PlayCanvas Review of 2021

Happy New Year to you all!

In 2021, we marked the 10th anniversary of PlayCanvas. In that time, we have seen WebGL become the world’s standard for web graphics, implemented into every major web browser. And we have done our part to help make WebGL content creation both easy and fun!

2021 was definitely our most productive year yet. The platform has continued to evolve, delivering a host of new features and performance improvements. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:

Tools Updates

As you might expect, the vast majority of PlayCanvas users build their applications in the Editor. Perhaps the biggest Editor-related story this year was the release of our new Editor API that allows you to automate certain operations in the Editor front-end. And this is just the first step. We will be fleshing out the Editor API further in 2022 with the goal of building a fully fledged plugin system. Stay tuned for updates on that.

The Code Editor also received a major upgrade this year when we switched from CodeMirror to Monaco, the text editor that powers Visual Studio Code. So if you were already a VS Code user, you should feel right at home in the new Code Editor. It brings better performance for handling large text files, better code completion, a powerful command palette and even theme selection.

Animation tooling also received a huge boost in 2021 with the introduction of the Anim State Graph Editor.

AnimStateGraph Editor

You now have the ability to author anything from simple animation cycles to advanced locomotion systems. Check out how indie developer Cem Demir is using the new animation system in his forthcoming multiplayer survival game:

With all of the front-end updates to the Editor, don’t think that we have neglected the back-end! Throughout 2021, we have been diligently rebuilding the platform’s back-end to be more reliable, scalable and responsive. Users around the globe should now be experiencing Editor and Launch Page load times that are up to 50% faster. In addition, asset related jobs should now complete faster meaning you can focus on building with less time waiting.

Aside from the Editor, one of the coolest new tools we released this year was the Engine Examples Browser. This is a coding playground for learning and experimenting with the PlayCanvas Engine API. And naturally, it’s fully open sourced on GitHub.

Engine Examples Browser

Back in the summer, we announced our new Node-based Shader Editor. This is a new and accessible way to build custom shaders for your PlayCanvas application.

Node-based Shader Editor

We’re nearing the end of the closed beta and in the coming months, we will kick off an open beta and fully open source the tool.

The PlayCanvas Viewer is our open source 3D model viewer tool. In 2021, it received a number of important improvements. First up, as well as glTF files, the viewer can now also load VOX files (for voxel based scenes constructed in tools like MagicaVoxel). We also improved skeletal visualization as well as skybox handling. Check it out on GitHub!

PlayCanvas Viewer

Graphics Engine Enhancements

Let’s be honest – everybody loves beautifully rendered pixels. So let’s examine how PlayCanvas’ graphics engine has advanced this year. First up, we have area lights that allow lights to adopt a physical shape: rectangle, circle or sphere. Later in the year, we released a preview or our new clustered lighting pipeline, which essentially increases the number of dynamic lights you can place in your scenes. With both features combined, the engine can now process clustered area lights as our new engine example demonstrates.

Clustered Area Lights

You can expect clustered lighting to fully replace the existing lighting system in early 2022 once it has been thoroughly beta-tested.

PlayCanvas’ run-time lightmapper received a major upgrade this year. Previously, it was only able to bake direct light to lightmaps and while this could speed up scene load and render times, direct lighting alone struggles to deliver high quality visuals. Now, it can generate soft shadows and bake ambient occlusion. Check out the new engine example that shows off these amazing new capabilities:

Lastly, we implemented cascaded shadows maps that dramatically boosts shadow quality for large-scale environments. It didn’t take long for the community to start showcasing the benefits:

Open Source FTW!

The PlayCanvas team are huge advocates of open source. The Engine runtime was originally open sourced way back in June 2014. Today, it has 6,932 stars,1,095 forks and 96 individual contributors (who we want to thank for all their incredible contributions). Simply put, PlayCanvas would not be what it is today without our amazing open source community.

2021 saw us double down on our open source mission with an explosion of new and updated OSS projects:

  • Editor API – the core functionality of the Editor
  • PCUI and PCUI-Graph – a front-end framework for building powerful browser-based tools
  • Observer – an implementation of the observer pattern for web application development
  • PlayCanvas Viewer – a fast and lightweight 3D model viewer

As mentioned above, the new Shader Editor will be joining this list in 2022. And we shall continue to open source more and more of our technology over time.

2021 Content Picks

We have been blown away by the incredible content the community has created. Browser and messenger games, 3D configurators, VR and AR apps, playable ads and more. We recently published an updated PlayCanvas Showcase video that highlights some of the best examples:

Our top picks for 2021 are:

  • Snap Games – Snapchat’s HTML5 gaming platform featuring new arrivals such as Hole.io and Aquapark
  • Bullet Bonanza – Frenetic online multiplayer game made by Kiloo
  • Fjällräven Kånken – Backpack configurator made by Animech
  • The Crypt – NFT gallery made by Kuva

For more PlayCanvas examples, check out the Awesome List.

What’s In Store for 2022?

We already provided some hints about our 2022 roadmap. The Shader Editor makes its debut in Q1. The Editor’s Plugin System will appear later in the year. But what else?

PlayCanvas’ glTF support will continue to advance. All remaining glTF 2.0 extensions will be implemented and we will finally release a glTF exporter (that you will be able to invoke from the Editor).

