From around 2009 to 2011 I edited a Flash gaming blog called Flytrap for AOL. A belated effort to expand the company’s then-considerable downloadable games business, Flytrap was a tawdry, clumsy little thing, all celebrity plugs and clunky-to-implement gallery modules plus the odd dollop of tabloid sleaze. We had daily knock-knock jokes, FarmVille diaries and a section entitled “Hot Manly Action”, though no outright softcore content, thank god. I didn’t think too much of my work on Flytrap at the time – it was just there to fill gaps between articles on Real Games like Dead Space 2 or Uncharted. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that I had my heart in the wrong place. Games like Uncharted may be the industry’s obvious peaks, but the ocean they’re poking out of – the bubbling creative firmament without which this artform would be truly impoverished – is Adobe Flash.
For many players today, of course, Flash is trash – a rickety plug-in for advergames and obnoxious video pop-ups that has been steadily sidelined by the major browser companies. Just look at the popular outcry, or lack thereof, over the announcement that Adobe will discontinue support in 2020. It’s worth, then, a quick refresher on what Flash has meant and means. For starters, Flash once meant YouTube. The video service that now attracts around 400 hours of accumulated viewing time a minute began life as a Flash app in 2005 (the first ever YouTube upload, a video of a co-founder’s trip to the zoo, is still available today and a peculiar artefact indeed). Flash also meant FarmVille, the greatest of Facebook’s bucolic time-wasters, and Candy Crush Saga, which made its debut on King.com in 2010. In fact, there was a period when Flash meant so-called “rich” – that’s to say, animated and/or interactive – browser experiences full stop.
In a fascinating hour-long GDC presentation from this February, Kongregate.com’s director of premium games John Cooney estimates that in 2009, 99 per cent of computers with net connections had Flash installed. It’s easy, then, to see why so many up-and-coming coders opted for Flash in the noughties. The installed base of the most successful console ever is chicken feed by comparison, and for a time, the Flash scene was accessible in a way even dedicated middleware tools and development communities on PC couldn’t rival. There were no publishers to appease – once you owned the development tools, all you had to do was upload your game to a site. As Matthew Annal, co-founder with Heather Stancliffe of venerable Flash developer Nitrome, recalls: “When I set up Nitrome I wanted to make original games and though I toyed with J2ME for mobile, Flash was really the only space at the time where you could make smallscale original games and find enough audience to turn a profit.”