First Monday

Growing old on Newgrounds: The hopes and quandaries of Flash game preservation by Mikhail Fiadotau



Abstract
After December 2020, Adobe Flash, a technology that was once the standard for rich and interactive Web content, will no longer be supported in browsers. This means users will not be able to access the thousands of diverse creations powered by Flash, from animations to digital games. This is particularly problematic for games, which cannot be easily converted into a more modern format. The threat of losing the legacy of Flash has provoked both reflection and action by online communities dedicated to animation and browser-based games, none more so than Newgrounds, the Web portal credited with popularizing Flash games at the turn of the century. As a result, groups of enthusiasts have been able to make significant progress in preserving Flash games. Still, they continue to face numerous challenges, from rigid copyright laws to a relative lack of recognition of the importance of preserving Flash games as such. Consolidating their efforts by joining forces with other like-minded groups may be the key not only to saving digital heritage created with Flash, but also to the longer-term survival of these creator communities themselves.

Contents

Introduction
A flash history of Flash
Growing old on Newgrounds: Community discourses of technological change
Everything, by everyone: Preserving the legacy of Flash games
No flash in the pan: What next for Flash game preservation?

 


 

Introduction

What happens to online creative communities once the technology that brought them together becomes obsolete? We may be about to find out.

In December 2020, after years of limbo existence, Adobe Flash will be officially discontinued and its already diminishing support in major Web browsers will be removed completely. The technology that was once omnipresent on the Internet, and to no small degree shaped it, will largely be gone from the surface of the Web — and with it, the thousands of creations powered by it.

In its heyday, Macromedia Flash (as it was then known) was a powerfully democratizing and even revolutionary technology, which brought rich and interactive media content to millions of Internet users on the slow dialup connections characteristic of the late 1990s–early 2000s’ World Wide Web. Requiring a Flash plugin was the common denominator between popular gaming portals such as Newgrounds, video sharing platforms such as YouTube, and scores of design-centered Web sites that relied on the technology to work beyond what was achievable with the then-limited functionality of HTML.

Crucially, due to its wide accessibility and low entry barriers, Flash empowered small studios and hobbyists to create and share their own content. Numerous online communities emerged around this content and their members’ shared interest in producing it, with some, like Newgrounds, achieving considerable online influence. In this way, Flash essentially kick-started both the browser-based game and the animated Web series as popular cultural forms that will live on well past the technology itself.

It is no wonder, in short, that Salter and Murray (2014) credit Flash with “building the interactive Web,” and the legacy it is leaving behind is vast.

But leaving behind it is. The emergence of competing technologies (mainly the universally supported, non-proprietary HTML5) and the advent of high-speed broadband, which no longer requires the kind of high-performance data compression Flash excelled at, have marked the technology’s loss of dominance and indeed relevance in today’s Web landscape. In an era where full-HD videos can be viewed on smartphones and computers alike, Web sites can offer rich and varied interactive experiences with minimal loading times, and browser games boast realistic 3D graphics — all without requiring third-party plugins — few will miss a technology often remembered for clumsy vector animations and annoying Web site banners, as well as, more recently, requiring to be manually enabled in the browser for the content to even be accessible.

Yet, unlike the technology itself, the numerous and diverse creations that it powered will be missed by many. This is not merely a matter of “technostalgia” (Gill, 1997) for Flash’s distinct aesthetics, which were such a definitive part of pre-broadband Internet culture. More than that, Flash games and animations are a vast reservoir of cultural expression, awash with artistic and political meanings. As such, they are part of the wider domain of digital heritage, defined by UNESCO (n.d.) as “computer-based materials of enduring value that should be kept for future generations.”

However, while keeping Flash animations for future generations has been, on a technological level, mostly a straightforward process — many tools are available to convert Flash into modern video formats — no similarly easy solution exists for games. The challenge is particularly daunting for the thousands of hobbyist and independent games created with Flash, since their creators rarely have the resources necessary to preserve and future-proof their work, and many are no longer active.

And yet, as Corbett (2007) suggests, digital games in many ways epitomize digital heritage by connecting the inherent playfulness of human culture with the digital world’s distinct affordances and sensibilities. The task of preserving Flash games thus brings to the fore many of the challenges and potentialities at stake in the preservation of online digital heritage at large. In this context, hobbyist and independent Flash games can be considered a form of vernacular digital heritage (Schafer and Thierry, 2019), which represents a diverse array of voices and meanings, but which is also elusive and challenging to preserve.

The aim of this article is to examine the effects and implications of Flash’s discontinuation on online communities dedicated to Flash game creation and on their identities, legacies, and most importantly their creations. The article particularly focuses on Newgrounds, one of the oldest and most active Flash creator communities in the English-speaking Internet. Aiming to be more empirical than theoretical, the article offers a diachronic account based on a trace ethnographic (Geiger and Ribes, 2011) approach to discussions on the Newgrounds forums. After offering a brief historical account of Flash itself, the article will discuss how the Newgrounds community responded to the discontinuation of the technology that had brought it together and connect this response to the broader ramifications of Flash’s phase-out for the vast legacy of the games powered by it.

