Browser based Serious Games
Serious Games or Immersive Learning Sims – hmmm, a different post topic I think. Anyway, one of the big barriers to widespread use of Serious Games in training and education is technology. The good news is that PC hardware in organisations and schools is improving rapidly in terms of processing speed and graphics capability (but its rarely purchased with 3D gaming in mind). The bigger obstacle now is the need to deploy via a web browser and LMS standards:
1) Clients require easy deployment and updatingÂ from a central point
2) No use of exe’s for security – a big No Go for many organisations
3) Must integrate within LMS and be run with other learning objects
4) Central performance information capture and management
5) Bandwidth restrictions on amount of data transfer
All of which can pose a bit of a problem if your trying to run Halo3 or even Second Life on the corporate network. 3D games engines are typically not built with these constraints in mind. From my own work in Caspian I’d say two or three years ago this was less of an issue. We were dealing with early adopters who were prepared to overcome these concerns in order to get high fidelity Sims into their learning. Over the last 12 months SG have moved towards the mainstream and I’d say 90% of requests we see require web delivery.
The good news is that SG suppliers have adapted to this need. So, what are the options in the Serious Games space?
With an estimated 99% penetration of PC’s, Flash is the undisputed king of browser delivery of interactive content. The online casual games market serves north of 250million unique users per month and rising and Flash games are easily the most popular development platform (must be 70% but I dont have the figures). Its popular and for a developer its real easy to use and learn.
Thats the good news. However, Flash comes in different guises and for Serious Games developers you must check whats possible in Flash 6 versus 9 and what version is actually deployed on the clients network. Its then a conversation with the client to upgrade the Flash version if required – which is a whole lot easier for an established Adobe product that already has a presence on most clients PCs.
The second issue is that Flash has no real support for 3D. It is superb for 2D graphics but if your client requires higher graphical fidelityÂ and 3D immersion then this could be a problem. As a platform it is not designed to produce complex game code for the realism and interactivity seen in modern 3D games; its clunky to code and performance suffers when code gets complex.
The best Serious Game work I have seen in Flash has been developed by Kevin Corti and the team at Pixelearning. These guys push the boundaries with luxurious game graphics, a 3D feel to applications and complex system coding particularly in their Business Sims.
Another platform in the Adobe stable. The benefit it has over Flash is access to true 3D capability. It is easy to develop on using Director and has an object oriented programming language, Lingo that is flexible and easy to learn. The downside compared to Flash is that PC penetration is at circa 58%. Also, until the recent release of Director 11 there had been little enhancement to the platform for over 3 years. That has not stopped developers innovating on the platform – sites like minclip and Shockwave show a noticeable improvement in 3D game quality in the past year or so.
Maid Marion Entertainment use Shockwave to generate Massively Multiplayer Online Worlds and RPGs. They serve 1.3million unique visitors a month. The loading experience and run time speed are in my opinion much better than Second Life or Google Lively. The monster that is Habo Hotel is Shockwave but 2.5d; they couldÂ upgrade with the help of Maid Marion and have a 3Dweb killer app.
A major plus for Shockwave Director is its extensibility. Within the Director architecture developers can create add on software extensions called Xtras. These securely make full use of the Director architecture while offering developers the ability to extend the functionality of Shockwave Director. For Serious Games developers this is a real bonus. The 3D performance of Director is ok for our current perception of web based games but it has limitations when compared to console games. Lingo is intuitive and easy to use but if you are writing lengthy game code then you are going to run into problems.
Using the Xtra add on rasterwerks have developed a console type FPS game – click here for demo.
At Caspian we have used the Xtra methodology to integrate our 3D Serious Games engine, Thinking Worlds 3.0Â into Director Shockwave. We use our engine for rapid development of the Serious Game and rendering. Shockwave takes care of all of the browser functionality, file management and loadingÂ and provides a means to communicate to and from webservers. This has allowed us to develop high fidelity Serious Games that run through the browser without any performance hit. These are a couple of movie demos (cannot release them as demos yet due to client, but there is a demo below).
The following demo is of a casual game – no education -Â we put together for a client. Windows only at the moment. You’ll need Shockwave 10 or 11 to run this and you’ll be prompted for the Xtra. Click on the image to load.
We could have developed the solution using an Active X control – we did this previously. However, in my experienceÂ it is a very different conversation with corporate IT managers to ask them toÂ accept a native activeX control and all it entails from Caspian versus an Xtra within Shockwave Director. IT managers have faith in the Adobe brand for security and reliability. Shockwave is the only game in town when it comes to serious penetration of PCs of a 3D player; so it was the obvious choice. It enables us to forget about the browser which we leave to Shockwave. Launching from SCORM objects is then easy, as is building data communication in and out of the app. File managment is improved with our biggest data loads being 5MB.
Another benefit is of all things, Flash integration. Many of our clients have large libraries of Flash based learning objects and many eLearning developers are skilled at building them. However, they are not easy to integrate into a 3D games engine. For Shockwave it is simply a drag and drop exercise – very nice.
Unity is a popular 3D games engine that has been used for Serious games development – see Global Conflicts Palestine and Prof Bob Stones work in the University of Birmingham UK. It uses its own ActiveX control to enable browser deployment. I have not seen the browser version running but I have played some of their games and they are impressive. The demo below will prompt you to install a web player – click on image.
Instant Action is a terrific new service that seeks to radically improve standards of web based gaming – delivering console type experiences through the web. It is free, which is amazing. Sign up and try it out. It uses a version of the Torque engine which is hugely popular in the Indie development community and is starting to make waves in the casual games space. The current installation process may cause problems for corporate networks, however its another very promising option on the radar.