Recall a time not too long ago: sitting at a computer, eating an unhealthy snack, and laughing. Maybe it’s because of how Ron Weasley and Severus Snape are saying ‘Leviosa,’ maybe it’s because of Charlie the Unicorn’s adventure to the Candy Mountain, or maybe it’s a frustrated laugh because of how difficult Meat Boy is. No matter the case, though, the laughing is because of one thing: Adobe Flash.
Adobe’s multimedia program was a seminal part of internet culture in the 2000’s, the engine that ran millions of games and animations that were produced by creators who had a passion for the art they were making. Flash was the reason that websites looked the way they did in the early days of the internet, it’s the program that allowed animations to play on web pages, the reason that those early sites had those weird, overly complex animations that clustered their design. The Age of Flash was foundational for modern culture, but, as with all good things, it must come to an end.
In 2016, Adobe announced that it was ending support for Flash as of December 2020. The announcement wasn’t a surprise for many; Flash is disabled by default on browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and more. Many thought that the end was going to come sooner; back in 2010, Steve Jobs released an open letter that publicly criticized the platform, citing its energy consumption, poor security, and frequent crashes as reasons why Flash would never come to iOS. The fact that the platform lasted for as long as it did is a testament to its influence and previous ubiquity.
To others, though, this may come as somewhat of a surprise: why is the platform fading out of existence? After all, it was a vital part of crafting the online entertainment industry as it is today. Thousands of amateur game designers and animators got their start by using Flash and posting their projects onto content-hosting websites. Communities like Newgrounds allowed amateur creators to develop their own games and short films, many of which experimented and pushed the boundaries of art and game mechanics past the cultural boundaries of their mediums.
What made it even better was the fact that these experiences were easy to access: free, playable on a browser, and usually not hard to run. People could even make money through the stuff they made; after websites like Kongregate and Addicting Games started popping up, Flash games started to get very popular, and, because of the traffic that they brought, these companies would bid money for Flash game exclusivity rights through a service called the Flash Game License. The site that bid the most money would get the game, and the creator would get a chunk of that money paid directly to them.
Flash allowed games to be anything; they weren’t restricted by a worry about cost to develop or profits made. Publishers didn’t interfere, and any ‘Flash publishers’ that existed were a lot less strict and a lot more interested in experimentation than their AAA counterparts. Flash was an ecosystem, where developers and players were one in the same, and supported each other by checking out each other’s projects. It accounted for an entire generation of animators; websites like Newgrounds held massive communities of audiences and creators who published viral content consistently and gave each other feedback that allowed them to improve on their work.
In a way, Flash games were the free-to-play games of their time: free games that most people could run and everyone could enjoy. Kids from all over the world could play them and talk about them at school the next day, or even play them together at their school’s library. Animations like Charlie the Unicorn, Salad Fingers, and the Awesome series were viral sensations throughout the ‘00s and influenced a lot of the humor that Millennials and Gen Z grew up to enjoy.
It’s easy to see how Flash influenced modern, more big-budget entertainment products. Line Rider is a very similar concept to Ubisoft’s Trials series. Super Meat Boy is a very successful demo of Meat Boy, made by the same developers. The game studio The Behemoth (the group that made Castle Crashers) started by making games in Flash. Club Penguin, a cultural juggernaut for Gen Z, was a Flash game that was bought by Disney in 2007 for $350 million. YouTube was created using Flash to run its content.
No matter its importance, though, the question remains: why is Flash ending? Well, for one, there are better methods for creating animations and games on browsers now. HTML5, WebGL, and a host of other programs are simply better at the task now that technology has developed to the point that it has. In addition, recent criticisms have been levied at Flash over the fact that it contains some major security issues.
Though official support for Flash may be ending, there are a number of efforts to save the program, or at least to save much of the content that was created using it. Some enthusiasts have developed Flashpoint, an open-source software that’s made tens of thousands of programs made using Flash (mostly games) available online for download. It’s a major project, an act of preservation for a breed of entertainment going extinct. Other, larger sites like the aforementioned Addicting Games have begun work on preserving their most popular titles by converting them to HTML5, and while that approach can work for popular games and popular sites, it comes with its problems. There are far too many games to be converted that way, which limits the games that can be preserved in that fashion. Smaller sites, too, might not have the resources to utilize that strategy, which leaves many games that might be exclusive to those sites as vulnerable to being lost. Flashpoint is the best option for those sites, but even then, the sheer amount of games that exist makes it impossible to save all of them.
Popular animation and web-game website Newgrounds has offered a different potential strategy: the creation of a ‘Flash emulator,’ a program that takes old Flash files and runs them without needing to convert anything directly. It’s an exciting project that offers a solid answer to the issue of saving old Flash games, and might be just what the medium needs to be preserved in history of internet culture. Flash itself may cease to exist, but the art that was created by it can be saved. Saving that art is a matter of saving a history of talented creators that changed the Internet.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Bloop Animation