 

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A flash history of Flash

The technology we now know as Flash started its life as SmartSketch, a vector drawing tool developed by San Diego-based FutureWave Software. After receiving numerous requests from users to add animation functionality, and realizing the potential offered by the rise of the World Wide Web, FutureWave released FutureSplash Animator in 1996. The new tool came with a plug-in for the (then-dominant) Netscape browser, allowing content creators to easily deploy vector animations to the Web (Milbourne, et al., 2009). The technology was soon adopted by such high-profile clients as Disney and Microsoft, who recognized its potential to deliver television-quality animation online without consuming excessive bandwidth (Salter and Murray, 2014).

Later in 1996, FutureWave was acquired by Macromedia, a San Francisco-based company whose flagship product at the time was Director, a multimedia authoring tool widely used to create interactive CD-ROMs, animations, and games. Like FutureWave, Director content was also accessible in the browser through a plugin. Yet, instead of merging the two products, Macromedia chose to continue developing them in parallel, with Director’s more powerful capabilities resulting in bigger file sizes and making it a better fit for the CD-ROM market, and Flash being not as functionally rich but better optimized for the Web. As a result, Macromedia ended up owning two of the leading multimedia authoring tools for years to come (Salter and Murray, 2014).

Over the following years, Macromedia Flash evolved from an animation tool into an application for authoring interactive content, gradually developing scripting capabilities until Flash 5, released in 2000, came with a fully-fledged programming language called ActionScript (Salter and Murray, 2014). By 2002, Flash was installed on 98 percent of Web browsers, making it the most pervasive technology available to anyone seeking to create rich and interactive multimedia content for the World Wide Web (Guldman, 2002). Such content came in all shapes and sizes: interactive Web sites and banners, animated movies (ranging from children-friendly to hyperviolent and pornographic content), quizzes and educational tools, Web applications (particularly for audio and video playback in an era before Web browsers could play popular media formats out of the box), and, of course, games (Nagashima, 2005).

All of these had a transformative effect on Internet users’ daily experience, from the ability to listen to music and watch videos in the browser to richer and more responsive Web site content. Yet, Flash was not the only technology that powered this transformation: Apple’s QuickTime and RealMedia Player were other popular plugins for multimedia streaming, while the use of Dynamic HTML made it possible to create interactive Web sites without a third-party plugin. Where Flash really came into its own was animation and games.

Flash’s combination of an integrated, easy-to-use environment for animation and scripting (which could be used for both visual effects and interactivity) with a low-bandwidth, widely supported export format (SWF) made it a highly attractive choice for animators and game creators. The drawing and animation tools provided by Flash, with its line correction and smoothing algorithms, smart fill, and automated tweening effects made it relatively easy to produce content that looked good. As a side effect, Flash’s inventory of tools created a visual style of its own, with Brush outlines, single-color shape fills, and motion and shape tween effects being among its particularly recognizable elements. This style came to be known as “Flashimation,” and would later prove influential for both games and animation beyond Flash proper (Baldwin, et al., 2006; Salter and Murray, 2014).

Indeed, Manovich [1] argued that “Flash aesthetics are much more than the product of a particular software/hardware configuration,” explaining that they “exemplify the cultural sensibility of a new generation.” It was not just the visual look Manovich was referring to, but also the fact that Flash was a “tool of empowerment” [2], lowering the barriers to cultural production for aspiring game designers and animators. For all the empowerment it offered, Macromedia Flash was, however, by no means cheap, with prices varying between US$300 and US$500 for different versions — although it was also, alongside Adobe Photoshop, one of the most pirated pieces of software in its heyday.

The popularity of Flash gave rise to such online communities as Newgrounds.com (https://www.newgrounds.com), founded by Tom Fulp in 1995, where animators and game developers shared their creations and exchanged feedback. At the peak of its popularity, Newgrounds was among the most visited websites on the Internet, allowing its contributors unprecedented visibility (Salter and Murray, 2014). Some of the works posted on Newgrounds would become “proto-viral,” being widely shared as URLs and on physical media such as CDs, as well as routinely getting pirated by other entertainment Web sites. Among these were such influential games as the adult-themed adventure Street Life (2000), the Xiao Xiao (2001–2002) stick-figure fighting games, and the run-and-gun shooter Alien Hominid (2002). At a time before Internet memes and social media, Newgrounds — with the telling tagline “Everything, By Everyone” — made it possible for its members to reflect on current events in the world in a visual and interactive way. This is evidenced by such titles as Campaign Kombat (2000, dedicated to the U.S. presidential election) and Bad Dudes vs. Bin Laden (2001). The Bin Laden content on Newgrounds ended up receiving mainstream press coverage, giving the authors exposure beyond their online community after articles about their work appeared in the likes of the Washington Post and the Globe and Mail.

