, which is now actually quite in vogue.

Social Video Games after Facebook

The impact Facebook had on social video games (and video games in general) was radical. It’s even worthy of coining new terms, BFB and AFB (before- and after Facebook). Although the metaphor with basing our calendar on the birth of Jesus Christ is exaggerated, it does mark a major milestone.

Jokes aside, Facebook was a revolution. It showed that there are video games for all, not just for a male teenage minority. Facebook made it possible to develop less competitive video games that were designed for the vast majority, where you could start by playing by yourself, and then use the fruits of your play to interact with your contacts inside the social network. The impact was such that hundreds of millions of people played on Facebook every day. And from that success, the term “social game” came to be used to name the video games you could find inside a social network, a term that was practically synonymous with Facebook. Actually, they should have been called social network games, which is a more precise term for what they are. But for that, the users would have had to have knowledge of the history of video games and the concept of social, which they just didn’t have, as many were playing for the first time.

The most successful games were single-player, with a format aimed at tasks and collection, and continuously rewarding achievements. They were games that were easy to play, had no punishments, and were very low-stress. One of the biggest hits was including a management of time that aligned very well with how people were using Facebook itself, that is, short, frequent visits. Video game designers included time as a resource in the game itself, which could be played for only short timeframes, but at the same time, needed to be played assiduously.

At first, they used the social network to advertise the game among one’s contacts with prizes, which really got them to go viral. Later, they began using the social network to maximize the game experience, applying video game theory and psychology to increase profitability. Then, video games began to come with consumable virtual goods, exploiting the social infrastructure of Facebook to go viral and grow quickly. However, the social part of the video game was reduced to sharing scores, showing off achievements, and adding contacts (not friends), which had very little to do with the former social meaning before Facebook.

The unprecedented success of the first video games caused the business model to be refined and to become much more aggressive. Designers started focusing on the exploitable economic behavior on social networks, turning contacts into mere resources to augment the game’s profitability. Players were invited to share all their achievements as a means to get some reward, without realizing they were becoming a source of spam. Upon reaching that point, some began to ask, are social video games really social?

What is true is that Facebook made video games popular to the point of massification. It made it possible for games to reach all, for free. It destroyed the mental structure of traditional developers and players, who thought that video games were only about killing, running, and showing off spectacular graphics. Hundreds of millions of people waiting for “their crops to grow” showed that there were new niches to discover. However, the enormous potential of the business that social networks represented with their billions of users caused the games to turn to aggressive and often annoying practices. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine what a social video game is, and how to reconcile it with social networks.

Re-imagining Social Video Games

It seems clear at this juncture that we need to rescue the original meaning of “social”. That’s why, in the future, a social video game must be based on social interactions between players. These interactions will happen as the game is being played, and will be reinforced by socialization tools offered by the community. The community is the social infrastructure that surrounds the video game, which could be a social network like Facebook, an ad-hoc community, or any combination of the two.

Traditional video games are based on creativity, meaning they’re inherently subject to aging, just like any other work of art. On the other hand, social video games are based on socialization and not creativity, which is much more ephemeral. The potential of the social component is that it transcends mechanics, platforms, technologies, genres and ages. That doesn’t mean that creativity is replaced by the social component; it is simply subject to it.

The key innovation in the future of social video games will be the way in which people interact. It will offer a moment of entertainment that will start with pre-existing social connections, which is to say, friends. These relationships will evolve, creating new digital and real social networks inside and outside the community. This socialization will be the driver of engagement in this kind of video games.

Another important aspect is the platform to play on. Historically, social video games were mostly for the PC. However, future social video games will be accessible from all types of devices, especially the mobile, and will be playable synchronously and asynchronously. This means that any person, at any time, from any device, will be able to play with a friend the way he wants to. That is, it will be the video game that molds to the player, and not the other way around.

In summary, social video games of the future will be more social and accessible from all devices. And probably, and this is more than a wish, they will do credit to their name.

The future of Web/HTML5 Games

In a previous article, I went over the most relevant advances in the area of web technologies of the last decade. The objective was to measure the level of maturity of these technologies, to look at them from the perspective of trying to predict how the web will evolve as a gaming platform in the next few years. On this occasion, I’m going to talk about my view of the future. Obviously, this is a bit daring on my part, and time will prove me right or wrong. However, it seems like a constructive activity to me, so with crystal ball in hand, here I go.

I’ve divided this article into four sections, which represent the most important possibilities for revolutionizing the web game industry, as well as the implications of this for other platforms.

New Web Platform

With the opening of mobile stores, first the AppStore and then Google Play, a new industry was created, based on the mobile platform, which we all know has grown exponentially. Since then, web games have suffered a considerable decline that parallels the growth of the mobile platform. With a similar offer in terms of type of games, mobiles, with their massive deployment and constant use, can offer a new user experience that is incredibly accessible. The result has been a substantial migration of players from the web to mobile devices.

