Will HTML5 be good enough for gaming?

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HTML5 has been touted as the save-all for the fragmented mobile OS market. If developers were able to design an app once with HTML5, rather than individually for iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry and the rest, they could waste less time tweaking individual updates for each operating system.

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Will HTML5 be good enough for gaming?

The problem, however, lies in mobile gaming. HTML5 currently can handle simpler graphics capabilities, but it is not yet able to support some of the more complicated graphics capabilities used in native gaming apps. But the HTML5 standard continues to evolve, and future updates will give developers access to a range of mobile phone functions. Furthermore, smartphones continue to advance, such that advanced HTML5 smartphone browsers could soon have the horsepower to run advanced HTML5 mobile games.

And the motivation for HTML5 gaming is clear: App stores like Google's Android Market and Apple's App Store take a 30 percent cut of developer profits, including the initial cost of apps and any in-app purchases or ad-ons. With HTML5-based gaming, developers would be able to bypass traditional app stores and offer games directly on their own sites, thereby reaping all the profits.

Thus, a future in cross-platform game design is possible and even likely. But the mobile gaming market probably won't change overnight.

Early pioneers

Due to the limits in graphics capabilities of HTML5, graphic-intensive games are not going to be early adopters of HTML5.

"Today the HTML5's rendering engine, which is used by the graphics capabilities of the game, cannot be scaled beyond a few frames per second ... which is OK for an OK-quality game but not for a much higher quality game," explained Peter Relan, CEO of mobile and Facebook gaming company Crowdstar.

Relan predicts that the first types of games to be built using HTML5 will be simpler and similar to games that fare well on Facebook, such as digital versions of board games like Scrabble or Zynga's Words with Friends. These games will not be as dependent on stronger graphics capabilities and real-time data exchanges like, say, Gameloft's advanced, first-person shooter Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation.

Angry Birds - HTML5

Rovio released an HTML5 version of Angry Birds for Chrome.

Mark Beccue, an analyst with ABI Research, pointed to social networking initiatives like Facebook's anticipated "Project Spartan" leading the way. Project Spartan is the HTML5-based mobile platform optimized for iOS but designed to circumvent the App Store distribution channel. If the initiative proves successful, games like Farmville, which are available in traditional app stores and through the Facebook website, could follow suit. Again, these games rely on simpler graphics like those suggested by Relan, meaning gaming companies may look to makers of social games to lead the trend in HTML5-based gaming.

But what games would be best suited for this type of experiment? Consider Rovio Mobile's Angry Birds, which continues to be wildly popular in all of the major smartphone app stores. In October, Rovio released an HTML5 version of the game for desktop Chrome browser users. And while the company has not stated plans to consolidate its mobile gaming experience into HTML5, it does signal that a future in HTML5-based gaming is possible.

Is change coming?

So, when exactly will the widespread shift to an HTML5-based gaming environment occur?

Some of the larger industry players have already begun investing in this kind of technology. In March, Disney acquired Rocket Pack, a startup focused on using HTML5 games; and in October, Appcelerator acquired Particle Code, which also works in HTML5.

What is likely is that there will be a transition period between native apps and pure HTML5-based gaming. Relan is also the co-founder of startup Sibblingz, which released version 3.0 of its Spaceport platform last week. Spaceport aims to take the place of Adobe's browser-based mobile Flash Player by bypassing the need for the Flash plug-in while supporting compatibility with Adobe's PC creation tools. Games built on Spaceport 3.0 can run across multiple platforms, including iOS, Android and HTML5, and are built using Javascript.

Crowdstar has been experimenting with HTML5 design, but Relan admits that the company will need to incorporate technology like Spaceport to support the level of graphics in a game like Happy Pets.

Nonetheless, ABI's Beccue sees HTML5 becoming a part of the mobile gaming ecosystem.

"HTML5 is going to rise and apps are going to wane. Then, there's going to be a coexistence" of the two, Beccue predicted.

Problems in implementation

Despite the possibilities presented by HTML5 gaming, there are a number of factors against it.

brightcove

Chart: The differences between native apps and HTML5-based apps. 
Source: Brightcove

First, since games are already so well suited to native apps, Beccue does not see developers in a hurry to switch to develop using HTML5 unless they are completely unhappy with their existing business model. A developer already profiting from a game on one or more platforms has no incentive to scrap those models and make an alternate version of the game.

Another problem lies in the user relationship with app stores. Users have already formed long-standing relationships with companies like Apple, Google and Amazon. Their app stores have become trusted marketplaces that users can trust with financial information. Moving users outside app stores will be challenging.

Users also rely on Apple, Google, Microsoft and other app store vendors to limit their exposure to malware or unsafe apps. Further, established app stores can provide troubleshooting or refunds if necessary. Even if an alternate app store arose that sold access to HTML5 games, it would need time to prove itself as a safe vendor.

Finally, app stores encourage app discovery. Users who download action games will see other popular action games or other related apps. Without a traditional app store, users will need to independently discover gaming websites, making market entry that much harder for independent developers and new gaming companies.