Crucially, by helping aspiring game creators to hone their skills and receive support from the community, Newgrounds served as a springboard into professional careers for many game developers. This laid the groundwork for what would soon be known as the indie game scene (Camper, 2008). A number of popular Flash portal games such as Alien Hominid (2002), Fancy Pants Adventure (2006), and Meat Boy (2008) were reworked into full-fledged commercial releases for personal computers and major game consoles such as PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Online collaborations between Flash creators also led to the formation of professional game studios such as The Behemoth and Nitrome.

Flash games were also industry in its own right, with Newgrounds and its subsequent competitors such as ArmorGames and Kongregate offering sponsorships to promising games, paid from the portals’ ad revenue, while in-game advertising networks such as MochiMedia boasted dozens of millions of users each month. Several more portals, most notably MiniClip, existed that specialized in original, professionally developed Flash and Shockwave games. Many of these were undemanding and accessible to non-gamers, yet visually appealing and engaging, paving the way for what would become the casual game market (Trefry, 2010).

By the time Adobe Inc. spent US$5.4 billion (Flynn, 2005) to acquire Macromedia and its flagship product in 2005, Flash had exerted a tectonic impact on online games and digital animation.

Contemporary responses to Flash were, however, not universally positive. In 2000, usability engineer Jakob Nielsen published a polemical piece titled “Flash: 99% bad,” which criticized what the author saw as gratuitous use of Flash animation on Web sites, as well as Flash’s lack of accessibility options and text-searching functionality, among other things. Much of the discourse around Flash games was also negative, focusing on the abundance of low-quality amateur content that flooded portals like Newgrounds and the Internet in general (Salter and Murray, 2014). This perception was exacerbated by the rise of broadband in the mid-2000s, which gave the average Internet user access to more appealing downloadable games that were free of the limitations of both Flash and browser gaming.

The Flash plugin itself was also frequently criticized for its bugginess and suboptimal memory use. But especially damaging were concerns about security. Over the course of its life, Macromedia (and subsequently Adobe) Flash was discovered to contain hundreds of vulnerabilities, which could be exploited for phishing or installing malicious software on the unsuspecting user’s machine (Mendyk-Krajewska and Mazur, 2010; Buhov, et al., 2018).

The times were changing, too. The rise of smartphones and tablets presented a challenge for Flash, which was not optimized for mobile devices and touchscreens despite ironically starting its life as a touchscreen drawing app some two decades earlier. The gradual emergence of HTML5, an open standard developed with mobile technologies in mind and requiring no third-party plugins, presented Flash with its first real competition in years. (Previous efforts such as Microsoft Silverlight had failed to really challenge Flashs hegemony.)

Broader cultural change was underway as well. The Internet was firmly establishing itself as part of mainstream culture, with newly joining users and especially younger audiences having little familiarity with Flash’s aesthetics and conventions. The gaming scene was increasingly split between downloadable titles on digital distribution platforms such as Steam and casual games for mobile devices, leaving little room for browser-based gaming, which Flash had dominated. Both the mobile and the downloadable game scene presented more tempting financial opportunities for aspiring creators than Flash could afford. Additionally, the push for open Web standards led to negative perceptions of proprietary technologies such as Flash. The significance of these developments is best understood through the prism of social shaping of technology: an approach that posits that technology arises, functions, and fades away due to changes in societal and cultural context (MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999). Flash was born in response to a dramatic shift in the way people interacted with information (the rise of audiovisual online communication), and Flash ended up struggling to adapt to another such shift.

Adobe refused to give up and sought to respond to this shift by unveiling Adobe AIR, a system for desktop and mobile application development based on Flash, and open-sourcing a number of components relating to Flash (such as the ActionScript 3 compiler), as well as making the SWF format specification freely available. These measures had a certain reinvigorating effect, with a number of third-party game development frameworks appearing that used ActionScript 3. These included most notably a free and open-source raster-based engine called Flixel, which was used in such popular titles as Canabalt (2009) and Robot Wants Kitty (2010).

But Adobe’s response could not stop the tide. On 29 April 2010, Apple CEO Steve Jobs penned an open letter titled “Thoughts on Flash,” in which he cited the technology’s poor performance, numerous security issues, and lack of optimization for mobile devices as reasons for Apple’s refusal to support Flash on its iPhone and iPad devices. Instead of Flash, Jobs advocated the use of open Web technologies such as HTML5 (even though it was still in its infancy), JavaScript, and CSS.

