Flash will die in 2020: Game devs discuss a once-great format
On Monday, it looked like Microsoft was killing off Paint. Then it turned out that they weren’t: it will be available on the Windows Store, where everyone will subsequently forget about it. Yesterday, Adobe announced that Flash is also scheduled to die – and the comparative silence speaks volumes.
Adobe explained that formats such as HTML5, WebGL and WebAssembly “have matured over the past several years” and have now “become a viable alternative for content on the web”.
Some can’t wait to pour opprobrium upon a much-maligned format with huge issues. Yes, it was a security risk. Yes, in the wrong hands it could make your PC grind to a halt. And yes, half the time those wrong hands were owned by advertising networks that would end up sabotaging your computer for something you didn’t even sign up for. All these things are demonstrably true.
But still I can’t share in this glee: between 2009 and 2014, my livelihood was dependent on Adobe Flash, because I was a games producer at web games portal Mousebreaker (I’ve written about it a bit before). I never coded myself, but I worked with enough developers to understand why it was beloved in the developer community, even as it was belittled everywhere else. I also saw the same developers struggling with the lack of flexibility offered by Unity and HTML5 when the writing was on the wall, and we had to sink or swim.
To badly bastardise Anthony: “I have come here to praise Flash, not to bury it.”
A simpler time
I spoke to a handful of my old games development contacts to get their take, and the main feeling I got was that, although Adobe is correct to say that the other tools have matured, the company is missing out on something that made Flash so widespread throughout the web. “For me, the one thing I think is great about Flash is the IDE [a development tool]”, explained Charles Maragna – a freelancer I commissioned so often, you’d have thought I wouldn’t still have to look up the spelling of his surname. “You could literally type a few lines of code in and something would happen. And obviously, harking back to its origins, if you wanted to do some animation, you could fiddle around in the timeline and bingo, you’d have an animation.”
Sam Bellman – a former Flash developer who did things with the software that didn’t seem possible – also looks back fondly on it. “I stuck with Flash long after most of the people knew had already left,” he tells me via email. “I still have a huge affection for Flash – I along with half of the ex-Flash coders I know wouldn’t be working as developers without Flash and the amazing workflow it had for creating games.”
Jerry Carpenter, a one-man game idea machine, agrees. “It’s much, much, much faster to prototype in Flash,” he explains. “Ideas you’d leave to die in Unity and HTML5 get a chance to shine. Neither of those holds a candle to the ‘rapidfire idea to playable build’ magic that Flash allowed.” While there’s very little you can do in Flash that you can’t do in HTML5, the results still seem to lack pizazz. “They’re not all pants, but all I see is generic casual games in that area,” observes Carpenter.I once asked Jerry to draw me as a cartoon cat for another piece, so here it is in all its glory.
Correlation is not the same as causation, of course, and it could just be that there are fewer interesting HTML5 games because there isn’t the market for browser games any more. If you were to examine the most prominent nail in Flash’s decade-in-the-making coffin, it would be the birth of the iPhone. If you wanted a specific date, it would be Thursday 29 April 2010: the day Apple CEO Steve Jobs penned an innocuous-looking blog post entitled “Thoughts on Flash”. With that, Job essentially closed the door to Flash on iOS forever. That didn’t help, but neither Carpenter nor Maragna think this provided the killer blow. “That was definitely part of it,” replies Maragna, “but I think it chimed with users becoming annoyed with over-engineered website ‘experiences’.”
Certainly, I remember a sea change in the Mousebreaker offices when the App Store started to become all-conquering. We released five iPhone apps in the end – the first of which was featured by Apple, lulling us into a false sense of security at how easy it all seemed. This was in the days when you could charge £1.19 for an app, so it seemed like a sensible and necessary move.
And yet converting hundreds of big-hitting games to Unity proved to be a real slog – not only was it time-consuming, but the results tended to feel like poor karaoke cover versions of the original. Compare Sports Heads Football Championship (Flash) to Super Sports Heads Football (Unity) for a taste of this: the latter looks the part, but just doesn’t feel right somehow. I played countless beta versions, asking for tweak after tweak. We never nailed it, and the sequel to a game that was played millions of times barely registered with fans.
The “Flash export to iOS” kind of worked, but games made for the web weren’t always a good fit for mobile – and besides, by that point free apps were the order of the day, and getting any attention was nigh on impossible. Like Adobe, we hadn’t moved quickly enough: the Flash games portal’s tyranny of choice was now the App Store’s problem. I left to pursue a writing career shortly afterwards, and the site was sold off two years later.
So was the death of Flash Adobe’s fault, or was it just a helpless passenger? “I think a very large part is the failure of Adobe as a business to fully understand the strong points of the tool,” says Maragna – pointing to aspects such as the ease of use, and the fact it exports as a single SWF file, negating the inevitable risk of lost assets. “But clearly if they’d boosted their “Export to iPhone/Android” [function] and/or promoted the AIR [cross-platform support] export they could have moved on from there.
“Lastly, I think the resistance to Flash partly came down to it being owned by Adobe. If they’d open-sourced it, I think it would probably have survived. Hopefully this will happen so all the legacy stuff survives,” he added.
Flash still has two-and-a-half years until Adobe pulls the plug, so there’s still life in the old dog yet – especially if Adobe does consider open-sourcing the software. Even if it doesn’t, there’s some work to do to unpick the patchwork of Flash-based content that’s still in use today – lots of adverts on the Tube, for example, still use Flash. And until the tools stop working, they’ll still have a few evangelists left: “The drawing tools are still the best, and loads of devs still use Flash to draw their assets,” says Carpenter.
“Flash won’t be dead anyway as they will continue to support the AIR publishing thing. I’ll be making games using Flash in my coffin.”