There’s plenty of buzz about virtual reality at this year’s GDC, with the Oculus Rift introducing a new development version of the headset, Sony’s Project Morpheus VR headset, and Sulon Technologies introducing a headset. It’s not at all clear that VR headsets costing hundreds of dollars will ever become a large gaming market. Another technology announcement at GDC, one that’s been largely ignored by the gaming press, is likely to have a far bigger impact on the gaming business in the years ahead.
The Khronos Group, a non-profit consortium with over 120 members (including some of the largest tech companies) announced several major updates to their APIs, including OpenGL ES 3.1, WebCL 1.0, SYCL 1.2, Open CL 2.0, and EGL 1.5. It’s a lot of alphabet soup and detailed technical specs for programmers, but the important part is what this will do for browser-based games on desktop and mobile systems: Provide near-native performance for browser-based games in a way that’s easy to program. In other words, games running in a browser could deliver nearly the same graphics or 3D performance as a game written for that platform.
Already OpenGL is used daily in over 1.5 billion devices, according to Khronos Group. It’s the most widely used API by an order of magnitude. This latest update enables many more features of current processors out there, and brings a number of desktop features to mobile devices. Such things as physics simulations will become easier and more powerful on mobile with the adoption of this new standard. Core game engines like Unity, Unreal and others will be adopting these standards, and other Khronos Group members like ARM, Google, Samsung, and others are expected to follow.
This is the breakthrough that HTML 5 has been waiting for. We’ve heard for years about games being written in HTML 5, meaning they would be able to run on any mobile device or desktop without any need to port the code. The problem has always been the limited performance of HTML 5, which even on the most powerful devices limited games to very simple graphics — and even those often weren’t as smooth as could be. Now, using these new APIs, HTML 5 games could be performing like they were written specifically for the device. Games using fast action and 3D graphics could be run right from the browser with no extra effort.
There’s some other attractions for game developers in these announcements. The SYCL spec allows the use of all C++ tools for OpenCL, meaning programmers can immediately use all the tools they are familiar with to create games for a variety of platforms. The WebCL spec gives programmers access to all of the hardware — CPUs, GPUs, DSPs, and other such processors — in order to optimize computing power in a given device. That’s especially useful in a mobile device, where you can efficiently use all of the horsepower in service to creating a great game experience.
Still, it’s not all as easy as that. Browsers will have to be revised to incorporate these standards, so it won’t happen right away. And the dark cloud on the horizon is that in some cases it may not happen at all, or in a very limited fashion. Why Consider the situation on iOS devices. Right now, if you want to have a game appear on iOS, it has to be an app which is sold in Apple’s App Store. Apple takes 30 percent of the price, and 30 percent of any future in-game transactions. If, however, you could create your game in HTML 5 and anyone on an iOS device could get to it via the Safari browser, Apple wouldn’t get any share of the revenue. Clearly, Apple has a strong incentive to keep browser games crippled on iOS, which they can do simply by not adding these new capabilities to Safari.
“That is a dynamic,” admitted Neil Trevett, President of the Khronos Group and also a vice-president at Nvidia, when the [a]list daily questioned him about it. “The one developer that’s not as into WebGL and exposing it to developers is Apple. I think in the end the Web is the one platform that no vendor can really bet against.” Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research agreed. “The other aspect is it’s also the gateway to cloud data. You can’t hold all the data on your phone, and you have to go somewhere to get it. How are you going to get it there They’re not going to have any choice.”
Apple just introduced an 8GB version of the iPhone 5C in certain countries, allowing them to reduce the retail price by $50 or more in order to boost sales of iPhones. With only 8GB, though, the device will be far more dependent on streaming services. Getting the best performance from streaming is going to require supporting technologies like WebGL. In the long run, Apple may be forced into this support whether or not it has a damaging effect on App Store revenues.
Devices and browsers that do choose to support these new technologies will have a distinct advantage, and one that will be readily apparent to consumers as applications use the technologies to provide a better experience. Game creators need to keep a close eye on this technology, which could bring an additional 30 percent of revenue in while making games available on a huge number of devices. Trevett said that over 1.5 billion devices right now use OpenGL every day, for instance. These new standards could see similar widespread adoption, delivering a massive audience to game developers.
The impact on game finances and how games are marketed could be enormous. Game makers, HTML 5 and browser-based games may finally get their moment in the spotlight, and it could make business both easier and more lucrative.