Home Q&A: Zipline CEO Todd Hooper, Mobile Games and the HTML5 Hype Cycle

Q&A: Zipline CEO Todd Hooper, Mobile Games and the HTML5 Hype Cycle

As an evolving standard, HTML5 will be good for lots of different things. Hybrid mobile calendar apps? Great. Social apps pulling content from the Web? Sure thing. Mobile games? Maybe … not so much.

For all the work that developers put in to make HTML5 a more dependable standard, it is not up to the specifications of game developers. Mobile games test the limits of a device and performance is often heavily tied to the components of a smartphone or a tablet. That is not a strength of HTML5. Will HTML5 ever live up to its promise? Can it create state of the art games enjoyed by millions? It has not happened yet. We decided to run that question and several others through the outspoken Todd Hooper, CEO of Zipline games to determine whether the hype around HTML5 really does match the reality.

Zipline, Moai and HTML5

Hooper and Zipline Games are about ready to release Moai 1.0, the company’s “backend-as-a-service” designed specifically for the needs of gamers. It is optimized to give game developers the right experience for their apps where both the front end of and app and the cloud it is tied to can be written in Lua, a popular code for game developers. While other mobile cloud service providers like Kinvey can run Lua through their REST APIs, Moai is specifically designed for the challenges game developers face.

ReadWriteMobile readers will recognize Hooper as a frequent commenter to the site as well as the “HTML5: Hype vs. Reality” infographic we published earlier this week. While he does not fundamentally believe that HTML5 will ever be a standard for top end mobile games, he does think it can provide a lot of utility for app developers at large. Hooper is not anti-HTML5, he is just looking at the reality of the ecosystem and his particular niche of it.

Below is a transcript of our conversation with Hooper touching on HTML5 issues, Moai’s advantages, Facebook and mobile Web app deployments.

Hooper vs. ReadWriteMobile

ReadWriteMobile:HTML5 — Not ready for games or will it never be the standard that games are created with for mobile?

Todd Hooper: Good question. Not ready is the answer now, never ready is what I am certainly hearing from a lot of folks. It really is: what is the problem that you are trying to solve with HTML5? If the problem you are trying to solve is that you need a language that you are trying to develop cross-platform for, then sure, JavaScript is a language. Is it ideal for games? I say no. There is no language that most professional developers actually use today. I see a lot of Web developers talking about game development but I don’t see a lot of game developers talking about HTML5.

The other angle is that it is great for corporate apps but not for games. What I keep hearing is, apart from those two topics, are people doing and end-run around the App Store. I think that is a little bit out of their mind, honestly. We have this great app economy, a multi-billion dollar economy that is built on the cellphone manufacturers, the carriers and the Apple and Google. I don’t see why HTML5 will disrupt that. There is the tiniest evidence to the contrary because consumers are already well-trained in the ways of apps and there is just credible evidence that anybody is going to be able to disrupt that economy. If there is any disruption starting then you have, you know, vested interest. If you want to pitch HTML5 as a technical solution to some of the problems for developing cross-platform apps, that is fine. Probably not optimal for games and definitely not going to see any disruption of app economies or distribution channels. That is out there with, ‘I’m going to build open source phones’ and that whole HTML5 thing from Mozilla. It is just a pie in the sky, I think.

RWMobile:What about Facebook? It is big enough, it has enough mobile market depth to create an HTML5 app store, could they pull it off? Or will Facebook end up just being social games that people kind of play, kind of don’t but not the higher end games that people have come to expect on the iPad?

Hooper: I think that is exactly it. You can create simple games with HTML5. When you put those games into a browser as opposed to into an app, then you have the whole monetization problem. Anybody that does mobile apps or does mobile games will tell you, every additional step that you make the user jump through when they are in the game, you are going to lose a percentage of your users. You look at a company like Moblyng, which recently just closed their doors, formally they were known as one of the primary HTML5 game developers, went out of business because they couldn’t monetize their users. There is sort of a core problem there that no one seems to be addressing which is that we have all these great systems to monetize apps [in native environments] but there aren’t any systems to monetize apps in HTML5. There is no incentive for Apple or Google to develop systems to monetize players on mobile. I don’t understand, there really is no magic that can be created to solve that problem but you do have people in the ecosystem that are vested in solving this problem.

I think Facebook’s launch of Project Spartan last year, you have played Facebook games on mobile, right?


Hooper: It is terrible, frankly. I have not seen any numbers published for any of those games but I do know that one if not two of those companies that published those games are out of business since the launch of Project Spartan. The reality is that people will go to the App Store to look for games that are state of the art. There was a comment from David Bluhm, CEO of Z2Live, up here in Seattle, I think it was a couple of weeks ago during GDC but it was an event up here [in Seattle] and they started talking about HTML5 and he said that it will basically never catch up with what is state of the art in cross-platform game development and he said that he is seeing nobody using it whatsoever. I think that once people get interested in the technology, in terms of game developers, they get into and go, you know what? This doesn’t really solve the problems we need to solve. It just introduces a different set of problems. It doesn’t let me deliver the performance and visual punch that game players are looking for.

RWMobile:What utilities does Zipline use to make games right now and why are you using them?

Hooper: Moai is a a cross-platform framework for developing games but effectively we are developing games in what the developer made it in. What we have though is a shared language that is used to develop games across iOS and Android which is Lua. Lua is a language that is very popular with game developers and I would argue that it is much more popular than JavaScript in the gaming space. You look at a game like World of WarCraft, Call of Duty or Angry Birds, those games are using Lua, they are not using JavaScript.

