Facebook should be worried about Wooga’s HTML5 exit

It’s a shame how ‘open-sourcing’ has so often come to mean ‘abandoning’. Case in point: Berlin social games developer Wooga‘s announcement that its HTML5 mobile game Magic Land Island is “going open source”.
Now renamed Pocket Island, the browser-based game’s code is now available on GitHub. But the real story lies beneath that headline. Wooga will still be reviewing Pocket Island pull requests, but it’s stopped its own development on the title — and indeed all HTML5 mobile games.
“We’re shutting it down because we just don’t see enough users and there are just some technology issues we can’t handle,” Wooga spokesperson Sina Kaufmann told me. “We have to focus, because this [social gaming] market is so competitive and fast-growing.”
The games developer is still pals with Facebook (s FB) when it comes to the desktop, but given that Wooga was a launch partner for the extension of the Facebook Platform to mobile all of eight months ago, the HTML5 move is pretty dire news for the social network.
Why? Because of the problems cited by Wooga regarding mobile HTML5 gaming – problems that don’t look set to get cleared up anytime soon:

  • Discoverability – Yes, you can turn a link into a homescreen icon, but people aren’t used to doing that, which makes it much less likely that users will return after their first play.
  • Performance – “It doesn’t feel as quick as a native app,” Kaufmann told me. A Wooga blogpost explained that load times were also big problem, as was HTML5’s spartan and flaky support for the sounds you want in a game.
  • Connectivity – From Wooga’s post: “Whilst it is technically possible to play a HTML5 game offline, an internet connection is required to load the game for the first time. If their connection is too slow, or drops out, many users will simply give up and return to playing a native app with an almost instantaneous load time.”
  • User engagement for Magic Land Island was, in a word, atrocious – five percent coming back for another play the next day, versus almost 50 percent for the native iOS version of hit game Diamond Dash.
    Wooga’s helpfully provided a chart to show how bad things got for the game :

    Faced with a trainwreck like that, it’s hard to blame Wooga for pulling out. As Kaufmann told me, the company is keen on HTML5, and releasing the game as open source serves to “value what the engineers achieved”, but the tech’s just not there yet.
    So who’s responsible for that tech? Well, Facebook for one, but also the other companies working on the still-not-fully-baked HTML5 standard over at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Mobile browser companies such as, er, Apple (s AAPL) and Google (s GOOG).
    Now, standards take time to evolve. There’s also more than one way of interpreting Facebook’s mobile HTML5 play – as an aggressive move to become the platform taking a cut of app sales, rather than Apple or Google, or as an investment in the standardised platform of the future.
    The problem is, it’s not really in the interests of either Google or Apple to have mobile HTML5 apps – certainly performance-hungry money factories such as games – work as well as native apps. Why give up that 30 percent cut?
    Of the problems cited by Wooga, some are fixable and some not so much. Facebook’s new App Center could (over time) make discoverability less of an issue. Mobile broadband connectivity is a bigger problem – it’s not going to be ubiquitous for a while yet, at least not to the degree where it can allow a native-rivalling experience. And as for performance, well, that requires a common motivation from a lot of players.
    If Facebook was hoping to pull the revenue rug out from under the native smartphone platforms anytime soon, right now it must be feeling sorely disappointed.