Despite Adobe’s initially combative response (CEO Shantanu Narayen denounced Jobs’ letter as “an extraordinary attack”), Apple’s stance marked the beginning of the end for Flash. The iPhone and iPad represented a large, burgeoning market, convincing many mobile game developers to use other technologies, and the long-simmering concerns about Flash’s security and performance were propelled into mainstream discourse. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece titled “Tech World Prepares Obituary for Adobe Flash,” while across the Atlantic, the Guardian proclaimed that “Flash is dying a death by 1,000 cuts, and that’s a good thing.” Adobe itself recognized that the tide was turning away, announcing in 2011 that it would discontinue the development of Flash for mobile platforms. It subsequently incorporated HTML5 into AIR as an alternative to Flash and in 2015 announced that it would “encourage content creators to build with new Web standards.” To those still harboring hope for Flash’s comeback, this was an unambiguous signal that none was coming.

This is not to say Flash has been completely eradicated from gaming over the past years. The use of Flash has diminished, but persisted, and not just in hobbyist games. The critically and commercially successful role-playing game trilogy The Banner Saga (2014–2018), for example, was based on Flash and built in Adobe AIR. A number of major titles such as XCOM 2 (2016) and Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018), while primarily being built using other platforms, relied on Flash for their user interfaces, which were integrated into the games using Autodesk’s Scaleform technology.

But in 2018, Autodesk announced it would discontinue Scaleform, spelling the end of Flash use in mainstream games. Adobe Flash itself has been rebranded into Adobe Animate, indicating its primary focus would now be limited to animation, and SWF would cease to be the main output format. Even Newgrounds, the community that largely fueled the rise of Flash in its heyday, has encouraged contributors to submit their new work in HTML5 format, which it recognizes not just as the future, but already as the present of browser-based gaming.

It seems, then, that the world of games is ready to move on from the quirky, outdated technology that is Flash. But what of the community of creators whom the technology brought together?

 

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Growing old on Newgrounds: Community discourses of technological change

Being a frequent Newgrounds visitor and a semi-regular contributor (“lurking” [Soroka and Rafaeli, 2006] on the forum and occasionally posting; commenting on other people’s games and submitting several of my own), I have observed how the discourse around the future of Flash, and Newgrounds itself, has evolved over the years of uncertainty. With Newgrounds being a heterogeneous community, this discourse has, of course, never been uniform — but in exploring the more recurrent themes and attitudes, it is possible to highlight the tensions and challenges faced by Flash creators at a time when their main tool of choice is being phased out.

The analysis below is largely based on what Geiger and Ribes (2011) term trace ethnography: the use of documentary evidence, such as forum posts and metadata, to retroactively reconstruct the interactions and discourses within a heterogeneous user community. In this article, the documentary evidence in question mainly comes from a corpus that comprises 637 posts from ten relevant threads on the Newgrounds forum, dating between December 2004 and February 2020. At the same time, despite the fact that I was not consciously conducting ethnographic work during most of my presence on Newgrounds, my long-standing engagement with the portal lends the analysis an additional netnographic/digital-ethnographic sensibility (Caliandro, 2014). That is to say, the observations and conclusions below are informed by my broader interactions with the Newgrounds community and reflect my interpretations as a member of an online community of interest (Costello, et al., 2017), whose members’ activities and words I accept “as legitimate data about culture in a virtual world” [3]. This approach does not provide the big picture of user activity on Newgrounds that a more data-driven methodology would offer or the focused, unmediated responses that a series of contemporaneous interviews might produce; but it makes it possible to closely examine a particular, recurrent thread in the community’s life and diachronically trace its development in its “natural environment”: Web forum discussions.

As an online community that both profited from and contributed to the erstwhile popularity of Flash as a vehicle for digital expression, and whose identity was closely tied to the technology itself, it is hardly a surprise that for Newgrounds, a transition away from Flash was far from a trivial technical matter. Even prior to the publication of “Thoughts on Flash,” Steve Jobs and a number of technology pundits had argued against the use of Flash (indeed, Apple’s smartphones and tablets never supported the technology to begin with). This prompted recognition in the community that the tide may be turning. In late January 2010 (three months before Jobs’ controversial article would be published), user zimpap started a thread titled “Newgrounds without Flash?” where he posted:

With Steve Jobs and other pundits saying that the Web is slowly moving away from Flash and towards HTML5, what does this mean for NG [Newgrounds]? [...] Sure it might be years down the line but I tend to agree that Flash is on the way out. (zimzap, 31 January 2010)

The response in the Newgrounds community was mixed. Some acknowledged the likelihood of Flash being phased out and stressed the need to preserve existing Flash content:

Well, Flash certainly isn’t timeless, the actual format itself, but quite a bit of the content of our Flash Portal actually is. I guess we’ll have to adapt, but we certainly won’t just discard the Flash Portal. (TheSilverGuitar, 31 January 2010)

Other users, by contrast, rejected the idea that Flash may be soon replaced and were optimistic about the technology’s future:

Anyway as HTML gets better, so will Flash. [...] It’ll take years for HTML5 to become as popular as Flash and by then Flash will have grown too and become a lot more awesome. HTML5 is nothing to worry about. (Kirk-Cocaine, 31 January 2010)

