Final Thoughts on Flash

(Day 2 of 30 Days of Blogging)

On December 31 2020, Flash was finally, officially, 100% for real this time, discontinued. It’s already been dead for ages of course, but damned if that won’t stop me from adding my own hot take about Flash. I was involved with Flash game development from around 2008-2014 or so. I’d like to note a few things I think the platform did well, and not so well.

Things Flash did well

Easily archivable. The .swf format contained all the code and assets for the application to run. Back in the day this made it really easy to host and share (and pirate) games. Today it also makes it easy to archive Flash games for historical purposes. When it comes to the web and appstore platforms, long-term availability is more iffy. Either games live as a mash of files on a single web server which will eventually go offline, or they only run on a certain version of phone which will be obsolete in a couple of years.

Backwards compatibility. In retrospect it was remarkable how Flash never had any breaking changes between versions. Old SWFs that were authored in the first ancient versions of Flash still work to this day. By comparison, pretty much all of my early HTML5 games are broken today.

Syndication as a revenue model for small developers. The Flash game industry was decentralized. Though there were large game hubs like Miniclip, there were thousands of smaller Flash game sites. As a Flash game developer, you could license your game to a publisher to syndicate on their network of sites. You could sell licenses to multiple publishers. It wouldn’t make you fabulously rich, but it was safe income that could fund a solo project or even a small team. Today there’s probably like 2-3 hubs that your game can viably run on. The income potential in the top 1% is bonkers high, but if you’re in the 99%, you get nothing.

It was weird. As a consequence of the platform’s appeal to small developers, there was a lot of weird shit created on it. We still have experimental stuff on the web, but most of it is in the form of videos and images and non-interactive. It seems like the interactive weirdness has largely moved off the web platform and onto modding-friendly sandbox games like Roblox, VRChat, Minecraft, etc.

Things Flash did poorly

There were bugs. Oh man was it ever buggy, browsers crashed all the time. In hindsight this may have been as much Flash player’s fault as it was the plugin API that browsers used to embed the Flash player. Either way it was hell.

The name “Flash” was overloaded. It was confusing that the name “Flash” was simultaneously used for (a) The Flash authoring environment (b) The Flash player runtime (c) The Flash browser plugin. Adobe tied their entire ecosystem around the Flash brand, but that backfired spectacularly once “Flash” started to become a taboo word. Adobe eventually renamed Flash-the-authoring-environment to Animate, but it was way too late.

Developer tools or lack thereof. Flash was very much a designer-oriented product, and their offering to developers who just wanted to do everything in a text editor was really lacking. Entire home-grown software projects sprung up trying to make Flash more developer-friendly, that were constantly at odds with Adobe’s designer-focused vision of doing things. As a developer this irked me, but in the post-Flash web stack perhaps things have swung too far in the direction of doing everything in a text editor. We have a million JS frameworks and tools for building applications with text but we no longer have the equivalent of a Flash-the-authoring-environment for bringing animations into those applications.

The Flash player should have been open sourced. I actually don’t know if this would have made a difference, though it certainly would have helped fix my other gripes. I believe that Adobe could have made it viable since all their revenue came from Flash-the-authoring-environment anyways. There would still be value in an open source Flash player today for archival purposes. Adobe plz, I just want to be able to play Bloons TD when I’m 85 on my iWindowsX 128-bit VR tablet.