Why Google is literally playing games with Chrome's future

Apps may get all the buzz, but Chrome's Native Client (NaCl) and the games that it powers are pushing the limits of what the browser can do.

Ubisoft's popular title on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, From Dust, will be ported to Chrome's NaCl.
(Credit: Ubisoft)

Games are driving online innovation — just ask Google, which is embracing them as fast as it can.

At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco on 6 March, Google showed off advances in its NaCl and Pepper technology for Chrome that it hopes will drive more interest from developers and gamers alike in browser-based gaming. Google is also integrating NaCl games, with Google+ to give the nascent social network something to play with.

The company unveiled a handful of NaCl-powered games last December, and now it's ready to kick off several more big names to showcase Chrome's latest improvements. Colt McAnlis, developer advocate for NaCl at Google, said that it's literally game on for Chrome. "We saw with Zynga that there was this gaming boom, but it competed with the mobile bubble. We want to see a modern gaming gold rush in the browser," he said in an interview between his presentations at GDC.

Zombie Track Meet from FuzzyCube promises to be a madcap undead footrace.
(Credit: Google)

Changes already in the roughest version of the public version of Chrome, called Canary, herald new abilities for the browser. Starting at around Chrome 19, currently on the developer's channel, or Chrome 20, on the Canary channel, users will be able to play games with full NaCl support and Google+ integration. Some of this groundwork has been laid in Chrome 18 beta's support for WebSockets.

"We're now having a really interesting discussion with game developers about how Native Client gives them a really cool pivot point. They just have to compile things differently," he said.

Along with development progress in NaCl, continued work on HTML5 standards has created some new game-specific APIs. These include Gamepad, for playing games with a standard gaming controller; Fullscreen, for full-screen window support; and Mouse Lock, for 3D, first-person shooter-style mousing.

Google has six new games up its sleeve: Zombie Track Meet from FuzzyCube; AirMech; Eats to Munchies; Dark Legends; Ubisoft's From Dust; and Firehose Games' Go Home Dinosaurs, which McAnlis described as an improbable cross between Tetris and Tower Defense, but with dinosaurs and barbecue.

Dark Legends by Spacetime Studios features a world of vampires threatened by humans and their technology.
(Credit: Google)

Google has made improvements to its Chrome Web Store in-app payment option, including support for more currencies and a simpler payment path. This means that developers will be able to monetise their games better, and it's going to include Google+ games.

Of course, Google has a long way to go before its nascent social network can rival Facebook, but the company is clearly betting on driving Google+ interest through Chrome's popularity. "In Native Client, we've got the ability to expose what the hardware can do in a safe way, and we've got the games to prove it. For this year, we want some amazing success stories, focusing on Native Client and web first," he said.

Chrome 20 isn't due on the stable channel until sometime in June. NaCl development is currently far from complete. McAnlis said that while some areas are progressing, like support for TrueType, SDL and OpenAL for NaCl ports, the NaCl team is still working on better IDE, better breakpoint support and more documentation. "We want to get it so can you port a game to NaCl in one hour." Although McAnlis originally told CNET that this year's Google I/O conference would be the target for that, a Google representative has clarified that there is no current hard date for when a one-hour port process will be available.

McAnlis stressed that his employer is serious about games, beyond its social networking and technological implications. "This isn't a fad. Google is investing in games. Developers can bring console-quality games to Chrome," he said.

AirMech from Carbon Games is a real-time strategy game with transforming mech suits.
(Credit: Google)

It's an interesting gambit, and one that could help staunch the bleeding of user interest as people flock to mobile devices. However, McAnlis added that there's no plan to bring NaCl to Chrome for Android, since gaming apps are already well represented there. NaCl's success and the rethinking of browser-based gaming would get a big boost if another browser vendor, such as Microsoft or Mozilla, were to take a strong interest in the open-source technology, but that has yet to happen.


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