WebGPU, the forthcoming successor to WebGL, is also in our sights for 2022. As we continue to push the limits of 3D rendering on the web, WebGPU is a critical part of our plans. So 2022 will see us release an initial proof of concept of WebGPU support and we will share our findings with you as soon as we have them.

For a final peek into PlayCanvas’ future, we would like to share our plan to release what we are calling the ‘Visual Debugger’. This tool will run in the Editor’s Launch Page. You will be able to pause the app, single step it, inspect the hierarchy and entity properties and even edit them in real-time.

We have so much more planned and we will publish a full 2022 public roadmap in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any of your own feature requests, please do log them here.

Have a wonderful 2022 everyone! Let’s make it a great year full of creativity.

Learn the PlayCanvas API with the Engine Examples Browser

PlayCanvas has a rich JavaScript API that allows you to build just about any type of interactive content imaginable – games, playable ads, product configurators, AR, VR and more! But learning a new API can be tough. Reading API reference documentation is all well and good, but many people prefer to learn by experimentation. And by examining the code of real world examples. This led the PlayCanvas team to build a new application: the Engine Examples Browser.

Starting exploring the Examples Browser now:

https://playcanvas.github.io/

The browser is written entirely in Typescript and uses a Webpack build process. Naturally, it is 100% open source (MIT license) and the source can be found here.

The Examples Browser has some pretty cool features:

  • Gallery panel. Select any of the 86 examples from the (filterable) list on the left, either by name or thumbnail.
  • Inspect Source. Expand the source panel (built on the awesome Monaco code editor) on the right to inspect any example’s source code.
  • Edit and hot reload. Edit any example and hit the Play button to refresh the running example. Monaco uses PlayCanvas’ Typescript definitions to provide inline API hints.
  • Embed links. Want to embed PlayCanvas examples in your own site? Simply hit the embed icon and copy the URL!
  • Share to Twitter. Want to share a specific example with the world? Just hit the Twitter icon!

If you would like to request an example to be added to the browser, submit an issue here. Or if you’re feeling creative, submit a pull request of your own to the repo! Stay tuned for newly added examples in the coming months. Enjoy!

WebGL Case Study: Rebuilding the Star-Lord PBR Demo

Way back in 2014, PlayCanvas was the first WebGL Engine to integrate PBR (Physically Based Rendering). To mark the event, we built the Star-Lord tech demo:

In the intervening 6 or so years, PlayCanvas has moved on dramatically. So we decided to leverage all of the latest engine features and republish it.

The most significant improvements are related to load time. Let’s start out by comparing some key stats:

Star-Lord 2014Star-Lord 2021% Change
HTTP Requests22039↓ 82.3%
Preload Transfer (MB)10.15.6↓ 44.6%
Total Transfer (MB)13.79.9↓ 27.7%
Total Resources (MB)26.012.1↓ 53.5%
Load Time (s) *1.81.2↓ 33.3%
* Cache disabled on 100Gbps connection

Those are some pretty significant wins! So what are the differences between the two builds of the demo? Let’s step through them one by one.

Convert JSON Meshes to GLB

In October 2020, PlayCanvas officially switched from JSON to glTF 2.0 (GLB) for storing all model and animation data. While gzipped GLB is reasonably similar in size to gzipped JSON, it is up to an order of magnitude faster to parse a GLB file once it has been downloaded. Plus, a GLB file occupies less system memory than the equivalent JSON file. Converting all of the assets from JSON to GLB is a simple process. First, flip the project setting ‘Convert to GLB’ in the ‘Asset Tasks’ group to true:

Now, simply reupload all FBX files and a .glb asset will be generated rather than a .json asset. The last step is to use the Replace command in the right-click context menu to replace the .json asset with the .glb asset (plus any materials as well).

You can then delete the old JSON asset (plus any unreferenced related materials).

Basis Compress Textures

Last month, we announced the integration of Basis texture compression into the Editor. Star-Lord was originally configured to use DXT, PVR and ETC compressed textures. A download size comparison is as follows:

Texture FormatDownload Size (MB)
DXT7.56
PVR6.09
ETC17.18
Basis2.38

This explains much of the download savings in the updated version.

Fortunately, applying Basis compression to the app’s textures is literally a two-click operation:

Prefilter Cubemaps in the Editor

When PBR first arrived in PlayCanvas, the Editor could not prefilter cubemaps. This conversion had to be performed externally with RGBM format cubemap faces being added to the Editor:

Each cubemap had 6 mip levels with 6 faces for each level. And with 5 different cubemaps, that meant 180 of the demo’s 220 HTTP requests were for these PNGs!

These days, the Editor makes is super easy to import 6 HDR cubemap faces, build a cubemap and then prefilter it.

So instead of loading 180 PNGs, the demo now loads just 5 DDS files. Much faster. 🚀

Asynchronously Load Assets

To achieve an optimal load time, it is important to only load what is required to make your app functional. It is arguable that music is not strictly a necessary precondition for your app to start. Therefore, the demo now asynchronously loads the mp3 asset that contains the music track and auto-plays it as soon as it is downloaded. It is 3.9MB which accounts for nearly 40% of the app’s payload! So be sure to carefully audit your app for assets that can be streamed instead of preloaded.

Read more about preloading and streaming of assets in the User Manual.

Useful Links