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What it was like making HTML5 games in 2013
by Matt Hackett on 12/20/13 11:20:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
What it was like making HTML5 games in 2013

As the year comes to an end, we at Lost Decade Games like to take a step back to see what kind of progress we’ve made. One of the (few) unique aspects about our game studio is that we have chosen HTML5 as our development platform, a highly controversial technology. Let’s take a look and see how HTML5 has served us this year.

How was HTML5 as a platform?

Technology is arguably the most important consideration when choosing a platform to develop on. If the tech is too hard to work with, it could compromise one’s ability to ship a quality experience. If the tech isn’t stable and robust, surely it’ll crack under the pressure of a large gaming audience!

The good news is that HTML5 on desktop is “ready” for prime time. Using the fantastic open source framework node-webkit, we’ve been distributing desktop binaries on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux for most of this year. All of our video, audio, input, and rendering demands have been met by HTML5. Performance is reasonable, development is fast, and our customers’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

A Wizard's Lizard running in its own desktop wrapper

I’m happy to report that our current mountain of problems on desktop has nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with design, marketing, and distribution. The same problems everyone has!

To distribute our HTML5 games on Google Play and the iOS App Store, we use Ludei’s CocoonJS, which is an impressive and powerful product. Our HTML5 games work great for the most part, but performance can be a problem if your game is doing tons of computing or image compositing (which games tend to do). Simple 2d HTML5 games can be made quickly and efficiently, and distributed on native mobile stores. We’re very close to that “holy grail” of easy cross-platform development, and it’s pretty great.

Lava blade on iPhone?

How was the tooling?

HTML5 tooling has a long way to go. Flash developers are accustomed to having a rich IDE at their fingertips, and many of these developers making the move to HTML5 may be sorely disappointed by the lack of mature tools available.

We’ve been iterating on our own internal tools for about three years now, including a full-featured game engine, build scripts, and a skeletal animation editor. These things we’ve built for ourselves are good enough for our specific purposes, but studios new to the HTML5 scene will likely want to use pre-existing tools.

Lost Decade Games' Doll Animation Tool

Regarding engines, ImpactJS was the leader of the pack in 2013, despite the $99 USD price tag. Phaser has been picking up steam as an open source alternative, and there are many other solid choices. The tooling has a long way to go, but things are looking bright for the future, with offerings like Intel’s XDK and PlayCanvas’s cloud-based IDE pushing forward every day.

How did we make money?

As with any technology, there are many different approaches to monetizing software. HTML5 doesn’t really have any limitations here, as it’s perfectly capable of supporting premium downloads, F2P with IAP, subscription models, or probably any other crazy scheme. That said, monetizing consumer products is hard, and this year it was worlds easier to make money with HTML5 games through B2B deals.

Below is a pie chart breakdown of our revenue from 2013:

Lost Decade Games 2013 revenue pie chart

Development Contracts

Contracts are primarily what kept us afloat in 2013. This essentially equates to other companies that have either already figured out the best way to monetize HTML5 games or (more often) they are flush with capital and eager to experiment in the space. These contracts tend to pay similar to what we used to make as web developers in Silicon Valley, but they also take up the lion’s share of our time. It’s closer to “employment” than we’d like to be, and probably where a lot of indies find themselves these days.

There’s lots of interest in HTML5 from companies with money, and from what we’ve seen, they’re spending more on contracts each year.

Licenses

HTML5 gaming portals are popping up everywhere. They typically pay a one-time non-exclusive licensing fee for a quality mobile HTML5 game, ranging drastically in price. From what we’ve seen, an individual license could earn between $350-$2k USD, depending on the quality of the game and success of the partner. (These numbers will likely decrease as more developers saturate the market.) Many portals offer revenue split only, from which we’ve never seen better pay than the one-time fee.

These licenses seem like easy money on the surface, and once in a blue moon they are. The vast majority of licenses, however, end up being bloody time vampires. Portals usually want support for a dozen or more devices, going back as far as Android 2.1 and iOS 3 (these devices are slow and have pitiful audio support). Since many of these portals are brand new, they tend to be very volatile. We’ve experienced companies switching contacts multiple times, pivoting away from HTML5, and even shutting down entirely during discussions.

Lost Decade Games' Doll Animation Tool

These issues make it difficult to actually profit from licenses. Still, licenses were the easiest way to make money with HTML5 games in 2013.