A sense of anxiety regarding the future was, however, beginning to creep into the forum discussion. The publication of Jobs’ article in April exacerbated this anxiety and provoked a wider conversation on the forum. After the publication of “Thoughts on Flash,” a few voices sought to frame the debate in political terms. They viewed Apple’s refusal to support Adobe Flash as an act of deliberate subversion against a competitor, or even as an attack on online creators’ freedom. The latter perception in particular prompted a fair amount of discussion on the forum. Consider the following exchange:

[Apple is] a bunch of communists. Flash is a free development tool available to everyone. They will not allow any of their devices to use plugins that aren’t owned by the state. Flash stands for freedom, what America is all about. (swaenK, 17 March 2011)

A closed-source non-standardized corporately owned proprietary plugin stands for freedom? (Nerdonk, 17 March 2011)

The obvious right-wing ideological orientation of the first post is reflective of a sizable part of the Newgrounds community, but not its entirety. While a number of studies on Internet communication point to participatory online communities from Usenet (Hill and Hughes, 1997) to 4chan (Heikkilä, 2017) as hubs for conservative and far-right groups, Newgrounds has been characterized by a relatively balanced (if not always nuanced) political conversation, allowing games such as Whack a Democrat (2011) and Punch the Trump (2016) to coexist on the same platform. But its traditional openness to politics has meant a considerable part of the discussion around the future of Flash has involved contending interpretations of such concepts as freedom and public good. This shows how, in line with the social shaping view of technology, there was no single belief system that Flash stood for; rather, the technology came to represent different things to different people, speaking to their existing ideological beliefs.

After Adobes plans to discontinue the Flash plugin were made official in 2017, denial of the technology’s loss of relevance gave way to underdog narratives that viewed Newgrounds as a focal point of resistance to Flash’s fadeout:

Tom [the founder of Newgrounds] is an awesome person, and newgrounds is a very important site [...] that should not fall without a fight. (chris-the-stick2, 18 January 2016)

This particular post is interesting in that it links the future of Newgrounds as a community to that of Flash as a technology; the poster does not appear to consider that the portal may thrive without the standard that it had originally been built around. This demonstrates just how essential Flash had become to Newgrounds’ identity.

At the same time, by 2017 much of the community had accepted the transition away from Flash, and was ready to embrace newer technologies such as HTML5:

I personally love Flash and have many great memories from it, but today’s technological landscape is changing, and it’s changing fast. Flash had its time, but it’s time to move on. [...] [C]linging onto something like Flash simply isn’t sustainable in the long run. (OmniTroid, 10 August 2017)

A few posts expressed full acceptance of Flash, and Flash games specifically, becoming a thing of the past, which their authors viewed as a sign of progress:

So this is it. The end of flash games wow. We’ve gone a long way. (Omaremad74, 3 August 2017)

Other messages, even as they recognized the need to move away from Flash, still carried a connotation of bitterness, seeking to attribute the blame for Flash’s misfortunes (“Adobe never loved Flash.”) Yet others, while acknowledging the need to move on, felt the need to address what many in the community viewed as popular misconceptions about Flash, which had led to its demise. This included the Newgrounds founder:

Flash was never the reason for bad advertising on the Web, bad ad companies were. Most ads are now using HTML5 and the irony is they are larger files and often consume more resources than Flash did. [...] Flash as a security threat was kind of a meme. [...] [Y]our OS and your Web browser also have vulnerabilities that get patched, as does all software. (TomFulp, 28 July 2017)

These arguments might come across as what Gill (1997) calls “fetishistic disavowal”: refusal to fully acknowledge the problematic aspects of the object of nostalgia. But the broader case being made in the post strongly resonates with the social shaping view: it was not technological issues that caused the demise of Flash; it was a change in culture and perceptions. Flash became irrelevant not because of its functionality — which had been evolving for as long as the platform itself existed — but because Internet users’ shifting habits and values demanded something else: open-standard technologies instead of proprietary plugins, downloadable apps instead of interactive Web sites, photorealistic 3D environments instead of flat 2D visuals, and so on. As flexible as Flash had been throughout its history, it could not morph into something entirely different — or shed the baggage of negative perceptions that grew to be associated with it.

