Firefox Becomes Gaming Platform With Unreal Engine Support

SAN FRANCISCO — You'll soon be able to stream and play highly realistic three-dimensional video games from within the Mozilla Firefox browser. Mozilla recently announced that the most recent version of its Firefox browser can run games developed with the Unreal Engine by Epic Games, which forms the backbone of many major 3D video games.

You may ask: Why would people want to play streaming games in Firefox, or in any browser? If you want robust computer graphics, there are plenty of games downloadable from the or Steam and Origin platforms, and many more playable on CDs. Firefox will be capable of running games almost as quickly as if the games were running as stand-alone programs, but Firefox is always going to be slightly slower than so-called "native speeds."

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We put that question to the Firefox team on the show floor at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The Firefox team's primary answer was: Because of convenience. Not only would you not have to download a game in order to play it, but you could launch a game just by clicking a Web link. This would make it much easier for players to jump into new games and open up new avenues of promotion for game makers.

Firefox's gaming capabilities don't even require a Web browser plugin to function. The gaming functions are written entirely in JavaScript, specifically a type of JavaScript called asm.js, and WebGL, a JavaScript API for creating interactive 2D and 3D graphics in a browser. The games run equally well on a Windows PC or on a Mac, and, presumably, on Linux boxes as well.

The lack of plugins isn't merely convenient. Web plugins often create new avenues for cyberattackers, so removing plugins from the equation increases the security of the browsing experience. Because mobile browsers don't support plugins, using asm.js also makes it easier to share games on mobile devices.

The ability to run the Unreal Engine, even the new Unreal Engine 4, without plugins isn't just limited to the Firefox browser. Google's Chrome browser can run it as well, and Mozilla says just about any modern browser should be able to as well. However, the most recent version of Firefox is optimized to run games using asm.js and WebGL best.

"We are proponents of the Web," said Martin Best, Mozilla's Game Platform Strategist. "And anything that makes the web successful is good for us."

Currently, the only game playable using asm.js and WebGL is "Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia," developed in Unreal Engine 3 by developers Artificial Studios and Immersion Games.

At GDC, we also saw a demo of the Unreal Engine 4 in Firefox, and a preview of "Dead Trigger 2," currently out on iOS, Android and Facebook, which runs on the Unity engine, a different game-development engine. 

Currently, Unity games are only playable on browsers with an additional plugin, but when Unity 5.0 comes out later this year, it will come with a WebGL add-on that should make it playable without a plugin in Firefox or any other modern browser.

As a gaming platform, Firefox works differently than Chrome, which has offered games such as "Bastion" and "Angry Birds" through its Chrome Web Store for a few years now. Instead of offering games from a central location such as a store or even limited to a single browser, Mozilla's WebGL and asm.js development lets developers host games on their own sites, accessible via any browser.

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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.