How Flash Games Shaped the Internet
Adobe's platform was once installed on 99 percent of all computers. Now it's essentially dead.
The Flash platform—that thing Adobe is always asking for you to update—is on life support. True, Adobe last released an update of their Flash Player less than a month ago, fixing the latest round of security problems, and Flash Professional is still part of the Creative Cloud, Adobe’s subscription-based collection of development tools. But take one look at the features touted in the latest version of Flash Professional and you’ll see the extent of the platform’s transformation: The focus for developing and deploying applications has shifted away from the Flash Player to new technologies for the web.
The dream of the web Flash once represented, a place radically open to amateur creativity has been quietly replaced by proprietary platforms such as Apple’s App Store and Steam. And with each version of Flash Professional, that dream slips further and further away.
So, what happened? How did the platform that Adobe once boasted was installed on 99 percent of all computers fall out of favor so quickly? And why does it matter?
The Flash software once promised a universal coding platform, and a rich multimedia experience to everyone else. Flash was designed to level browser differences, smoothly render animated content for instant playback and be as portable as anything else on the web. As it falls into decline, it is being replaced by a more fragmented Internet. This is more than just the death of a single program. It is part of a large shift in the way people experience and design the Internet.
In 2010, Steve Jobs declared war on Flash—banning it from iOS. Developers looking to reach the rapidly growing number of iPhone users were pushed to change technologies and abandoned Flash in favor of Apple’s ecosystem. Even Adobe seemed to abandon Flash, admitting in 2011 that they would no longer support the development for Flash Player on mobile, which was previously a marketed advantage of Android over iOS. As smartphones and tablets rose in popularity, it seemed like Jobs had won, as no developer serious about these platforms could afford to invest their energy in Flash.
Now, Flash isn’t entirely dead. The web is still brimming with Flash content. Just take a look at the new games popping up on Newgrounds and other Flash portals every day. And the legacy of Flash is all around us. After all, what are mobile games and apps but descendants (and in some cases direct translations) of the casual web arcades and browser games Flash powered? What is Adult Swim on Cartoon Network but a rotating feature of shows that often owe a great debt to Flash animation? Home Movies, Harvey Birdman, and Metalocalypse were all produced using Flash’s powerful authoring tools.
Flash raised a generation of animators and game designers with tools that made individual creativity possible in mediums that were otherwise labor-intensive. It also let people design games and animations for the web, without having to go through broadcast or gaming companies. Flash offered a content-neutral platform: For users, this meant that Flash-powered experimental games and animation that would not have been welcome on typical networks or console systems.
The true death Flash’s slow decline has foretold is the death of a coder’s dream: The “write once, run anywhere” software platform is dead. The sheer numbers of different interfaces currently rising reveal just how out of reach that dream has traveled. Just as the idea of a universal language for discourse in culture has proven not only impossible to achieve but also undesirable, so too is the idea of a universal software platform not only unlikely but unwanted. Technology is shifting from a single, dominant device to an ecosystem of devices that surround us, each playing their particular role, and each demanding experience design with attention to their diverse interfaces and affordances. A universal software platform cannot rise without a near-universal interface to meet it.
Some have heralded HTML5—the latest language in the HTML family—as Flash’s heir-apparent. But it’s not a universal solution either. HTML5 doesn’t work across all platforms and browsers, especially the older ones like Internet Explorer. Mobile processors are still not all up to handling the highly complex and demanding programs, so many of the best experiments on the web (like those highlighted in the Chrome experiments) are still most functional and enjoyable on the desktop.
Today, in a Flash-free world, developers must test their creations on a variety of different hardware, operating systems, and browsers to ensure that the often-inconsistent rules that dictate layout and behavior don’t “break” and render all their work unusable. Any time you’ve seen an application or website with buttons out of place or a popup that reads, “This website is best experienced using Chrome," you are seeing the concessions many developers make in the face of how web development works now. For users, this can mean a frustrating experience that recalls the days of the “browser wars” that divided the early web.
The impact of Flash’s death goes beyond the lives of programmers and impacts web users everywhere. Many encounter the subtle battle when they visit sites like Yelp or Google Maps on our phones—places that have both a website and a native app. It will always ask: Do you want to download the app? They’re hoping you say yes, because the user experience for many of these applications are superior to even the most finely tuned sites designed for mobile. They take advantage of how the phone is designed, not just physically in terms of screen size, but computationally—phones process animations and transitions differently. But saying yes also reinforces the control over revenue and distribution that Apple and other platform providers have an iron hold on.
So HTML5 is not a revolution, it’s a throwback: a return to dealing with problems that Flash once allowed developers to rocket past. And unlike Flash, HTML5 has no single guiding company taking a dominant role in its future, a circumstance that is both blessing and pitfall. It seems like every day another tool or library is released to bring HTML5 up to speed for one development need or another, from animation and web graphics to game engines and timeline-based interfaces. Even Adobe has entered the fray, under the guise of both Flash and Adobe Edge.
So the war has begun between apps and the web. Designers have to think about both, and use very different tools to design for each one. That’s because we’re using the web from different places now. The results of the latest Pew Internet survey on cell internet access suggested that 34 percent of cell Internet users go online mostly using their phones, not a PC. Slowly, for users looking at things on their phones, maybe become even more important than designing for those using computers. As the industry moves further into emerging hardware, wearables, and other potentially restricted platforms, we’re adding more situations for which designers must design.
Flash certainly was never perfect, but for a proprietary platform, Flash at its height offered us unprecedented tools for the production and distribution of an open interactive web. Its interface invited in amateurs who could play around with drawing tools; its programming environment was largely self contained, and its content-neutral approach invited experimentation and controversial work. Tom Fulp’s violent point-and-click game Pico’s School, inspired by the Columbine shootings, in which the main character must navigate a school after a shooting and take down the goth murderer Cassandra, was coded in Flash.
So was Molleindustria’s game Phone Story, which offers an “educational game about the dark side of your phone.” Players have to get through four challenges, each of which is a stage in phone production: forcing children to mine for coltan, keeping workers at the Foxconn factory from committing suicide, dividing up the labor in a dump in Ghana where discarded phones are being burned and picked apart. Phone Story was banned from the App Store shortly after release, with reasons cited including depiction of violence and the method of pledging revenue to nonprofits didn’t conform to Apple’s requirements.
The web may be finding itself now in the long tail of Flash’s influence, with Flash not so much consigned to the afterlife as a ghost in the machine. The future is full of incredible design, certainly, but those designs are also going to be more specialized than they once were. And yet, while Flash may be eking out its death rattle, its legacy and impact echoes in the genre of addictive casual games on our smartphones and in the features of the modern web: smooth animation, universal playback, freedom to pursue different business models, and the necessity for powerful authoring tools. Flash is dead, long live Flash.