Java Game Development
Much of the energy of Java has recently moved away from the client side into server side development.
However when it comes down to it Java is still the only universal platform for providing advanced
multimedia and interactivity on the client side that accommodates all browsers back to Netscape 2.0.
Because of this providing interactive games that reaches all platforms and all browsers still needs to be
done in Java.
I’ve developed over thirty games or infographics for Discovery Channel Online (DCOL) over the last eighteen months. Discovery Channel Online is the web presence of the hugely popular Discovery Channel
and as such has a distinct corporate image to live up to. Game development on DCOL must be consistent
with Discovery’s mission to allow people to “Explore Your World”. The site is mainly focused on Feature
Stories and Expeditions to strange and interested places such as Antarctica, Madagascar, or sometimes the stories are right in your own backyard such as Rollercoasters.
Rapid Game Development
Using game development we try to enhance the experience and give people an opportunity to interact with
the content in a manner not possible on TV. In the Antarctica story it was a drag and drop game where you
pieced together the Antarctic food web from plankton to killer whales. In Madagascar we studied the
Humpback whales and an infographic allowed you to look at the anatomy of the whale. The Rollercoaster
story was perhaps the most successful of all in which users Build A Coaster in order to find out what makes a coaster scary and learn about the physic behind it.
Sun Java Studio
Developing Java games rapidly does not always mean programming them from scratch every time. While I
still do most simple infographics by hand I rely on RAD tools and authoring tools to speed development.
For games that require text interaction and calculations I rely on Java Studio from Sun. Studio is a GUI driven tool for assembling Java Beans. The tool comes with over 50 Java beans and many other developers
including IBM have been developing more compatible Java beans. The built in beans allow JDBC
connectivity, multimedia, charts and computation.
While Java Studio is a nice tool Discovery has always been about visual presentation and Studio is
somewhat limited in it multimedia. For the majority of the more advanced games I turn to mBed Interactor.
For those of you who might have worked with Macromedia’s Director this product is similar though it has
been designed to be web centric and doesn’t have legacy of being a CD-ROM development tool as Director does. This means that Interactor is lean and mean while still delivering a top-notch multimedia experience.
Interactor works with precompiled Java classes that draw their parameters from a text based file. Because
it uses an open text-based system Interactor can be dynamically generated using CGIs, Microsoft’s Active
Server Pages or Allaire’s Cold Fusion. The strength of this open text based system also allows Interactor
can be used to track the user's name and their personal high scores. The text-based standard allows me to
mix and match a number of client side and server side technologies to provide true interactive multimedia
at very low bandwidth.
As with all online multimedia performance issues are critical both for download time and performance once
loaded. Interactor comes in a variety of flavors.
Performance is another issue. My experience indicates that Java based games run fine on a Pentium 133MHz and faster. As games acquire more layering, more animations and drag and drop interfaces the performance degrades. Simple infographics with rollovers will perform fine on nearly any machine. Older browsers such as Netscape 3 are only capable of displaying graphics in 8-bit (256 colors). If full color graphics are used the browser goes through several rounds of dithering the graphics to the correct color palette before they display on the screen. If you expect a significant portion of your users to have Netscape 3 it is best to stick with 8-bit graphics.
Java based gaming while suffering from browser incompatibility and performance issues is still the only way to deliver multimedia games and interactivity to a wide range of browsers. Using tested classes such as those provided by Sun and mBed Interactor the developer can be assured that they will get playback in nearly every Java compatible browser.
Jeff Rule is a principal at RuleWeb Development specializing in DHTML, SMIL, WebTV Interactive TV and
Java based multimedia enhancements for advanced media sites. His first book, Dynamic HTML: The
HTML Developer's Guide was published in Decemeber 1998 by Addison Wesley Longman. It features
many DHTML multimedia examples from his popular DHTML Demo's web site.