Consumers

Developing and marketing HTML5 games directly to consumers? Good luck! You’re in the same crowded market as the rest of the world. HTML5 has some advantages, such as being able to provide a demo instantly in the browser, but are demos even worthwhile for developers? We got a big spike in this category by running our Kickstarter for Crypt Run A Wizard’s Lizard earlier this year. Additional sales have all come through Humble widgets and IAP.

What games did we make?

One way to measure the effectiveness of a platform is to look at how productive its developers have been. So what was our output from 2013? Here is an incomplete list of the games we made:

LDG games in 2013
  1. Lava Blade (turn-based strategy RPG, launched via our own Humble widget)
  2. Rampart Rush (unreleased, got tied up in publishing deals)
  3. Retreat to the Jeep! (Indie Speed Run 2013 entry)
  4. Midtown Mayhem (unreleased, also tied up in publishing deals)

These games were developed while handling dozens of licenses and creating many prototypes to sharpen our skills and tools. Additionally, throughout almost the entire year we were developing A Wizard’s Lizard in one form or another. Any studio can always be more productive, but we’re satisfied with what we were able to build on HTML5 this year.

Summary

I believe 2013 was the year we started to see the gradual transition from experimental HTML5 games to production-quality HTML5 games. The tooling has a long way to go, but the money is there if you do quality work. Overall, it was a good year for HTML5 gaming.


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Comments


Rob Graeber
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Thanks for the writeup, it was an interesting read. Hopefully playing html5 games on mobile browsers will catch on, otherwise I don't really see the advantage versus using a cross platform engine/ide like Unity.

Lihim Sidhe
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Yes this was a great read! If the writing wasn't on the wall from the proliferation of mobile devices... consoles as we know them are on their way out. My bet on the future of gaming revolves around one concept: access. And what provides better access than a game that can be played on the desktop, in a browser (both for desktops and mobile), AND as an app???

Mr. Hackett what would be the Gamasutra.com for web development? Also what would be the Gameasutra.com for games developed via web code? I use gamasutra.com in the context that it really is a one stop shop for just about every thing gamer related.

Matt Hackett
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Thanks! As Bryson mentioned, there's html5gamedevs.com and some companies have their own offerings for one-stop HTML5 shops including buildnewgames.com (Microsoft) and html5hub.com (Intel).

Bryson Whiteman
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Nice breakdown Matt! I hadn't heard about node-webkit, I will check it out.

I might have missed it in your article, but it's worth mentioning that http://www.html5gamedevs.com/ is a solid community for HTML game development.

Keep it up!

Patrice Sadler
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Nice article thank you. I started out working on construct 2 which also uses HTML5 so I am very happy to see this tech is going to be good :)

Stephane Beladaci
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I will throw the draft for my upcoming article on HTML5 and JS, the biggest corporate bullying scam in the entire history of the Internet.

Setting the Record Straight

Facebook, Linked, Goko, Wooga, Blossom are just a few companies who broke their teeth on HTML5 and decided to partially or completely dump it, calling it a "failure", their "biggest mistake" with Google calling JavaScript, the programming language on which it is based, a “flawed” language that "cannot be fixed" by merely changing it.

And those are just the few who had either the courage, honesty, corporate duty to shareholders, or business responsibility toward developers to be honest and public about it. Thousands fail silently every day, too embarrassed to admit it publicly, or too small to counter the attack of the water carriers from Apple and the opportunistic HTML5 vendors, when not plain simple fake social personas operated by publicity and marketing staff on payroll, all flooding the web with lies and misleading truth.

Facebook dumped HTML5 saying it is the "biggest mistake" in the company's history. #FAIL
http://mashable.com/2012/09/11/html5-biggest-mistake

LinkedIn dumped HTML5 saying it was a mistake to adopt it: #FAIL
http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/17/linkedin-mobile-web-breakup

Goko’s HTML5 game portal went back to beta after failed launch, blowing up on first day. #FAIL
http://allthingsd.com/20120821/gokos-html5-game-portal-goes-back-
to-beta-after-failed-launch

Wooga, the second largest game developer on Facebook, dumped HTML5 after hitting the wall as one of the adopters of Facebook's failed HTML5 platform codename "Spartan". #FAIL
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2406187,00.asp

Google recognized that JavaScript, and therefore HTML5, are failures with flaws that cannot be fixed. #FAIL
https://gist.github.com/paulmillr/1208618

