HTML5 Could Be Gaming’s Game-Changer

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[Editor’s note: Stewart Putney is CEO of Moblyng, a company that specializes in HTML5 development and publishing.]

Zynga’s recent acquisition of HTML5 game engine developer Dextrose AG could be viewed, on the surface, as just another purchase in a slew of buys they’ve made this year. In fact, it’s a clear statement that HTML5 is the future of social game development — particularly for mobile.

Why is this acquisition so important? With the capabilities of HTML5, developers will be able to create richer, higher-quality games that will engage existing users while bringing on new ones. Dextrose AG built a product called the Aves Engine — a scalable HTML5 engine for isometric-view games like Farmville or Café World. Using this engine, Zynga can extend their existing isometric games, or build new titles using HTML5. There are already multiple companies that use HTML5 apps for mobile. But with the potential addition of Zynga isometric titles, we may begin to see all major genres of social games developed in HTML5.

The advantage for developers in using HTML5 is the ability to leverage their code across multiple platforms. All major smartphone platforms support a different type of native code, but the one commonality is HTML5. The iPhone, Android, WebOS, Backberry 6.0, Bada and Nokia’s Symbian and Meego all support HTML5 apps. Even Windows Phone 7 will roll out support in the next year. As smartphones become the largest but also most fragmented market for games, developers must leverage technology that maximizes reach but minimizes cost — HTML5.

And allowing players to take their desktop games to mobile without compromising user experience is a game-changer. We’re talking about more apps, with richer features, on more platforms, ultimately resulting in more engagement and a significant increase in users. Of course, revenues will grow as well.

Right about now you may have some questions:

  • Don’t native apps work better and use more features of the phone? Quite simply, no. All major smartphone platforms allow a developer to build native apps that include a browser instance. At Moblyng we build very thin native app layers that talk to the OS and also use a browser window inside the app. We then build the app in HTML5. The app can talk with the OS through the native layer for full access to OS features. Companies like PhoneGap and Appcelerator provide similar tools, and thousands of apps have been built using this architecture. Developers have the additional benefit of being able to deploy their app directly into the browser when the technology or business case requires it.
  • What about performance? We (and our partners) have benchmarked our apps’ startup and response times against numerous social games and our games perform equal to, or better, than competitor’s products. Using tools like Canvas, CSS animations, local storage and web sockets, developers have all the tools they need to build great titles. HTML5 is mature enough that the main factor in game performance is the quality of the development team, not native vs. HTML5. Check out Playdom’s Sorority Life for Android, Moblyng’s Dungeon Quest and Rovio’s Angry Birds for WebOS and see for yourself.
  • What can’t HTML5 do? Right now, HTML5 is not the best way to build “fast-twitch” 3D games like shooters and many high-fidelity driving games. These games do require a level of fidelity that will not be supported by HTML5, at least until WebGL matures. But as Zynga’s acquisition of Dextrose AG suggests, HTML5 is more than ready for social and casual games.
  • What about Flash? While Flash is an option, the current reality is that Flash does not present the same cross-platform solution as HTML5. On iOS, support is still limited both for technology and business reasons. On Android and WebOS, there are well-documented issues with Flash performance and impact on battery life. Looking forward, as desktop browsers (read: IE9) move towards uniform support of HTML5, we expect to see HTML5 eclipse Flash on all platforms, as developers will be able to build truly cross-platforms games with incredible reach.

It’s important to remember that a huge component of a social game’s success is its reach. You can build the greatest game known to man, but if users don’t have easy access to it, it won’t be a hit. Making users install a Flash plug-in isn’t exactly easy access, and we all know how Flash performs on most mobile phones — it simply doesn’t.

With HTML5, developers can’t do everything just yet, but they have a browser-based technology that allows them to build great games that can reach hundreds of millions of users, with less time and cost. Zynga’s Dextrose AG acquisition is one more signal that developing games in HTML5 is truly a game-changer.