When the gods dance...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

MMObility: Illyriad devs shine light on HTML5

MMObility: Illyriad devs shine light on HTML5

Game mechanics, Interviews, Professions, Free-to-play, Browser, Massively Interviews, Miscellaneous, MMObility

Illyriad screenshot
HTML5 is somewhat of a mysterious beast. We've probably all heard whispers of the "new" version of the standard web coding language, but to most of us it means very little. After all, why is it number five? Why is there a buzz about this new way of coding websites? Is "coding" even the right word? Oh, I've learned a thing or two over the years; I've built a few websites and have figured out some of the basics. My wife is a graphic designer, so I have learned a lot from her, including some of the stuff that makes up Flash and other graphical... things. But I am far from an expert.

So I decided to ask Ben Adams and and James Niesewand, CTO and CEO of Illyriad Games, respectively, about HTML5. They are really starting to push the boundaries of the language with their game Illyriad. It's fun to learn about this stuff, and it's always nice to know how our mobile games are being made. Click past the cut and read the interview!

Warning: Big words ahead!

Illyriad header
Massively: First of all, what is HTML5? Is it really just the next step in the HTML timeline?

James Niesewand: Essentially, yes, but there's a big backstory here. You have to remember that the first inkling of HTML was only 20 years ago in 1991, and HTML4 was first proposed in 1997, finally becoming standardized in 2000. So for way more than half the entire existence of the web, the codebase that every browser has used has been on HTML4 standards. The reason for this was, largely, a battle over control between the big corporations. Everyone wanted a slice in the run-up to and after the dot-com boom.

Ben Adams: Yes, they all produced (or re-purposed) their own, bespoke, licensed "plugin" products, whether that was Macromedia's Flash, Apple's QuickTime, Microsoft's Silverlight, or something founded on a more open principle such as JavaScript. The "browser battles" didn't help much either, with different browsers often going down different proprietary routes.

James Niesewand: The way we use the web has also changed very dramatically in the intervening 11 years. We've continually challenged these "plugin" technologies to perform beyond their original capabilities. Although new standards have been suggested and debated since HTML4, I think the tipping point was the advent of proper mobile smartphones, especially when Apple said "no" to Flash, combined with the rise of Google's Chrome browser and Android OS, which have been ultra-supportive of HTML5.

Ben Adams: I think everyone woke up then and saw that the browser, OS and device battles weren't going anywhere fast and that ubiquity of standardized access was the future. Google also shook up the browser world with Chrome and Google's new JavaScript engine by showing JavaScript could be fast! HTML, up until this point, mostly concentrated on the formatting of text and presentation of images, and any interactivity had been driven by separately evolved scripting. Our first version of Illyriad was pure HTML4, and things like the world map were quite a hard slog to get right across all browsers. It didn't allow us a lot of the features we wanted to put in. HTML5, however, opens up a whole new world of functionality in a cross-browser, standardized way.

Why are more developers naturally going with 5? Is it just a matter of learning the next step?

"Connectivity and performance are greatly improved, so web apps will run faster, more smoothly, and invisibly in the background."

Ben Adams: Compared to previous incarnations, HTML5 unifies the programming API into a standard while also providing a whole host of additional features. In addition to graphic capabilities, it adds a new technology stack. Many of these are programmatic in nature but also have subtle, and visible, differences to the end-user. On the programmatic side, there's a bunch of enhancements that mean more speed and functionality. Offline application caches and local storage mean browser applications can start faster by reading data from the hard disc (beyond the simple store of images and cookies in HTML4). Connectivity and performance are greatly improved, so web apps will run faster, more smoothly, and invisibly in the background. Semantics (giving meaning to web page structure) is also very strong in HTML5. So for example, identifying the author of a piece of text is actually built into the page.

James Niesewand: Most importantly and from a gaming perspective, HTML5 actually treats audio, video, 3-D graphics and effects as equal partners to text, without the need for plugins.

Ben Adams: And the other best thing about HTML5? The big five browser developers are all firmly behind it, as well as all the modern smart phone browsers.

James Niesewand: Well, with one caveat.

Ben Adams: Yes. Microsoft, while embracing the rest of the standards wholeheartedly, is against 3-D in the browser. Maybe we can show them the killer app!

Why not work in Flash? Besides the obvious performance issues, how does HTML5 work differently than Flash?

James Niesewand: Beyond improved performance, the best thing about HTML5 is that there is no Flash plugin requirement! And the best thing about it for us website game writers is that we don't have to learn Flash, a plug-in the end-user may or may not have installed. There's a pretty good reason there are gaming websites with entire categories called "Flash Games." It's always been partly positive like "I can run Flash games and so I'll play them!" and partly negative like "I can't run Flash and need to play something else." The balance between positive and negative is very much tipped negatively nowadays, especially post-iPhone.

