This post is a transcript of a talk I gave at UCSC. Thank you for inviting me! I’m sharing it here because It’s a GOOD summary of the history of a technology that’s very dear to me (and also a defense of said technology)… so I think it may interest some.
For this talk I’m going to go over a short history of Flash, its decline, and what I feel lead up to that (from the point of view of someone that was heavily invested in this technology and all the surrounding communities), as well as what I think all of this means for the internet today.
I feel like there’s a lot to learn from Flash. As an example of what technology enables for “the little people”, as an example of what it takes to destroy that and basically eradicate a huge portion of digital history, and as an example of how easy it is for something like that to just happen. If you look at it through the lens of digital history, it’s a good example of how easy it is for something that was really powerful and popular to be lost without much of a trace of what it once was.
There’s an ecosystem created by software and internet monopolies that exists here, which led up to this, and I feel like it should be examined for what it means going forward.
If you look at all this in context of indie games, you see that it’s not hard to lose a thriving creative movement. Especially when that thriving creative movement is dependent on just one technology (or toolset).
We talk a lot about Flash games. As it is, Flash is largely remembered for the games, but at the peak of its popularity its most “prestigious” use (or I would argue influential) was the Flash website.
Flash didn’t start as a game development tool. It started as a tool for bringing animations to the web. It eventually grew to being used for building rich, immersive, and very animated websites.
These sites were viewed as immersive experiences. At one point, because of the Flash website, websites were being touted as the “new emergent artform”. There were festivals celebrating the best of them, the same way as we have game awards. Websites featuring “site of the day”, and sites curating the best of websites, were huge.
As the award winning Flash site started to dwindle, mostly as a result of the shift toward social media, which largely pushed things away from websites to these social media spaces… Flash games started to grow more as the default use for Flash. It’s a complicated shift, but you can point to the emergence of social media as the point where “what a website is” changed.
I find that change in how we perceive Flash, and what we remember about it really interesting.
In these “professional” communities (among the big brand agencies making The Flash Website), games were almost an afterthought. Flash’s production use, and popular industry use, were these popular, rockstar designer, high end and experimental online experiences.It was at this point too that a lot of pioneering for accessibility was taking place. Ideas for how to merge immersion and accessibility were being explored.
I do not exaggerate when I say that these were hugely influential websites. People became famous from making them. They would make or break careers. They were talked about and excitedly shared the same way you would share and talk about games today.
Much like what we have with Unity games, how many come out, the abundance of success stories for games that came out of nowhere and are popular now… the very same was the case with these websites.
It’s almost a ridiculous thing to say now because the way we perceive websites, and even what we expect from them, is so underwhelming today. We don’t view them as anything more than something to scroll through. It’s a big change from something that was once being touted as a new artform. For example, these websites had a code of standards. They had best design practices. They had API’s, strong toolsets, widgets, components, templates that you could buy… The Flash Website was no small industry.
When a site won an award, the amount of people visiting it (just based on its overnight success) could down the server it was hosted on.
It’s hard to do justice when trying to describe how “big” this was. It’s also hard to grasp how easy it was to lose every trace of this space too. Not only do we not remember this movement, it’s largely undocumented. A vague memory for those that participated in this space, an alien concept to everyone else. It’s much more easy to lose digital history than we think.
There are development and design philosophies to web development that I wish we would not have lost. It’s a creative language we failed to preserve, and it made things so much more interesting for the sophistication in experimentation everyone was working toward.
Like I mentioned, there were standards to creating this work. These websites, although all of them wildly different, were expected to be richly animated, have professionally composed soundtracks, and sound effects that fit the atmosphere and theme of the environment they created. Everything had to be animated and transition.
They were painstakingly engineered. Every aspect had to be pixel perfect.
Early online communities like Ultrashock or Flashkit shared work and were spaces where a lot of ideas were explored. if you visit them on Archive’s Way Back Machine you can find a lot of these discussions. It’s fascinating to contrast that against the internet that we have today.
You can also point to these spaces as early examples of exploring open source concepts and what that means. There was a pretty big trend in sharing Flash source files (.fla’s). These were the project files, and people would release these really elaborate projects, sharing source that others would copy in their projects.
