Aussie indies: on what it was like to develop in Flash, and moving to more robust platforms

16 mins read

Feature by Harvard L.

Macromedia Flash, for all its benefits and pitfalls, was a revolutionary platform for the gaming industry. Before it, game design only happened in dedicated studios, with difficult programming languages being a barrier of entry into the industry. A game was a big project requiring a team of professionals working together. Flash changed all that: with a graphical user interface and support for ActionScript, game development became a veritable hobby. For arguably the first time, people who loved playing games could download software and get started on making them instead. It was a democratisation of the industry which contributed greatly towards the indie gaming culture we have today.

When websites such as Kongregate, Miniclip and Armor Games realised the potential of Flash gaming, the publishers began to pay developers to host games on their sites. This allowed aspiring Flash developers to not only distribute their work to a larger audience, but also earn a living developing their games. This also led to an unorthodox monetisation model: developers were being paid by their publishers for the right to distribute, while players were enjoying games for free while providing publishers with advertising revenue. For a period of time in the late noughties, Flash based browser gaming sites were a reigning force on the internet, leading to the inception of some very talented and creative development agencies.

Towards the start of the 2010’s, other programs began to compete with Flash for being the democratic game development engine. Unity, which offered easy 3D modelling, was a notable example that initially inhabited Flash based platforms like Kongregate but more recently has found its home on Steam and home consoles. Game Maker also allowed publishing to Steam and mobile devices, and high profile releases such as Risk of Rain led to a legitimising of the platform. Lastly, the later editions of RPG Maker saw release in the west, and while its games are still struggling to see recognition on Steam, some titles such as To the Moon and Always Sometimes Monsters have shown off the capabilities of the medium. With these new platforms on offer, Flash lost its status as the reigning king of player-made games and while high quality content kept rolling in, the momentum was certainly slowing.

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Nowadays, many people would attest that the era of the browser game is over. Flash based developers are moving towards different platforms such as Steam or mobile, but their experience with Flash and the established fanbase has eased the transition. I took some time over PAX to have a chat with a few developers experienced with Flash on changing trends in the games market and the future for homegrown indie games.

Mallow Drops

John Kane from Gritfish is a developer who first began working with Flash as a language for building interactive website content, and exhibited the puzzle game, Mallow Drops, at PAX. He regularly participates in game jams, finding ActionScript to be a robust language which lends well to his development style. Daniel Sun of Sun Studios built a fanbase around a series of side scrolling action games, and with Armed with Wings: Rearmed, aims to introduce the series to digital distribution via Steam. Julian Wilton of Massive Monster is also bringing RPG platformer Super Adventure Pals, originally released as a Flash title and now being remastered for PC, to a whole new audience with some publishing help from Armor Games.

One of the unique facets of developing for Flash sites was that players could start playing immediately without the need for payments or downloads. For developers, this meant that the first thirty minutes of their game needed to be an elevator pitch to sell the game itself and convince players that it’s worth their time to keep playing. By contrast, the customers on the Steam market need to put money forward and wait for a download to complete before they can dive into the game itself. On PC, promotional material such as screenshots, gameplay footage and community feedback become much more important.

Daniel Sun from Sun Studios discussed how the changes in distribution have affected his game development style. Armed with Wings: Rearmed closely follows the “elevator pitch” philosophy – 5 minutes hands on with this 2D brawler was enough to convince me of the game’s quality. With a robust attack/block/dodge system and a unique shadowy visual style, Rearmed is challengingly addictive for both series veterans and Steam users discovering the series for the first time. Despite its tight gameplay and Sun’s experience within the genre, he admits that it’s much harder to develop credibility for your game: when the Steam store is saturated with so many other titles, proving your worth becomes a daunting task.

As it’s developed with Flash, Sun has published a few early levels from Rearmed as a free demo onto the major Flash game sites. The previous title in the series, Armed with Wings 3, was popular enough to garner over 100,000 unique players, many of whom Sun is hopeful will cross over to continue supporting the game on Steam. Working in Early Access has also been a plus for Sun, who enjoys communicating with his fanbase and to progressively watch how the audience responds to new content. Early Access has also helped Rearmed become a larger game, boasting features such as unlockable weapons with different attack patterns, a competitive multiplayer duel mode and a series of flashy boss battles. Julian Milton from Massive Monster responded similarly regarding Super Adventure Pals, another series explaining that customers on Steam expect their games to be longer, and with more replay value. It’s a sobering reminder that, while Steam has largely grown to become the dominant ecosystem, it still has a very particular audience which might not always be appreciative to work which deserves recognition.

