Boris Smus

Interaction engineering

Loading large assets in modern HTML5 games

HTML5 games are here today, and rapidly increasing in complexity. Impressive demos are everywhere, and prominent titles like Gun Bros and Angry Birds prove that it's possible to create competitive gaming experiences in the browser. Games like these are possible thanks largely to the modern web stack which includes WebGL, the Web Audio API, Web Sockets and others.

Often forgotten, however, is the less sexy story of loading game assets. As the web platform progresses and allows for increasingly complex games, game assets (ex. textures, movies, music and images) grow in size and number, and asset management becomes a sticking point for game developers.

Let me share with you some truths:

  1. Modern games require gigabytes of assets (textures, movies, etc)
  2. Gamers don't like waiting for their game to load
  3. Browser gamers want to be able to play regardless of internet connectivity

"But wait," you say, "I know! Just use the Application Cache and yer done!". Not so fast, dear reader... As described below, there are problems with this approach, and I propose some solutions.

Problems with Application Cache

So you've started implementing your awesome asset loading solution using AppCache. The good news is that there are some useful tools to help you debug if you have taken this difficult route:

  1. You can get basic information about the site's app cache through the Developer Tools' resource panel.
  2. You can view (and remove!) caches stored in Chrome by navigating to chrome://appcache-internals/.

But let me be blunt: AppCache is annoying to deal with. If you've made a small error in your cache manifest file, you'll quickly hit a brick wall. I ran into an issue where I forgot to include a NETWORK: fallback clause, and wasted hours trying to figure out why all of my XHRs were responding with status 0.

Part of what makes AppCache difficult to debug is its very limited JavaScript API. Aside from letting you inspect the status of the entire cache with window.applicationCache and the updateready event, AppCache doesn't give us much to work with. There's no way to tell if a particular resource we're dealing with is cached or not and no programmatic way of clearing the cache.

AppCache takes a fully transactional approach to asset loading. Either the cache is fully loaded, or fully unloaded. Compounding this issue, it's impossible to resume the download of an AppCache. Thus, if you have a large amount of assets, your user will have to wait a long time for everything to be loaded, and if they reload, they will need to restart their cache download.

Lastly, you can only include one cache manifest per page, making it impossible to group assets into multiple bundles. There are hacks that use multiple iframes with different cache manifests to work around this limitation (used in Angry Birds), but these are ugly!

Ultimately, what we need is a well-thought-out Application Cache enhancement or replacement. Given how quickly web standards bodies move, I've started thinking a bit about a transitional solution.

Designing a game asset loader

An ideal asset loading solution requires some of these features:

  1. Granular asset loading. Load all, in groups, or individually.
  2. No asset size limits.
  3. Offline capability.
  4. Programatic control over assets.

It makes sense to group assets in bundles and let the loader take care of the details. We can even create a custom manifest format, for example, in JSON format:

{
  "assetRoot": "./media/",   // The root of the assets.
  "bundles": [{
    "name": "core",          // A bundle definition.
    "contents": [            // The contents within.
      "theme.mp3",
      "loading.jpg"
    ]
  }, {
    "name": "level1",        // Multiple bundles defined.
    "contents": [            // Note: order implicit since bundles
      "L1/background.jpg",   // objects are stored in an array.
      "L1/blip.wav"
    ]
  }, {
    "name": "level2",
    "contents": [
      "L2/intro.mov"
    ]
  }],
  "autoDownload": false      // If true, download all in order.
}

With this manifest format in mind, sample API usage might look like this:

// Load the asset library.
var gal = new GameAssetLoader('/path/to/gal.manifest');

// Read the manifest and other good stuff.
gal.init(function() {
  // When ready, download the bundle named 'core'.
  gal.download('core');
});

// When the core assets are loaded.
gal.onLoaded('core', function(result) {
  if (result.success) {
    // Show a loading indicator.
    document.querySelector('img').src = gal.get('loading.jpg');
  }
});

// Check the progress of the download.
gal.onProgress('core', function(status) {
  console.log('status:', status.current/status.total, '%');
});

Note that although I've been using the name Game Asset Loader, this approach can be used for loading any large non-game assets, such as for example, a video or photo gallery.

