HTML5 Games: A Land of Broken Hopes and Dreams

A long time ago on a web far far away there was the promise of HTML5 games. Unfortunately, this future still hasn’t come to fruition. In this rumination, I will explore why that is and what hope HTML5 games have for the future.

The Promise of HTML5 Games

Back in the late 2000s, new technologies grouped under the umbrella term “HTML5″ promised many things. One of the most exciting applications was the idea of HTML5 games. No longer would games be confined to compiled C++ code and desktop applications. In the future, people would play HTML5 games on their phones, tablets, and whatever other crazy devices would come along the way.

Screenshot of the Cut the Rope, one of the most popular HTML5 games

In theory, games in a web browser seem like they have a lot of advantages. For example:

  • Portable JavaScript code means built-in cross-platform development
  • There’s nothing to install, which means the game is updated automatically
  • The multimedia roots of web browsers could enable new gaming experiences
  • Saving the game state online allows for seamless user experiences

If all of these features are so great, why aren’t there more HTML5 games?

No Popular Engines

There are lots of game engines to choose from (here’s a list of engines for making HTML5 games), but none of them has reached “de facto” status. Even the most popular HTML5 engines are nowhere close to the heavy-hitter compiled engines like Unreal, CryENGINE, Source, or Unity.

When it comes to software, popularity isn’t always a factor. However, games are very complicated and you will eventually need assistance, so engine popularity is a key consideration. Why? Popularity means there’s more likely to be a community that you can interact with when you need help, along with more people you can work with or hire to build it. If there’s only a handful of other people using an engine and you can’t reach out to them for support, you might be stuck with a time-consuming blend of documentation and experimentation.

Low popularity also means less mature code. If a lot of people are making content for a particular game engine, there will be tons of things that have already been “figured out” for you. Most desktop game engines have many iterations behind them and contain robust tools that dramatically increase quality with far less work. I’d love to be wrong about this, but so far I haven’t seen an HTML5 game engine that can match the tools featured in top-notch compiled engines. If that engine does exist, I’m curious what games have actually been made with it.

No Popular Marketplace

There are a few places to distribute an HTML5 game, but none of them has picked up the same momentum as distribution platforms like the iOS App Store or Steam. Google offers games that can be installed to Chrome via the Chrome Web Store, but the content isn’t well-curated and the games are limited to low-quality clones, demos, and ports of mobile games. Probably the best attempt so far has been the Facebook App Center, but even with some additional curation, casual clones with in-app currencies reign supreme. A new contender is the Amazon Appstore, so hopefully its HTML5 offerings will entice more talent.

Screenshot of games in the Chrome Web Store.

In the Chrome Web Store, you’ll find a few favorites like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, but beyond the first screen is nothing more than a content wasteland. Again, I’d love to be wrong about this. If you know of a great HTML5 marketplace with high quality games and up front payments, please let me know in the comments.

No Financial Motivation

Part of the problem is expectations. The free and open nature of the web has produced an environment for games where race-to-the-bottom pricing (i.e., free-to-play) and social features lead to the most downloads. In the current landscape, it would be hard to imagine gamers paying up front for HTML5 games.

The iOS App Store has evolved over the years, but Apple did a smart thing from the start by allowing developers to easily charge for their apps. This set a healthy consumer expectation and it also provided the proper catalyst for developers to spend serious cash making their games. In June 2013, Apple announced at WWDC that developers have been paid $10 billion. Statistics about HTML5 games are harder to come by, but I highly doubt the figures are even in the same universe.

More money doesn’t always mean higher quality, but it’s probably safe to say that a company of talented artists and experienced programmers has a better chance of producing more polished experiences than an individual. Steam is the same way: There’s some very popular free games, but the vast majority of the best stuff has an up-front fee.

Screenshot of the Facebook App Center depicting a gallery of HTML5 games

There’s nothing close to this with HTML5 games. Why would any serious game development studio or web design firm pour the resources into making amazing HTML5 games and experiences? Sure, they could try monetizing them in the Chrome Web Store or Facebook App Center, but nobody is going to pay money for them up front. That means they’ll have to compete with the endless barrage of free-to-play clones and their game will likely get buried. There’s far more cash to be made elsewhere.