If you go and then look at the backend of Moai, which is what we call Moai Cloud, there is again a Lua-based platform that creates the systems that we run in the cloud for games. You have covered companies like Parse and Kinvey and folks like that, this is a similar concept, if you will. A Heroku for mobile gaming. It is also centered around gaming-specific languages like Lua and gaming-specific problems, not just a generic mobile apps platform. The games we create for the end user look a lot more like native games because the performance is close to native and we are actually using native APIs.

We think the source of the problems are that I don’t want to be porting to iOS, porting to Android, I want common code between the two platforms. When I do want to do something platform specific, it is open source and coordinated APIs and I can do some native code if I need to. We think that is the advantages of easy, cross-platform development and also the power of all of the native things you want to do without having to code for specific platforms.

RWMobile:A lot of game devs are still using Flash or Adobe related products and Adobe thinks that it is still the No. 1 platform for games. How do you view them in the market and how useful are their tools?

Hooper: That is a good question. With Flash on the Web they are obviously very dominant but with Apple not supporting Flash, people are looking for ways to get to mobile and those ways do not include Flash. We don’t hear a lot of people talking about Flash hops to mobile. I am not quite sure why that is. I am not sure what happened to Adobe to lose that sort of zeitgeist but it certainly appears like that, if you look at the amount of people who are looking at things like Moai and Cocos2D and Unity, it seems to be that the majority of game developers on mobile want solutions like that. It started with Apple refusing to support Flash and then Adobe discontinuing mobile Flash and really made developers think that they cannot be tied to that technology.

RWMobile:Adobe is also making a big HTML5 push with various product launches and its acquisition of PhoneGap.

PhoneGap is an interesting approach. We are going to take this approach and then wrap it into an app. That is great. You are not disrupting the app economy if you are wrapping the tech for an app. If that is one of the reasons for pursuing that technology for games then it doesn’t meet that criteria for disrupting technology. All it is is that we are using JavaScript as a cross-platform language.

RWMobile:To build the best games, that wrapper approach wouldn’t really work, right?

Hooper: The question is: show me some great HTML5-based games and that is my litmus test. Show me an HTML5 game and I don’t mean show me it on your PC because that is what I always see. Show me on your iPhone. Show my on your $200 Chinese Android phone, this HTML5 game. Oh, guess what, it doesn’t really run on mobile right now. Well, that is great. This is mobile gaming. It is not desktop gaming, it is not Web gaming. If you are telling me this is going to be a technology great for mobile game developers then show it to me running on the platform. The reality is that there are so few great samples and the examples that you do see look more like board games. They are very, very simple games. If you look at what is on the top 20 for Android and iOS right now, it just simply wouldn’t qualify based on the quality of the game. This is what I saw at GDC. People would show me their HTML5 games on a desktop or an iPad because they are reasonably fast and they really were just very laggy and lackluster. Things you are looking at as a game developer are frame rate, numbers of particles, are they doing parallax scrolling. Those are the things that HTML5 doesn’t do very well. If you are not a game developer then you do not see that so it looks like a reasonably good download, but game developers know that if a game doesn’t push out that kind of quality then users get very bored with the game. If it doesn’t have that kind of tactile response you will hear people say, yeah, I am not playing that anymore.

A game like Angry Birds, it is a very simple game but its mobile performance works nicely. They test all of the performance very smoothly and players get more and more engaged with the game.

Video: RapaNui, a framework for Moai games created by YMobe.

RWMobile:There are several HTML5 development studios like Sencha and appMobi that are trying to get HTML5 to work better for games. What do you think of those companies that are trying to make HTML5 perform better?

Hooper: I think there are a lot of peoplle making great tools for HTML5 apps that are ideal for the world but I have yet to see one for games that is any good or has any traction. What is a shipping app that appMobi has right now? Can you name a game that has been built with their technology that is in the top 50?

There isn’t one and I have been hearing that for months now. We launched Moai in the middle of last year and we already have three games in the top 20 between Android and iOS. There is a qualitative time difference between speculative times projects that people think are good for games but they are really coming from an HTML5 corporate app background. What I see from a lot of those developers is that they are not coming from a games background and that is really where the rubber meets the road. I don’t doubt that HTML5 technology is going to be good for a lot of mobile apps, it is just that games are a very specific category of apps that have specific needs different from what people require for their mobile app.

RWMobile:What is some advice you can give to game developers in how to write their games, how to publish, how to monetize? What is your bottom line advice there?

Hooper: What we have found with Moai is that a lot of developers we have coming to Moai are on their second or third games because they have tried to do their games with a native solution and you quickly get wrapped around the axel because you have to have iOS solutions because you start with iPhone and then if your game gets popular you go to Android and then you have two code bases and then you have to run those two things and you also have to operate a game. What we find with Moai and other game developers based on the platform, if you start with something that let’s you iterate quickly on the game mechanics to combine code bases across platforms, those are the types of things that help you as you get down the road.

The other thing that we have found is that most game developers are not great at building backend services and Moai cloud gives you what we believe is a very scalable environment that will serve you if you have 10,000 players, 100,000 or 1,000,000 players. We think that you have to think about those things in advance because if you do pour your heart and soul into a game and it is successful …

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