Some of these perceptions were fully evident on Newgrounds itself, where an increasingly vocal minority of the users were displaying a dismissive and even cynical attitude towards Flash and the holdouts refusing to move away from it, mirroring the discourse prominent in wider technology circles:

Flash sucks and is a buggy as hell platform that apple is smart not to support. (SuperGoodSound, 17 March 2011)

This cynicism — one user sarcastically likened the death of Flash to “the death of Turbo Pascal” — itself became a subject of reflection, with founder Tom Fulp posting:

It really bothers me when people cheer the death of Flash. I totally get why it’s time to move on but you shouldn’t cheer the death of something that empowered so many people and brought so much joy to the Web for 20+ years. (TomFulp, 28 July 2017)

More often than not, however, Newgrounds members’ acceptance of Flash’s demise was tinged with nostalgia, evoking both its role in members’ individual growth as creators and its wider cultural legacy:

[W]ill truly miss flash, it was my start in the animation world and Newgrounds was the first flash portal I ever found. I even learned AS3 [Action Script 3] as my first programming language so it comes with an air of melancholy when I say goodbye old friend. (To-mos, 20 February 2019)

Think of how many lives were impacted by a silly website made in the 90’s. All the people that were inspired and empowered to make art. a fair number are even professionals and art professors at big studios and colleges now and they’ll spread that inspiration. (MyamotoMusashi, 27 July 2017)

Most of these posts display what Boym (2001) terms reflective nostalgia: a pensive longing for a lost past (as opposed to restorative nostalgia, which actively seeks to recreate the past and refuses to let it go). By this point, many in the Newgrounds community were reflecting on Flash’s place in history, often viewing it in generational terms:

Interesting to see what future generations would think of Flash. Would they see it as an important milestone in Internet history or merely as a small footnote? (BronzeHeart92, 26 July 2017)

While much of the earlier discussion on the forum oscillated between denial blame-seeking and then turned to nostalgia and reflecting on the community’s identity, this comment points to another important thread that has become increasingly prominent in the conversation about the future of Newgrounds: preservation of existing Flash games. As the dreaded year 2020 grew closer, the issue of preserving Newgrounds’ collection of 80,000 Flash games grew into an urgent priority for the portal. Achieving this task, however, remained a significant challenge.

 

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Everything, by everyone: Preserving the legacy of Flash games

Digital game preservation is an issue that has existed for as long as the medium itself. We know, for example, that early computer games created by students and faculty on shared university computers in the 1960s were habitually removed by administrators, who saw them as misuse of expensive technology (Ahl, et al., 2003; Donovan, 2010). As gaming developed into a major entertainment industry and the reach of medium increased dramatically, so did the complexity of preserving existing games. This was in part due to the modus operandi of the game industry itself, which throughout much of its existence has perpetuated an ideology of technological advancement and games’ continuous improvement in graphics and sound, realism, and complexity, teaching the consumer that “the best game is the next game” (Newman, 2009). The effect of this ideology has been twofold: first, as digital games get older, they (with the exception of a handful of agreed upon “classics”) are easily and readily forgotten and fall into obscurity; second, the speed at which game (and broader digital) technology has developed has rendered many games unplayable due to hardware, driver, and operating system incompatibility. The issues of obscurity and technological obsolescence are exacerbated by the ephemeral nature of digital data as such: Web servers go down, domain names expire, hard drives break, and physical storage media such as DVDs and floppy disks are prone to gradual corruption of data, known as “bit rot” (Newman, 2012). Another issue in game preservation has been copyright: publicly archiving or porting older games requires authorization from copyright holders (Corbett, 2007), but, in a volatile industry where closures, mergers, and takeovers are the order of the day, tracking down rightowners is often next to impossible (Lee, 2018). The problem with games as digital cultural heritage, in sum, is that they are an “inherently unstable” medium [4].

All of these challenges are clearly visible in Flash game preservation. While the most obvious and immediate issue is that of technological obsolescence (the discontinuation of the Flash Player and the resulting loss of browser compatibility), an even bigger obstacle is perhaps the obscurity in which Flash games as a cultural form now find themselves. In the bygone days of dial-up and slow computers, Flash, for all its shortcomings, occupied a unique niche due to its capacity to deliver rich interactive entertainment online. Today, in the era of broadband and high-speed mobile data (affording digital distribution of major mainstream games) and browsers capable of rendering near-photorealistic 3D graphics, Flash’s offerings seem meagre to many in the gaming community. As dominant as Flash was in browser-based and casual gaming in its heyday, it never established itself as a key technology in mainstream gaming. As a result, Flash games do not command the same weight in gamers collective memory as the PC and console “classics” of the same era; instead, they are often viewed dismissively as a relic of the past and have largely been overlooked by existing game preservation initiatives. Even “comprehensive” game databases such as MobyGames offer very limited coverage of Flash games, mostly consisting of promotional and tie-in games released to accompany mainstream videogames, movies, or commercial products. To make matters even more complicated, in the past decade numerous Flash game portals and development studios have disappeared, making it difficult to both locate many once-popular games and track down their creators for copyright permissions necessary to officially preserve them. (Not to mention that numerous amateur Flash creations use unlicensed assets and music, making their preservation fraught with copyright risks.)

