With the recent news of Adobe Flash been re-branded as Adobe Animate (Animate CC, to be exact), and the less-recent news that Mozilla would follow in Google’s footsteps in pulling the plug on NPAPI for Firefox, browser-based games are left in a somewhat awkward spot. Unity has moved away from their web player in (desperate) favor of WebGL. Where do they go from here?
You might be thinking, “well, Ray, in the very same announcement of Flash’s re-branding, Adobe assured everyone that it would continue to support Flash Player, so what’s the big deal?”. That’s a great question, hypothetical person I just made up. While Adobe will continue to “support” flash player, does that necessarily mean that browser vendors will? The shift towards a plugin-less browser experience is mid-swing already, and Flash, no matter how ubiquitous, doesn’t quite jive with it.
“What about WebGL, then?” says another anonymous voice in the crowd. WebGL is the promise of what someday might be. Unfortunately, it simply does not mesh with the reality of what is. For a reason I may never come to understand, there are people out there rocking IE6 in 2015. While ,yes , I understand, some people in third world countries who’ve only access to old hardware, are stuck on old browsers; there are a significant number of people out there who choose–by inaction–to stick with dated hardware and browsers. That’s the adoption rate issue. Then there’s the issue of WebGL just not being that good… yet.
With the announcement of the two major browser vendors dropping NPAPI, the technology which Unity’s web player relied on, the focus shifted, relatively quickly, to WebGL. While the performance of Unity’s WebGL vs the old Web Player is… well, lacking, to be kind, this is hardly Unity’s fault. In fact, it’s not even a fair comparison. True, both are accessed via a browser, but the two are essentially completely different platforms. To Unity’s credit, they’ve done an immense amount for WebGL, and have been helping speed up the development of the technology. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, even with Firefox still supporting NPAPI for another year or so, development at Unity on the Web Player is essentially dead and unsupported, and developers have already jumped ship.
I don’t see it as all doom and gloom, though. I see an opportunity here to re-invigorate the adoption of programs (or Apps, as kids call ’em these days) on desktop. The mobile market has essentially trained users to accept downloads, updates, required internet connections, etc. Core gamers already know the deal, but I’m not talking about them; they aren’t the consumers of bejeweled and mafia wars or candy crush on browser. This is a golden opportunity for a “steam for casuals” to infiltrate the desktop world. I believe Microsoft is moving in the right direction by expanding their ecosystem in Windows 10.
While this may seem like a cop out, the reality is that WebGL just isn’t ready for prime-time yet. Stand-alone apps are. This is the time for the minesweeper or free cell of this generation to make their mark.