Why is there something instead of nothing? — asked Gottlieb Leibniz, the famous German mathematician, in what is perhaps the most important question of all. The universe could very well be an empty void bound to eternal nothingness, but for some reason it isn’t.
Actually, not for some reason, but for some cause.
Science makes a case of never asking about the finality of things, just about their causality. It is assumed that, in the absence of an entity that operates nature with certain goals in mind, everything that happens is just a logical sequence of events, consequence after consequence, with no reason or direction.
As such, the opposite question — Why is there nothing instead of something — is equally applicable to anything that we assume should exist, but doesn’t.
Why are there flying rodents, but no flying spiders (although no other mammal flies, but many arthropods do)?
In her last tour, why did Beyoncé play in Edinburgh, but not in São Paulo (which is home to a larger population and fanbase than the entire country of Scotland)?
Why did PC games become a thing, but web games didn’t (although the web is significantly more convenient and accessible)?
Well, it looks like we finally landed at what this little article is all about. The web is the world’s most widely-distributed platform — omnipresent in nearly all dimensions of our digital lives. Yet, it only accounts for a mere 1% of the global gaming market (~$2b in annual revenues).
Higher-end web games are essentially non-existent. Available titles are not only limited in quantity, but also disappointing in quality. While consoles are bringing us Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the browser drops in with agar.io. Overall, gaming in the web feels like a mid-2000s throwback — the pinnacle of the Flash era.
But with over 5 billion humans having access to web browsers, there is definitely no shortage in potential market and distribution power.
So the question is: Why is there nothing instead of something?
One of these things is not like the others
The long chain of causality that explains why web games never took off starts with a basic technology question:
Can the web host worthy game experiences?
Games are some of the most sophisticated pieces of software out there. They are composed of an extensive and heavy catalogue of assets (e.g. 3D models, textures, sound) and a complex codebase that implements not only the game logic, but also the underlying machinery, such as networking, matchmaking and security. All this is sustained by complicated and costly cloud infrastructure, especially for multiplayer games.
Consoles are machines built for the purpose of handling this setup. Browsers, on the other hand, were originally conceived to serve static content, such as classic websites.
Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the gap between what a browser and what an OS could do was even more extreme, since the internet was orders of magnitude slower than today. If you are old enough to remember, games used to be sold in physical storage units (CDs, DVDs) and installed in your machine. It wasn’t until the 2010s that internet speeds became fast enough to make it feasible to download the heavy assets that make up a game. And it won’t be for many more years until they are fast enough to make it feasible to stream these assets — which would mean a player doesn’t need to wait more than a few seconds to start playing a full game that’s living in some remote server, with assets being loaded on-demand. Streaming would effectively make any device as powerful as a big server — the device itself becomes nothing but a screen connected to the internet. But we are not quite there yet, as the failure of Google Stadia has so painfully proven.
As of today, when you open a web game, it downloads the game assets from a remote server onto the your browser — and then establishes a fast connection for real-time updates (e.g. for multiplayer functionality).
This leads to a problem that is reported by players as the key reason why they give up on web games: Long loading times.
The logic here is simple: If a PC game weighs 20Gb and takes 10 minutes to download from Steam, this game would take the same 10 minutes to load on Chrome if it was served on the web. As it turns out, players do have the patience to wait for a PC game to download, but they don’t have it for a web game. How come?
Simple answer: Because web games have historically very low quality. Hence, expectations are low, as is the willingness to wait.
The low quality of web games is a product of the 2 limitations we discussed above: The lack of browser capacity to render more sophisticated games and the need to reduce the loading time by using lower-quality assets.
These limitations kept web games stuck, evolving much slower than other platforms, thus pushing demand away — which naturally translated into studios also preferring to create content for other targets.
We’ve reached the end of the chain of causality. Now let’s ask ourselves: Does the above still hold true? Has web technology not evolved enough to sustain more immersive experiences? In recent years, so many of the most important applications for work and life have become web apps. From communication (Slack) to design (Figma) to 3D modeling (Spline), the web is absorbing big chunks of sophisticated functionality that used to be restricted to native applications. Is this a bigger trend?
The browser is the new OS
ChromeBooks are very interesting machines. Their usage of Chromium OS essentially means that the browser is the only way through which the user interacts with the device. Given that so much of what we do is in the web, it makes sense to have a computer that replaces the classic OS with a browser. ChromeBook sales reached ~20% of total computer sales in 2021 and we might see this trend expand to other brands and to higher-end machines in the near future, as more applications become web-based.
Truth is that in recent years there has been a silent and profound revolution in what browsers are capable of doing.
In 2022, Chrome began officially supporting WebGPU — a rendering engine that replaces WebGL, granting the browser native access to the device’s GPU. This fundamentally changes the kinds of graphical experiences that can be rendered in a browser, giving it the power of a native application. For web gaming, it is perhaps the most important revolution since the Flash era. And it is by far not the only exciting thing happening.
