The future of 3D web games

[As Adobe marches towards a Q2 launch for its Molehill, the 3D version of Flash, developers must decide whether to aim for that, Unity 3D, or an in-house solution — Gamasutra investigates.]

If analysts are right – whether online and mobile games generate half of the games market’s projected $ 87 billion annual revenue in five years, as an investment advisor Digi-Capital predicts – the question arises: what will it take to gain market share?

Cutting-edge technology that supports immersive gaming, like in browser-based 3D games, is sure to have a big impact on the web, but which tech companies will developers prioritize?

This year, developers have two new choices: adopt Unity 3, the third version of Unity Technologies’ increasingly popular Unity 3D development platform, recently launched in September, or use Molehill, the new 3D version of Flash, now in beta and slated for release in the second quarter.

It’s not a simple choice, of course, say game makers who have to weigh the overwhelming popularity of near-ubiquitous Flash against the support they receive from developer-friendly Unity.

Instead, Taiwanese company XPEC Entertainment has chosen a third alternative: to create a proprietary Flash-based 3D engine for its next game, Maze Myth, slated for release in late 2011. The game, which XPEC calls “the world’s first 3D, Flash and real-time combat browser MMORPG”, has been released. discussed in detail at GDC China in December.

“We decided not to use Unity because, even with its new Unity 3 version, it still takes at least 30 seconds to download and plug in the program,” said Aaron Hsu, president of XPEC. “Most browsers already have Flash installed, so you don’t need to download it. That’s why we decided to use Flash when, three years ago, we started working on our Flash-based 3D engine, which we call the Hive engine ”.

Maze Myth

Hsu remembers his team being thrilled when, on October 28, Adobe announced that its next release, named Molehill, would support 3D, confirming that XPEC was moving in the right direction with its own Flash engine. But why would XPEC continue the Hive project when it might as well adopt Molehill?

“Because even though Adobe says Molehill will be available in Q2, there might be some delays,” says Hsu. “If there is no delay, we’ll move quickly to Molehill. If we finish Hive first, we’ll use Hive. It all depends on who’s faster.”

But Adobe has no plans to miss its deadline. In fact, it has already partnered with Quebec developer Frima Studio which “adapts and improves its existing technological platform to support all the new features and possibilities included” in the next API, according to Steve Couture, CEO of Frima. .

“As a pre-release partner, we receive pre-release releases and participate in both forum and voice chats with the Flash Runtime team,” he explains. “We were able to expose the concrete challenges facing game developers.”

Frima has produced several demonstration videos using new Molehill technology, including the first uses the developer Zombie tycoon Game.

One of the developer-friendly aspects of Molehill, Couture explains, is that it supports a fallback to a software renderer for older hardware. “SwiftShader 3D from TransGaming under Adobe license.” Molehill offers a low-level API to access the hardware. This provides enough flexibility for those who want to get their hands dirty, but allows others to use the available 3D libraries to use it as well. “

Couture believes that Molehill “will have a big impact on browser-based games and their quality; it will unlock the full potential of today’s hardware.”

For example, he said, we could play a game comparable to Call of Duty Where Gran Turismo directly on their Facebook wall. The acceleration hardware makes it possible to have moving elements on the screen – 2D or 3D – giving more interactivity and possibilities of immersion for players, hardcore or occasional, he explains.

“Thirteen years ago, I wanted Flash to become a tool for game developers,” he says. “With Molehill, this is it. It’s finally a gaming platform.”

And yet, Frima uses Unity’s technology as well as that of Adobe.

“Unity is a great product that we use for some of our projects,” says Couture. The Flash player, however, has a huge advantage because of its existing distribution and trust. This is especially true for free and social games. Software installation is a big hurdle in this market, especially when the key of success is having the widest gateway into the game. “

Unity is of course well aware of the hurdle it must overcome before it can better compete with Flash.

“Yes, Flash has this massive install base that sits in the upper 90 percentile,” admits David Helgason, CEO of San Francisco-based Unity Technologies. “Which means when you show someone a Flash game, you know that, say, 98% of gamers will have Flash installed already.

“We, on the other hand, have around 40 million plugins, which is only a few percent of the world’s computer population, whatever you guess.