Technical facts

HTML5 is based on a bogus programming language that's not even one, but an interpreted script. It takes a rocket scientist to hack HTML5 and make it work, rocket scientists most companies cannot afford, and most of the time cannot find even when they can afford them. #FAIL

HTML5 consists in putting band-aids on a chicken dead in the egg, to make it work across browsers on life support. Forget mobile, desktop, TV. Each new destination is more hacking, discrepancies & failures. #FAIL

HTML5 is a failure because of its nature: implementation left to the browser, with vendors free to implement it how, when & if they want. Features might work in 1 browser but not the other, or not work & look the same, or not at all. #FAIL

That is when vendors don't cripple it on purpose, such as Apple executives marking HTML5 bugs not to be fixed by executive order. That is Apple execs ordering Safari mobile engineers not to fix bugs that refrain HTML5 from competing with AppStore & iTunes. #FAIL
https://twitter.com/flexengineer/status/151438556169121793

As a result, we see mind blowing facts such as iOS7 plagued with HTML5 bugs. Don't tell me Apple does not have the money & talents to avoid that! #FAIL
http://www.infoworld.com/t/html5/bad-news-ios-7s-html5-full-of-bu
gs-227685

Corporate Bullying

HTML5 is the biggest corporate bullying scam in the entire history of the Internet & is costing enterprises hundreds of millions. Most HTML5 web "developers" are costing enterprises 2x to 5x more money than Flash/Flex/AIR experts because they spend more time, by multiple folds, to develop apps which mostly fail, do not look right, do not feel right, or do not behave right across browsers and platforms, especially on mobile…. How funny! Compare that with Flash/AIR apps that work the same everywhere from 1 single code base, with 1 team instead of 2 to 4, & all based on a rock solid enterprise class object oriented programming called AS3, not to be confused with AS2 used to build old school Flash animations and ads and just as bad as JavaScript.

Antitrust Scam

It is because Flash / Flex and AIR are too good that Jobs banned Flash as part of its vendetta on Adobe, which pushed for a "develop once, deploy everywhere" business model which is a threat to Jobs' monomaniac and megalomaniac close business model. Flash was banned to protect the artificial supremacy of the AppStore and iTunes. It is because HTML5 / JS are a failure that Jobs, smarter than anyone else, pushed it to serve as a decoy to distract the attention from the vendetta on Adobe and attempt, I repeat "attempt", to assassinate Flash. Fortunately, it triggered a preliminary joint antitrust preliminary investigation of Apple by FTC and EU Commission, and the regulators constrained Apple to support Adobe AIR, a technology used to run Flash apps on the iOS platform. Adobe also learned the lesson and put its money back where its mouth is, making develop once, deploy everywhere a reality again with performances at parity with native apps and 10 fold performance improvement in the browser:
https://www.facebook.com/notes/stephane-beladaci/one-code-any-screen-develop-once-depl oy-everywhere-is-a-reality/10152672812579068

The mobile browser is the only 1 destination where HTML5 makes sense, not because it is good, but because it is a failure, that is how Jobs wanted it. Jobs wanted everyone to fail with it in the browser, left with no alternative since Apple banned not just Flash but also Silverlight & Java, every single serious app technology allowing to compete with native apps from the browser, making everyone fall back to native app & self-enroll for a racketeering 30% tax. He was a genius, I give you that much & he is laughing & finger pointing at HTML5 developers & adopters from the other side all the way to Hell Bank.

Did not I say so three years ago?

In 2010 I told Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook that they will fail by adopting HTML5. A few years later Zuckerberg went on the record to apologize to his shareholders & called it "the biggest mistake" in the company's history, after spending millions in a project codename "Spartan", an HTML5 platform with which they try to take on the AppStore, which failed miserably, failed the company's entry to the mobile market, therefore failing their IPO. They should have read my blog more attentively instead of listening to a bunch of developer kids straight from school.
http://www.appletruth.com/blog/screw-you-apple-there-will-be-a-qu
arter-billion-flash-enable.html

