Did you enjoy Alien Hominid? Thank Adobe Flash. The Binding of Isaac? The original version ran like crap, but that was Flash, too. Flash eats battery life and makes computer fans run loud, but it’s been important to many developers, which is why they freaked out a bit today.
Flash used to power much of what you viewed on the web, including games. That’s changed in recent years, but Flash is still kicking. Today’s anxiety came from a decision by the popular browsers Chrome and Firefox to temporarily block the technology over security concerns. Heck, Facebook’s new chief of security recently called for Adobe to start preparing for Flash’s funeral:
It is time for Adobe to announce the end-of-life date for Flash and to ask the browsers to set killbits on the same day.
Basically, people want to kill Flash on the web. Before he died, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously wrote an open letter to Adobe about why the iPhone wouldn’t support Flash. He spent hundreds of words explaining his reasoning, but here’s the summary: Flash totally sucks.
“Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash. We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems, but they have persisted for several years now. We don’t want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash.
Jobs was mostly right. But while Flash might suck, that doesn’t mean it’s not vital or important.
There are several components to Flash, but the one players are the most familiar with is the web player. It used to power YouTube, but formally switched to HTML 5 earlier this year. Twitch still uses Flash, but there’s a good chance that’s going away eventually, too. It also used to service all sorts of web animation, and was the primary way to play games online for a long, long time.
“For five years I’ve been told Flash is dead,” said Kongregate senior producer John Cooney. “It comes from everywhere: friends in the industry, relatives, blogs, especially news headlines. Flash has died more times than we can remember. It’s become a joke among Flash game developers.”
Kongregate is one of several web sites dedicated to serving browser-based games, which means they’ve relied on Flash for years. (Most also now support HTML 5 and Unity.) Did you play an early version of the popular tower defense game Kingdom Rush? You played it on Kongregate.
“As someone who has loved Flash since 1998, it’s been frustrating to watch everything that has happened over the years,” said Newgrounds co-founder Tom Fulp.
Newgrounds was also built on Flash games, and chances are you’ve played one at some point. Besides Alien Hominid and Binding of Isaac, there’s Portal: The Flash Version, Super Mario Crossover, Defend Your Castle, and countless others.
Fulp is not only helped build one of the web’s most important gaming destinations, but co-founded Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth. Where’d they get their start? Flash.
Newgrounds has been preparing for the demise of Flash. It built a tool for animators to easily convert creations into a video file for YouTube. Like Kongregate, it also added support for Unity and HTML5, but neither is currently as capable or ubiquitous as Flash.
“People talk a lot about the need for more accessibility in creative industries and I think Flash was the most accessible creative tool in my lifetime,” said Fulp. “It allowed all sorts of people to animate and make games; people like me who otherwise would never have ended up where they are today.”
One such designer is Edmund McMillen, one half of Super Meat Boy’s developer, Team Meat. McMillen originally made a name for himself on the Newgrounds community by building weird, disturbing Flash experiments in 2001. They remain online, if you want to look through them.
McMillen still uses Flash as an animation and illustration program, and was recently considering releasing a tiny game through Flash and HTML5, but eventually decided against it.
“I quickly found out that that whole scene is long dead,” he said. “There is almost no money in Flash games these days. Kinda sucks, but I believe everyone's moved to App Store dev. It’s sad to see it slowly die off. Flash was a very easy way to make games, but time changes everything.”
These days, if you utter the term “Flash games,” people will probably roll their eyes. Many of them tend to have crappy art, but there’s a reason for that: Flash made it so easy to get games up-and-running for amateurs that non-artists would end up building every part of the game.
“Flash allowed me to ease myself into being a game developer without having to understand computer science principles off the bat,” said developer Iain Lobb, who’s been building Flash games since 2000. “You could do a little animation, just add in a couple of lines of code to do something interactive, and build up from there.”
When it’s easier for people to participate, it’s not a surprise quality will be all over the place.
“A lot of Flash games were, in fact, terrible,” said Lobb. “ [They] were made by 15 year olds in their bedrooms, with awful stick-man art, so it’s not completely baseless!”
Headlines declared the death of PC game development for years, but it didn’t happen. With Flash, however, it appears the “Flash is dead” narrative is contributing to its demise.
“Our clients refused that we use Flash as the core technology, because of all the news of Flash being dead,” said a programmer who asked to remain anonymous. “The more the media talked about Flash being dead, the more dead Flash became.”
“Steve Jobs and his ‘reality distortion field’ was probably the worst thing to happen to Flash,” said Newgrounds co-founder Tom Fulp. “There were valid concerns about the security of Flash but the reality was that Steve had an axe to grind with Adobe ever since they didn’t have his back when he returned as the head of Apple. [...] But he was a dick, so that’s how it goes.”
It’s possible Flash will soon become irrelevant to players, but based on the developers I talked with today, it will remain a useful tool for building games. Many designers told me it remains useful during the early prototype phase.
Like losing hair, the decline of flash is so agonising that the prospect of its eventual disappearance fills me with an odd kind of relief.
The bigger worry is what happens if the major browser creators decide to really pull the plug on Flash at some point. Suddenly, tens of thousands of games would no longer be playable by the vast majority of people browsing the Internet.
“The thing I really care about is that some of the legacy is preserved somehow, so we can still look back on the things people made with Flash,” said Lobb.
“All that amazing work could disappear overnight,” said Tom Vian, a developer who’s been building Flash games for the past 13 years.