Unity and the Future of Browser-Based Games

Future Splash

Back in 2000, if you wanted to create rich media for the internet you had two choices: Macromedia’s Flash and Macromedia’s Director. Director, which produced Shockwave files, was the more powerful of the two: far faster, capable of pixel level manipulation, and with a proper (if weird) scripting language in Lingo. Proper Actionscript, which showed up in Flash 5, was still months away. But Shockwave was a heavy format (broadband wasn’t so widespread back then) that sometimes had problems running properly in-browser. Its roots were in the CD-ROM authoring days of yore and it felt like a relic because of it. Flash was small, quick, and sexy. It soon came installed with browsers. It became ubiquitous. It took over.

With Quake Live (just got an invite, but haven’t played it yet) and Battlefield Heroes on the horizon, and all the content from Flashbang Studios, amongst others, getting a lot of attention, many are back on the in-browser bandwagon. Browser based games, ones more powerful than Flash, are seen as a growing and more commercially viable trend. Even Google is jumping in with a browser-based Native Client.

While Flash has grown a lot since those early ActionScript 1.0 days, matching what Director could once do, and while it’s still growing in possibility (Doom in Flash; NES emulator in Flash, Nintendo’s going to love that one), it’s also starting to feel old and tired. It’s everywhere and there’s a large pool of designers and developers for it, so it’s not going away any time soon, but when it comes to more specialized high-level content — games — it’s limiting. That’s where Google’s Native Client, EA’s and iDs custom engines, and Unity 3D come into play. These are browser plugins designed, in this decade, from the ground up for speed, 3D, and/or gaming applications. They are quickly filling the niche that Director once held, but Macromedia (now Adobe) abandoned. Especially Unity.

If 2009 is going to see the emergence of high-quality browser-based games, then 2009 is going to be the year of Unity. It has: lots of powerful features; iPhone support (I see the Unity logo in a half of the iPhone games that I’m interested in), which is a space that Adobe has consistently failed to enter (it’s trying though); Wii publishing; a developing community (which was essential in spurring Flash’s early spread); quality developers using it; and an upcoming PC version. In short, it is about to make a major splash. I feel compelled to jump in with it — the indie license is cheaper than the Flash IDE.

It won’t take over Flash, that’s too much of a hurdle to overcome, but it will fill that void that Director’s absence created. If it achieves even that, it will be a success. It will generate a little bit of something that Adobe desperately needs: competition. The whole of the rich-media space will be better off for it. Flash needs an alternative, because Silverlight sure as hell ain’t it.

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