Leading industry figures have been speaking out about Google's Chrome Web Store, the browser-based App Store equivalent for PCs and Macs slated for launch this October but in an increasingly crowded online marketplace, what can it offer and how much room for manoeuvre does it have?
Speaking at GDC, Google's developer advocate for games Mark DeLoura described the service's primary use as a quality filter for less informed gamers: "If you search for chess games, you may stumble across a chess-based flash game but you don't know if it's good, if it's bad, even if it works." With Web Store, a chess game is recommended to you, and has user ratings attached.
The necessary wrinkle is that it's tied to Google's Chrome browser a relative new kid on the block, but one that enjoyed a massive advertising blitz earlier this year. "Chrome as a browser is up to 70 million users," said DeLoura, describing its growth to around 9 per cent of the market as a "steep, steep upward [graph] slope."
Google is trying hard to lure developers and publishers, dropping its cut to a bare minimum while the service beds in. "For web apps we really want to see this take off we're not going to take 30 per cent from your revenue, we'll take a 5 per cent processing fee," said DeLoura.
Income can come from in-game and in-browser ads, but "you can have free apps, you can have paid apps, you can have a subscription model. The one thing that we don't do is we don't have support for in-app purchases of any kind for our systems. So the solution is to use the solution that you have. Further down the road we'll have one as well, we'll hope that you'll like ours better," he added.
Perhaps key to Chrome's success, however, is its eventual support for native client games no plugin required. Losing installation requests is a big deal for Google: "You lose 50 per cent of your audience because people are scared."
HTML 5 and Flash 10.1 are now integrated into the browser, while the same will soon be true of the Unity engine, and eventually of OpenGL ES 2.0/WebGL and C++. "It makes a lot of folks nervous, but you can create an executable that runs at the speed of the hardware, but is still secure within the browser," said DeLoura.
Senior industry figures at GDC seemed divided about the Web Store. Unity boss David Helgason whose 3D engine will play a major part in Google's browser gaming takeover plan, felt that the plugin "has held people back" but that being native to Chrome wouldn't change things on its own.
"Chrome has such a low penetration that it only nudges the margins a little bit," he told GamesIndustry.biz.
"Lets say Chrome has 10 per cent of the market, which it doesnt, but if they go to 10 per cent in six months. That doesnt really change your outcome if you plug-in with a 90 per cent success rate, with Unity in Chrome we only go to a 91 or 92 per cent success rate. It doesnt change the final numbers, really."
However, Helgason was excited about the possibilities of the Web Store. "If they execute that well it becomes really exciting. Then we can talk about changes.
"If they get the Web Store right, and its kind of a bold statement, but what may happen - and Im not completely bulls****ing - but it may for the first time ever create a browser with a strong business model, a real business model, like an Average Revenue Per User browser.
"Firefox with 400 million users has an annual revenue supposedly of around $100 million, which is actually a 25 cent ARPU, which isnt bad. But if you can go from a 25 cent ARPU to a $2 ARPU then suddenly that changes the economics because you cant really acquire users aggressively at 25 cents per year, but at $2 then you can acquire users and hire a guy to knock on doors with a USB stick an install it."
However, he didn't feel things were currently quite so rosy for Google's gaming plans. "You really need to lure content in and with Google taking a 5 per cent cut it becomes more like a transaction fee. I wouldnt be surprised that most people with web properties are spending around 5 per cent on payment and other infrastructures. Its almost like Google might not make a lot of money from it.
"Theyre supposed to not be making money in the Android market at all. The Android marketplace takes 30 per cent, however Google is only supposedly taking a few per cent of that and they carry the transactions charges and costs like that, so I suspect they are losing money."
While Chrome Web Store is directly targeting the iPhone App Store model, including one-click payments and application recommendations, it's also rivalling a number of other streaming and browser gaming services.
However, InstantAction boss Louis Castle, who is preparing to launch music game InstantJam for Facebook and also intends to release major games streamed to a browser, doesn't see Chrome as a real threat.
"The interesting thing about Google and native client and all that is games still have to be written or ported to a native client solution," he told GamesIndustry.biz at GamesCom last week.
"Which is fine for small games and things like that, but I really don't think there's the financial incentive, that the guys who are doing the next Medal of Honour or the next Call of Duty or the next Crysis are going to be racing out and writing it for a browser."
For developers who do stick to smaller titles, Chrome is just one more platform to consider, in an era when they're being aggressively courted from all corners mobile, social, console and browser.
"We're trying all these things," confessed PopCap CCO Jason Kapalka. "They're all experimental right now and we don't know which will work and which will end up falling by the wayside.
"Generally PopCap has tried to be fairly catholic and not jump on any one bandwagon. It's very hard to predict the future."
Useful for both developers and consumers is Google's tendency towards fast updates no seasonal firmware updates here, but instead silent and regular background downloading. "I'm a realist," admitted DeLoura at GDC Europe. "I think it's a really well-designed system, but if we discover there's a problem Chrome updates itself automatically and we'll fix the issues."
The battle is likely to be uphill nonetheless, and the key questions are both audience and game library sizes. "When this launches and there are 70 million people there, we want to have some really great games."
Chrome Web Store is open to developers now, and will support Google Checkout as a payment system at launch. Google's Mark DeLoura has confirmed it's a separate entity to the company's social network project, but some manner of convergence seems likely eventually.