Big Viking Games CEO Details the Pros and Cons of HTML5

Albert Lai, CEO of Big Viking Games, shares the developer's experience with creating HTML5 games.

Dark Heroes

With an increasing number of companies adopting HTML5 (for instance, YouTube ditched Flash for HTML5 last February), some are calling it the perfect time to switch to the language.

While HTML5 isn’t without its challenges, developers like Big Viking Games are learning to thrive under the pressure. The company has plenty of experience creating HTML5 games for mobile devices, including Dark Heroes, SuperSpin Slots and Monsters & Dungeons: CCG Wars.

Coming full circle, the developer is currently working on a reimagining of its first major title created using HTML5 technologies: Tiny Kingdoms. The original game was shuttered in late 2014, as, according to the game’s Facebook fan page, the team “reached too far and ran into too many complications.” But now, thanks to the experience and knowledge Big Viking Games has acquired in developing its other HTML5 mobile titles, the new and improved Tiny Kingdoms aims to be bigger and better than its predecessor.

We recently spoke with Albert Lai, CEO of Big Viking Games, about HTML5 development, and how his team is making it work.

SocialTimes: Big Viking Games has been working on HTML5 games for a couple of years now. What inspired the switch?

Albert Lin Big Viking GamesAlbert Lai: The current limitations of the mobile application landscape feel very sub-optimal and almost seem like a step backwards. For that reason, we wanted to explore and invest in how we can improve the way mobile content can be discovered and delivered. HTML5 is a powerful and open technology standard that we felt has the potential to really shape the future of the mobile gaming industry.

HTML5 is powerful because it allows us to build native-like gameplay experiences that can be played directly from the mobile browser. Imagine if you could send users to a vertical slice of a game before they ever download it. That sort of experience will ensure every single person that downloads your game is a qualified lead vs. the crapshoot that can oftentimes accompany traditional UA spend.

But even more than that, HTML5 allows us to develop games on alternative distribution platforms like Kik. There’s a really important truth here: new distribution platforms open the door to a blue ocean for marketing and user acquisition. When Facebook launched, opportunistic companies like Zynga were able to bring in millions of users with basically the push of a button via notifications (which I’m sure many people are still annoyed about).

There’s nothing more viral than two friends talking about their favorite games, and there is a wealth of possibility if you could build games that friends could share on a messenger app and start playing together immediately in the mobile browser without having to download a game off the app store. With the right type of game, that sort of distribution can be extremely powerful, and if you nurtured the right partnerships and developed a bit of innovative marketing tailored to the platform, messenger apps could easily be the next frontier for mobile gaming.

ST: What are some of the biggest struggles you’ve faced while developing with HTML5?

AL: [There are] tons. HTML5 is an extremely constraining technology because the investment just isn’t there yet. Engines like Unreal and Unity have years of development behind them, which makes them very powerful tools to build games. We’ve had to make our own engine from scratch, and that’s been a huge investment of time, energy and millions of dollars of our company’s money.

Apart from that, because we are trying to pioneer a new nascent technology to deliver rich and very highly interactive user experiences, we demand a lot out of our technical talent. This extremely high bar we set for ourselves with regards to new developers often makes it hard for us to find the right talent easily.

With that said, we are more excited than ever about where we are as a company. When evaluating the market space, our own internal HTML5 engine and tools pipeline is very robust and built to create rich, interactive, native-like games. We’ve cultivated a group of extremely talented developers that are excited about paving a new path forward within the technology, and feel like, for the first time, we’re at a place where we can really put the technology to the test and prove it out as a viable platform to evolve and improve the mobile gaming experience.

Big Viking Games

ST: Given the extra challenges presented by HTML5 development, what are some of the reasons you continue to focus on it?

We believe that every innovation comes with a price that is often paid in blood, sweat, tears, and in our case, millions of dollars. We continue to focus on HTML5 because we believe it’s the future. Quite simply, when companies like Machine Zone are spending upwards of $40 million dollars on a single User Acquisition campaign, smaller independent studios like ours have to adapt and innovate in order to survive.

We reject the idea that the mobile gaming industry is all about luck. Undoubtedly, everything in life requires a bit of luck, but we want to set ourselves up from a business and strategic standpoint to the best of our ability to ensure success. “Hit driven games” is a business model I just don’t believe in, because it relies too much on luck. I have seen many gaming studios with extremely talented teams flounder and close shop simply because they ran out of money and failed to win the mobile games lottery.

In short, I believe in making opportunistic business decisions to set up my companies for success by leveraging the technology and platforms that best position us to be competitive within the space. I believe HTML5 is that future within the mobile gaming space.

ST: All things factored in, has Big Viking Games’ move to HTML5 development been worth it?

The jury is still out on that one. Admittedly, our most successful games—social games on Facebook that have been growing year over year—are built out of flash and PHP, which is obviously pretty old technology.

Yet, I strongly believe that HTML5 gives us a unique, and potentially highly advantageous strategic position within the mobile gaming industry. I’ve had the privilege of launching six different companies, and one thing I’ve found to be consistent in driving success is thinking long term vs. short term.

From what I’ve seen, technology always trends towards the most open platforms. HTML5 is that, and that’s one reason industry leaders like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla have all vouched for HTML5. YouTube even recently dropped flash for HTML5 as a default video player.

Nothing is ever a guarantee and you’re always taking a risk, but I believe by adopting HTML5 we’re taking a smart risk. We’re investing in the future without shortchanging our short-term success. Our social games on Facebook are growing every year, and are doing very well and helping us stay independent and grow. By developing games for the App Store, we could even potentially win the mobile games lottery. Most importantly, we’re heavily investing in HTML5 to open up new doors and opportunities for us from a long-term perspective.

ST: What advice would you give to aspiring game developers, who are interested in developing with HTML5?

Think long and hard about doing it. It definitely hasn’t been all fun by any stretch of the imagination, and without significant capital, you’ll find yourself quickly burning through lots of cash really fast, while trying to make the technology work for games. Fortunately, we’ve had the luxury of being extremely profitable, and that has empowered us to invest in HTML5 intelligently.

One important question to ask yourself: will the technology help you gain an advantage, or simply cripple your goals and objectives? Implementing HTML5 requires thoughtful, well-defined strategy that helps optimize the strengths of the technology to accomplish business objectives.

HTML5 may one day be just as powerful as Unreal or Unity as a method to develop games, but that’s the future. The opportunity that exists now within the technology is very real, and as long as your business objectives coincide with the strengths that the technology can provide, then it’s definitely worth looking into.