Earlier this year, Google made a seemingly crowd-pleasing tweak to its Chrome browser and created a crisis for web game developers. Its May release of Chrome 66 muted sites that played sound automatically, saving internet users from the plague of annoying auto-playing videos. But the new system also broke the audio of games and web art designed for the old audio standard — including hugely popular games like QWOP, clever experiments like the Infinite Jukebox, and even projects officially showcased by Google. After a backlash over the summer, Google kept blocking autoplay for basic video and audio, but it pushed the change for games and web applications to a later version.
That browser version, Chrome 70, is on the verge of full release — but the new, autoplay-blocking Web Audio API isn’t part of it yet. Google communications manager Ivy Choi tells The Verge that Chrome will start learning the sites where users commonly play audio, so it can tailor its settings to their preferences. The actual blocking won’t start until Chrome 71, which is due in December. And according to Choi, Google is adding a new feature that will reduce the impact on old games, allowing sound to start in certain 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 work, or even to stepping back from web game development altogether.
Stephen Lavelle, creator of 2016 puzzle game Stephen’s Sausage Roll, helped call attention to the problem with Google’s change in May. Now, he says he’s been burned out by the hunt for a technical fix, and that he’s started simply leaving audio out of his new web games. “I’ve basically stopped writing music for games (which makes me sad, because writing music for games is one of the nicer parts of the job for me!),” he tells The Verge. “I’m just resigned to whatever happens happening.”
Google didn’t announce its policy as a major, game-breaking update. Instead, the company posted a lighthearted page of documentation peppered with memes, assuring developers that “users are going to love it.” For new projects, this is just another feature to work around. But the way it’s coded means that games and web art built for the old standard can be permanently muted, with no way to turn the audio on. Developers can modify their work for the new standard, but many web games aren’t constantly maintained, and many developers didn’t even know the change was coming. They felt blindsided by the sudden update and ignored by Google.
It hasn’t helped that Google laid out 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 supposed to be a universal whitelist — it’s a default for new Chrome users, while everyone else will see certain sites unblocked based on their browsing history. But especially for people who were already skeptical of the change, it simply looked like favoritism.
Google acknowledged in the spring that it “didn’t do a good job of communicating the impact” of its new system to developers. It’s given them more time to update games, and according to Choi, made efforts to improve backwards compatibility. But Andi McClure, a web artist and developer of games like Jumpman, doesn’t think much has changed. “Whenever the autoplay stuff goes into effect, my stuff will just break,” she tells The Verge, partly because she’s busy and partly because she’s not sure exactly how the system works. “Google has still not documented what the autoplay policy is well enough for me to know how to conform with it.”
QWOP developer Bennett Foddy expressed frustration that Google barely even mentioned the move from October to December’s Chrome release, quietly updating the old documentation with a different version number. “The Chromium team seems determined to take game developers — and anyone else who uses web audio — by surprise,” he says. “I can’t believe that their goal is to drive games off the open web, so it’s hard to understand why they’re handling this in such a weird, shady way.” (Disclosure: Foddy is a colleague of my husband at the NYU Game Center.)
The autoplay-blocking feature might even have surprised parts of the Chrome team, based on one comment from Chrome developer Raymond Toy. “The launch of the autoplay policy for WebAudio in Chrome was done without knowledge of the Chrome WebAudio team,” he wrote last month in a GitHub comment thread. (The Verge reached out to Toy for more details, but didn’t hear back in time for publication.) “If we had known, we would have tried to do something. Which is not to say that the final outcome would have been any different, but we could have at least started discussions in the spec, at least before launch.”
Many game developers and digital artists already work on the assumption that their games will eventually break. “It’s really important to be okay with the fact that your work’s going to die if you create it in a digital form,” says game developer Isaac Cohen, whose psychedelic web projects were affected by the change. Over the past year, we’ve seen Apple drop support for old 32-bit games on iOS, including titles like Vlambeer’s acclaimed Ridiculous Fishing and the oddball cultural phenomenon Flappy Bird. (Vlambeer eventually updated its game; Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen did not.) And Adobe is in the process of sunsetting its once wildly popular Flash multimedia plugin, which supported countless artistic projects.
But where Adobe and Apple gave developers years’ worth of notice, and Flash in particular contained serious security vulnerabilities, Google’s update changes a functional system for what amounts to greater user convenience. It’s been less clear why backwards compatibility shouldn’t have been a central focus from the start, especially if alternative systems exist — like one widely discussed option laid out by Ashley Gullen, lead developer of the Construct game engine.
Gullen says he’s been in touch with Google, but he hasn’t been satisfied with the response. “As far as I’m aware, nobody from Google has been able to justify the current approach,” he says. “If they had said ‘nice idea, but actually for X, Y, Z reasons we can’t do that,’ that would be one thing, but so far it’s been no response at all.” Gullen says Google’s new fix will “help with backwards compatibility, but not solve it completely” — and Gullen isn’t sure exactly how well it will work until it’s deployed.
More generally, critics worry that with a careless change to the world’s most popular browser, Google is signaling indifference toward game developers and artists. “To be honest, Google’s response to this was so bad that I have basically given up on making games for the web, beyond small experiments, and I’ve also removed browser games from the curriculum in my MFA studio class,” says Foddy. “It’s one thing to be dependent on the technical whims of a platform holder for our games to continue running… that’s how it is on consoles and on phones… but Google straight-up doesn’t seem to care if it breaks every previously released videogame, and I think that’s a clear dealbreaker.”
For many users, the changes to Chrome audio will be positive — after all, auto-playing media really can be awful — or invisible. Old games and tools are often quickly forgotten, and some players may not realize certain projects had music or sound effects in the first place. But to developers who have struggled with Google’s new policy, it’s been a demoralizing process. “It really does seem they’ve not been listening and are ploughing ahead with what they want. Normally they’re pretty good at listening to developer feedback, and a lot of stuff they do is great,” says Gullen. “It just seems they’ve really made a mess of this particular case.”