Newgrounds certainly experienced the shift in gamers’ preferences firsthand. While it is difficult to find reliable data on how popular the Web site was at its peak (shortly after the turn of the century), a 2004 forum post by co-founder Wade Fulp wrote:

Newgrounds.com, according to Alexa [Web traffic ranking], ranks anywhere from #500–1,200 [among the world’s Web sites] depending on our traffic on that day. (WadeFulp, 2 December 2004)

A 2011 snapshot [5] from the Internet Archive shows that by that year, the portal’s position in Alexa rankings dropped to 1,575, reflecting somewhat diminished interest toward Flash content as such. However, a more dramatic drop was yet to follow after Flash’s demise became clearly inevitable: as of March 2020 [6], while Newgrounds still has a vibrant community of contributors, the Web site was ranked 4,324. This change in fortunes suggests that preserving Newgrounds’ legacy of interactive Flash content has become a responsibility of the Newgrounds community itself (and the Web site’s founders), with little hope of outside help.

For its part, the Newgrounds community was keenly aware both of the overall importance of preserving Flash content (one user compared Flash creations becoming inaccessible to “a modern-era burning of the Library of Alexandria”) and the responsibility upon Newgrounds users’ own shoulders. The following post expresses this sense of communal responsibility with characteristic tongue-in-cheek bathos:

I vote we produce and maintain some kind of secure plugin, become the de facto owners of Flash, and all go back to using Flash for development. It’s the start of the Flash purist revival movement. (Zhon, 27 July 2017)

There was indeed no easy, pre-existing technological solution Newgrounds could build on. While downloading SWF files and running them in the standalone player on one’s computer would remain a viable option of accessing most Flash games in the medium term (at least for those who know how to download them and care enough to do it), playing the games in the browser — a big part of Flash’s original appeal — was a daunting task. After the discontinuation of the Flash Player was announced, a number of projects emerged that focused either on playing SWF files using modern browser technology or on converting them into other formats such as HTML5. The most prominent among these were Mozilla Shumway, a planned open-source replacement for the Adobe Flash Player, and Google Swiffy, a HTML5 converter for SWF files. However, neither project achieved comprehensive support for Flash’s various versions and functionalities, and both Google and Mozilla ultimately decided that the task was not worth the effort: Swiffy was officially discontinued in 2016, while Shumway was quietly abandoned in the same year. Newgrounds users kept looking for solutions:

I’ve been trying to keep an eye for some time on how .swf emulation in other platforms has been going, and it doesn’t seem like it’s too great yet. Three years [until the discontinuation of Flash in 2020] really isn’t a lot of time, but I hope a reliable, one-size-fits-all solution can be found. (Intrapath, 26 July 2017)

In July 2017, Tom Fulp reflected on the difficulty of the task at hand:

There is a big question of whether we will be able to preserve the 80,000+ games that were made in Flash. At the least, you could download and play them in an external player but we are hoping to have a solid Web-based option by the time 2020 rolls along. Options include javascript that can interpret and run an SWF file, software that can convert existing swf files to javascript or something using WebAssembly, which is still maturing. A lot has been happening in this space but nothing is perfect at the moment. (TomFulp, 28 July 2017)

Apart from the general technical difficulty of preserving Flash games, an additional challenge had to do with site-locked games. During the years of mass-scale commercial Flash game development, many games would be programmed to only run from a specified server in order to avoid being copied to other Web sites without permission (which was a pervasive issue throughout the history of Flash gaming). Site-locking was in fact required of sponsored games by some Flash game portals in an effort to attract visitors with exclusive content. While the practice did make sense at the time, it has also made preserving games challenging as both downloaded copies of site-locked games and their online copies on third-party servers are impossible to play, at least without decompiling and hacking the game:

Site locked games are THE biggest issue. [...] About half of SWFs are site locked and they don’t work downloaded. So all those people saying that all you need is a Flash player program are wrong. You need the files on the server where they were submitted. (ThePhenomenon, 26 July 2017)

In summer 2019, after years of speculation over the future of Flash content on the Web site (and potential solutions being discussed and tested, ideas being shared, and pleas for action being directed at the founders and fellow members), Newgrounds administration unveiled Newgrounds Player: a solution for playing Flash games and movies hosted on the portal:

Newgrounds is home to over 20 years of content built using Adobe Flash. Unfortunately, most browser manufacturers will be dropping support for the Flash plugin, and these submissions will no longer play directly in your browser. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Windows Desktop/Notebook users can still play all of this classic content with the Newgrounds Player! We’ve designed this player to create a seamless browsing experience on Newgrounds, while preserving the ability to enjoy all of our classic content.

Despite some initial technical issues, many in the community responded to the announcement with enthusiasm, at times in a tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top way, as in the quote below:

Christ’s return will bring the End of Days, but Fulp never left us, and when the Flashpocalypse loomed, He saw fit to save us all from Blamnation. (FUNKbrs, 17 July 2019)

In this way, one of the most active and established Flash game communities has found a grassroots-level solution to preserve their content. This solution is not without its problems: at the moment it is only available on Windows systems, users have reported having issues with certain games, and the fact that an additional plugin needs to be installed will likely put off many new users who might otherwise be interested in exploring older Flash content. Yet the principal task of finding a way to preserve most of the legacy content for most of the users in the community has been accomplished.

