FEATURE: Lighting up games with HTML5

[Intel sponsored feature] With the advent of HTML5, format wars are a thing of the past. Or are they?
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[Intel sponsored feature] With the advent of HTML5, format wars are a thing of the past. Or are they?

While the Blackpool illuminations were lit up for the last time this year, a small army of retro gaming fans gathered at a hotel up the road to bask in the glow of different kinds of illuminations: the flashing lights on pinball machines and the bright colours from vintage games played on arcade cabinets, home computers and gaming consoles.

The Replay Expo 2011 that took place in the first weekend of November was a celebration of gaming, and a source of inspiration for today’s developer.

I attended a screening of 1984 BBC documentary Commercial Breaks, which charted the decline of Imagine, a software house that ploughed a huge amount of money into a megagame that never appeared and that ultimately resulted in the company going bust.

One interesting thing about this was that there was a point in this documentary when one of the representatives from a software house said that everyone was basically remaking the same game, and that there were no new game ideas to be had.

In the early days, there were a lot of similar games, basically shoot-em-ups in different skins, inspired by arcade cabinets. But if you were a gamer back in the 80s, you’ll know this prediction turned out to be nonsense. Ultimate opened everyone’s eyes with Knight Lore, and a whole host of new gameplay ideas were introduced over the years.

I wondered whether there’s a sense of history repeating itself with HTML5 games. Games are a great way to learn a programming language or tool (unless it’s a database, I guess), and simple arcade games are often the first test of what a language can do.

When you learn about the HTML5 Canvas element, the first thing that goes through your head is how you could use it to create a game, probably a simple arcade title.

The capabilities it provides are fairly similar to those available on the machines that filled the Replay Expo floor. You can position images on the screen, draw lines and shapes on the screen using code, and can access the pixels on the canvas and their colours individually.

That sounds fairly basic, especially if you’re used to designing games visually with Flash. But skilful developers used capabilities similar to these on home computers to create games that people loved back then, and still love to play, over 20 years later. It might be a mistake to think that the canvas is limited to simple gameplay.

One other thing that struck me at the show was Manic Miner on the ZX81. The typical ZX81 game involved shooting some letters of the alphabet at other letters of the alphabet, and the highest graphics resolution supported officially was a quarter of a character cell.

At Replay, I was amazed to see Manic Miner running on the ZX81, faster than the Spectrum beside it. The graphics were slightly scratchy and still black and white, but they were a close match for the Spectrum and had a resolution I hadn’t seen on any ZX81 game before.

This game was a great demonstration of the kind of software innovations that are possible when developers get familiar with a technology and pursue it to the edge of its capabilities. In the case of Manic Miner, the hardware was already obsolete by the time the game came to the ZX81, three years after the hardware’s initial release.

HTML5 games are evolving fast, though. Developers can learn from the old games and bring in new ideas from gaming over the last 20 years. With the internet, ideas spread more quickly, and so people can more quickly learn to push a technology to its limits.

Already, Mario Andres Pagella has written an O’Reilly book explaining how to create isometric 3D games in HTML5 and several developers are known to be working on isometric games. Isometric games might not be advanced by today’s standards, but they remain popular (think of Farmville), and are an early proofpoint for HTML5.

One thing that spurred games developers on in the 80s was the huge margin they could make on creating computer games if they could come up with the hit titles. HTML5 games could well benefit from the same financial incentive and competition, with the Intel AppUp developer program enabling developers to sell their HTML5 games to players through the Intel AppUp Center.

There’s also a competition running now, with five Ultrabooks up for grabs for the best apps, and the first 200 quality web apps receiving US$250 (about £150). You can enter the Intel AppUp developer challenge here.

Of course, the most important question in the 80s was which computer was best: Spectrum, Commodore or Amstrad? It was nice to see that a truce had been called at Replay, with everyone I spoke to willing to accept that all the machines had their strengths.

It’s probably taken some people almost 20 years to lose their playground loyalty to their home computer, but that’s another nice thing about HTML5: it runs pretty much anywhere, so this time around, there will be no format wars.

This blog post is written by Softtalkmobile, and is sponsored by the Intel AppUp developer program, a single channel for distributing apps to multiple devices, multiple operating systems, and multiple app stores