By 2017, the writing was on the wall for Flash. Adobe announced that it will no longer provide support for Flash in three years time. In December 2020, the Adobe Flash program was finally discontinued. Some developers rejoiced; the player was outmoded and problematic. It was time to move on.
Meanwhile, a whole slew of websites and their developers panicked. Flash-dependent gaming websites like Neopets and Habbo Hotel struggled to transition to a new platform. Vast communities built around the program faced the loss of their entire content archive. A lot of these sites depended on this outdated widget. Had it not been for timely action, entire chunks of Internet history would’ve been inaccessible forever.
Although it certainly had better days, Flash was the backbone of many Internet-based games and presentations since it went live. The Eve of “Flashpocalypse” marked the end of an era. But why did a program from the late nineties lingered on for so long in the modern web? To answer that question and many others, we must first look back at the halcyon days of the web.
The Herald of the Modern Web
The early days of the World Wide Web were a challenge for website developers. Slow dial-up connections were the norm. A site laden with graphics was unthinkable from a practical perspective. Developers struggled to create attractive websites that didn’t overtax the end-user’s available bandwidth.
Answering this challenge were the programmers from FutureWave Software. They developed FutureSplash Animator, designed to help artists draw on tablet computers. Its player program was very small for something so versatile. The new owners of FutureWave Software, Macromedia, had big plans for it. By 1996, they had retooled the program as a means to play vector animation on websites. The convenient size made it a practical choice for a world connected through dial-up,
This decision put the program, now called Flash, on the map. Macromedia turned the player into a free downloadable app for all users. Meanwhile, they marketed the animation software to web developers. They could develop websites with eye-catching graphics and animation without worrying about bandwidth. By the dawn of the new century, Flash had a ubiquitous presence across the World Wide Web.
Due to its omnipresence, people tend to forget that Flash was a dark horse. Its original developers tried and failed to sell the program to Adobe in 1995. This was a decision the latter came to regret. In 2005, Adobe bought out Flash’s parent company Macromedia for $3.4 billion.
The Winning Ticket
But this was only part of Flash’s success story. The player was a killer app that everyone and their parents had on their computer. On the other end, the animation program itself found a new market. The few amateurs who got a hold of Flash as an animation program reveled in its versatility. For many young animators, this was the tool to bring their cartoons to life.
Moreover, the program was designed for websites. Interactivity was one of its key features. It didn’t take long for dedicated amateurs to start building games from the platform. These pioneering indie game makers quickly made good use of the program. Soon, an entire ecosystem of game development communities sprang up around Flash.
Both independent and corporate site developers made games using the platform. Games soon became ubiquitous in every site targeted to children. Entire community sites emerged to cater to indie Flash developers. Many of these sites emerged as juggernauts of the web community throughout the 2000s. Millennials still know the names of Neopets, Kongregate, Miniclips, and Newgrounds. Sites like Kongregate built up an archive of over 100,000 titles.
On either end, Flash games had few barriers to entry. This helped make build some of the most active indie gaming communities on the Internet. It had something for both developers and gamers.
Animators and developers found the program easy to get and learn. The program streamlined the game development process. Developers could move their animation into their game with no intermediary steps. And the programming part didn’t have a steep learning curve. Newbies could feel their way through the programming process with relative ease.
Suddenly, newbie developers could create games with simple (and colorful) vector graphics fast. Dedicated developers can finish games within weeks or even days. The flourishing Flash game community made thousands of them.
Flash games found themselves a ready audience from all ages. It wasn’t because the games were flashy or complex. Far from it. In the early days, many Flash game sites contained half-baked projects. Overeager newbie creators sent in incomplete works to gauge user interest. Even at its peak, many Flash games were arcade-style affairs. Most of the time, they relied on gimmicky concepts to draw attention. They used uncomplicated cartoony art styles easily rendered in vector graphics.
It was this simplicity, however, that proved instrumental in its success. There was no financial barrier to entry for gamers. Flash games were free and uncomplicated. Gamers didn’t need to buy an expensive console or upgrade their PC’s graphics card. They could start playing the moment they finished loading. And there were a lot of games to choose from. It was an arcade’s worth of gaming you could play from the comfort of your own home.
For a time, online Flash games flourished as an industry. Investors, advertisers, and websites capitalized on this thriving market. But these glory days did not last. The arrival of mobile gaming became a more attractive investment. And soon, they faced a different threat. The age of Flash was coming to an end. In 2010 Steve Jobs wrote his famous “Thoughts on Flash” open letter which marked the end of an era.
A Massive Library
Flash left behind a gigantic library of games from across two decades. The terms of its end of life protocol threatened to erase a huge chunk of web history. All browsers in the market today no longer support the player. This could’ve left many legacy games unplayable.
Game sites and gamers faced a massive dilemma. Several sites have already made moves to preserve their archives. However, moving away from Flash is a painful process for many of the old guard websites. Converting many of the site functions leads to several compromises. With a looming deadline, numerous longstanding games lost functionality. A few of these transitional changes have proved unpopular with regular players.
While the future of some of these games were assured, others were left uncertain. A few games belonged to creators that were no longer active. Others had owners who didn’t care too much about them. Abandonware seemed consigned to oblivion. Browser extensions like SuperNova SWF Enabler work for some titles, but they do not have the broad install base Flash once had and abandonware isn’t a problem that will go away.
It fell upon community efforts and sites like Plays.org to preserve these games. The site collects and preserves more than arcade- and puzzle-style games. It also incorporates platformers with interesting concepts. Some of the site’s highlights are as follows:
- Shadoworld Adventure: Lead an adventurer through haunting yet surreal grayscale environments.
- Front Line: Merge starships and defend your base against an ever-increasing alien horde.
- Fight Virus: This tapping game gives you a crash course in the importance of preventing virus transmission.
- Mr. Bullet: Relive the larger-than-life action movies and ricochet bullets off of bad guys.
- 8-Bit Dungeon Knight: Find the right sequence of actions to escape the dungeon in this RPG-inspired puzzle game.
A Matchless Legacy
The arrival of Flash player changed the way people looked at the web. It led to better-looking websites and annoying banner ads. But its impact on gaming is just as profound. Flash didn’t just cause a boom in independent game development. It also changed the way people approached game design. No longer were games the sole purview of large developers.
Flash also proved that gamers didn’t always need to be wowed by graphics and gameplay. The cartoony vector aesthetic of flash games remains beloved even today. The low barrier to entry was a winning ticket.
Few other things have shaped the modern Internet and gaming quite like Flash player. The large archives of games reflect this. While the gaming community may move from Flash as a medium, its legacy will remain.