Earlier this year, Google made a seemingly attractive change to its Chrome browser and created a crisis for web game developers. Its May release of muted Chrome 66 sites that played audio automatically, saving internet users from the scourge of boring video autoplaying. But the new system also broke the audio games and web art designed for the old audio standard – including hugely popular games like QWOP, smart experiences like the infinite jukebox, and even projects officially presented by Google. After a backlash over the summer, Google continued to block autoplay for basic video and audio, but pushed the switch for games and web apps to a later version.
This version of the browser, Chrome 70, is about to be released completely, but the new Web Audio API that blocks autoplay is not yet a part of it. Google communications manager Ivy Choi says The edge that Chrome will start learning which sites people commonly play audio on, so it can tailor its settings to their preferences. The actual block will not begin until Chrome 71, which is expected in December. And according to Choi, Google is adding a new feature that will reduce the impact on older games, allowing audio to start in some cases after a user interacts with the page. But after five months, some developers say they’re already resigned to losing parts of their old jobs, or even retiring from web game development altogether.
Stephen Lavelle, creator of the 2016 puzzle game Stephen’s Sausage Roll, helped bring attention to the issue of Google’s change in May. Now he says he was exhausted from finding a tech fix and started just excluding audio from his new web games. “I practically stopped writing music for games (which makes me sad, because writing music for games is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for me!),” He says. . The edge. “I’m just resigned to whatever is going on.”
Google did not advertise its policy as a major and groundbreaking update. Instead, the company posted a playful page of documentation peppered with memes, assuring developers that “users will love it.” For new projects, this is just another feature to bypass. But the way it’s encoded means games and web art built to the old standard can be permanently muted, with no way to turn audio on. Developers can modify their work for the new standard, but many web games are not constantly maintained and many developers did not even know the change was coming. They felt blinded by the sudden update and ignored by Google.
It didn’t help that Google compiled a list of 1,000 sites that wouldn’t be blocked by default, including Google’s own platform, YouTube. According to Google, this isn’t meant to be a universal whitelist – it’s a default for new Chrome users, while everyone will see certain sites unblocked based on their browsing history. But especially for people who were already skeptical about the change, it just looked like favoritism.
Google admitted in the spring that it “hadn’t done a good job of communicating the impact” of its new system to developers. This gave them more time to update the games and, according to Choi, made efforts to improve backward compatibility. But Andi McClure, web artist and game developer As Jumpman, don’t think much has changed. “Every time autoplay kicks in, my business breaks,” she said. The edgepartly because she’s busy and partly because she doesn’t know exactly how the system works. “Google still hasn’t documented the AutoPlay policy well enough that I know how to comply.”
QWOP Developer Bennett Foddy expressed frustration that Google barely mentioned moving the Chrome version from October to December, quietly updating the old documentation with a different version number. “The Chromium team seems determined to surprise game developers – and anyone who uses web audio -” he says. “I can’t believe their goal is to bring games off the open web, so it’s hard to see why they’re handling this in such a weird and fishy way.” (Disclosure: Foddy is a colleague of my husband at NYU Game Center.)
The autoplay blocking feature may even have surprised some parts of the Chrome team, according to a comment from Chrome developer Raymond Toy. “The launch of the autoplay policy for WebAudio in Chrome was done without the knowledge of the Chrome WebAudio team,” he wrote in a GitHub comment thread last month. (The edge contacted Toy for details, but did not get a response in time for publication.) “If we had known, we would have tried to do something. That’s not to say the end result would have been any different, but we could have at least started some discussions in the spec, at least before launch.
Many game developers and digital artists already assume that their games will eventually break. “It’s really important to accept the fact that your work is going to die if you create it in digital form,” says game developer Isaac Cohen, whose psychedelic web projects were affected by the change. Over the past year or so, we’ve seen Apple drop support for older 32-bit games on iOS, including titles like Vlambeer’s famous game. Ridiculous fishing and the eccentric cultural phenomenon Flappy Bird. (Vlambeer has finally updated his game; Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen didn’t.) And Adobe is in the process of terminating its once very popular Flash media plugin, which supported countless art projects.
But where Adobe and Apple gave developers years of notice, and Flash in particular contained serious security holes, Google’s update changes a functioning system for what amounts to greater user convenience. It is less clear why backward compatibility should not have been a central goal from the start, especially if alternative systems exist – such as a widely discussed option brought to you by Ashley Gullen, lead developer of the Construct game engine.
Gullen says he has been in contact with Google, but he was not happy with the response. “As far as I know, no one at Google has been able to justify the current approach,” he says. “If they had said ‘good idea, but actually for reasons X, Y, Z we can’t do it’, that would be one thing, but so far there has been no response from the all.” Gullen says Google’s new patch “will help with backward compatibility, but won’t completely fix it” – and Gullen isn’t sure exactly how well it will work until it’s rolled out.
More generally, critics fear that with a careless change to the world’s most popular browser, Google will signal indifference to game developers and artists. “To be fair, Google’s response to this has been so bad that I basically gave up on making games for the web beyond little experiments and also removed browser games from my program. MFA studio class, ”says Foddy. “It’s one thing to depend on the technical whims of a platform owner to keep our games running … it’s like that on consoles and phones … but Google directly doesn’t seem to be. worrying if it breaks any previously released video games, and I think it’s clearly a dealbreaker.
For many users, the changes to Chrome audio will be positive – after all, autoplaying media can really be awful – or invisible. Old games and tools are often quickly forgotten, and some players may not realize that some projects had music or sound effects in the first place. But for developers who have struggled with Google’s new policy, it has been a demoralizing process. “It really seems like they haven’t listened and are working with what they want. Normally they’re pretty good at listening to developer feedback, and a lot of the stuff they do is great, ”says Gullen. “It just seems like they really made a mess of this particular case.”