The old school online format has been overlooked in the excitement surrounding Web 2.0. Now it's making a powerful comeback
Newgrounds.com, the large Flash games and animation site that spawned Alien Hominid, has been accepting user-produced submissions since 1999. That it has been quietly spearheading for eight years what is only now being trumpeted about in the mainstream media is indicative of how overlooked the Flash games scene is. Flash games are, after all, easy to write off as derivative and scrappy, good for a minute's cheap entertainment and little more.
But now, Flash gaming is undergoing a blossoming of activity and creativity. The people who make the games, often teenage bedroom coders, are getting paid for their efforts. They're used to the idea of creating something and putting it up on the web for all to see, and new websites are springing up to capitalise on their work. Flash itself is becoming more powerful as a gaming platform. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the scene is at the centre of the rise of 'casual' gaming.
"The rise of quick pick-up-and-play games is an important development, and Flash games mirror their rise in mainstream gaming," says John Bardinelli, contributor to casual gaming site Jayisgames.com. And because most web browsers can use Flash, playing a game through them is an effortless pleasure: "In the same way that short-form viral videos have taken off, I think we're seeing the same things for web games," says Jim Greer, co-founder of Kongregate.com.
"Digg has a section devoted to them, and 90 per cent are Flash. When one gets to the front page, the hits rocket -- games three years ago never achieved the same levels of audience awareness."
Such popularity is beginning to earn the game makers money. Newgrounds, which receives around 500,000 visitors a day with 200 game and animation submissions, each month awards the top ten contributors, as voted by users, $250. Kongregate, which was launched in December 2006 gives its game-makers a cut of up to 50 per cent of the ad revenue their games generate.
Meanwhile, companies like Crazy Monkey Games and Armor Games have begun to sponsor games in return for them featuring their logos and linking to their sites -- both Flash game portals that earn money on advertising revenue. It's in both parties' interest that the games are featured on as many other websites as possible. "This way we get some promotion of our website in exchange for the sponsorship," says John West, head of Crazy Monkey Games, who believes his was the first company to offer such deals. "The game developer keeps the copyright on the game, art, characters and so on."
West believes that the money a good game designer can earn is helping Flash games become better. "We're seeing more and more games being developed, and the quality level going way up as developers devote more time and energy to their games," he says. "People who used to develop these games for fun in their spare time quit their day jobs to earn their living developing games full time, and I see this market as continuing to grow very quickly. There's plenty of demand from players for new browser-based games, and plenty of demand from websites like ours for new games."
One of West's sponsored developers is Sean Cooper, creator of the Boxhead games and an ex-Bullfrog and EA programmer who decided to go freelance working in Flash. "There is money in Flash, there's a lot of ad revenue being made," he says. "I can't guess what these guys are making out of the games I'm developing but I'm doing really well out of it." Sponsorship means that he's paid as soon as a game is completed, sometimes being offered a share of ad revenue, too, and his experience means that he can command the best rates.
Cooper decided to make the move into working with Flash because he was becoming frustrated with how much influence he felt marketing was having on commercial game creation, with fresh ideas suffering at its hands. "With games like Syndicate we designed them for us to play in the office, not for a market, and with Flash games I can go back to that 1993 time. I control everything, and that's a key thing for any creator," he explains. That said, he did use comments made on newsgroups and forums to inform the design direction Boxhead took so it ticked the boxes of what the public wanted -- in this case, guns and zombies.
Brad Borne is a more archetypal Flash game designer. Currently a student, he's the creator of Fancy Pants Adventure, a hugely popular platform game with a drawn graphic style. He began creating Flash games because he had always wanted to make videogames. "Playing videogames with my friends was a big part of my childhood, so I guess I just always felt like it was something that I should try to do," he says. His Flash games have earned him a good deal of money: "More than most guys in college, and enough to pursue it as a career, at least for a while."
Borne chose to work with Flash because it complemented his graphic style and way of working: "Flash is a medium that lends itself to homemade-feeling animations and games, and I'm the kind of guy who loves seeing pencil marks in old cartoons, so I guess it just seemed right for me to work in Flash."
Flash development focuses on graphics -- any process begins with drawing objects and then applying programming to them through Flash's proprietary ActionScript language. Animation is made easy through tweening -- Flash can automatically animate graphic objects between two keyframes.