You could kind of compare that to if game developers released their Unity projects free to use for anyone.
Flash is often criticized for being unfriendly toward open source, but these spaces were some of the earliest examples of open source communities. Before Github, before Google Code, there was Flashkit’s “Featured FLA”. Many of these online Flash communities had archives where you could download and share .fla’s.
A lot of pioneering took place here in terms of setting standards for the modern web. Flash is often unfairly equated to being unusable or disability unfriendly, but it had support for things like screen-readers, bookmarking and parsing pages, Google could even search them at one point… The issue was often unfamiliarity with what it could do and how it could be used.
Flash’s use-case was so broad it was powerful for a lot of things, but it was also abused a lot. This last point being a big reason that it was attacked and ended the way it did.
I say this to paint a picture that illustrates just how popular this type of media was. The web (now vs. then) is radically different. I would confidently argue that it was more exciting and creative back then. Websites certainly were more culturally relevant.
People often say that Flash died because modern web standards grew strong enough to compete with it, but if you compare how easy it was to make very elaborate things then vs how much more difficult and fragmented the development ecosystem is now, I don’t think saying that “HTML5 replaced plugins” is a fair assessment to make. The transition from Flash to HTML5 wasn’t a natural one. It was a pretty forced movement that left many online spaces and industries that thrived under Flash in the dust. For example, consider how much more prevalent and how much more of an industry browser games were then.
In this slide are some good articles that are worth reading…
The first two of these are where the founder of the Favorite Website Awards (one of the most popular website award portals of that day) talks about the decline of the “immersive” website. It’s hard to find people talking about this since the movement is pretty much entirely lost. I think the fact that, instead of these websites naturally transitioning to HTML5 they just completely disappeared as a concept and movement, speaks volumes to how forced the transition to “the modern web” was.
Also worth reading is the famous article “the death of 2advanced”, look up the original article. It’s in this slide too. This article is also a good example of how HTML5 was still looked on as a solution, although it largely failed to sustain this type of online expression.
2advanced was one of the pinnacle design agencies. They had a cult following on a level that would put the cult following behind a lot of game creators to shame. They were a design studio known for a lot of cutting edge work.
Like I said, this work was largely lost when Flash started to get phased out. These websites didn’t transition from Flash to HTML5. They simply died out. There was no way to naturally transition, because HTML5 just didn’t support this creative model. In the end, the intention was to build another web, one meant for specific use-cases that didn’t exactly support browser games and deeply immersive experiences accessible to your everyday creator. The web was changing to prefer another use.
This is a big reason that I feel like the shift was a mistake. It wasn’t necessarily that HTML5 was a better technology. It was about controlling the content direction and creative direction of the web. If you can have websites and games that are this amazing, then there is no need for an AppStore. That freedom was too much of a contender with the monopolies that control our platforms.
Flash simply was too much freedom for the big players. I will die on this hill.
One of my favorite stories that best illustrates this was the tiny boom of Wii games that appeared surrounding the Nintendo Wii. The Wii came with a browser that had support for the Flash Player. This started a tiny explosion of web game portals for the Nintendo Wii. Wiicade was the most notable of these.
Links in this slide:
Gamasutra: ‘WiiCade’ Third-Party Flash Game Site Launched
You could make a game targeting the Wii because of the Flash Player. This was pretty amazing to a lot of people because now anybody and everybody could make games for the Nintendo Wii, bypassing Nintendo’s very strict development process. Your hobbyist work could be on a Nintendo. All the player had to do was open the Wii browser, and go to one of these Wii specific portals, or the URL you gave them.
The community around this even went so far as to release libraries that let the Flash Player interface with the (at the time new and very exciting) WiiMote. Sites like the WiimoteProject.com, and WiiFlash.org served as Wii specific development resources for people. With just a simple bit of ActionScript you could have access to all the buttons and features for the WiiMote AND the end result ran in the browser. It just worked and was accessible to everyone.
This was Flash in a nutshell. Because it was easy to run it everywhere, anyone could make things for that once inaccessible platform as long as it had a browser. No approval process. No strict store standards. No licensing agreements to gain access to anything… Just that creative freedom and sharing.