The web, as a platform, couldn’t compete with mobiles, since web standards were still very immature and aimed mainly at desktop browsers. The biggest obstacle in that time period was that mobile browsers didn’t have the same abilities that desktop browsers did, meaning it wasn’t possible to develop web games. Web games for the mobile simply didn’t exist.

Now, however, we’re living in an unprecedented time in the history of the web, which looks like it might change the balance. After fifteen years of little to no evolution, practically all standard technologies that make up the web have been updated in the last two years. In my opinion, this technological transition is having a radical impact, which I summarize below:

  1. The new standards allow for the creation of content that was impossible with the older versions, rivaling in capacity and performance what mobiles offer natively (2D, 3D, peripherals, professional sound, access to hardware, etc.).
  2. The standards are applied to all browsers, including mobile versions. This means that, for the first time in history, it’s possible to develop video games that work on all devices, opening access to more than two billion mobiles and tablets.
  3. With the new standards, non-standard technologies, especially Flash, which were in massive use up to now in video game development, are no longer necessary. Web browser developers have decided to block non-standard content. This is forcing thousands of websites still running Flash games to update their entire portfolio.
  4. The web transcends browsers. Thanks to the open nature of the implementation of standards, it’s possible to develop solutions based on open-source code projects (Chromium, V8, Chakra, JavaScriptCore, SpiderMonkey, NodeJS, etc.), which allows apps that exploit the advantages of these web standards to be created.

Therefore, the word “new” that I used in the title of this section is of vital importance. We are now in a position to re-imagine web games, hoisting them up into a new category, leaving behind the belief that they can only be second- or third-rate products. From now on, web games will be first-class citizens that offer top-quality content. It’s only a matter of time before we see 2D and 3D games, in single-player and multi-player, with high quality sound and graphics, working smoothly on all devices. In fact, the main web game sites are already noticing this change, as can be seen in a recent tweet from Emily Greer, the CEO of Kongregate.

Another relevant aspect is that the process of updating the web has radically changed. From now on, updates to web standards will be much more frequent, and will parallel the advancement of technology. No longer will we have to wait fifteen years to see new features. In fact, the next versions are already popping up: HTML5.1, ES7, ES8. This ensures a much more agile evolution of the web, and therefore more possibilities to create better, and different types, of games.

This change is also arriving in a moment of severe overcrowding at mobile app stores, where large investments in marketing and publicity are needed in order to have any kind of visibility and reach users.

My opinion is that the recent evolution of web standards isn’t just a mere update, but rather a disruptive change, since it offers new capabilities that are in a completely different order of magnitude. You have to keep in mind that they’re cramming fifteen years of software progress in at once. That’s why my view, now more than ever, is that the web is turning into the next gaming platform, and that it will as such open up a new industry that’s still to be explored.

The main challenge for the web to experience exponential growth and exploit its multi-platform capability is for mobile users to willingly accept playing on a browser. This is an important bottleneck, because up to now, the only way to play a video game was to go to the store, find it, and download it. In fact, this process represented the life cycle of the app, and the native way of working in the mobile platform. This model has created a habit in users that will be hard to modify. However, new APIs like Google’s Add to Homescreen are channeled right at proposing an alternative. This API allows a web page to ask the user if they’d like to create a shortcut on the mobile desktop. If the user agrees to do so, an icon, indistinguishable from that of a classic app’s icon, will be created, and when tapped, the icon will open the browser in full screen, even hiding the browser’s address bar, again making it indistinguishable from an app. So, the user’s experience will be very similar to that when using a native app. We’ll have to wait and see if other browsers implement this feature.

Super-apps as Platforms

The most important feature of web standards is their multi-platform nature. The most obvious way of consuming multi-platform video games is the browser; however, it’s not the only one. Super-apps are creating a new trend that intelligently exploits the multi-platform nature of the web. Super-apps are normal apps that have evolved into becoming their own platforms. This means that they offer the possibility of installing other services, designed by third parties, in the app itself. The first services offered in this new mode were bots and video games. The challenge was to select a sufficiently powerful, flexible, and popular technology that would work on all operating systems, and obviously, the best-adapted technology to working on a large number devices is the web.

The first super-apps to offer HTML5 games developed by third parties and embedded in their platform were messaging apps Telegram, Kik, and Messenger. The most interesting thing about these messaging apps is that they’re actually social networks that use video games as a tool for increasing user engagement. You have to keep in mind that between these three super-apps, there are more than two billion monthly users. This allows developers to get the chance to have their games go viral, exploiting the social characteristics of these apps like challenging friends, sharing achievements, creating rankings, etc. On the other hand, messaging app users find an instant entertainment option without having to leave the app, which is a new user experience. A priori, this is a win-win situation, because the app, the developer community, and finally users all benefit. We’ll have to keep a close eye on the evolution of these and other super-apps to see if they can consolidate as yet another gaming platform.