Super Adventure Pals

When asked about his experiences with Flash, John Kane of Gritfish enthusiastically picked up ActionScript as his weapon of choice, citing its ease of use which makes it a prime language for game jams. Kane was first introduced to Flash as an interactive interface builder, performing commission work for website development. As a veteran of the game-jam scene, Kane wants to code his games quickly, finding Flash to be a robust platform which allows for easy creation of demo builds. Daniel Sun had a similar experience, recalling small studios which were able to start programming and ship a finished product within two weeks. As a result, Kane’s games are built with a solid central mechanic which hooks the player into the game, preferring simple and immediate gameplay which doesn’t overstay its welcome.

At PAX 2016, Gritfish attended to promote Mallow Drops, a 2D puzzle game about birds flying around a level trying to collect eggs. The core mechanic was the ability to rotate the level, upon which some blocks would be affected by gravity and would slide, creating additional pathways for the player to traverse. The gameplay feels novel, particularly on a portable device upon which the game’s bright, blocky sprites really pop. Mallow Drops was developed as part of the Ludum Dare October project, features 100 levels and is available on Steam and the Humble Store, with future support for smartphones.

Kane finds that development using Flash allows him to rein his expectations in a little, as his game design philosophy revolves around constraining himself so that new, unexpected ideas might blossom. Whereas other engines can offer more power, higher definition graphics and 3D rendering, Kane finds that the simplicity offered by Flash is more than enough to deliver a quality gaming experience. Over the course of many challenges, Gritfish has dabbled in narrative games, puzzles and arcade games, never dwelling too long on one big project, instead experimenting with development styles to explore the possibilities within game development. It’s a philosophy very conducive to the kinds of games commonly associated with Flash: small and focused, novel and with a solid foundation to fall back on.

It’s not all roses and inspiration for Flash though, as explained by Julian Wilton of Massive Monster. As the lead animator for a cartoon inspired 2D platformer, Wilton finds that after a certain point in development, the limitations of Flash become too much of a hindrance and the language isn’t quite keeping up with the competing development platforms. Having first designed The Adventure Pals as a Flash game and expanding it for a Steam release with a different language, Wilton has found that little issues like framerate and graphics fidelity really do matter, at least when marketing a game to Steam.

Armed With Wings

After playing The Adventure Pals, I had to agree with Julian – the game featured velvety smooth animation throughout with active, moving backgrounds which would have slowed any Internet browser to a crawl. Massive Monster are designing a game brimming with personality, an adventure through a surreal wonderland in which the animation is the keystone. It’s with this colourful tone that the game’s entire atmosphere is set; from collecting coins, exploring the world or taking on bosses, the gameplay is tuned to match Wilton’s quirky art style. The move away from Flash also offered the developers more tools to play with, such as porting to consoles and a simple join-at-anytime cooperative multiplayer which gave the game an extra level of depth.

Even with the change in language, however, there was still a distinct Flash “ethos” permeating through the game’s design. Massive Monster is partnered with Armor Games, a distributor once known for its support for Flash gaming which now has moved onwards to publishing for Steam. The game’s opening is strong, introducing players to key mechanics and the story while the level design is simple and elegant, with secrets tucked away to reward players who explore. In a way, it’s very reminiscent of the heyday of browser based gaming – The Adventure Pals wears its influences on its sleeve, mixing solid platforming with a playfully humorous story in a joyful style which we don’t see much of on Steam.

Each of the three games are unique and immediately likeable, although all three developers have found distribution through Steam to be troublesome. Kane admits that consumers rarely trust PC games which aren’t available on Steam, a sentiment echoed by Sun who feels that Steam’s Greenlight program is almost a rite of passage which offers an indie game legitimacy. On sites like Newgrounds, high quality games naturally rose to the top of site charts merely by pageviews, player ratings and word of mouth. On Steam however, developers are increasingly finding the need to take proactive measures to ensure consumers notice their game, even before any question of quality is raised. It’s certainly not the most welcoming environment for developers accustomed to Flash, who have honed their skills on making exciting gameplay experiences that didn’t ask for more than an afternoon of their player’s time.

As for the ActionScript language, so long as there are artists who continue to push the boundaries of what Flash can do, it will be too early to write the platform off as “dead”. As one of the first avenues to offer affordable, teachable game development to newbies and veterans alike, Flash will always fondly be remembered as a platform which built a community. It’s no surprise that some of the most talented and creative developers on Steam started out making animations and widgets for Newgrounds or Kongregate: companies which supported experimentation, paid for quality work and thrived on the enjoyment of its visitors. These developers and their stories are what make me excited for the future of indie gaming.

– Harvard L.

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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