Things are drastically different today.
Today we browse social media.
Then we browsed websites and even looked for the “next exciting” thing when it came to things online. We don’t have that creative momentum anymore. The web is owned by the tech monopolies today, not really by the people. I’ll get more into that in a bit…
A predominant issue with the web design space surrounding Flash was the big brand hyper commercial elitism that hovered over it. It’s not necessarily talked about, but to people that didn’t have the privilege of being “a white man in tech” the prejudice there was pretty tangible. There was a strong elitist mentality here that created a community that was closed off, very gatekeeper by today’s standards, and incredibly sexist.
Links in this slide:
My twitter rant
For example, I shared some of my experiences in this thread when I got mad that most of the people being featured in Flash history were men. We worked so hard to carve out a space for women and have that get recognized in just basic and civil ways, but still it never was enough. We were pushed out and largely forgotten… It’s worth reading I suppose if you want an idea of how the environment was like.
Privilege was basically king.
Work that was viewed as the most valuable, and therefore the most influential, was work that landed “big clients”. It had to come from a big brand, or be part of the marketing of a big brand. The non-commercial art here wasn’t really welcome since that was viewed as not making money or worthless. The reason that so many of these “websites as the new emergent artform” sites disappeared is because advertising campaigns aren’t really preserved. In many ways what made Flash the most popular is also what ended up being the least preserved.
The irony is that NewGrounds, and those “amateur projects” that were often looked down on as small, or hobbyist, are what left the biggest footprint. We will remember Flash games more than we will remember the pretentiousness of the large commercial space, no matter how influential and “pan ultimate” it was at the time. I suppose inclusivity and accessibility won, in its own way. In the end elitism kind of backfired. I think that’s interesting to look at for what it can mean for us today.
The reason that Flash was killed the way it was kind of took place in a perfect storm, with everything going against it. You can’t really say it enough; the web was changing.
A big line of reasoning used to explain why people moved away from Flash was that it was unstable, buggy, or insecure. That Adobe wasn’t maintaining it well, but I think this line of reasoning fails when you see that HTML5 didn’t exactly hold up to the promise either, in terms of sustaining this type of creative work.
I say this as someone that still uses Flash today. It hasn’t necessarily gotten worst. Many aspects of it even improved around the time it was being so heavily criticized. At the time it was starting to come under fire, ActionScript 3 was new. It brought a lot of new ideas to programming for the internet. 3D for the web was just starting to become a solid thing, being explored in the immersive websites. All this was before HTML5 could comfortably and reliably play video (across browsers).
Links in this slide:
Gamasutra: Epic vs. Apple judge warns of ‘serious ramifications’ for console makers
Apple Insider: FTC believed to be investigating Apple’s anti-Flash stance
The Telegraph: Adobe ‘to sue Apple’ over Flash row
Mobile browsing was the point when things really shifted in ways that ended the creative freedom that I discussed earlier. At the beginning of mobile, the Flash Player ran on smart phones with browsers. Adobe even had Flashlite, which was a light version of the player, with its own version of the ActionScript programming language, that was targeted specifically at lower end devices (devices not as powerful as desktop computers).
It existed, and was evolving as part of the mobile web. By all accounts it is a fair assessment to say that this threatened the AppStore. This is why it started to get singled out for deprecation on the mobile web. Apple is notorious for controlling its platform, especially keeping tech (and software) platform-specific to it.
You can see an ongoing example of this with Epic vs. Apple. Where Apple recently threatened to remove all Unreal engine support from its platform, and removed Fortnite from the AppStore. What Epic thinks is fair or unfair in terms of Apple’s policies is not so much of the issue here, as is the fact that Apple can make these sweeping decisions to remove Unreal engine support, impacting literally everyone else (not just Epic).
