Google's Attempt at Fixing Autoplay Videos Has Broken Countless Games

Given how many artists and creators have moved on from those games, it's possible they may be broken forever.

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May 8 2018, 3:47pm

Image courtesy of Google

“I cannot think of a comparable moment where one team of developers killed so much internet culture in one unilateral move.” That’s how Bennett Foddy, designer behind QWOP and Getting Over It, tried to describe how a seemingly minor quality-of-life fix for the Chrome web browser has had a potentially devastating impact on games.

Here’s what happened. Over the weekend, Google pushed out a series of changes to its enormously popular Chrome web browser, hoping to fix one of the Internet’s great annoyances: autoplaying videos with sound. A noble quest, but one with unexpected consequences; as soon as the feature went live, it broke all kinds of web content that relies on audio, including games. A key component of those games—sound—now doesn’t work, unless the designers intervene.

In trying to address the legitimate problem of autoplaying videos—a shitty marketing and advertising tactic to trick you into “viewing” a video—Google messed with and changed the open standards all sorts of other developers had been working with. Not every website has been banned from autoplaying videos, however; certain websites have been whitelisted, users can opt-in, and there’s a fuzzy metric whereby if someone’s “Media Engagement Index threshold has been crossed,” videos start autoplaying again.

“Currently, the product I am developing that has tens of thousands of paying customers where audio playback is a core feature is broken,” wrote one developer in the comments section of Google’s announcement.

The damage isn’t yet known, but that’s largely because the impact has been scattershot, and it will take time before developers realize if Google’s change actually impacted their work. In a statement to The Daily Dot, Google suggested the onus was on developers to keep up.

“With Chrome’s new autoplay policies, developers shouldn’t assume that audio can be played before a user gesture,” the company said. “With gaming in Chrome, this may affect Web Audio. We have shared details on how developers can do to address this, and the design for the policy was published last year.”

The fact that so few developers were aware remains on Google. It also suggests the company doesn’t have meaningful plans to address the issue facing game creators.

“We are losing a substantial amount of our cultural heritage, just because people find it annoying when ads play audio,” said Foddy, “and the Chrome folks couldn’t find a better workaround, like a browser mute setting or a code solution that respects the ways that existing games and art projects already have ‘click to play’ implemented.”

(“Click to play” means the user clicks on the game, letting it take control of your computer.)

It’s hard to argue Google’s wrong for trying to eliminate autoplaying videos, but in failing adequately research how audio/visual artists deploy their work on the web, they’ve hurt bystanders. Based on the way Google positioned their announcement, it’s possible they may not have even considered what impact this might have on games and other digital artists.

Isaac Cohen, a designer and artist who does experimental work on the web, woke up this weekend to discover “pretty much all of my online work is broken.”

He learned something when wrong when he tried to send one of his interactive speeches, something he’s given at places like Pixar, to a friend, and it wasn’t working. After digging around the code for a solution, he saw a friend post on Facebook about what’d changed.

“It is 'just the audio' that has broken, as a few Twitter users pointed out,” said Cohen, “However, when your pieces are specifically audio-visual, it no longer becomes just the audio, and rather destroys your entire piece.”

One part of the presentation, for example, is color defined by audio. It requires audio.

Thankfully, it does appear Cohen has found a relatively easy solution to make his online work functionable, but for a while, Cohen had made peace with saying goodbye.

“I think if you are making work because you want it to last forever, it's just another way from running from the fact that all things end,” said Cohen. “It's obviously tragic when it does end, and we want it to last as long as it can, but clinging onto a thing, instead of moving forward, is something that would probably destroy me (or at the very least my ability to create new content). I also can't imagine what it was like to watch the death of Flash.”

Flash is probably the last time web creators ran into a similar bloodbath. Flash, a bloated but serviceable way of letting people play games online, was due to die eventually. I wrote about that moment for Kotaku in 2015. Flash games are where designers like Edmund McMillen and others cut their teeth. If you enjoy their work now, you have Flash to thank. But at least with Flash, its transition into the Internet trash bin was over “security concerns,” even if it was mostly bullshit, a convenient cover for Apple declaring Flash too slow for the iPhone.

“The Flash thing is not comparable because it’s been such a slow change, and because it is based on a consensus, and because Flash was never an open standard,” said Foddy. “In this case the Chrome team is killing thousands upon thousands of art and game websites that they have no ownership of whatsoever. There is no good comparison.”

(Flash was made and maintained by a third party, Adobe.)

The real damage won’t be done to games that can be fixed, though, it’s the countless games that have been abandoned by their creators, or the underlying technology simply can’t be fixed with tinkering the code. It’s possible they may forever be in a semi-broken state.

“What you're looking at is a complicated and time-consuming testing period for any single audiovisual work on the web right now,” said Andi McClure, designer of numerous web curiosities, including Anti and 4 Cubes. “Those are the works that are going to get permanently broken or removed in response to these changes, and that's what frustrates me.”

Lots of web games are built using third-party tools, McClure pointed out, and there’s no assurance those companies will get around to addressing Google’s changes. Even if they do, it’s not as simple as rolling out an update for your game. The moment you tinker with the code, something else might break. If your game is based in Unity, for example, upgrading to a newer version of Unity might end up breaking older parts of your game. So, you’re stuck.

Games have always faced problems over being so closely tied to the progress of technology. Combined with gaming’s commercial desire to look forward, not back, and you have a medium that shows depressingly little interest in remembering, preserving its own history.

McClure doesn’t have high hopes for what will change as a result of this. Even if Google manages to clean this up, the same dynamics that serve the powerful will come back.

“Nothing,” said McClure. “Same thing as when Flash got killed, or when the iPhone App Store mass deprecates old games. A bunch of artists most people haven't heard of get really frustrated. Media consumers look at new stuff and don't realize there's a block of several years worth of people's work that isn't there anymore. Nothing changes. The web is a commercial juggernaut and it exists for MSNBC, not me or any other small artist.”

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