The future of browser game graphics

2012-07-03

Two weeks ago, version 12 of the Opera web browser was released with WebGL support, which means that now all the browsers that matter can natively render 3D graphics. Great news, right? A new era of games on the Web is about to begin!

Except, you know, not.

As far as I can tell, no browser actually supports WebGL on Linux. That’s it for me right there, never mind the infamous security issues inherent in the API. Even on Windows, if I understand correctly, WebGL only runs on a few select GPUs.

Hardly a technology for the Open Web.

I was reading this state-of-WebGL article and reminiscing the days when I first heard about this technology. That was, what, two or three years ago? And look where we are now: nowhere. I’d like to believe that it’s just a matter of time, but for a pesky thing called experience. See, this whole story has happened before with a little something called VRML. Never heard of it, you say? Precisely!

It’s been 15 years since VRML was supposed to be the next big thing. Much has changed in computing, but 3D on the Web is still a solution in search of a problem (and terrible implementations aren’t helping). Few applications actually require it, mostly multiplayer games, and so far those have done just fine with Java, for all the criticism.

William Gibson’s vision of cyberspace was naive sci-fi, people.

Mind you, I could be wrong (would’t be the first time), but I’m not holding my breath. Even if WebGL does become widespread, safe and stable in a couple more years, it will be completely irrelevant by then due to one or more of:

  1. Unity3D in its browser plugin incarnation becoming the new Flash. Hardly a happy ending, but the public will choose the product that works.
  2. Java breaking free of its stigma and taking off as a platform for 3D games on the Web. It’s increasingly popular elsewhere anyway, thanks to Android and high-profile titles such as Minecraft.
  3. 2.5D, raycasting, voxels and other software rendering techniques that have been used successfully for years before the days of consumer GPUs. Wolfenstein 3D has already been remade for the browser, both officially and less so, and there’s no shortage of retrogamers out there who understandably may want more than the same old platformers at some point.

Needless to say, I’m mainly interested in option 3 (and Nightwrath in option 2, which isn’t bad either). That’s because whichever technology takes hold on the desktop (hopefully all of them — the importance of diversity can’t be overestimated), consoles and mobile devices need browser-native solutions that work on whatever hardware happens to be available. And pure software algorithms just so happen to not need any special hardware support. Just what the doctor ordered for the digital Tower of Babel we live in right now.