Google’s Chrome 66 update in April came with a touted feature that prevents video and audio from autoplaying in its web browser. However, this has harmed indie developers who create HTML5 games — the new policy broke a lot of web games, forcing some designers to consider taking down their entire portfolio of dozens of titles. In response to the outcry about the autoplay policy, Google Chrome boss John Pallett posted in a forum yesterday that it will temporarily disable the part that is affecting web games. The policy will be reimplemented in October with the Chrome 70 update.
“We’ve updated Chrome 66 to temporarily remove the autoplay policy for the Web Audio API. This change does not affect most media playback on the web, as the autoplay policy will remain in effect for <video> and <audio>,” wrote Pallett on a message board where users can submit Chromium bugs. “We’re doing this to give Web Audio API developers (e.g., gaming, audio applications, some RTC features) more time to update their code. The team here is working hard to improve things for users and developers, but in this case we didn’t do a good job of communicating the impact of the new autoplay policy to developers using the Web Audio API.”
Google declined to comment further on the move to disable the update. It also hasn’t addressed developer complaints that the documentation is unclear.
Scirra cofounder Ashley Gullen reacted to the rollback with displeasure. His studio develops the web-based game engine Construct, and he previously submitted a complaint about the Chrome 66 update.
“This is totally bananas. You’ve not solved any of the problems, or even suggested how they might be solved,” said Gullen in a reply to Pallett’s post. “I appreciate the revert, but this only provides some extra time until you do exactly the same thing, with largely the same consequences.
In a previous post, Gullen suggested solutions, such as changing the way Chrome treats “user gestures,” which detect input from the player. The way it’s set up now, it’s easy for developers to overlook certain input types, which leads to the game or website becoming permanently muted. The list of user gestures also changes, which makes it difficult for developers to “future-proof” games so that they won’t be broken by subsequent updates.
“If browsers fired a ‘usergesture’ event at the same time as any of these other magic events that qualify as user gestures, it would simplify web app development, and future-proof usage against further changes to which events are the magic user-gesture-qualified ones,” said Gullen on a message board about web standards. “This does not make it easier to build abusive content; such content will just listen to the full list of magic events. It only makes it easier to build legitimate, future-proofed web apps.”
Indie developer Bennett Foddy (Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, QWOP) has been vocal on Twitter about the Chrome 66 update and how it’s affected web games and internet art.
This really is an unprecedented moment for a tiny web browser team destroying a mountain of cultural work built on open standards. Hard to think of anything in history on an equivalent scale, with so little moral justification.
— Bennett (@bfod) May 8, 2018
“First let me say that the rollback didn’t rescue sites that use the <audio> HTML tag, which is the standard way to stream audio using MP3s or OGGs on websites. So the rollback has only rescued a fraction of the affected sites,” said Foddy in an email to GamesBeat. “Really the autoplay policy was pushed into Chrome with no warning to developers. The Chrome team had announced they would be blocking autoplay for video last September, then in February (long after the discussion had died down) they slipped an announcement of the audio policy into the same blog post with no additional announcement. Even if you think it’s OK for a browser team to unilaterally decide to stop supporting an enormous number of websites and games — which it isn’t — it is even worse to do it by surprise.”
Foddy describes the rollback as “a small step in the right direction,” but it doesn’t solve a lot of the problems that the update caused. From the start, he says that the Chrome team didn’t consult with developers about how the policy would affect their work. In addition to that, the Chrome 66 update takes a lot of control away from users — they don’t have a way to know whether or not audio has been muted or to manually unmute audio, and since the browser auto-updates, most people weren’t able to retain an older version that had no problem playing audio on websites.
“The great majority of affected games *did not autoplay audio* in the first place! They are just swept up by a policy that is not even very effective at its stated purpose, which is silencing malicious ads,” said Foddy. “The change forces developers of new games to implement special code for a single browser, at odds with all the other browsers, taking us back to the bad old days of [Internet Explorer 6] where you needed to write each piece of code twice: once for all the standards-compliant browsers and a second time for Microsoft.”
He describes the new policy as a “colossal abuse of power,” since Google automatically whitelists its own sites like YouTube, which will continue to autoplay audio. Foddy says there are a number of ways that Google could have approached this issue — such as enabling users to permanently whitelist a site.
“But more broadly, I would like to see Google take the moral responsibility of their market position seriously,” said Foddy. “That means, whenever they are considering major (or minor) changes to how their browser handles web standards, they should announce early and invite consultation with key stakeholders — in this case, developers of various types and sizes of websites and games and so forth. This thing that happened instead, where they decided the policy behind closed doors, then snuck it into the build by surprise, and buried the announcement from public view, is the literal opposite of what ought to happen.”
Nearly all the developers who commented on the Chrome 66 issue note that it’s understandable that Google wants to put a stop to autoplaying videos and audio. However, they’re frustrated by how many hoops they’ll have to jump through to comply with the new requirements so that their web games will work. On top of that, developers who have large catalogs of old games simply don’t have the resources or time to update every title.
“Obviously browsers are going to change over time. Some of the changes are bound to cause problems for existing websites,” said Foddy. “But those breaking changes can and should be avoided where possible. The primary mission of a web browser is to display websites reliably – it should display them the same as other standards-compliant browsers and it should display as many of those websites as it conceivably can. That is a far, far higher priority than muting a small proportion of autoplaying ads.”