Web-based video games have been second-class citizens pretty much since their inception. And if one institution has a shot at changing that, it’s Mozilla.
Mozilla is announcing today that it has partnered up once again with Epic Games, the makers of the most-used middleware in gaming. The two companies are bringing the Unreal Engine 4 framework to the web just in time for the Game Developers Conference next week in San Francisco.
Last year, Mozilla and Epic ported Unreal Engine 3 to the web, but the companies only demonstrated it at the conference as a proof-of-concept. This year, the technology is actually ready and available for developers to start building on.
Why is this important? A recent survey showed that 52 percent of Americans play browser-based games.
Much of the technology industry has been shifting to the web from desktop or native mobile software. Naturally, there’s also been a high demand for more portable gaming technology, namely technology that makes games accessible through the browser. We say it’s more portable because it works across all platforms, enabling you to take your gameplay from device to device, regardless of what that device is.
And these games are getting bigger in both size and scope. Our GamesBeat channel recently gave a web game, the role-playing/collectible card game Card Hunter, a high score.
During a call with VentureBeat, Mozilla engineering director and inventor of WebGL, Vlad Vukicevic, shared that the company has been working on making the Web ready for the next generation of games, especially ensuring that the experience in the browser rivals or at least matches that of native games.
Vukicevic and Martin Best, Mozilla’s game platform strategist, were happy to announce that the team has now gotten asm.js’s speed down to 1.5 times that of native applications. It was twice as slow a year ago and five to 10 times slower when web-based gaming started to take off.
And although Mozilla’s Firefox browser is currently most optimized for asmj.js, Chrome and Opera have been coming quite close to its levels recently.
Best also pointed out the implication this has for the gaming business. In the past, browser-based gaming required that users download plug-ins for high-end, 3D experiences, causing a high amount of friction and the loss of players who were not comfortable downloading them.
Removing this step greatly improves player draw and retention.
Increasing mobility — making code that can run on any machine or operating system — is also a huge advantage of putting games in the browser, Best added.
Monster Madness, the first commercial Unreal Engine 3 game published on the Web, saw immediate success when its maker, NomNom Games, released it.
Jeremy Stieglitz, NomNom Games’ chief technology officer, shared with VentureBeat that since its release, half of the game’s players have come from the Web.
Additionally, only about half of the web players have since switched to the native version, showing that the web release is “both effective as a marketing tool … but also a final destination for [more casual] users.”
Since the first web release of Monster Madness was a direct copy of the native version of the game, NomNom Games is now releasing an even newer version, this time explicitly designed for the browser. The game will be live through the end of GDC and then will be periodically updated until a permanent version is released in May 2014.
As Mozilla heads into one of the biggest gaming conferences next week, it looks forward to showing off this year’s proof-of-concept — web gaming on mobile — and plans to make it ship-worthy in the coming year.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine powers some of the biggest franchises in the video games industry, including first-person shooter BioShock Infinite in the living room and action-role-playing game Infinity Blade on mobile.