Disclaimer: I am not a web technology expert, I’m just a person who likes games, so take everything I have to say with a grain of salt.
When the clock strikes midnight at the end of December 31st of this year, Adobe Flash will be removed from all Google Chrome browsers forever, with other major browsers and even the Windows operating system slated to follow through with similar plans. This comes over a decade after the late Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” open letter, which took issues with Adobe and Flash, laying out a rationale for why it would not be permitted on iOS products. Jobs cited energy consumption and performance issues, security concerns and the technology’s proprietary nature; gesturing towards HTML5 as the future of the web. At the time some called Jobs hypocritical for going after Adobe when Apple’s whole modus operandi was and remains the creation of “closed systems”, pointing out that he had a vested competitive interest in drawing attention away from Flash content such as games and towards the App Store, which is one such example. However history would vindicate Jobs in part, as more now see his claims and indicative of the long-term trends that would unfold over the 2010’s culminating in the death of Flash.
But none of this makes Jobs a Nostradamus figure. Could he have predicted for instance how a combination of streaming services like Spotify and his own work on the iPhone would make iTunes obsolete? The double standard is that unlike Flash player Microsoft is not issuing an update that will remove iTunes from all computers running Windows. Anyone can make a prediction about what technology will and will not progress based on current trends, and given the supposed accelerationism of computation shouldn’t it follow that Flash would have logically died much sooner if everything detractors claimed about it was true? One could have easily said in the late 90’s that beepers and pagers would become obsolete given the popularity of the cell phone and PDA — even if the modern touchscreen smartphone wasn’t foreseen — yet there are entire industries such as the medical field which still rely on pagers to this day, just as there was an industry which relied on Flash.
The thing about Flash is that it actually encompassed at least five different things: a web player (originally Macromedia Shockwave), a file format (.swf), an animation software (now called Adobe Animate), a programming language (ActionScript) and most importantly a community and playculture. The main issues Jobs and others had were with Flash the player, and I can see eye-to-eye with them to an extent. As a web design tool Flash was ill-suited towards the consolidation of Web 2.0 and the advent of tabbed browsing, with sites that used it tending to be regarded as gimmicky relics in its mid-life. Any Homestar Runner fan can attest that while the loss of clickable Easter eggs in the YouTube format is unfortunate, the tradeoff in the ability to pause is well worth it. Where Flash player came to excel was sitting inside conventional web pages, allowing for easy-to-make and easy-to-use interactive web tools and games. However once Flash became a dirty word the .swf format went along with its player, the same way VHS tapes went away with the VCR.
Yet the hand-wringing over the security issues of Flash player was and continues to be overblown in my opinion, especially given Apple’s claim-to-fame that they make virus-proof systems. In actuality the most likely point of infection for Apple users related to Flash player is unwittingly installing malware to Macs which appears to be Flash but is not. To my knowledge, nobody is out there making addictive Flash games to serve as a Trojan horse to data-mine personal information like everything else on the internet transparently does already. Online services — especially those tied to finances — experience hacks all the time, but companies don’t just get rid of them, because they usually pose a greater net gain than risk. The biggest gaming-related hacks of the 2010’s had nothing to do with Flash, they were PlayStation Network and Steam in 2011 and Zynga in 2019.
Likewise observations of performance and battery issues from running Flash on Android can only be made because it was available on Android. If Flash was given more of a shot in the mobile marketplace then perhaps Adobe could have improved and optimized it (which I’m led to believe is sort of what Adobe AIR is) or replaced it outright with a superior web player that’s “backwards compatible” with .swf’s, if possible.
The other Adobe Flash, the software, was rechristened as Adobe Animate in 2016. While this can definitely be spun as a successful rebrand, Google Trends indicates that people are still generally more aware of Flash in broad strokes. An even more specific search shows how public awareness of the software has lowered compared to the aughts and early 2010’s — and it isn’t as if a competitor like ToonBoom or any 3D suite has risen to prominence to take its place. Animate is still the industry standard for 2D animation, however the introduction of animation tools into Adobe’s flagship product PhotoShop does demonstrate a lack of faith in Animate, though there’s valid raster vs. vector and pricing arguments to be made to justify the existence of both.