I think this is an interesting current example to contrast against how Apple and Adobe were pitted against eachother when Adobe wanted Apple to open up the iPhone to non-Apple tech. There are still traces of that online. The links to some of that are in this slide…
By the time that Steve Jobs wrote the “Thoughts on Flash” open letter, Apple and Adobe were going head to head. There was a lawsuit from Adobe to open the AppStore to third party tech like PhoneGap and AIR. AIR was the non-web version of Flash, bundled as a integrated runtime, so that even if the Flash Player was removed, non-Apple devs could still make things for the iPhone.
Apple had changed its agreement, banning applications written in non-native languages from being on the iPhone.
Apple eventually had to loosen its restrictions, and allow third party tools to target the iPhone (not exclusively controlled by Apple). This victory is a reason that we have Unity games on the store. Without Adobe fighting this, the iPhone would have been an even bigger walled garden.
Many Flash veterans pointed at Steve Jobs’s response as the death blow to Flash. Apple’s own interest in controlling web tech and maintaining control over their mobile phone wasn’t as criticized as it should have been.
This type of draconian control placed on developers is still a thing that Apple is pushing for today.
Either way, all this created something like a propaganda war against Flash.
Android eventually removed support for the Flash Player too.
Mobile changed the internet. It gave platform holders the chance to (for a lack of a better term) redefine the terms at which you interact with the internet… kind of “recreate”, re-envision, in a way “start over”, and structure the platform in a way that benefited them more. With this, the freedom for the type of content we can create largely disappeared.
Apple, for example, could control everything happening on their phone, and the way you would interact with the internet on it. “Thoughts on Flash” illustrated that philosophy, and the way they still treat developers today illustrates that. Security and privacy are often used as excuses for doing this, but I think this falls flat and should be criticized much more as a smokescreen argument when you consider what things these companies turn a blind eye to vs. how smaller devs get targeted.
Having content in the browser, that could compete with anything in the AppStore, did not suit their vision. That’s the core issue here, and continues to be when you look at how they are restricting policies over the desktop too.
The fact that Adobe sued them to open the AppStore to third party technologies (like AIR or PhoneGap) did not help either. In many ways killing Flash became a massive PR war.
The big players wanted a different internet that suited consuming content a specific way, that didn’t account for the other experimentation and online freedom (games, interactive art, weird websites).
Like I said, it’s not that Flash changed to being worst. It’s that the direction the web took changed. What we expected from it, and what the driving trends behind it determined it should look like.
You’ll hear the comment often that social media ended the website. It’s a good way of describing that shift away from people controlling their space, to corporations controlling people’s spaces.
Another big shift was the way online advertising took to this space and how the Flash Player was failing it.
Advertisers were loosing a lot of money to the fact that people could just disable the plugin and the ad would not show. There was a desire to phase out the Flash Player so that ads would be harder to turn off. The industry was loosing a lot of money to this.
There’s a strong case to be made for this when you examine that moving away from the player didn’t exactly make ads better. It just made them more integrated to your online experience. You’re tracked all over, they’re in your face all the time, there’s no real way to avoid that anymore.
It became desirable to “smear” the Flash technology. It was cool and trendy to do that. It being a security risk was largely a meme that came out of areas like the advertising space. A lot of articles at the time that covered “a new Flash vulnerability” often blew things out of proportion. For some of them there wasn’t even a vulnerability, just a misinterpretation of the release notes. This kind of created an echo-chamber of miss-information surrounding Flash.
So that’s a history of Flash’s death, a very complex change in the internet climate, in a nutshell…
I think this is really important to look at for what it means for us now. What we have today in indiegames, the fact that it can exist on computers the way it does, is special. It’s something we should talk about preserving, and building a history of before it can be taken away by monopolies powerful enough to push for that. Spaces like itch.io should certainly not be taken for granted.
Flash’s death demonstrates how easy it is to eradicate something that was so huge and such a cornerstone to so much online art and creative expression. The way history here can be re-written to go so far as to stigmatize Flash as bad, unnecessary, evil, or “not having contributed anything good to computers” and therefore something worthy of complete eradication, should really bring awareness to how easy it is for us to lose digital history.
The climate surrounding Flash became so toxic that it wasn’t cool to say that you make Flash games, or even work in it anymore. It was like a stain on your credibility. I remember at a Casual Connect talk one of the speakers said that they don’t hire Flash devs out of principle, and people laughed. This is the environment that was surrounding it, and I find that really interesting just as a case-study.