Hope for the Future

Right now, HTML5 games are stuck in an infinite catch-22 loop. There’s no great marketplace, which means there’s no motivation to make great games. Conversely, there’s no motivation to make games because there’s no marketplace. If HTML5 games are ever to break outside the wasteland of cheap clones and tech demos, then something has to change.

Fortunately, I think this will change soon. The gaming industry has completely exploded lately. Indie games are more popular than ever, the distribution for smaller games is readily available via digital distribution, and capital comes in the form of crowd funding. In fact, games are now the most-funded category on Kickstarter, totaling more than $200 million, and 30 of those games have cleared $1 million in funding.

Just a few years ago, this seemed a complete fantasy, but now it’s conceivable a team of one or just a few could muster the programming and design bravado to pull off a killer HTML5 game. Exciting technologies like WebGL are finally receiving strong browser support, which opens up new audiences to developers. The formula isn’t quite right yet, but there’s hope.

If this mythical beast of a web game is popular enough, developers can charge money and distribute games on their own websites without a marketplace. Minecraft is wonderful example of a game that was distributed in this fashion, sparking public interest in indie games. Today, even big distribution platforms like Steam are moving to self-publishing models.

It should just take one killer HTML5 app for other indie developers to notice. After that, a website that curates the highest quality games could evolve into a common marketplace where consumers know they can go for the highest quality content.

Does such a future seem possible to you? Or will HTML5 games be forever doomed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Free Workshops

Watch one of our expert, full-length teaching videos. Choose from HTML, CSS or WordPress.

Start Learning

Nick Pettit

Nick is a designer, public speaker, and teacher at Treehouse. He is also a co-host of The Treehouse Show. Twitter: @nickrp

Comments

5 comments on “HTML5 Games: A Land of Broken Hopes and Dreams

  1. This was a really good topic. I have actually been toying with the idea of developing my own HTML5 game for quite some time now as I have gotten more proficient at working with HTML and Javascript. I have always felt that web based games would be next technological advancement from game apps for the same reasons you stated in your article. The advantages of web based games over traditional apps are very clear. It will definitely take some time but I am confident that HTML5 games will become the new rave.

    • I was going to comment, but you’ve written exactly what I was about to write.

      Great article, and a path I’m seriously considering pursuing. I’ve grown to a decent level HTML, CSS, JS & PHP programmer, and feel giving build a HTML5 game will be a great off-time learning exercise. In fact, I’m sat write now designing a mario-like, horizontal scrolling parallax platform game! Starting low!

  2. The future is already here.

    You’re thinking too narrowly with HTML5. The whole concept of HTML5, is to be pervasive.

    There is no infinite catch-22 loop here. Nobody’s waiting for anything. As of today, a studio that uses HTML5, can easily distribute to as many app stores as they like, with minimal code modifications. Caveat: said studio needs to know what they’re doing.

    Unfortunately, there is no magical “click once” to convert your HTML5 code to be compatible with 500 other app stores. The same criticism be given to Objective C, Java, or any other language convertion tool. There are still many intermediate steps to take from production-ready code -> successful app store submission. Expect a reduction in time to market within the next few years.

    HTML5 doesn’t need a killer game. It just needs to “stick around” and make a presence. There are games built with HTML5, that are being played by 5-20 million people across multiple platforms (iOS + Android). That’s not as good as Candy Crush’s 500M+ MAUs, but it’ll suffice until the tech catches up.

    • Hi Ben,

      That’s an interesting perspective. I never thought about it that way before. Do you think HTML5 games would benefit from a dedicated marketplace?

      • Something massive like the iOS App Store is what it needs, the question is just how.

        People use games on Facebook because they spend a lot of time on the site anyway. iOS users HAVE to get their games from the App Store because they are simply forced to. Something like that needs to happen for HTML5 games I guess.