When it came to Flash game development the beauty of it was that game-makers didn’t actually need to buy Flash to create them — all that was required was knowledge of ActionScript and an integrated development environment such as the open-source FlashDevelop. This was further aided by the creation of pixel-perfect frameworks, most notably Flixel and FlashPunk, the latter of which is where I entered into the dying scene before bailing to return to GameMaker. ActionScript 3 remains a perfectly fine language, but now I genuinely wonder whether it’s something still worth including on my resume.
Browser games as a medium haven’t gone anywhere; over a third of the games on Itch.io are web-enabled. People are still uploading animations made with Adobe software to Newgrounds, now in an HTML5-friendly format, but without the Flash umbrella the sense of community is muted and consumers are split as to where they look for games. Conventional wisdom holds that the Flash game market was subsumed by the mobile game market, and while this is mostly true the first big play in the early 2010’s was not made by Apple or Google but Facebook. See, the term “casual gamer” is less of an oxymoron and more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that if one plays games casually then they probably don’t consider themselves a gamer, and thus casual becomes a qualifier to the natural order of true pure gamerhood. What this neglects is that casuals are actually in the majority, but don’t really prescribe to genre labels like casual games or social games and simply play what’s available on the platforms they know of and have access to (or more accurately from the vendors). So while mobile gaming is undoubtedly huge, there hasn’t really been a mobile-specific mega hit since Pokemon Go in 2016 and before that 2048 in 2014 and Flappy Bird in 2013, the last of which is now only available as a browser game remake. It seems that “go multiplatform or go home” is the new mantra of the games industry, and for good reason.
Flash game playculture was more than bored students and office workers on lunch breaks though, it was a hotbed of game design innovation. Many name brand indie devs such as Edmund McMillen, Maddy Thorson, Anna Anthropy, Nina Freeman and Adam “Atomic” Saltzman cut their teeth on and had success with Flash games. Even something as loathed as Farmville spawned Cow Clicker, which ironically started a whole new genre of time-wasting browser games. While I haven’t done too much mobile gaming myself, the brief stint where I did I came across a generic stick-man-style series that was basically a take on the Karoshi games, though I’m unsure if the developer was even aware of this. It seems as though this “Flash did it first” phenomenon is a fairly common one.
The real dagger in the heart of Flash that mobile technology precipitated was the riddance of banner ads on websites. These were the crux of what made the sponsorship model of sites like Armor Games, Kongregate and Adult Swim a viable enterprise (newspapers and blogs have found themselves in a similar predicament and have turned instead to paywalls). Notable indie developer Bennett Foddy has been outspoken in the past that anyone with enough expertise to make a Flash game could have easily made their own website with ads to earn revenue. However the real vulnerability of Flash was how open it was to rampant piracy, so it made perfect sense for game-makers to pitch to bigger sites, not only for exposure but almost like an insurance policy that clicks would translate to cash. Free-to-play mobile games can also have ads of course, however they usually take the form of interstitial pop-ups which splice the flow of play such that they determine which sorts of games get pursued in the first place, much in the way that TV sitcoms were for many years built around story beats that led into commercial breaks.
In conclusion, it’s incredibly sad that hobbyist programmers and preservationists have been forced to take on emulation efforts for a technology that is not constrained to a physical device. However many Flash games are simply going to become lost in a way that is entirely due to forced obsolescence. The agonizingly slow death of Flash has in reality been more like the murder of Flash, with a subsequent multi-institutional conspiracy to cover up the hitjob. Even Unity killed off support for their own unrelated web player in 2015, almost as more of a statement that they’re a serious standalone software development kit rather than a lack of interest from developers. I myself fell out of the browser game scene once freeindiegam.es closed shop in 2014, and while Warp Door is a worthy successor its output has been around 33% web-based games whereas FIG was around 60%. The way the past 10 years went down for Flash was bad, and we should all collectively feel bad that we allowed it to happen.
FURTHER READING AND WATCHING
A short history of Flash & the forgotten Flash Website movement (when websites were “the new emerging artform”) & The Flash game movement, my early Flash work, and how Flash games informed what we have in indie games today… by Nathalie Lawhead
The Flash Games Postmortem GDC talk by John “jmtb02” Cooney