It's about time: RuneScape dumps Java for HTML5

commentary A widely used online game and longtime Java ally is ditching Oracle's security-plagued programming technology. Your move, Minecraft.

Jagex is rebuilding RuneScape on a Web foundation, opting for HTML5 and its ilk rather than Java.
Jagex is rebuilding RuneScape on a Web foundation, opting for HTML5 and its ilk rather than Java. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

RuneScape, a popular massive online swords-and-sorcery game, is at last dumping Java and becoming a Web app.

Jagex Games Studio released the first RuneScape 3 beta yesterday, embracing HTML5 and related Web standards that offer programmers a more modern option for writing software that runs on a variety of operating systems.

About time, I say. Java had some potential years ago, and it still has its place elsewhere in the computing world. But as a way to extend a browser's abilities, it's history. If the plague of Java security vulnerabilities weren't enough to convince you otherwise, the trend away from browser plug-ins should be.

With more than 200 million RuneScape accounts and thousands online at the same time, RuneScape is a big reason for a lot of people not to uninstall Java.

Nobody in my household plays RuneScape, but there are other reasons I can't eradicate Java from my life.

One is my son's favorite electronic pastime, Minecraft, which runs on Java. Another is MIT's Scratch, the programming environment he also toys with.

There are some grounds for hope here, too. Versions of Minecraft are available for iOS and Android, indicating that its developers can see beyond Java. And Scratch 2.0, currently in beta testing, uses Adobe Systems' Flash Player instead of Java. Flash is also on its way out, but it's a few years behind Java and far more widely used, meaning that browsers will actively support it for longer.

The most offensive Java relic in my life is an expense-reporting system that doesn't even work except with a version of Java that dates back to before Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems. That means it's vulnerable to a multitude of documented attacks. It's a good thing smart browser makers no longer let Java applets run until the user grants permission.

Migrating off Java is tricky.

MIT considered other options but went with Flash because it has "the best combination of features, performance, and browser penetration right now," according to the project's FAQ. "Flash allows us to make Scratch available to as many people as possible without requiring them to install anything."

RuneScape developers, though, placed their bet on Web standards. That comes with some risks, but it offers some major possible rewards.

Jagex said HTML5 and related standards let it offer much more sophisticated graphics for RuneScape. That means among other things that players will be able to see farther into the distance, as shown at lower right, than with the current Java software.
Jagex said HTML5 and related standards let it offer much more sophisticated graphics for RuneScape. That means among other things that players will be able to see farther into the distance, as shown at lower right, than with the current Java software. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

It appears that the new RuneScape uses WebGL, a browser-based 3D graphics interface that can tap into graphics chips' hardware acceleration abilities. (Jagex didn't respond to a request for comment.) WebGL is only available in Chrome and Firefox today, though, and right now Jagex requires people to use Chrome. There are strong signs that Microsoft will build WebGL into Internet Explorer 11 , but at present, anyone who relies on WebGL has to worry about browser compatibility issues.

As the Web matures, though, it lets programmers reach a multitude of other computing devices besides just PCs. Apple has banned Flash and Java from iOS, and Microsoft has done likewise for Windows RT and imposed some plug-in restrictions on Windows 8. Java and Flash don't work on Android, either.

Using Web technologies sidesteps these plug-in restrictions.

And in RuneScape's case, it opens up new vistas -- literally.

Developers were keen to talk about new graphics possibilities with Web programming such as richer color and "extra draw distance" so players can see farther away from their character's local environment.

Jagex hasn't changed the back-end servers that players connect to, so the Java and Web-app version of the RuneScape software run side by side. Only people with slow computers should stick with the Java version, though, Jagex said.

"The specs for HTML5 are a little bit higher than Java, so if you are on a lower-spec machine, you may get a little better performance out of Java," said one developer in an explanatory video. "But anyone on high- of mid-spec machines will get better performance out of HTML5."

Another potential advantage is that RuneScape could arrive on mobile devices. Jagex isn't making any promises, though.

"If it does work on other devices such as mobiles and tablets, it's a happy coincidence," another developer said. "We're not actively stopping it from working on them, but it's not our target."

When Sun released Java in 1995, brought some innovation to the browser and cross-platform programming world. But it never truly caught on as a way to run software on PCs, either in browsers or as standalone software. With Java's low usage and high risk, Jagex is smart to move beyond it.

 

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