Keynoting the HTML5-centered New Game Conference in San Francisco this week were two wizards of the gaming world: Richard Hilleman, Creative Director at Electronic Arts, and Paul Bakaus, CTO of Zynga Germany.
The pair are perfectly (mis)matched -- Hilleman, master of 'serious' games, and Bakaus, a master of web games in particular.
But, as the conference's organizers hope to show, the 'serious vs. web' contrast in gaming is not as clear-cut as it might seem.
For one thing, EA has long recognized the present and future value of web-based gaming. Today ea.com offers 11 online games, and EA caused a bit of an industry splash two years ago when it acquired social game developer PlayFish. The acquisition immediately brought EA and Zynga together in the sight of industry analysts, who speculated about the market value of Zynga rather aggressively when PlayFish's price ($300 million) became public.
For another, HTML5's (possibly-pie-in-the-sky) vision of universal interoperability are bound to make everyone notice. And when it comes to dreams of universal interoperability, it's hard to beat Microsoft's grand vision for Xbox with Kinect -- a machine once considered merely a gaming platform.
Such grand ideas may help explain why an HTML5 gaming conference can attract such luminaries as Hilleman and Bakaus. But, at least during this conference, the two speakers emphasized more specific and practical concerns.
Hilleman made five major points:
- HTML5 game performance is currently very poor. (Maybe worse, no established standard measures HTML5 performance -- so developers don't even know when their games are running well enough to release.)
- HTML5 audio doesn't work well. (Different browsers implement the standard differently, and not always very well. Bakaus also highlighted this point.)
- HTML5 games may need to be distributed and monetized completely differently from non-web games. (Compare cable TV's revenue stream: a majority of cable customers pay in cash, but currently users can pay for web games only electronically. Or maybe change the model radically: perhaps customers have something to offer besides money, like coding skills..?)
- HTML5 games need to be marketed more like console games, by highlighting the best titles. (Everyone has heard of Gears of War; this isn't just because it's loads of fun.)
- HTML5 games need to offer something uniquely awesome, something no other platform can offer. (This is sometimes considered a problem for PC games in general -- most gamers aren't serious enough to worry about the extra aiming precision offered by a mouse, for example.)
Bakaus' talk took a more technical perspective on HTML5, making four major points:
- HTML5 audio just doesn't work. (Not only is there no single cross-platform codec; but also, certain devices, like the iPhone, limit audio playback in different ways.)
- HTML5 currently doesn't have many hardware APIs. (So, for example, HTML5 games can't take advantage of particular devices' particular powers, like a mobile device's camera.)
- Web developers and game developers need to become more like one another. (Presently this isn't true, and HTML5 definitely wasn't designed for or by game developers -- but this can change.)
For more on the present and future of HTML5 gaming, check out the New Game conference website (which promises post-conference updates soon) and Gamasutra's fuller treatment of Hilleman's and Bakaus' talks.