How Flash Games Defined An Era

By: Daniel Imbellino
April 5, 2016

Flash games once ruled the internet with an iron fist! From action adventure platformers, to dungeon crawlers, epic side scrollers, A screen shot of the classic flash game Snow Bros.and quirky racing games, they were truly an icon to the world of gaming we've come to know and love today. Despite the many attempts of tech giants like Google to push for the further adoption of HTML5 in terms of online game development, Flash and other alternatives like Unity are very much still thriving across the web at present. While Flash based titles are somewhat on the decline, and it's more than likely they'll eventually meet their demise, they also defined a truly inspiring era in the history of web based gaming.

Long before Steam took the world of PC gaming by surprise, flash was a thriving force across the internet. Sites like Kongregate and Armor Games became a historical part of the evolution of online gaming. Sites such as these were often the most sought after destinations for developers to gain traction and visibility for their latest creations. Likewise, they were once viewed as widely popular destinations for the web's casual gamers themselves.

For a time, Flash based development was also the web standard for those looking to produce not only games, but it was the web publishers first choice when it came to publishing videos as well, mainly in part due to its once widely accepted support. Today, flash based videos have all but died off, as HTML5 standards have gained a wider roll of acceptance by both publishers and web browsers alike. Nonetheless, from a standpoint of gaming, flash based games are still flourishing in many areas of the web.

Back when I was in college studying information systems in the mid 2000s, I took several graphic design courses, of which the school put a heavy emphasis on the importance of learning Flash, and ultimately making it an integral part of the web development process. It was something you had to know at the time if you planned to land any sort of graphic design/development job, and employers themselves often touted it as a must have requirement in order to even be considered.

Fast forward a decade, and the world of web browsers has now evolved into a "no plugins allowed" culture, in which major browsers have adopted the newer HTML5 standards, and some browsers such as Google's Chrome have gone as far as to block flash based content by default, although they still allow flash to run in Chrome as long as you explicitly approve it.

Platforms like Steam too have played a heavy role in the demise of Flash. With over 125 million active users today, it's no wonder it's become the platform of choice for up and coming indie developers. In the hay days of Flash gaming, developers had to find willing buyers in the web publishing market, or rely on the use of embedded advertisements to generate their revenues. Those who produced quality games for publishers often made great returns on their investment. But this concept of buying and selling to publishers, and the reliance on advertising were proven not to last.

For one, publishers have been faced with falling revenues from advertising for the greater part of the last 4 years, making it harder for them to purchase new games from developers. Too make matters worse, online game distributors who were once tasked with connecting Flash game developers with potential publishers started going bankrupt. Mochimedia was one such distribution platform, one that worked by handling the hard part of finding potential advertisers and inserting the ads into games for developers. All developers had to do now was find publishers who were willing to embed the games on their sites. By including ads, the games were then potentially free for sites across the web to use, and platforms like Mochimedia made their fair share by taking a small chunk of revenue the ad campaigns themselves produced.

For a long period of time, it was a digital eco-system that worked fairly well, but one that was also fraught with problems. Even before Flash started being pushed aside by tech giants like Google, the online gaming industry itself became the subject of crooked developers who sought to take advantage of the revenue potentials of platforms like Mochimedia by developing junk games in hopes of making a quick buck.

The problem was, Mochimedia themselves put very little oversight into the games they allowed to traverse their platform, opening the doors for those crooked developers to publish tens of thousands of junk games across the web. Deceptive publishers also sought to capitalize on the moment, often willingly publishing any game they could get their hands on, regardless of the quality of such games. To many publishers, quality itself was irrelevant, and by 2013 the web was flooded with thousands of online game sites full of garbage titles that no one in their right mind would have ever wanted to play.

At this point the web was so flooded with junk games that the world of Flash development had begun to alienate the web's casual gamers, who began to ignore the world of Flash gaming entirely as a result. Soon, platforms like Mochimedia would begin to shut their doors for good, as the developers and publishers realized the market was dying a slow and painful death, no thanks to the barrage of useless titles that sites across the open web were attempting to shove down people's throats. The world of online gaming was hitting the back button, and there was no going back. Without a doubt, the game development and publishing world's quick money grab had come back to haunt them.

It was deceptive practices such as those I just mentioned that led to practices such as Steam's "Green Light", a system designed to put the brakes on deceptive developers by letting the platform's community itself vote on which titles are deemed to be of acceptable quality, and which aren't. Such a system also helps to push the harder working developers creations front and center, right where they should be.

Besides the Flash gaming industry's many scandals, the sites who published high quality titles also began to lose traffic and were faced with consistently falling ad revenues. It wasn't just game publishers during this time that were losing money, but publishers as a whole. As the world economy fell into a state of disrepair, companies worldwide tightened their marketing budgets, and being that ad prices across the web were highly dictated by competition within the market place, publishers began to fail and disappear.

Nonetheless, Flash gaming definitely made its mark in the world of online gaming, and even today, publishers like myself are refusing to let go. It's not that we don't want to evolve into the newer HTML5 standards of development, because we definitely do, it's that the greatest flash titles exist only in Flash, and removing them from our sites would not only cut through the throats of our traffic and revenues, but it would essentially destroy an integral part of the internet's historical significance. While it may be possible to port the many awesome flash and Unity titles across the web to HTML5, this is hardly a simple task, and so far developers have shown desire to do so.

Another thing holding the world of browser based game publishing back in terms of adopting newer standards is the fact the best flash developers themselves have shown no appetite to learn the newer HTML5 standards and create games that will support it. The reason being is that, even the best browser based games have failed to produce good profits because web publishers as a whole are starving for revenue themselves, and they cannot afford to pay much for a new game, regardless of how good it is.

With no potential for profits, HTML5 game development remains in a stale state with little adoption. Nonetheless, both Flash and Unity are still being used by a handful of indie developers who make use of it for browser based ports in order to help push their full fledged titles on platforms like Steam. Here's one example with a game called Bro Force, which has a Unity based version as well as a PC version on Steam. The developers used the Unity browser based version to help bring visibility to their extended version on Steam.

You can play the Unity version for free here: Play The Action-Adventure Platformer Bro Force! To start the game, it states to press X, but you actually have to press enter and then Z several times to cycle thru the menus and begin the game.

Speaking of Unity, for the last few years it's been the developers answer to replacing Flash. The only problem is, it still requires the use of a browser plugin in order to work, something web browsers generally frown upon today. Nonetheless, it's still a viable alternative, although it's reliance on plugins makes it vulnerable to some of the same problems with Flash.

All being said, Flash gaming isn't dead and gone just yet. At present, there's still many great titles to play across the web, and millions still play them every day. Part of what manages to sustain Flash on the web today goes back to what I mentioned earlier, the lack of revenue for web publishers remains a defining factor. For this reason, it's likely going to be a few more years before HTML5 even remotely begins to take over Flash or competing technologies like Unity in the browser based gaming arena. The future adoption of HTML5 as a game development standard will heavily depend on the web publishing world's ability to generate revenue once again. Until that happens, the world of browser based gaming will continue to revolve around technologies like Flash and Unity.

Further Notes:

Current development efforts with HTML5 have proven to be troublesome. Take a look at any of the currently available HTML5 browser based games, and it's obvious they suffer rampant issues like broke frames, slow load times, and unresponsive controls. Making the shift from Flash and Unity to HTML5 has so far proven to be a rough transition, but in time developers will hopefully smooth out the development process and publishers will find a way to retain the much needed revenue to support them.

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