Zynga, Disney embrace Web game technology

Developers with expertise building engines for new-generation Web-based games are increasingly prominent with moves by Zynga, Disney, and Motorola.

Disney is the new owner of Rocket Pack, with its Rocket Pack Web-based game engine.
Disney is the new owner of Rocket Pack, with its Rocket Pack Web-based game engine. Rocket Pack

When it comes to the competition between Flash and Web technologies, the latter camp has two big new allies in the online gaming industry: Zynga and Disney.

Zynga today mostly uses Adobe Systems' Flash technology as a foundation for its widely played CityVille and FarmVille online games. But an acquisition of a German company last fall is paving the way for a new foundation using technology that uses a browser, not a browser plug-in.

Zynga joined the World Wide Web consortium this week and will share the fruits of its Web-based gaming experience, said Paul Bakaus, chief technology officer of Zynga Germany, in a blog post Wednesday. Bakaus is creator of the jQuery UI library of user-interface elements for sophisticated Web pages, and Zynga acquired his company, Dextrose, last year.

And Disney Interactive Media Group, part of Walt Disney, acquired Finnish start-up Rocket Pack, TechCrunch reported today. Rocket Pack has been developing another foundation for Web-based games called Rocket Engine.

There's more, too. Motorola Mobility Ventures announced today it invested in Moblyng, which develops Web-technology games for mobile devices and social networks.

Those developments aren't enough to unseat Flash. But they exemplify the increasing attention paid not just to using the technology for Web games but for developing the underlying standards.

Competitively, Flash is a powerful incumbent, and games is one of its strong suits. Many experienced programmers use Flash already, often employing the serious coding tools Adobe sells. And Flash is a moving target: Just this week Adobe released a test version of its "Molehill" technology for hardware-accelerated 3D Flash graphics. Even as Adobe begins embracing Web technologies, for example by contributing to jQuery, it's also investing heavily in Flash.

Web standards have their advantages, too. Some reach iOS devices where Flash is banned and Android devices where Flash apps can struggle. And a large group of companies is working on bettering those Web standards.

At Dextrose, Bakaus was working on a game foundation called the Aves Engine based on Web technology, not Flash. Now Zynga wants to share its work involving those Web technologies, including the JavaScript programming language and Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), with others, he said in the post.

Zynga has recently started investing heavily into the open Web stack. While most of our current games (CityVille, FarmVille) still run on Flash, our subsidiary in Germany is exclusively focussing on JavaScript driven game technology. We are building a new-generation engine to power future games that run platform independent and cross-device...

As we're doing something that (likely) hasn't been done before, a lot of our time is spent on research. Every day, we encounter new issues with the web stack, and we eventually realized that it doesn't make sense to keep all of it to ourselves. By joining W3C and actively contributing back and sharing our unique perspective, we hope to kill two birds with one stone: Improving our games, and improving the web for anyone building games.

Facebook, where millions of people play Zynga games, is paying close attention. It's been working on a Web gaming benchmark and last week released JSGameBench 0.3, a third incarnation of the work in progress. The test measures how fast a browser can show animated "sprites," graphical elements such as alien spaceships that move around the screen.

Web technologies use a wide variety of standards for browser games. One coming with HTML5 is called canvas for two-dimensional graphics. A canvas drawing area also can accommodate accelerated 3D graphics using another standard, WebGL. The Facebook benchmark engineers found dramatically faster sprite drawing performance using WebGL.

SVG is another important Web technology, and Bakaus now is a member of the W3C's SVG working group.

SVG is very useful for some types of graphics such as logos and icons, and it's got an important advantage over bitmapped graphics formats such as JPEG and PNG in that it can gracefully be zoomed to larger or smaller scales. For an illustration, visit an SVG demo site and use Ctrl+ and Ctrl- to zoom the browser in and out.

That SVG zooming is important for the varying screen sizes and pixel densities of smartphones, tablets, PCs, and TVs. Also nice: SVG rendering can be accelerated with graphics chips and, crucially, SVG is built into IE9.

But Bakaus is interested in SVG for another reason: seeing what can be applied to yet another Web technology standardized at the W3C, Cascading Style Sheets. CSS is getting more sophisticated as a way to draw drop shadows or to animate transitions such as moving photos around a screen.

"While we do not use SVG currently mainly due to implementation performance reasons, I'm looking forward to see what knowledge is hidden within the SVG spec than could be ported over," Bakaus said.

The new Web standards are at times rough around the edges, unstable, and inconsistently supported in browsers. But they're real, now. Mozilla, on the brink of releasing its first release candidate for Firefox 4, is promoting the new standards on its Web O' Wonders site, joining other envelope-pushing demos from Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

Programmers have plenty of choices, and it's unlikely any single technology will win out. The Web technologies, though, clearly are a strong force that's growing stronger.

 

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