The future of gaming is in your browser.

And before you ask…. no, I’m not talking about streaming.

Ahh, browser games…. the younger, less cool cousin to console and PC games. But to many of us, they were the knight that slayed the dragon that was boredom at school. Sadly, they’ve been forgotten in the now mainstream popularity of other gaming platforms. But why is that the case? To understand this, we’re going to take a swan dive into the history of games on the web, in an attempt to understand why they’ve fallen out of style, and what the future holds for them.

Adobe’s Flash ushered in a wave of easily accessible games on the web.

The Beginning

Remember the good old days of Flash games? Whether you were a young, bored kid or teenager at school like I was, or an office worker that would sneak a few minutes of non-work entertainment time, the ability to instantly load up a game through a simple URL was priceless. This was thanks to a now ancient technology known as Flash. As you may have heard, it is indeed headed towards extinction by 2020, due to Adobe announcing they will be ceasing to support it. And with it, a large amount of these games we remember fondly are disappearing along with it.

But Flash wasn’t the only player in town. A programming language released in the 90’s, entitled Java, was what powered the original, browser based RuneScape. The idea behind this language was to allow programs (in this case, games) to be delivered via a low-level VM that ran bytecode. Inserted into the web page as a sort of sandboxed container, Java enabled a more intensive game to be playable on the web.

One of these such games was a title named RuneScape. RuneScape defined what it meant to be a browser-based game, and it cemented the web as a viable platform for gaming. Clearly, browser games were here to stay…..

The Decline

But who really plays these games anymore? Overall, the vast majority of gamers have moved on to greener pastures. But WHY has this happened, you might ask?

The simple explanation is due to the limitations of these aforementioned technologies. Nothing resembling a AA or AAA title could be played within a webpage, and that caused users to flee in search of platforms that could. As this primary demographic was used to the low barrier to entry and free-to-play business model, they largely ignored console and PC in favor of a new and emerging platform: mobile!

Games like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Temple Runner caused a mass exodus of gamers from the web, and it has sadly never regained it’s rightful place since. As we all know, content creators want to be where the users are, and this shift resulted in many of those same game developers to make the transition from web to mobile.

From the perspective of developers

Back in the day, there was no better way to get a concept or demo out there of a passion project that you were working on. It worked well for Super Meat Boy, Alien Hominid, as well as countless others. The ability to deploy your game to an audience of millions, within the openness that is the web platform, gave birth to a whole new platform. The web is the perfect proving ground for innovative new ideas, and the perfect place to find product-market fit for a game idea.

At the time, this was a revolutionary yet underrated thing. You didn’t need a publisher to upload your game to the web, and without that constraint you were free to be as creative as you wanted to be. The result was unique, interesting experiences that you simply couldn’t find on any other platform.

The flexing of these creative muscles caught the interest of many in the industry, and led to real games published on a variety of platforms. And that was all thanks to the road that Flash paved. But those days are long gone.. but as the saying goes: Wherever a door closes, somewhere a window opens. In this case, it’s many of them.

The Evolution

So the impression you may have after reading up until this point is that browser games are essentially dead.

But this isn’t entirely true, as they never really disappeared entirely, only decreasing in popularity. But as time goes on, the world changes. Far superior technologies are now available that are light-years ahead of anything that Flash could ever hope to achieve. HTML5 is one such technology that emerged in 2014 as a worthy successor to Flash and Java. And ever since, there has been a wave of games cropping up over the years that are powered by it.

One such benefit is that HTML5 improved on over it’s predecessors is that plugins, which were necessary for both Flash and Java, were now no longer required. Applications built for HTML5 would run on any web browser, and gave the internet more viability as a platform. This applied not only to games, but to many web applications as well.

But game graphics were desperately due for an upgrade, and HTML5 was only a software stack. Thus, in 2011, Mozilla introduced to the world a next generation graphics library powered by Javascript called WebGL.

This represented a totally new way to deliver higher fidelity graphics, on any web browser. To do this, it uses a shading language that mirrored OpenGL. This in turn would result in a new era of interactive 3D graphics on the web.

For games in the browser, this meant a shot at introducing much sleeker experiences. But no matter how good the graphics may look, the code is the core of what makes a video game. A new wave of games written in Javascript would emerge over time to bring interest back to the web platform.

These titles would stay true to the nature of web games, and be for the most part free-to-play, fast to load, and with simple gameplay mechanics. But what about other languages? Why couldn’t native games be embedded or even ported to the browser, to allow true console-quality experiences?

This idea took root in a subset of Javascript called asm.js, which allowed native C or C++ game code to be ran right within the browser window. One of the first examples of this technology was when Epic Games ported Unreal Engine 3 to the web, and debuted the tech demo Epic Citadel.

What sorcery is this?? 😲

Wow, now that’s what I’m talking about! When I first saw this, I knew this was going to be the future of games on the web. Games would no longer be confined to the constraints of the web platform, but could draw upon and emulate that which made other platforms great. But as with all things, asm.js was just setting the stage for a much more exciting technology that would truly change the game (pun intended!) That technology is called……

WebAssembly.

Ladies and gentleman, I cannot emphasize enough just how exciting this is. Finally, full games the likes of which have only ever been available on other platforms can now be ported to, or developed, for the browser. It enables the web to become a true gaming platform, on par and even BETTER than other platforms.

WebAssembly is the culmination of all the groundwork laid before it. Much like good old Java, it runs low level code inside a sandboxed VM and can be embedded inside an HTML canvas. The difference though, is that it’s an open standard, and it is MUCH more performant. Multithreading support is already shipped as experimental in Chrome, and other improves such as SIMD and 64-bit addressing will solve the issue of large game file saves in the browser’s built in storage. WASM (abbreviation) games are so low level and optimized that any low end PC’s can run them, and (here’s the exciting part!) eventually any device with a screen and web browser.

Both the Unreal and Unity engines already support exporting to it, and it’s early days but is perfectly poised to radically shake up the games industry. I can say with 100% certainty that WASM will fundamentally change the way the games are developed, distributed, and played.

What if every indie game had a web demo that you could instantly try out? For developers, this would be a game changer to be able to receive feedback on your work, without needing users to install anything locally, and worry about if their hardware can run it.

Join the gaming revolution

I’m working on creating a browser-based gaming service called DigiPlay that’s powered by WebAssembly/WebGL. I started working on this because I myself faced the huge roadblock of having unsufficient hardware to play PC games. Cloud gaming via streaming is a hot topic these days, but I quickly realized that streaming will not be viable anytime soon, at least not until 5G arrives.

WebAssembly is the perfect alternative to power a next generation gaming platform that runs universally through the web.

We’re working with developers around the world to develop and publish their games via our platform. We’re also working on creating our own original games, much like Netflix’s content creation strategy. Our vision is to bring create the next generation of video games, powered by WebAssembly/WebGL. We will be free-to-play, with a transition to freemium in the future.

If you’re a developer or gamer interesting in joining our community, I personally invite you to visit our website and sign up for early access. We already have a few titles that you can try out for yourself. We want to hear from you and what sort of games you’d like to see on our service, as well as additional features you’d love to see added.

We also have a Discord channel, which currently acts as our community forum. I’ve also started a YouTube channel, where I will be posting Let’s Plays of games on our service, as well as creating in depth videos detailing the journey of building a gaming startup.

All links will be posted below :)

The future of gaming on the web is bright. Let’s build it together.

Alex

#DigiPlay

Links:

Website: https://digiplaygaming.com/

Discord: https://discord.gg/zUSZ3T8

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClxA2cPeFO-bVCXWy6PRhvQ

Founder of DigiPlay