Ben Adams: Absolutely. In the past all of us poor coders have either had to write-off a chunk of our audience or have had to write everything multiple times, as well as worrying about the particular version of the Flash plugin installed.

James Niesewand: We decided from day one that Illyriad wasn't going to use proprietary plug-ins, and we've stuck to it. As a tiny start-up company doing our first game, we didn't have the option to exclude a large chunk of our potential future userbase, be that people who want to play on iPhones or people in work environments that don't permit Flash installs. Sticking to HTML standards is almost entirely the reason Illyriad works on so many different platforms. Yes, we were held back by HTML4, but HTML5 will now allow us to do what we've always wanted to do with a lot less hassle.

What role do you think HTML5 will play in the grand scheme of things? Will websites and web-based games switch to the format eventually?

James Niesewand: Yes, it's the evolution of the HTML standard into the next generation. Browsers will stay backward compatible (as Illyriad will) for as long as possible, but quickly and surely any non-HTML5 browsers will die out.

Ben Adams: As well as making the web more interactive, HTML5 will make it more powerful and meaningful. Websites in general will definitely make the switch and are already doing so. Google has already adapted its search to make use of this. So even if some less tech-savvy webmasters don't make the change, much of the library code they use will start making use of it for them.

Why would you recommend developers moving to HTML5?

Ben Adams: HTML5 is a huge advantage over HTML4. We are at a convergence point where traditional desktop apps are moving into the "cloud" and working via web browser. You can already see this trend with the uptake of Google documents and Microsoft Office becoming available in the browser. But it's more than that... it actually starts to put browser-based games on the same playing field as AAA titles. The major advantages that boxed set or download games have had over browser-based games are local storage and direct access to the graphics and audio engines. Those barriers are being smashed apart by HTML5.

"Ultimately, I believe it's either browser-based or obsolescence. If you don't do it, your competitors will, and they'll be making games that work identically on more device platforms, on more browsers, on more operating systems."

James Niesewand: As Ben said, especially for MMO game developers, I personally don't believe that developers have any real long-term choice about embarking on this path or not. Ultimately, I believe it's either browser-based or obsolescence. If you don't do it, your competitors will, and they'll be making games that work identically on more device platforms, on more browsers, on more operating systems. It's going to take a very long time to get there, though, but this change has begun now, and we firmly believe that HTML5 is the future.

What limitations come with HTML5? Do you expect those limitations to disappear?

James Niesewand: Well, HTML5 does everything HTML4 and so much more, so there's no limitation in that sense.

Ben Adams: However it is a new and evolving technology. By this I mean that although it's pretty much standardized now and the most recent versions of web browsers understand most of it, there are still elements of HTML5 that can only be described as under construction. It means that no one has yet built a serious HTML5 WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface that takes full advantage of all the technologies.

James Niesewand: The long and short of it is that people who rely on editing software interfaces to do the heavy lifting in web design are out of luck with HTML5 today. That's not to say that if they're willing to wait out the storm that they can't survive and prosper ultimately. But at the moment there's a lot more old-school programming to do the funky things in much of the HTML5 codebase than I think most people know or remember!

Ben Adams: The big shift here is that the more creatively focused web designers will have difficulties producing what they did before until the editing suites catch up with them. This will, inevitably, change as the code libraries improve and the bigger players start to produce HTML5-focused WYSIWYG editors. A big shout out to Three.js 3d WebGL library we are using! As I mentioned earlier, for many basic users much, if not all, of the upgrade work will be done for them. On the audio side, the first cut at HTML5 Sound was focused on streaming, so it doesn't work so well for game sound effects. This is now being corrected. There are also still some disputes between the browser developers on what video formats to support as standard, mostly due to patents and licensing.

James Niesewand: The other game industry shift here will be for the developers who write and sell bespoke graphics or physics engines. Those may be at risk of becoming obsolete under a wave of free, open-web libraries that do much the same thing using HTML5 standards.

Ben Adams: In summary, HTML5 is hardware accelerated and fast as well as being based on open standards. If you want to develop once and deploy on every platform, it's definitely the way to go... especially since smartphone use is only going to increase, and the teething problems on video and audio will sort themselves out. These are definitely exciting times!

Ouch, my head hurts. Still, it mostly makes sense. I would like to thank the guys from Illyriad Games for taking the time out to help clear up some of the mystery surrounding this new technology!

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