On Monday, May 7th, Google Chrome released an update that disables audio autoplay on certain sites that use HTML5. Due to this, the audio from several independent videogames stopped working. Among the wondrous things that got broken we have all HTML5 games from Increpare (known as the author of Stephen’s Sausage Roll), Terry Cavanagh’s games (beloved by Matajuegos for making Don’t look back) and the gorgeous stuff from cabbibo (who announced that they will shut their site down if a solution isn’t found).
Amid this crisis, Flash games still work just fine, even though Adobe will stop supporting Flash by the year 2020. When this happens, we will lose all the games that belong to Orisinal, most of the works by Molleindustria, almost all the content from Newgrounds and Kongregate.
This isn’t the first time that internet browsers and other platforms for consuming content make an unfriendly decision towards independent web videogame development. For instance, in 2010 Apple decided that Flash wouldn’t run on iOS, which kickstarted Flash’s slow and painful death as an independent development platform. Afterwards, in 2015 Unity Web Player stopped working, first in Google Chrome, then in other browsers, and so all of the games that needed the plugin to run died.
Why do browsers and cellphone developers make these decisions? When support for Flash and similar plugins such as Unity Web Player began to be dropped, the reasons had to do with cyber security. Both plugins were built upon ancient technology, which made them vulnerable. The other reason that was given was that developers wished to build an open web with open source technologies that followed homogeneous standards.
All of these sound fine, in theory. If every single browser applies the same standards and respects them, any user should be able to browse any site they wished and face no issues. That is to say, if I open this portrait made with CSS or any other site of my choosing in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge, it should look the same in those four browsers because, in theory, the four of them follow the same web standards.
In practice, Google and Apple, Safari and Chrome developers respectively, throw in several custom functionalities in contradiction with open web standards and they do so in obscure ways. For instance, the change in Chrome’s autoplay policies had been announced since September 2017, but implementation details hadn’t been documented until the launch of the new feature. That day, Google added them to the documentation and changed the dates so the changes looked as if they had been implemented since September.
Google tells us that it changed the way Chrome plays audio because, while stalking its users, it noticed that most of the times they visited a site, audio playback would be manually paused. It also tells us that it will keep on stalking us to correctly predict which sites should automatically play audio and which shouldn’t. To further calm us down, it let us know that audio will be played correctly in 1000 sites with plenty of traffic in which users don’t pause audio playback, like YouTube, which also belongs to Google.
Browser developers aren’t in charge of creating or maintaining the content we see on those browsers. If we wish for web content to keep working fine and consistently, it’s important to respect web standards and to have an open dialogue between platform developers and content creators for said platform. Right now, this isn’t happening.
What is happening is that several content creators have to choose the least terrible option from an array of terrible choices if they wish to preserve the integrity of their web creations. For instance, they can wrap their web files in desktop executables, which means their web creations will now weight twice or thrice of what they used to, they will have to test them on several platforms and create an additional inconvenience to their users because now they have to download stuff. They can also grab every single one of their creations and update them so they’re compatible with Chrome’s changes. If the content creator was prolific, they are facing a task of titanic proportions.
The good news is that if you make videogames and upload your work to itch.io, the Run game button should stop the audio of your game from breaking. The bad news is that if you made too many games you will have to edit several settings pages to enable the option. For instance, I will have to edit more than 15 game pages on itch.io. Another bad news is that if you upload your games to a personal website the audio will remain broken or will work inconsistently.
If there’s anything worthwhile we can take from all of this, is that leaving our cultural patrimony in the sole hands of megacorporations is far from ideal, and not the safest thing to do. Another interesting take is that when we talk about the freedom of a platform, platform developers think in terms of code and license freedoms. That is to say: whether it’s open or closed sourced, or if it was made under clear or unclear standards. While content creators measure a platform’s freedom by its ease of use to create things and share them with the world. If we keep that in mind, it will be harder for people to take ways of expressing ourselves away from us while alleging more freedom as the reason why.
Some developers see these freedoms as opposed to each other. Using Flash, Unity, Construct or GameMaker is practical, but if Adobe, Unity Technologies, Scirra or YoYo Games decide to change their licenses or drop support for their products, the creators who use these technologies would have to adapt to the requirements of these companies or switch technologies. In theory, if your development tools are Phaser, Love2D or Godot, developing your game might be more cumbersome, but you will never have a support or license issue and, if all else fails and you have the know how, you can code your own solutions inside the engine.
Luckily, society keeps developing wholesome solutions such as Twine, which is free in every way, or OpenFL, which allows you to create games while keeping the same workflow that you used with Flash, but with a newer and more flexible programming language. Some Flash emulators are also under development and with some luck they will work great by 2020. If everything else fails and you don’t mind watching the world burn, you can keep using your old software however you like. These aren’t perfect solutions, but they’re way less disheartening than losing years of cultural history and practical ways to get things done.
In an ideal universe, corporations free the source of any application when they drop support for it, and creators and passionate, good willing, and tech savvy users don’t carry the whole responsibility of preserving videogames for future generations. We still don’t live in an ideal universe and there’s still no clear solutions to new audio issues with Google Chrome, but I have some more good news: That issue doesn’t happen in Firefox =)