[As Adobe marches towards a Q2 launch for its Molehill, the 3D version of Flash, developers must decide whether to aim for that, Unity 3D, or an in-house solution -- Gamasutra investigates.]
If analysts are correct -- if online and mobile games generate half the projected $87-billion total game market's annual revenue in five years, as investment advisor Digi-Capital predicts -- the question arises: What will it take to capture market share?
Leading-edge tech that supports immersive play, such as in 3D browser-based games, will surely have a major impact across the web, but which technology companies will developers favor?
This year, developers have two new choices: adopt Unity 3, the third version of Unity Technologies' increasingly popular Unity 3D development platform, recently launched in September, or utilize Molehill, the new 3D version of Flash, now in beta and scheduled for a Q2 release.
It's not a simple choice, to be sure, say game makers who must weigh the overwhelming popularity of the near-ubiquitous Flash against the support they receive from the developer-friendly Unity.
Instead, Taiwan-based XPEC Entertainment has chosen a third alternative -- building a proprietary Flash-based 3D engine for its next game, Maze Myth, scheduled for a year-end 2011 release. The game, which XPEC calls "the world's first 3D, Flash-based, real-time battle browser MMORPG," was discussed in detail at GDC China in December.
"We decided against Unity because, even with its new Unity 3 version, it still takes at least 30 seconds to download and plug in the program," says Aaron Hsu, XPEC's chairman. "Most browsers already have Flash installed so there's no need to download it. Which is why we decided to go with Flash when, three years ago, we started working on our Flash-based 3D engine, which we call the Hive Engine."
Hsu recalls that his team was thrilled when, on October 28, Adobe announced that its next release, codenamed Molehill, would support 3D, confirming that XPEC was heading in the right direction with its own Flash engine. But why would XPEC continue the Hive project when it could just as easily adopt Molehill?
"Because even though Adobe says Molehill will be available in Q2, there could be delays," explains Hsu. "If there are no delays, we will quickly transition to Molehill. If we complete Hive first, we will use Hive. It all depends on who is quickest."
But Adobe has no intention of missing its deadline. In fact, it is already partnering with Quebec City-based developer Frima Studio which is "adapting and improving its existent technology platform to support all the new features and possibilities included" in the upcoming API, according to Steve Couture, Frima CEO.
"As a pre-release partner, we receive pre-release builds and participate in both forum and voice discussions with the Flash Runtime team," he elaborates. "We were able to expose concrete challenges that game developers face."
Frima has produced several demo videos utilizing the new Molehill technology, the first of which uses the developer's Zombie Tycoon game.
One of the developer-friendly aspects of Molehill, says Couture, is that it supports a fallback to a software renderer for older hardware. "Adobe licensed TransGaming's SwiftShader 3D. Molehill offers a low-level API to access the hardware. This provides enough flexibility for those who want to get their hands dirty, but allows others to use available 3D libraries to use it as well."
Couture believes Molehill "will have a large impact on browser-based games and their quality; it will unlock the full potential of today's hardware."
For example, he says, one could play a game comparable to Call of Duty or Gran Turismo directly on their Facebook wall. The acceleration hardware allows one to have moving items on screen -- 2D or 3D -- giving more interactivity and immersion possibilities for gamers, hardcore or casual, he explains.
"Thirteen years ago, I wanted Flash to become a tool for game developers," he says. "With Molehill, this is it. It's finally a gaming platform."