Gaming is no longer corralled into discrete and largely isolated platforms; users want to flit from mobile to web to console to tablet to PC, so the key challenge for any game developer is to get their product on as many devices as time and resources will allow.
In that respect, the promise of HTML5 is a sort of Holy Grail: game experiences once only available through native apps and plug-ins, now achievable seamlessly through the browser on any device that can support one - mobile, PC, tablet, smart TVs, you name it. Write a game once, take it anywhere.
HTML5: The Good
"In a recent survey of almost 2200 app developers, commissioned by Appcelerator, 79 per cent confirmed that they would be integrating HTML5 into their products in 2012. The various technologies that comprise HTML5 are still being discussed and refined by standards organisations and browser vendors, but for those involved in that process its place in the future of game development is all but assured.
Kevin Moore is one of those people. He is a veteran software engineer and a partner in Pixel Lab, the app developer behind the HTML5 pool game Agent 008 Ball and the HTML5 edition of mobile hit Cut The Rope. The latter game, in particular, illustrates a key point about HTML5: it may not be able to support Call of Duty exactly, but it's already more than capable of producing the sort of games that millions of people have paid millions of dollars to play.
"The set of experiences you can create now that work really well across mobile and desktop and TV, on whatever default browser people are using, without installing a plug-in, without installing an app, the quality of those experiences Is getting much better," Moore says.
"The browser is fine if you want to do Words With Friends. You don't need much more than a browser can provide. So why limit yourself to having three different engineering sets to understand - building iPhone and Windows Phone and Android apps - when you can just go HTML?"
Massively Fun's Grant Goodale frames HTML5 in much the same way. Right now, Massively Fun's MMO/word-game hybrid, Word Squared, is perhaps the most convincing demonstration of HTML5's unique strengths. The design is simple, certainly, but it offers seamless cross-platform interaction regardless of which devices the players are using. And if a new hardware platform were to emerge in the coming months, Word Squared could be ready for distribution almost immediately.
These qualities can be neatly summed up by one word: reach, and in that respect nothing else comes close to HTML5.
However, from Goodale's point-of-view there is another, quietly seductive quality to HTML5: it allows developers to leap-frog the administrative problems and prohibitive costs associated with releasing products on closed platforms like Facebook, iOS and Xbox Live.
"I fully expect a lot of small developers to be very gung-ho about HTML5," he says. "Our game designer has been working on a variety of platforms for about 20 years. He's a veteran of the console wars, and back then it was a couple of million dollars to get your foot in the door. The manufacturing and distribution costs are obscene.
"Then along came the web and Flash, and we thought, 'Oh great, we're free. We can publish our games anywhere we like. We're free of this tax to just put out a game. And then the web became Facebook, and all of a sudden it's a 30 per cent tax on everything that happens."
"Getting to skip app stores, especially in mobile, is huge," adds Moore. "In terms of how you think about monetising, in terms of the restrictions you have, in terms of update cycles; I've heard crazy things about how long it takes to update a game on Xbox, and the cost. So for me there's a pull to getting out of native apps, because of the overhead, and [HTML5] technology is moving so fast... It's so clear that this is the fastest moving area in development."
For Moore, the ease of distribution is also a major draw. Where plug-ins from company's like Unity have under-performed in terms of conversion rates, with HTML5 the developers' mechanism for deployment is a URL - something that virtually anyone who has used the internet can understand.
"You have to tweak [the app] so that it downgrades nicely on the iPhone, and you have to tweak in Opera, and tweak in Internet Explorer, but the upside is that you can just send someone a URL - that's substantial," he says.
"Maybe you won't target a first-person shooter there, but if you're making a casual game, a card game, or even a 2D scroller, I think we're absolutely at the point where it's realistic to target the browser. And we can skip the Apple App Store and the Android app store, and whatever crazy Windows 8 approval process you have to go through."
In terms of audio, graphics and many of the usual metrics for judging product quality HTML5 falls short, but Goodale regards the notion that it isn't 'good enough' for games as erroneous - it's just good at a specific set of of things. Despite his efforts on Word Squared, however, Goodale believes that HTML5 still needs a "marquee experience"; a game that can highlight the potential of the platform in the same way that, say, Wii Sports did for the Nintendo Wii.
"Once we have that, I think you'll see the pace of innovation quicken. I think you'll see developer adoption quicken."
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