Ryan Walker
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a) No browser plugin dropoff rate or risk - for any browser based games (which is and always has been for over a decade a huge business).
b) Discoverability in pure app store model alone is getting more and more expensive for game developers, it's more and more difficult for new game devs to break in there.
c) Browsers are threatening to kill plugins completely - Chrome may eliminate them entirely in 2014, which effectively kills Unity in the browser for browsers that disallow plugins, which is the current trend.
d) First mover on internet of things and any new game or app capable gadget devices with internet connectivity- browsers get there by definition way before a game engine like Unity
e)Rise of Hybrid apps for the Mobile App Store - The technology is getting better and more mature for apps and games to integrate or wrap themselves with native using phonegap and other sdks and put the app store. From zero apps about three years ago we now have some apps like Kik which are now over 100 million and use HTMl5.
f) Rise of WebGL for performance - IE and android Chrome now allow webGL by default, this will be a huge performace gain for HTML5/WebGL games that take advantage
g) HTML5 still isn't for the meek or the followers but it is no longer something I would be hesitant to recommend trying.
i) A healthy game industry should have more than one typical game engine technology.. Other wise it will eventually turn the monetary screws not to mention the games will all be too similar. Unity is a good engine, and am happy to support it, however I tire of Unity trying to be absolutely everything for everyone. As they say absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Stephane Beladaci
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The problem is not who is right or wrong, the problem is that innovation never has and probably never will come through technology which implementation is left to the browser. The reason plugins have always and will always be a decade ahead is because the runtime is not left to the mercy of browser vendors who hate each other and have their own proprietary app platform to push, platform they can tax at a racketeering rate of 30%. We hear about the death of the plugin all the time and have for a long time, at the end of the day Chrome baked Flash into the browser, and so did Microsoft with IE. I think that is not gonna change anytime soon. So yeah maybe plugins as we know it will die, but browser will just bake the best of them into their product. It is already done. Are not you tired of years and years of false promises about HTML5? The whole buzz has no purpose but to kill the web, HTML5 has no purpose but to have serious businesses fail with it, so they fall back to native app and enroll themselve for a 30% tax. It is a never ending game, never will Apple let HTML5 compete with AppStore and iTunes. On the other hand, there is nothing they can do to cripple Flash and AIR which break ground with each and every release, every 6 months. Meanwhile, a bunch of corporate poeple are playing games siting at the W3c table and talking forever about what get to the specs, and then they can cripple the feature or not implement it to either block their competitors or protect their taxable app store, competitors who also own a browser and do the same. I have seen that game going for a decade, HTML5 is the biggest antitrust corporate bullying scam in the entire history of Internet. Things have changed though, Apple fired the last remain of the Jobs close minded legacy (VP of iOS) and revamped the entire executive team. You guys know Apple hired Kevin Lynch, former CTO of Macromedia and Adobe, and biggest Flash fanboy on the planet, right? Apple also put an end of the megalomaniac monomaniac Jobs legacy. The collaboration between Apple and Adobe has never been better, and Adobe AIR / Adobe Flash rule app development for cross platform, it invented it a decade ago (rich internet application / ria, anyone?), now including iOS. Can you see the game? It was not Flash the problem, it was Flash in the browser because the browser cannot be taxed and with Flash it was a threat to AppStore at a time when Apple owned 85% of application markets, Apple would not be what it is today without that antitrust ban. Why do you think Jobs posted a full page rant on Apple.com for the first time in history? Users were getting agitated. Why would Apple take such an enormous risk, including facing a full blown antitrust investigation that would have brought their stock even further down? AIR is nothing but a runtime to run Flash into proprietary platform, which can be taxed. We all got screwed, but HTML5 developers more than anyone else because we Flash/Flex/AIR developers keep rocking the stack that rule cross platform development, and it is our clients who will pay the tax. Voila!

Ryan Walker
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Web browsers (chrome for example is seriously threatening in 2014) may make it so plug ins are not supported - hence Unity in the browser will be no longer and HTMl5/WebGL may be the only game in town there. Plus the wrappers like phone-gap are starting to be more complete so you can put them in the mobile app stores too as hybrid apps. Love Unity but a Unity only world is not a healthy one (except for Unity and even then it would grow complacent).

Good to see a realistic non hyperbolic pro or con article like this one coming out. HTMl5 is still a bit leading/bleeding edge however it is now probably in a sweet spot where it's not so immature the effort is wasted and there is not the stampede quite yet so you can still get first mover in many markets. WebGL is also getting very interesting for the high performance apps over the next few years also.

Aniruddha Loya
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Thanks for sharing your insights for the year, does give a morale boost coming into 2014 and planning to make games as indie rather than a freelance developer :)

Oksana Dzekar
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HTML5 is a good technology choice for mobile content. But it's not the only alternative. Here is a great overview of the main mobile technologies available for developers. http://www.igniteoutsourcing.com/engaging-new-battles-in-online-g
aming


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