“The most important thing is the installation success rate. Until September, when we launched Unity 3, our success rate was 60-70%, which means that when you offered a Unity program to someone one, 60 to 70 percent of them would agree to install the plug – but 30 to 40 percent would not. “

Helgason attributes this reluctance to several factors: “Some people have just been instructed to be wary of plug-ins, while others have slow connections and can’t bother to wait, even though the plug-in -in is only 3MB. And some people are on closed networks or work on PCs where they can’t install stuff. “

But, since September, when Unity unveiled the new version of its game engine, the installation success rate has jumped to around 90%, Helgason says, mainly because the old multi-step process has evolved. to a one-click installation. “We’re still collecting data on this,” he says, “but the developers told us they were seeing much better success rates.”

Regardless of the plug-in problem, the Unity engine is doing particularly well because of its longevity, especially in its support for 3D; it’s been around since 2005, when the original version was unveiled with 3D capabilities as well as its rich set of gaming tools.

“The Unity motor has been around for five years, which means we’ve been building our tools for several years and they have a depth, precision and polish that is really difficult to achieve. And the tools are extremely well documented, ”says Helgason. “It means books and a lot of sharing and knowledge in a very large community.

“The developers appreciated this openness combined with a deep focus on the game. So while some potential customers may lose because of the plug-in issue, we gain others because of our very fast development times; developers get a significantly better experience in the browser with Unity than with Flash simply because it’s so easy to put in really complex content and do some really good game-specific things like physics, streaming, networking, etc. – besides 3D – it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to do with Éclat. “

The Unity engine has been particularly successful in the mobile device arena where, Helgason reports, his company is far ahead of the competition.

“We have huge success with the iPhone, for example,” he says. “There are over 1000 Unity-based iOS games in the App Store for iPhone and iPad so I don’t think any other set of gaming tools – including Flash – has maybe more than one. hundred games. That’s because with these little devices you really want to be close to metal and not have a lot of overhead. And Flash has a lot of overhead. We don’t know what share Molehill will get, but we think we’ve got a pretty big head start for a while unless. “

Helgason was unable to provide data regarding the number of developers using the Unity engine compared to Flash, but he says that when it comes to games, Unity’s market share is growing rapidly.

“A very significant number of people use Flash for things other than games – for things like menus on videos and websites, etc. I would like to know how many people make games with Flash. Those numbers.”

In the meantime, Unity is working on bundles similar to those Adobe has made with computer makers like Dell.

“When a Dell computer comes out, the Flash plug-in is already included with it,” Helgason explains. “We don’t have that kind of market power yet. But we’re catching up incredibly quickly and I think we’ll start to see these kinds of consolidations soon, maybe over the next couple of years.

“In the meantime, we look forward to the Chrome browser adding what Google techs call Native Client. This will give Unity games the ability to run natively in the browser without a separate plug-in. You can imagine how important that is. will be for us. “

While an Adobe spokesperson acknowledged Unity’s success in 3D games, “it should be noted that 3D in Flash will not be just for games. Our soon-to-be-released Flash 3D platform will have a major impact on the entire web. – e-commerce, digital marketing, rich web applications, etc., due to the proliferation of Flash Player which is no longer considered a plug-in by end users. For them, it’s right there. “

At the moment, the Flash 3D platform is in what Adobe calls a very limited private beta.

“We focused on the providers of tools and engines that are essential to 3D workflows,” says Jennifer Taylor, senior director of product and strategy for gaming solutions at Adobe. “But we are now expanding our beta to a larger part of the developer and publisher community, and then we will be opening a more public beta in the spring.”

Then when Molehill is released – in the second quarter if on schedule – the question is what kind of competition developers will see between the Adobe and Unity engines.

“At this point, we’re still in the early days when it comes to adding a third dimension to the web,” says Taylor. “Unity has been amazing in providing these capabilities to the industry. But, with Adobe’s base of over three million developers, it’s obvious that we bring a different perspective to the opportunities around 3D. We will bring 3D to the wider web community. , effectively empowering the masses. “

What about Adobe’s goal? Become as game developer friendly as Unity is perceived to be.

“Obviously, one of the things Unity has done very well is provide great capabilities in their engine and tools,” Taylor observes. “We haven’t announced any specific plans at this point, but you can imagine Adobe is focusing on designers and developers. We will be looking for ways to solve their problems and make working with 3D as easy as we are. I did work with video, with vectors, with all these different types of content.

“We’re thinking very strategically about ways to reduce the cost, the pain, and the challenges for developers so they can embrace the new features we’re adding to the runtime around 3D. “

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About Irene S. Stroupe

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