Implementation details

Luckily, the modern web stack enables us to create a custom solution to address all of these requirements. By leveraging technologies such as the HTML5 Filesystem API or Indexed DB, we have programmatic access to a storage mechanism that we can use to build an asset loader described here.

I used the Filesystem API to implement a version of the asset loader. The code requests a large amount of persistent storage using the Quota API, which is undocumented, but works anyway:

// Get quota.
storageInfo.requestQuota(window.PERSISTENT, quota,
  onQuotaGranted, onError);

// Callback when the quota API has granted quota
function onQuotaGranted = function(grantedBytes) {
  // Save grantedBytes in the adapter
  that.grantedBytes = grantedBytes;
  // Once quota is grantedBytes, initialize a filesystem
  requestFileSystem(window.PERSISTENT, grantedBytes, onInitFS, onError);
};

// Callback when the filesystem API has created a filesystem.
function onInitFS = function(fs) {
  // Create a directory for the root of the assets.
  fs.root.getDirectory(ROOT_DIR, {create: true}, function(dirEntry) {
    that.root = dirEntry;
  }, onError);
};

The approach fetches assets with XMLHttpRequest, and stores them in the filesystem. All files in the filesystem are accessible via the filesystem:// schema, and can be used as any other resource. This filesystem URL is returned by the library in the get(path) call.

Note that the writable HTML5 filesystem API is currently available in Chrome only, but that it's quite possible to use IndexedDB (supported in Firefox and IE10) as the data store.

Usage scenarios

The following section briefly describes what the game asset loader (GAL) does in several scenarios.

Player goes to game.com which uses the game asset loader. The game calls gal.download('core') to download core assets and gal.download('level1') to load the first level into the player’s filesystem. While the core bundle loads, the game displays a loading indicator. Once core is loaded, the game displays the main menu. As soon as the first level is loaded, the "Play now" button is enabled. As the player plays, the GAL downloads more of the levels in the background.

Next time, the player tries playing offline. He goes to game.com, whose code is cached via AppCache, and loads GAL again. This time GAL knows it’s offline, looks up its manifest stored on the filesystem and doesn’t try to download new assets. The old assets still work though.

Player is still offline, making good progress, and beats level 5, but there are no assets downloaded for level 6. Luckily, before starting each level, the game calls gal.download('levelBundle') to make sure that the contents of that bundle are downloaded. The callback returns an error and the game displays an error telling the player that he needs to be online to download the next level.

So the player goes online and tries again. GAL re-downloads a manifest. Next, GAL tries re-downloading every asset that the JS requests. Luckily most of these assets are still in the browser cache, and won't be re-downloaded. The loader then saves all of the assets in the filesystem, clobbering old files indiscriminately. (This is bad, and needs to be fixed. Read on!)

Future work

In particular, re-downloading every asset while online is not desirable behavior, and we can't always rely on the browser cache for this. For smaller files, we can probably rely on ETag and Last-Modified headers and hopefully the browser won't re-download the files. However, the asset loader will still overwrite the asset in the filesystem, even if it's unmodified. This needs to be fixed. Large files are not likely to be cached by the browser, so we will need more intelligent caching built into the asset loader itself.

There are other edge cases that need to be considered, such as what happens when an asset is removed from a manifest. Ideally if this occurs, it should also be removed from the filesystem, but this is not currently implemented.

I'm happy to release the source under the permissive Apache 2 license and provide unit tests and a sample project for your perusal. It's well documented and should be reasonably easy to understand. I've also made provisions to separate the core library interface from the Filesystem-based implementation, making it even easier to implement an Indexed DB adapter.

Before I go, let me reiterate that this library isn't quite production ready, but a step in the right direction for facilitating real games on the web. Please comment below if you have feedback on the idea, or are using the library to write a game of your own!