Apps as Game Portals

Another interesting trend that is exploiting the same feature as super-apps, but with a different focus, is that of apps that act as game portals. These are apps that can mix native features with games developed in HTML5. Like super-apps, web technologies allow them to update their game portfolio dynamically and instantaneously, that is, without having to go through all the approval steps in stores.

Another advantage is that since we’re dealing with web content, they can also offer the same games via conventional websites, publish them in super-apps, or even turn themselves into super-apps by offering their app to third parties for publishing. This way, they can make the most of all channels. An excellent example of this type of app is Gamee, which just raised another round of financing totaling $2.2 million.

Also in this category, but with different focuses, are two other interesting startups: Blackstorm and PlatoApp. Blackstorm raised $33 million in their first round of financing, which they’re going to use to try to become the alternative to app stores. The company has also been one of those chosen to create one of the first HTML5 games for Messenger, called EverWing. And just a week ago, we heard about the opening of a company called R Games along with Japanese giant Rakuten. The goal is to launch an HTML5 video games portal for the Japanese and Asian markets.

Similarly, PlatoApp is proposing a combination between a messaging app and classic multiplayer games. Although their first round of financing raised a more modest $3 million, Plato is led by the creators of Yahoo! Games, which will certainly lead to interesting proposals.

My opinion is that we’ll soon see more startups based on this approach, as they can make the most of all the options that web technologies currently offer when it comes to video games.

Hybridization of Platforms

Video game platforms are made up of three pillars: a device with an operating system that runs the game, a tool to develop it with, and a marketplace to distribute it. In the web platform, thanks to its open nature, there isn’t a single entity that offers these three elements, but rather delegates these roles to the industry.

This way, the web doesn’t have one development tool, but rather many. There isn’t just one marketplace, but many. And they’re not limited to one type of device and one operating system, but rather they can work on all of them. Plus, unlike other platforms whose main axis is a device and/or operating system like Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, Android, and iOS on mobiles, the web doesn’t have a destined device/operating system combo, but rather an implementation of the standard. That is to say, it’s a software platform, most commonly a web browser. However, as I commented earlier, this is changing quickly, and the browser is just one of the many examples of the implementation of this standard.

This technology, expressly designed to adapt to many devices and operating systems with different characteristics, is also building bridges to other platforms. With this, not only is the platform more flexible, but it’s also evolving to a platform where the whole world can be. In fact, my opinion is that it’s a platform where everyone will want to be. And they’ll do so by using three technologies:

  • Emscripten. This allows video games developed in C++ and other languages to be ported to JavaScript. Actually, it translates it to a subset of JavaScript called asm. There are many examples out there of the use of this technology.
  • WebAssembly. This is still in development, but it represents a milestone in the production of web games. We could say that WebAssembly is the optimized and official evolution of Emscripten. It also lets games developed in other programming languages to be ported to WebAssembly, and develop general purpose highly optimized modules. Browsers will be able to run WebAssembly safely and with a performance that is near native. All the professional game tools, such as Unity, Unreal, etc., are already working to be able to export their games to WebAssembly. That is why this will mean the launch of a new category of web games, which will coexist with their native brethren on other platforms. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the same game will evolve on different platforms, with different marketing campaigns designed ad hoc for each platform. Since web marketing is so much more affordable that native platforms, my opinion is that the presence of web games will grow well in the next few years.
  • Hybrid apps. These are apps that actually include a pseudo-browser that runs the game. The appearance and the user’s experience is the same as a conventional app, making them indistinguishable from conventional apps most of the time. Many companies are taking this approach, not just for games, but also for all types of apps, because it allows them to port them easily to other platforms.

Bearing all this in mind, and that the web already represents a multi-device platform, it’s clear that soon, the concept of web will transcend the desktop browser, and open up to include all browsers, including those on mobiles, televisions, and other devices. The fact that games on other platforms can be ported to the web with one click will make the rivalries and the lack of confidence of the web as a gaming platform diminish. The time will come when the web is a normal target platform; the process will go from developing a mobile game and porting it to the web to design a game taking into account from the scratch that it will be ported to the mobile and the web, for example.

Conclusion

Keeping all the above in mind, it’s clear that in the next few years, we’re going to see video games developed with web technologies designed for browser for all devices; video games embedded in apps; video games aimed at messaging apps; and video games developed in other languages and ported to the web all living together. And they’ll all be web games. There will be a lot of changes in a short amount of time, and this will have an interesting affect on the video game industry as a whole. What’s clear is that the web is the next gaming platform, a new and special platform, different to the existing ones, but which leverages their potential and at the same time complements them. Isn’t it wonderful?

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?