Microsoft Mixes Apps And The Web With Its HTML5 Port Of "Contre Jour" Game

First, there was the Web. Then there were apps. Then there was the Web - plus apps. That’s the message behind Microsoft’s porting of the award-winning Contre Jour game to the Web in HTML5, intentionally blurring the line between the Web and apps.

Contre Jour is the next step in Microsoft’s “Beauty of the Web” campaign, centered around its browser, Internet Explorer; its search engine, Bing; and the multitouch “Surface” tablet, all due this fall. Contre Jour is designed for the multitouch environment exemplified in both Surface and IE. The idea is to create a seamless transition between the operating system and the Web, according to Ryan Gavin, the general manager of Internet Explorer for Microsoft.

Unlike Flash games, Contre Jour does not sit within a browser “box;” there’s absolutely no indication - not one pixel - of a browser framework surrounding the game. “One of the cool things of the experience is that people instantly forget that this is a website, and that’s the point,” Gavin said. 

There’s been a constant struggle between apps and the mobile Web, with apps recently winning the war. (See  Why Facebook Ditched The Mobile Web & Went Native With Its New iOS App.) Raj Aggarwal, CEO and co-founder of Boston-based Localytics, a mobile analytics and engagement platform, recently called the mobile Web the “lowest common denominator, so it works across a large number of platforms.”

In some sense, Gavin said, the Web has become a second-class citizen - and that’s the attitude Microsoft is working to overcome. Combining the Web and apps not only helps developers to push their content to new users, but also provides a bridge to a native application. 

“How do we make those sites, from a performance, from an experience, from a touch perspective, as good as native apps?” Gavin asked. “And there’s partners on the other end of the spectrum that are just going to have apps. But there’s a lot in the middle, with sites and apps.”

Microsoft isn’t the only browser maker trying to show off games that started as apps and have moved to the Web; Google, for example, persuaded Rovio to develop a browser-based, socially connected version of its Angry Birds franchise for its Chrome browser and Google+ social network. In fact, Google offers a number of games from Zynga and other developers. It’s just that Microsoft is now using games to show off its implementation of the Web to best effect, with sites like the Atari Arcade and a Web-based version of Cut the Rope

Physics Is The Soul Of The Game

The game charts the progress of a “Little Prince”-like spherical monster, and his quest to collect water droplets for his friend, a rose. The game plays out using a mostly grayscale palette, save for the brilliant blue of the water. Players don’t control the monster, Petit, directly; instead, they manipulate his environment, “pulling” the ground upward to create inclines, and stretching tentacles for Petit to grab on to. Instead of using sprites, Contre Jour stitches together four or more canvases at a time, meaning that the physics are calculated in real time, tapping into the PC or tablet’s native hardware acceleration to process the calculations.

The Contre Jour site went live on Tuesday. According to Gavin, the experience isn’t “locked” to IE10, it's playable by any browser that can support HTML5. I could play a preview version of the site using my up-to-date Google Chrome browser on a Chromebox, although touch obviously didn’t work on my standard LCD monitor.

Gavin said that Maksym (Max) Hryniv, the creator of Contre Jour, and the team at Mokus needed some convincing before Hryniv agreed to allow Microsoft to port the game. Once persuaded, however, Hryniv designed the ten “Machine” levels that form the third chapter of the game.

Those levels essentially serve as an introduction of sorts to the app itself, which will be available as a Metro app for both Windows 8 and Windows RT, Gavin said. “If there’s an app available, a little message will light up and say, ‘There’s an app available,’ and it will take you to the [app] store,” Gavin said. “So we’ll actually detect if there’s an app available and draw you right into that.”

Unfortunately, saved games will not carry over from the website to the app, a Microsoft spokesman said in an email.

Touch Is The New Fast

“It used to be three, four, fie years ago that it was all ‘fast, fast, fast,” and browser performance was sort of the conversation du jour, with benchmarks and all that,” Gavin said. Now, he said, “fast” has become the table stakes of the browser market. (Last week, Google released the RoboHornet benchmark, which Microsoft’s IE10 topped according to one report; that benchmark later generated its own criticism from Microsoft and Mozilla.)

Browser performance levels have become consistent, Gavin said. "What is not consistent, however, is level of touch.” “The reality is that people are touching the Web more than they have been, and the reality is that that just doesn’t work today.”

Contre Jour doesn’t necessarily require multitouch to play; a mouse and keyboard works fine, although users may have to click quickly in spots. The exception, of course, is in the custom-designed third chapter, where the initial level requires the user to touch three points simultaneously - something users can do only with IE10, Gavin said. At that point, a message does appear noting that the level requires multitouch.

Gavin said Microsoft intends to continue showcasing the Web’s innovative content: "We believe the browser is the theater, and the sites you go to is the play. Our job is to provide comfy seats, the building, a drink at the right time, and make your experience awesome. But when you’re driving home at night with your wife, you’re talking about the contents of the play. It’s Facebook. It’s Gmail. It’s whatever sites and apps I’m going to.”