Disney just bought an HTML5 gaming startup called Rocketpack before the new firm is even out of the starting blocks. Does this confirm that the race is on to make casual gaming a cross-platform web experience, versus App Store "big name" games?
Rocketpack, based in Helsinki, just revealed that "through a merger agreement, Rocketpack is now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, reporting into the Disney Interactive Media Group." The company dubs itself an "integrated solution for plugin-free browser game development," and though neither firm mentions a price, speculation has been in the $10 to $20 million range.
Rocketpack was still acquiring startup funding in April 2010, and its novel HTML5 gaming engine (yes, it's called "Rocket Engine", revealed more in the video below) was apparently still under development as recently as early last month. In December Rocketpack announced Warimals, a casual game that it dubbed the "first HTML5 Facebook game," and that's likely the secret sauce behind the new Disney acquisition.
Facebook has rejuvenated a certain class of online casual game, and turned it into big business (Zynga's millions are a testament to this), but Facebook remains a "platform" with its own UI, rules of operation, regulations and restrictions. Developing for "the web" is a different matter. Enter Rocketpack—with a new, seemingly hot-stuff game development engine that leverages HTML5 and modern web browser built-in code to let consumers play pretty sophisticated casual games directly on a website, no platform required.
As an added bonus, there's no need for Adobe's proprietary (reportedly buggy) Flash protocol, and no requirement for end users to download and install any extra code. This last matter is particularly interesting because though it takes but a few seconds of clicking for a pro-level user to accept a download prompt and install app-specific code from a website, the average non-net-expert user may hesitate and worry, creating a barrier to actually going ahead and playing the game.
What Disney's evidently hoping is that Rocketpack will let it quickly pull together a host of online games that utilize its extensive library of IP and famous cartoon characters, with each game acting as a tiny brand-promoting emissary for the company (just like an ad placement). This, or course, would build brand engagement and other aspects of interactivity that brand managers get excited by. These games should be playable on smartphones of any flavor, on laptops, desktops, tablets and possibly some TVs—making it cheaper and easier for Disney to target more consumers with one PR program.
Here's where Disney's move taps into the hot debate about web apps versus closed App Store apps, the latter championed by Apple (which originally implied that only web-style apps would be developed for the iPhone). Various commentators think that web apps are the way to go, as they free developers from proprietary shackles and enable a more "open" computing future. Detractors from this viewpoint note it's harder to build really sophisticated games, due to the differing hardware needs of each platform an HTML game plays on, and that app store ecosystems free up game makers from some of the tasks of promoting their wares and selling them.
And then here comes Disney. Does its move indicate a web-centric future for casual gaming, one that could let you catch up with the goings-on in your favorite game environment on your phone as well as your laptop? Will the app store ecosystem then evolve to support big title games with million-dollar budgets because the ecosystem offers a steadier stream of money and a more controlled environment? Time—and clicks—will tell.
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