The Future of Gaming

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In the past we’ve seen a plethora of devices and platforms used in an ever growing games market. PCs and consoles were quickly followed by handheld devices such as Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and now we’re seeing an upward trend towards more web-enabled devices; phones and tablets etc. Games are overtaking films in generating revenue, so competition is rife and there’s a great need for companies to remain ahead of their rivals and push for the next big step forward. It is my firm belief that the next step forward for gaming lies not only on the web, but in the browser.

Consoles, PCs and native mobile/tablet devices all rely natively on different platforms, different code bases, different languages and different challenges. There’s some crossover here and there and a certain amount of reuse is occasionally possible, but in general, games require multiple versions for different platforms and in many cases need completely re-writing. How much easier would life be if everyone was singing off the same hymn sheet and code only needed writing once? This is where the browser comes in.

In terms of browser-based games, for years now this market has been dominated by Flash. The main reason being the capabilities of the software surpassing anything capable natively in the browser, but this is all starting to change. Thanks mainly to Google introducing Chrome, there has been a major surge in the advancement of web technologies with other browsers quickly following suit not wishing to be outperformed and left behind. Over the last few years, native browser technology has changed so much it is now possible to achieve some breathtaking animations and effects without the aid of any plugin or add-on. CSS3 and optimised javascript engines added complexity and performance, coupled with mainstream browser SVG and Canvas support, it is now possible to create highly graphical, interactive interfaces. Devices are also becoming more powerful, with quad-core processors in mobile phones the norm for new handsets, hardware capabilities in all devices are reaching a level where it’s possible to render animated 3D graphics. In comes the most exciting development in terms of gaming technology; WebGL.

Not technically a W3C standard, WebGL was created by Khronos to replicate the 3D graphics available on PC and console platforms, natively within a browser. WebGL is based on OpenGL – a well-known game development standard – and adopts the same language (GLSL). This should make the transition for any existing game developers very straightforward. What does this mean for the future of gaming? Well, lets go back to those games developers writing multiple versions for different platforms. Imagine all devices were browser-based and all had WebGL technology embedded natively, they’d only need to write code once and it would be available everywhere! The implications of this are huge: Companies could save a fortune in development costs, games consoles would become purely a competition of power, users could play the same game on their mobile phone as they play on their PC and TV, and because games live on the server, there’s never any physical delivery medium required, which in turn could lead to a reduction in piracy and the introduction of more pay-per-play services. The list of possibilities and impacts is enormous.

So, why hasn’t this happened already? There are a number of reasons, the least not being browser support. Currently WebGL is only fully supported in desktop environments and only in Chrome, with Firefox and Safari recently joining the fold. The major blocker here however is the infamous Internet Explorer, with Microsoft currently refusing to jump on board the WebGL bandwagon in favour of promoting their own proprietary solutions (oh Microsoft when will you ever learn!) There are also a number of technical challenges that WebGL must overcome to compete with the console engines, but already there are signs the games World is moving in this direction. Google launching its Chromebox shows a clear sign of their intentions and search trends show a growing interest in HTML5/WebGL games.

Who knows for sure what the future holds for gamers, but my money’s on browsers and WebGL. Watch this space!