These features make it a lot more accessible for budding game designers. "It's a great tool, particularly in its ability to test ideas quickly. It is a very visual tool for artists," says John Baez of The Behemoth, the studio that created Alien Hominid and the forthcoming Castle Crashers. "It just really makes you concentrate on the design and the content, and that's what Flash really stands for," agrees Cooper. It's hard to imagine games like Ferry Halim's Orisinal series on many other platforms.
Flash isn't for everyone, however. "There are a lot of limitations that come with its visual nature," says Greer. "Many traditional game programmers hate Flash because it doesn't work the way they think, but for many of the most creative people with an idea it does it very well."
And it can do it fast, too. "They can have an idea, try it out and ship the game in a couple of weeks," he continues. And they can be sure that pretty much anyone will be able to run it, since most people have Flash installed. As Baez says, "Flash is the de facto standard for web-based animation," and Internet Explorer now comes loaded with it.
Flash's ubiquity and standardised form is part of the reason why it has left Shockwave, its sister media player, behind. Though Shockwave is arguably more suited to games, with a faster rendering engine and native 3D and network support, the common reality of playing Shockwave games is one of having to download external plugins, called Xtras, in order to get them to work.
But even Borne, who regards himself more a designer than a programmer, has issues with many elements of Flash's accessibility. "Flash really doesn't seem to be made for games," he says. He'd like to see it supporting hardware acceleration so games can run smoother, and finds the way web browsers limit available processing power to Flash frustrating, though he acknowledges this also protects users against power-hogging advertisements.
He also feels that Flash 7 ran games faster than Flash 8 and even the latest version do, and that aspects of the latest version of ActionScript have moved towards more traditional programming. "It seems that they're moving Flash away from being the simple program to make silly little games and animations," he says.
"I don't agree that we're not focused on games -- we are doing some things for them," counters Richard Galvan, Adobe's product manager for Flash games. "But it's not the only thing that we're doing. We have to make sure we support the other aspects of what Flash can do." Flash is an incredibly widely used application, after all. He says that Adobe is looking at ways of making it run faster, and that the changes in ActionScript 3 allow it to produce APIs like Papervision, a full 3D rendering engine which is built entirely in the language.
"I've rarely seen features from impressive tech demos make their way into real games," says Borne, however. But for Cooper, such limitations are part of the fun -- he enjoys the challenge of creating certain effects and making it run as fast as possible. "When you have a game idea, you're influenced by the platform you're going on to," he says. "If you can't render 100 tanks, you don't put them in -- the challenge for Flash is to keep it fast and small in size." And for him, it's these limitations that have given Flash its own aesthetic: the clean vectors and graded shading that typify its presentation and the simplicity of most games' design.
It means that people like West of Crazy Monkey Games are looking to sponsor gameplay over pretty graphics, much as Flash games are built around their visual components: "If someone sends in a game that's really fun to play we're always very interested in it, even if it's weak on graphics, sound, or other elements," he says. "If someone sends in a game with awesome graphics that's just not fun, well& there's not much we can do with that."
With such investment in design, Flash games have begun to find their own form and become less derivative of games on other formats. Certain ideas have sprung up and developed within the community, such as the tower defence game , and mouse-aiming shooter games. It's hard to define exactly where the mouse aiming idea first came from, but it gained much popularity from being used in late-2005 action platformer Thing Thing, in which the gun is aimed with mouse and character controlled via keyboard.
Stickman Sam adds that perennial Flash favourite, the stickman, to the formula, and then the scheme is applied to one of the aiming options in Bowmaster Prelude, as well as the recently released Luminara, a Geometry Wars-style shooter. And to round it off, it's featured in top-down shooter Endless Zombie Rampage by Diseased Productions, which developed Thing Thing in the first place.
The speed at which new Flash games can be developed allows such design memes to quickly be explored across many different genres very quickly without the fear of economic failure that plagues commercial game production. "Not selling content allows for games that can explore novel dynamics which don't necessarily translate into a highly extended experience," says Jayisgames contributor Patrick Dugan.
But now there is more money in the scene, is there a danger that such experimentation might begin to be compromised? "The challenge that I see coming up for us is to keep the spirit of freedom and innovation intact as more money is poured into Flash games and the industry begins to become more mainstream," says West.
Jay Bibby of Jayisgames is not unduly concerned. "The spirit of freedom won't be lost as long as there remains a large audience to play and experience Flash games," he says. "As long as Adobe continues to push the Flash platform ahead, and as long as there is money to be made by getting your game sponsored, or by selling it to a Flash portal. These outlets reward creativity and innovation. The fact that the power to create engaging and compelling interactive experiences is in the hands of the masses ensures a steady stream of new ideas."