As January 2021 begins, gamers around the world paid tribute to Adobe Flash Player as it officially enters its end-of-life.
As I scroll through the page I fondly remember Canabalt by Adam Saltsman, Rebuild by Sarah Northway, Defender's Quest by Lars Doucet, and dozens more games... games from amazing developers, boldly creating new game genres that have come to influence the games that we all play today.
January 1, 2021 marked the end of an era. The Flash Era.
As we bid Flash farewell, the game industry is in a very different place.
As Jonas Richner puts it, the Flash Era was one of Creative Chaos 🤯.
Nowadays, it's mostly an Ordered Process 📋.
Game developers now have game design down to a science. If you've been making games for a living for the past few years, you would have read about industry standard game design terms such as Core Loops.
While these games are mechanically different, they all follow the same playbook:
Get players accustomed to performing resource-consuming activities as long as possible (retention), and get value from them by triggering a scarcity of those resources (monetization).
Does it work? Well, once again, games made more than a hundred billion dollars in revenue last year, with outstanding 12% year-on-year growth.
And yet again, it's the same top games that we see on the list. Gardenscapes, Pokemon Go, Candy Crush-- all games that have been there for more than 5 years.
It may not be Creative Chaos, but hey, it works very, VERY well.
Looking back at Flash's timeline and seeing the slower trickle of games as it nears its end-of-life, it saddens me that we might have lost the spark of innovation that it has started.
But as I read through Jonas Richner's heartfelt tribute and the testimonials of all these developers that I look up to; I realize that while Flash may be gone, its spirit of innovation continues on-- in HTML5 game developers and open-source web developers, collectively called the Modern Web.
We have Tough Love Arena by M. Paul Weeks and Amy Xu, a web-based fighting game that has better netcode and replay function than even some of the bigger fighting games out there.
And we have impressive game-like experiences that push web technology even further than Flash did, with WebVR + Mobile experiments like Access Mars by Google and NASA.
These games show us that the Modern Web is ready to take on the mantle and carry on Flash's legacy--
at least technically.
To fully do so, it has to inherit Flash's superpowers.
What were Flash's Superpowers?
Luckily, Jonas Richner has listed down each of them for us! The 3 superpowers that the Modern Web has to inherit Mega Man-style are:
Through the years, the game industry has shifted away from the web and centralized more and more around app stores and social networks. In today's attention economy, these platforms became the arbiters of success.
Consequently, game developers were incentivized to focus less on innovating and more on the platforms' two most important metrics: discoverability and in-app monetization.
The Modern Web needs to shake up these incentives.
There are some promising attempts: On discoverability we have new standards such as Tom Greenaway's Open Mini Games format, while on monetization we have the Web Monetization standard. We also have new options like PWAs and Service Workers that can allow games to be deployed like a native app outside of the app stores.
There is still much to do though, and those looking to fix the discoverability problem can learn a lot from Simon Carless' GameDiscoverCo newsletter.
2. "The Flash Workflow"
While making games today is easier than ever before, developers bemoan that we've lost "The Flash Workflow".
Tom Fulp of Newgrounds said:
"Flash was the first program that merged art and code in a way that I always hoped could be possible."
From Brad Borne of The Fancy Pants Adventures :
"For someone who made videos, stop motion animations, built contraptions, and generally felt the urge to just making something, Flash just felt like exactly what I needed."
Oliver Joyce of Swords and Sandals continues with:
"...even now, HTML5 gaming struggles to hold a candle to what Flash could do a decade ago"
And this sentiment is echoed throughout the FlashGameHistory.com testimonials.
I believe it's not so much the developer experience, which has gotten progressively better with no-code tools and mature engines like Unity and Unreal.
It's more that us developers aren't making games for ourselves anymore.
Instead, we're making them the way they need to be in order to succeed in the app stores.
I am reminded of Bret Victor's talk, Inventing on Principle:
The whole video is a must-watch, but one quote stood out to me as a poignant reminder on what the Modern Web needs to provide game developers:
Creators need an immediate connection to what they're creating.
The "Flash Workflow" allowed brilliant creators to be closer to the work.
In our quest to integrate analytics, ads, and in-app SDKs, we've lost that connection.
3. Rapid Iteration
Lastly, the Modern Web needs to inherit Flash's capability of getting out of the way of developers, allowing them to realize their visions as easily and quickly as possible.
This at least is something the Modern Web has consistently pushed the envelope in. The Modern Web moves very fast, largely due to the open-source ethos.
I am reminded of a quote in Eric S. Raymond's seminal essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar:
It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source's success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.
The past few years have given us game engines like Phaser and Babylon, multiplayer server technology like Nakama and Colyseus, component frameworks like React and Svelte.
All these technologies are being used to create the future of web games, free and open-source, and will someday form the backbone of Flash's eventual successor.
With Flash's light dimming as the new year starts, it at least give us clarity on what its successor needs to do to carry the torch.
The Internet has changed from when Flash first appeared 20 years ago.
It's a much noisier place.
The incentives for making content such as games have changed.
Players' behaviors have changed.
Flash reminds us of a different time, when creators were closer to their creations, when their motives and incentives were less complicated. It was a time of great innovation, and, for a lot of the Flash developers, a time of more meaningful connections.
As new technologies like decentralized storage, decentralized identity, zero-knowledge proofs, and cryptocurrencies appear, we are again empowered to rewrite our core loops.
We need the Modern Web to coalesce now around what Flash used to stand for-- a platform for creative chaos. We have to look back at that time when games were made for fun, and break the incentive and game loops that we're all used to running.