Intro to 3D web game development platforms


For quite a while the first thing I would think of when someone mentioned video gaming on the web was Flash, then maybe Java or Shockwave. But while a quick look on a site like Kongregate would seem to justify that assumption with a wealth of high quality 2D Flash games available to play online, in recent months there seems to be more and more games popping up on the web that don’t use Flash at all.

The first thing that struck me was that most of these non-flash games have fantastic 3D graphics. While 3D in Flash has improved incredibly over the last couple of years thanks to brilliant AS3 libraries like Papervision3D and Away3D, it’s still quite a challenge to get a smooth frame rate, nice graphics and physics from a 3D game in Flash. That’s not to say it’s impossible, because some people out there have managed wonders with the tech, and the Red Bull Soapbox Racer is probably my favorite example right now of what can be achieved with a 3D Flash game.

So anyway onto the list, it’s only a brief introduction and by no means definitive, but I hope someone might find it interesting.

Unity 3D –
Unity is fast becoming the platform of choice for web based 3D gaming. If you have yet to see what all the fuss is about, be sure to check out the gallery and live demos on their site. The quality of the 3D engine is simply stunning, the graphics are sharp and the frame rate remains smooth even for complex scenes that mix lots of textures, geometry, physics and effects.

The Unity development suite is affordable and has recently been ported to PC (having been Mac only until version 2.5), so if you’re interested in 3D game development for the web this is definitely worth checking out.

Shockwave –
So it turns out that now everyone wants 3D games on the web, there’s a plugin and development environment that has been around for years just waiting for cpu’s and graphics cards to catch up.

At college, Director was something we were steered away from in favor of Flash, and sure enough the platform has seemed to be gathering dust in recent years. But some developers like Specialmoves have shown that it can still make an excellent 3D gaming platform and could be something worth revisiting.

Silverlight –
While Microsoft Silverlight isn’t a platform that I know much about, their experience in the gaming industry could give the plugin a strong foundation to become the next big thing in browser based games. Surely a super fast C# or DirectX based 3D engine for Silverlight can only be just around the corner, right?

Google O3D
The O3D API is a relatively new attempt by Google to lead development of an open standard for browser based 3D rendering through a custom JavaScript API. There’s already Mac and PC plugins for it along with a stack of impressive demos and well written documentation. Add to that support for all sorts of 3D packages – from Maya and 3DS to Sketchup – through the included Collada based scene importer and you have a platform with lots of potential.

This C# engine from Garage Games – the guys behind Instant Action – is probably the closest competitor to Unity right now in terms of technology and price. The feature set and performance seems close to what Unity offers, although web publishing appears to only be available for the more expensive pro and studio editions right now. Anyway the quality of the demos does look amazing and there’s even a version for Xbox indie developers – called Torque X – that is compatible with XNA.

Other Plugins
As computers and graphics cards increase in performance and broadband gets faster, cheaper and more available, it seems likely that more traditional games companies are going to move towards downloadable on demand gaming.

With companies like id and PopCap experimenting with delivering high quality games in the browser using there own custom plugins, we could be seeing a lot more games distributed like this very soon.

Sure the main drawback of this approach is that users will have to download lots of different plugins from many different developers, and surely this will stop a lot of people from playing those games. But while some might argue that a single open standard might be the answer to this problem, it may not be a problem for much longer, what with broadband speeds increasing and system updates becoming the norm in a networked culture where everything from your mobile to your TV will soon be downloading firmware updates on a regular basis.

So Many Choices
While there is a lot of choice out there for 3D web game development, it seems that right now Unity is the way to go for 3D gaming on the web, with games like Paper Moon and Jetpack Brontosaurus from Flashbang Studios being standout examples of what can be done with this relatively new platform.

As for 2D gaming, well Flash is still by far the best choice, and with the new 3D API for Flash Player 10 and the recently announced PapervisionX project in the works, it still has great potential to be an amazing platform for 3D games.


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