The Game Developers Conference (GDC) opened in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday and Google is conspicuously present, with a large banner promoting its development tools in the North Hall of the Moscone Convention Center and more than two full days of presentations.
On Monday, Google speakers are delving into Chrome and HTML5, WebGL, Native Client, Google App Engine, and YouTube APIs. On Tuesday, it's all about game development on Android.
Vincent Scheib, a software engineer at Google on the Chrome GPU team, presented a technical overview of the state of Web technologies for online gaming. While Google has been evangelizing the Web as a platform for years, the reality is that the Web is just starting to approach desktop operating systems like Windows as a platform for games, traditionally among the most computationally demanding consumer-oriented applications.
The reason for that the Web has lagged behind the desktop is two-fold: Web programming technologies remain works-in-progress and Microsoft is only just now, with Internet Explorer 9, giving the majority of Web users an upgrade path that includes modern Web capabilities.
The state of various Web browsers is tracked in detail at caniuse.com, a Web site that shows the extent to which various browsers support current and forthcoming Web technologies. As can be seen from the summary figures, Internet Explorer 8 only supports 28% of modern browsing capabilities. With the imminent official release of Internet Explorer 9, that figure will jump to 59%. Firefox 4 and the latest Chrome builds, from versions 9 through 11, come in at 87% or 89% in the case of Chrome 10. Safari and Opera can handle 77% of the latest Web technologies.
Scheib observed that Web browsers still lack support for capabilities that are useful for game developers such as mouselook, which allows players in first-person shooting games, for example, to use the mouse to change their perspective. Presently, there's no built-in way to differentiate between mouse movements intended to change the in-game view and mouse movements intended to manipulate the browser or other applications that are running.
Toward the end of Scheib's presentation, a member of the audience asked whether, with all the caveats and technical issues presented, it's really worth it for developers to create Web-based games.
Scheib considered the question carefully. "In the long run, we're confident we'll have high-quality solutions," he said. That means in the near term, there are likely to be some gaps between what developers want and what the Web as a platform can deliver.
During the GDC session that followed, Google engineers Alfred Fuller and Ikai Lan presented an overview of how Google App Engine can help game developers. Their pitch is that cloud computing is as transformative to developers as the introduction decades ago of higher-level tools that relieved programmers of the burden of drawing lines pixel by pixel. The company is also reaching out to developers with Google Storage for Developers, an offering similar to Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3).
App Engine itself is a fairly well-established cloud computing infrastructure service and is used by a number of commercial games. What may be less well known is the extent to which Google APIs like the Prediction API and BigQuery can be used in conjunction with App Engine to provide useful application metrics.
The Prediction API, Fuller explained, provides a way to implement machine learning in the cloud. It can be used, for example, to identify a specific block of text as French or some other language. It allows developers to conduct user sentiment analysis, to scan for inappropriate content, to predict user churn, or to watch for suspicious activity, like the unauthorized use of bot programs.
Such back-end data analysis has become increasingly important as games have shifted from disconnected personal entertainment to networked experiences framed by social engagement. As more and more developers enable social elements in their games, there's a growing need for tools and services to manage user-related metrics.
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