The World Wide Web, it sometimes seems, was invented to play games. Indeed, it’s the logical successor to the computer, postal, and BBS games of the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe Tim Berners-Lee didn’t have game-playing on his mind when he devised http and html back then, but 20 years on the number of people playing games on Facebook tell where our heads are at now.
Piling on irony, it’s that same HTML, in it’s fifth invocation, that’s now driving Web game development. But what exactly are “Web Games?”
The Web took off in 1997, not long after Macromedia acquired FutureSplash Animator, renamed it Flash, and gave it away as a free browser plugin. Within five years it was the premier Web game technology media, and led to Adobe buying Macromedia at the end of 2005. However, under Adobe’s stewardship Flash’s scripting language spawned a proper programming language called Actionscript. This freed developers from the tyranny of Flash’s Stage and Timelines, which were really designer’s tools. For the rest of the decade Web Games and Flash were synonymous.
Flash games came in all shapes and sizes and across most genres. Now game-aggregation sites like King.com and Kongregate.com have hundreds of Flash games to play, mainly single-player but with quite a few multiplayer titles, too.
Flash still has issues. It’s single-threaded and a bit of a resource hog, but thousands of games on the Web are testimony to just how good a technology it is (even if half of them are Tower Defense or Mafia games). There were also a number of freemium strategy games built on HTML, server-side PHP and graphics. These include war games such as Travian and Inselkampf and the text RPG Torn. Graphics aside, these have a low barrier to entry and anyone with a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) hosting account can set one up.
With third-party installers like Softaculous providing instant installs onto hosting accounts, you can set up your own Shadown’s Rising or Black Nova Trader’s game in a minute or two without any coding or technical skill needed.
2005 and Google
Also, 2005 was the year a little-known website called Facebook began picking up new users at an increasing rate. Two years later, it launched an application platform where games could be played by millions of users. Anyone could develop and run their own game on Facebook, as long as they ran it on their own servers and proxied it to be played on Facebook’s pages. Probably the most successful startup game company spurred by Facebook is Zynga, which launched in July 2007, now has over 200 million monthly users and revenue approaching the billion-dollar mark from advertising and in-game currency.
Zynga’s most popular games include FarmVille, CastleVille and CityVille. To keep you playing, they get you to involve your friends and build obligations. You don’t want to accept their gifts and labors in your game without returning the favors. They use Flash clients talking to a proprietary server and use private and public cloud technology (Citrix’s Cloud.com and Amazon EC2) to scale up, and for storage and backend processing.
Read More about Zynga Z-Cloud
Apple iPhone and HTML5
In 2007, the iPhone launched. A year later came the 3G model and the App Store. Web games were sidelined by iPhone Apps that could be played anytime, anywhere. Steve Jobs refused to support Flash on the iPhone/iPad, but that didn’t impact their game-playing capabilities and in fact began a move away from Browser plugins. Adobe fought back and developed technology to convert Flash games for the iPhone while pushing Flash Lite for the Android and other platforms. But by late 2011, Adobe admitted defeat and withdrew from the mobile Flash market.
What Is WebGL?
There’s also the Chrome browser with Google Native Client support for native drivers, i.e., software in C/C++ that runs within the browser. While these are “Chrome-only” Web games, the speed advantage is a strong inducement to go there. Plus, plenty of games in C and C++ can be ported with Quake, Xaos and the Mame game emulator.
The Next Five Years
With over 500,000 apps in the App Store–of which the biggest category is games–the iOS remains a major platform. However, you have to wonder how long Apple can keep WebGL out of Safari. If Flash supported multi-core, it might still have a chance of competing with HTML5/WebGL, so the battle for the best browser game development technology isn’t quite settled. But with 34 of the top 100 websites already switched to HTML5, and HTML5 games now appearing in droves, the smart money has to be on HTML5.