As a companion piece to our recent feature on Flash game preservation and creator John Cooney polishing some of his most famous work into a modern, optimized format with The Elephant Collection, we took a look back at his 2017 GDC talk on Flash Games. Cooney takes the viewer on a whirlwind tour of the format's history with game developers, from the program's first days at the twilight of the 90s, it's ubiquity in the early days of web 2.0, its challenges and creative waves that Flash devs rode, and its lasting legacy in indie development today.
One of the earliest points Cooney makes is just how good of a tool Flash was for new game creators, once ActionScript (the scripting language developers used to create interactions in Flash) was really cooking.
"Game developers are smart and we saw that they were creating quizzes, point and click adventures, these sort of really bare bones, early HyperCard sorts of games and putting them up on the web. And in 2000, we saw ActionScript arrive, and this is when we really got our hands dirty with programming." Cooney says.
"It was very easy to use. If you were already a programmer, it was very accessible. If you had never [written] code in your life like I did, I could figure out how to make really bad games with really very little amount of code." He says, laughing.
"And what we started to realize is that we were stumbling upon the Holy Grail of game development. This was a tool that was easy to script, it was easy to draw, you could deploy immediately. There was a huge audience that was really excited about this content and it was accessible."
"Everyone could pull up a browser, whether they were at the local library, their school, their home computer, there was a way to get to this content. And this was really a cross platform dream. And this was in the late 90s early 2000s. And this was cool. We [would] export it once and it worked everywhere. And we didn't even test it half the time and it just magically worked everywhere. It was awesome."
This accessible tool (and its ubiquity on the internet: Cooney points to a statistic that an overwhelming majority of computers had the flash plugin installed) led to communities and portals (like Newgrounds) forming, so animators and game developers could share their work and collaborate together. These "collabs" basically formed the model of modern indie development.
"This was really developers creating what they wanted, self-publishing, gathering this massive audience, making fans, finding their own unique voice in games, and then delivering it on their own," says Cooney.
"As developers, we built a lot of games, and we worked with a lot of people," he notes, and references a slide that indicated that the majority of Flash devs worked on small projects, often scoped at a matter of a couple of months. The scene simply moved too fast for longer-term projects to be viable very often.
Cooney then described the legal challenges of the portal days, and the funding models (including sponsorships) that evolved out of them.
The talk is full of incredible anecdotes (including the "middle" history of the platform in the mid 2000s, with Flash games making headway in the Ludum Dare competition and games developed on the platform beginning to get recognition via prestigious channels like the IGF), including a quote from one teenage (at the time) creator, Chris Jeffrey.
Cooney reads Jeffrey's quote with a sense of clear affection: "I never even knew I'd fall into the games industry at the age of 16," he says. "Having full creative freedom to make games that anyone could play in their browser was insanely cool... without Flash, I wouldn't be doing what I love."
Watch the full talk above for the rest of the platform's history, and check out our recent profile of Cooney, who is bringing a collection of his earlier work to Steam as The Elephant Collection.