Only until recent I couldn’t really bring up that I use it without getting criticized for being lazy, afraid of learning new things, or somehow behind the times… like it was so uncool to even challenge the negativity surrounding this technology, but this is why we lost a huge chunk of internet history. It was cool to kill it. It wasn’t cool to appreciate it, and therefore not worth preserving. In many ways we all fell for it.
If it was so easy for Flash to be killed, especially erasing that history which is not exactly going to be preserved, then what does it mean for us now?
How will the indiegame art movement be remembered?
Will it remember all of us or just the few that were privileged enough to bubble to the cultural top and benefit the platform holders?
Will an entity like Apple (or Nintendo, or Sony…) take credit for “games are art” and write that history because they own the platform, the voice, the audience… and therefore the narrative and we get pushed out of that?
Indiegames are everyone. The web was everyone’s.It’s never the brilliance of one person or company that makes something great, but that tends to be the going narrative when we look back at such movements.
If you examine how games are currently remembered, who owns that discussion (Nintendo, Sony…), it really seems like what we have today will take a similar direction as the web did. Is it even possible to survive our tech and culture monopolies? If you look at it under this context, it would be ridiculously easy to destroy indiegames as they are now, with all the freedom that we’re enjoying now because of a simple feud to keep a store open to third party devs.
Creative developer freedom for the desktop is constantly coming under similar fire. For example, look at things like Apple’s Catalina forcing notarization and eliminating 32bit support. That’s another current demonstration. These decisions basically happen out of the blue, without being challenged, because challenging them is often viewed as being against progress. I don’t think the way we “move forward” with technology is really progress often. A lot of the tech industry’s trends are more about monetization than they are about true progress.
I think an interesting observation to add to all this is the way Flash Player emulators keep failing to properly emulate Flash, and the few that have gotten far enough to get close to ActionScript 2 support are spotty at best. If you want to use an emulator you’re potentially looking at serving a large “webassembly runtime” when self-hosting. Contrast that to just deploying an SWF.
This addition of a technical hurdle is an interesting change for a technology, and platform, where you only had to upload an HTML file and SWF to a server and it would “just work”. The bar got a lot higher now.
Webassembly itself has limitations. Its performance today is like what Flash was about ten years ago. If you contrast it to Flash today, Flash uses less resources.
We’re still at a point where the alternatives “are just not there yet”, and I’m not sure if they ever can be because of how broken of an ecosystem the web ended up being. To me, the most promising Flash Player emulator was CheerpX for Flash, but even that is pretty much only accessible to enterprise software and larger companies that can afford licensing deals.
Flash is not available to the everyday small indies anymore. As it is, preserving it isn’t either. I find that interesting. Flash was so accessible to everyone, but is now walled off to larger entities that can afford elaborate licensing deals.
There’s a lot to unpack in this. A legacy of work that once represented creative freedom for everyone, has been relegated to being accessible only to organizations that can afford preservation, and migration, or (for lack of a better term) “the shift to HTML5”.
I think it’s really important to view technology as a democracy that we all participate in, and we all have a right to. It should not be owned by monopolies driving the decisions that clearly benefit them the most.
Independent developers are the lifeblood of experimentation. If the platform is hostile to experimentation we lose all that as quickly as we lost Flash’s footprint in internet history. It just gets erased. It’s not even possible to remember it because remembering it would be counterproductive to the narrative of progress that monopolies are telling us.
Flash’s decline is endemic of a bigger problem that plagues tech, and will always be something we have to contend with, as long as capitalism is the driving force. This view of progress is why it’s so important to have accessible tech like Flash that challenges that control. Without it we are treated as consumers, and not as actual participants in digital culture or the evolution of technology.
The internet is for everyone, just as much as indiegames are for everyone. I think, learning from all this, we are at a point where we need to write our own history and protect the narrative surrounding our creative movements so that they cannot be appropriated by monopolies moving in to capitalize on and control art that belongs to all of us.
Just the fact that someone is an independent dev, putting their stuff out there, is what keeps the dream alive.