Games show the promise and pitfalls of HTML5, the emerging open standard for Web apps, attendees of a conference sponsored by Google and Microsoft learn.
Google and Microsoft have set aside their differences to join in sponsoring a conference dedicated to HTML5, the emerging open standard for Web applications.
The New Game Conference, which opened on Tuesday and continues through Wednesday in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, explores HTML5 as a platform for gaming. But the issues being discussed go beyond gaming to business applications.
Game development, by virtue of its focus on pushing the limits of hardware and software, helps define the boundaries of business application development. The availability of games for specific devices also encourages consumers to buy those devices, which has a bearing on the devices that workers bring into the workplace and IT ends up supporting. Games helped the PC dominate the Mac in the 1990s and they're helping iOS and Android take market share from RIM. And the availability--or lack thereof--of Web games will affect how effectively the Web can compete with native mobile and desktop application development.
Google is presently trying to make the Web a better gaming platform through its Chrome Web Store and projects like Native Client, which allows native code to run in the browser. Other browser makers are making contributions of their own. Mozilla, for example, has been pushing for APIs that will enable game joysticks to be used with browser games and will allow mouse movements to be constrained. The inability to prevent mouse movements from taking users out of a game and into another application or tab is an ongoing user interface problem. And Microsoft clearly intends to be a player in the Web app space as well, with what appears to be a major commitment to Web standards in Windows 8.
Ever since Google's Vic Gundotra declared in 2009 that the Web had won the battle to become the dominant platform for software development, Web developers have been wrestling with a reality that fell short of the hype.
In introductory remarks at the conference, Google developer advocate Seth Ladd noted that finally more than 50% of all installed browsers can now play the HTML5 version of Angry Birds. If the Web has really won, it only started winning recently ... and the extent of that victory continues to be debated.
Keynote speaker Richard Hilleman, chief creative officer of game maker Electronic Arts, said as much in his acknowledgement of his company's use of a dozen or so authoring tools that didn't exist a year ago.
"What we see is a flood of new tools coming," he said.
Tools matter because they lower the barriers to entry--not every Web developer is capable of writing the kind of cutting-edge HTML5 code seen on chromeexperiments.com. They matter because they make the product iteration cycle faster. Tools help turn the process of experimentation into a business process that can be repeated.
What remains for the Web platform is to match the native app experience, and that's as much a social challenge as a technical one. Apple has successfully acclimated people to touch screen devices and has taught them how to interact with apps and to buy them. It has taken its App Store model and grafted it onto the Mac desktop with its Mac App Store. Google and Mozilla have been trying to establish norms of behavior for Web apps, but there's still work to be done.
Justin Quimby, COO of Moblyng, recounted how a venture capitalist he'd spoken with had no idea that Web apps could be installed on a mobile device as a bookmark. The notion of installing an app that's not actually a downloaded executable file is still alien to many users.
Hilleman also detailed the extent to which the game industry has to reinvent itself in the era of casual gaming. Increasingly, he said, games aren't software that's sold but free software that gets paid for through the sale of virtual items and other means of monetization.
"It changes the equation a lot when you don't get paid at the door," he said.
The mass audience also likes to pay in cash, often because they cannot afford electronic credit. He noted that for two major game retailers, more than 50% of their transactions are cash. Developers of Web apps may have an easier time limiting their potential customer base to credit card holders, but that may not be a viable choice in emerging markets.
"Increasingly, we're going to have to figure out how to get paid in chickens," Hilleman joked.
Quimby's presentation focused on lessons learned developing over a dozen HTML5 games. His advice was to be cautious when developing HTML5 apps. "The message consumers are getting is HTML5 runs everywhere," he said. "And that's fundamentally not true."
His message verged on heretical: He advised against using popular technologies JQuery, WebGL and Canvas. He suggested his warning might not be valid in six months or a year. But right now, if you want to target as many devices as possible, particularly outside the U.S. where there are plenty of old version of Android still in use, these emerging technologies can only reach a limited subset of the market.
"HTML5 is awesome," he said. "We think it's great, but we can only use in the mobile world the lowest common denominator."