On the networking layer, earlier in 2023, Chrome also started officially supporting WebTransport — a new data transfer method that runs on top of QUIC and HTTP/3 (most of the web still runs on HTTP/2). This translates into stupendous speed that can power real-time web experiences that were unimaginable before. I’m talking about global multiplayer games here.
On the computational layer, WebAssembly (Wasm) has been officially supported for a couple of years now. It allows engineers to write performance-sensitive code that should run on the web in lower-level languages, thus achieving far more optimized memory usage. One of the most noteworthy Wasm modules so far is @babylon/havok, which brings the world’s most powerful physics engine (written in C++) directly to the browser. And we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what Wasm can do for gaming.
These are still just some of the pieces — and they are fresh out of the oven, which explains why they are yet to be cooked together into a proper product. The technological landscape for building web games finds itself in a perfect moment for disruptive innovation: There is enough to allow us to dream, but the spotlights aren’t there, yet.
So let us shift our eyes from technology to business:
Would it make sense to start building web games? What is the rationale?
URLs beat the smile out of installs
Technology is inseparably tied to convenience. The things that catch on are those that bring simplicity, accessibility, seamlessness.
If we look at the potential of web gaming, it can be as convenient as mobile and as powerful as PC. In itself, this conclusion holds immense creative and economic value, which is yet to be unlocked.
To begin with, over 90% of the catalogue on Steam can only be played on a PC. If you — as dozens of millions of higher-income, young adults with great gaming potential out there — are a Mac user, you need to acquire a PC in order to play something, unless you want to settle for mobile-level time killers (which is what you get from Apple Arcade). With web games, there is no OS limitation, which also means you can play a multiplayer game with your friends regardless of their technological religion.
Furthermore, web games don’t need to be installed, which means that you can play them at whatever device you have available — or even start a session in one and continue in another. Imagine you find yourself in a boring call at the office (rare scenario, I know): Just open a new tab and play. It doesn’t even matter if the company allows you to install unlisted software on your work computer: There is no installation. And context switching is also as easy as it gets — you just go back and forth between tabs.
As such, web games open the doors to radically expand the gamer population, as they reduce the adoption barriers for those who do play occasionally, but don’t want to invest in specialized hardware, or don’t feel like they belong in the trenches of Steam — a place dominated by heavy-gaming young males.
A new medium must be treated as a new art form
At Dandelus, we are taking on the challenge of building captivating games tailored for the web. This naturally entails championing a series of cutting edge technologies, but it also involves coming up with tailored distribution strategies. After all, while other platforms have ubiquitous game catalogues that act as inescapable sales channels, web games are nothing but URLs.
This might initially appear as a hurdle, but it actually harbors significant potential: Steam introduces hundreds of new games each month, with tens of thousands of titles already available for download. Standing out in such a crowded landscape, while also paying the lion’s share of 20% of your revenues, is a gruesome challenge.
We are embracing direct distribution and the very uncrowded nature of the web game space as valuable edges. And by the end of the day, there is a very simple logic at place here: If there are billions of people spending hours per day on the web, but there are no cool games around for them to play, somebody has to build them. If you need to remember anything from this article, this should be it.
A crucial point to underscore, however, is that our ambition is not to replace other platforms, but rather to unleash the web’s full potential.
The web is a different medium, and as such, must be recognized as a different art form, with its own quirks and strategic nuances. Trying to reproduce the same formats that have proved successful in other platforms would only yield a shallow alternative product, at best. When we say immersive, we don’t mean hyper-realistic, AAA, open-world extravaganzas. The battle for supreme graphics is not the right one to pick — and it’s also very 2010-ish.
Gamers today find the essence of immersion in other aspects — captivating gameplay, intricate narratives, well-trimmed multiplayer experiences. These elements interweave to craft an experience that transcends the visual spectacle. And in order to make this ambition come true, we have assembled a team of expert engineers and artists with a life-long passion for games and a profound believe in the vision. If you are interested in knowing more about our open positions and how we operate as a team, make sure to check our our Careers page.
Sure, but I don’t see a “Play now” button
We are working on our breakthrough game, which is scheduled for launch in mid-2024. Until then, we will keep you itchy and entertained with this blog, diving into the diverse aspects of web game development, all while sharing our own experiences and strategies.
In the next articles, we will do a deep-dive in the technical aspects of web games and discuss how Dandelus is overcoming the shortcomings of the browser to be able to build truly captivating games. We will also discuss the Dandelus brand and values, and how we are approaching the exciting challenge of building a game studio from scratch.
Dandelus is the world’s first studio bringing immersive gaming to the web. In this blog, where we publish articles about web game development and its many technical, artistic and business aspects. Follow us or sign up to our newsletter to be notified about new content. If you wish to get in touch, say Hello at email@example.com.