The fundamental limitation of Newgrounds’ solution, however, is that it only works for content on the portal itself. Beyond Newgrounds, there are thousands of Flash games online that risk becoming inaccessible by the end of 2020, and Newgrounds Player does not support them (or aim to). But in a parallel development, another promising solution has emerged. Started as a personal collection by a Flash game enthusiast who goes by BlueMaxima, Flashpoint [7] (as its founder called it) has evolved into a downloadable archive of over 35,000 Web games (including titles from major portals such as Newgrounds and Kongregate). With help from fellow enthusiasts, BlueMaxima has been able to not just preserve the games, but amass a large repository of metadata: genres, release dates, developers, as well as screenshots for each entry. Crucially, the developer has found a way to circumvent the issue of site-locked games: the collection comes with a built-in proxy server that redirects the Flash Player’s HTTP requests to the local filesystem, making it appear as if the game is being run from the original Web server. This is enough to support the majority (but not all) of site-locked Flash games. Moreover, in addition to Flash games, Flashpoint also includes a significant number of Shockwave, Silverlight, and Unity Player games — covering the three platforms that at different points competed with Flash for a share of the browser game market — as well as titles for several lesser known platforms such as PopCap and 3DVIA.

BlueMaxima is not a member of Newgrounds, and for a while his creation went unnoticed by the Newgrounds community. However, when a user learned about it from a Reddit post and shared the information on the forum, the response was supportive:

I like that this project preserves the history of flash games and animations by keeping them available longterm. (Asandir, 24 December 2018)

Much like Newgrounds Player, Flashpoint is not without its problems. The copyright status of most of the games included in the collection remains unclear, placing the virtual museum in the kind of precarious legal position that many game preservation efforts have grappled with (Lowood, et al., 2009; Newman, 2013; Lee, 2018). In an interview, BlueMaxima mentioned that, while many developers have reached out to thank him for preserving their games, others have criticized him for making their once-commercial games available for free (D’Anastasio, 2020). Additionally, Flashpoint’s coverage of Flash games is, while very large, far from comprehensive: Newgrounds alone has more than twice as many Flash games as Flashpoint currently does. Furthermore, the metadata for the games it covers remains incomplete and potentially inaccurate, especially when it comes to the original publisher: many games have been archived from third-party Web sites and list them as sources, instead of the original publishers. The fact that the collection has to be downloaded instead of being available online likely compromises its appeal to new users (being instantly playable in the browser was a major factor in Flash game’ success to begin with), even if a “light” version that downloads games on-demand is available for those reluctant to download the entire 240 GB archive. A further limitation is that, as yet, Flashpoint is only available for Windows systems.

Yet, for all their shortcomings, both Newgrounds Player and BlueMaxima Flashpoint are emphatic (and timely) evidence that the legacy of Flash games will not be lost even after the Flash Player is completely discontinued at the end of 2020. And it is telling that both of these efforts started on a community level, after major corporate players (Adobe, Google, and others) abandoned their own efforts at ensuring the survival of Flash content.

 

++++++++++

No flash in the pan: What next for Flash game preservation?

The history of Flash is a reminder that digital heritage is often even more ephemeral than its pre-digital counterparts. In fact, as Thwaites (2013) points out, some of the earlier digital heritage preservation projects are now themselves irretrievably lost. This is in no small part due to digital culture being in a state of “perpetual paradigm shift” of platforms, technologies, practices, and perceptions (Wolfe, 2008).

Videogames are a case in point. Over the past two decades, gaming has witnessed a major shift: from physical releases of mainstream games to digital distribution on platforms such as Steam; from simple, “bite-sized” hobbyist creations to complex 3D experiences powered by such engines as Unity and Unreal; from technology-centered creator communities such as Newgrounds to larger, universal platforms for independent games such as Itch.io; from browser-based games to smartphone games. The effects of these transformations are plain to see. Newgrounds is not the only Web site to have lost its erstwhile popularity: so have most browser-based game portals, including Kongregate, Armor Games, Miniclip, and others. From the homepage of thousands of gamers across the globe, Newgrounds has essentially returned to its humble beginnings as a closer-knit community of animators and game creators sharing their work with each other.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Trends in gaming come and go, and online communities fluctuate in popularity. If anything, Newgrounds has already proved to be more resilient than many influential Web sites of the past, including Geocities, Myspace, and Neopets. The real issue at stake is that the evolving gaming scene has eroded much of the cultural memory relating to Flash games as such. Even as videogame museums are being established around the globe and as the gaming giants such as Nintendo and Sony are seeking to capitalize on the interest in retrogaming by re-releasing their older titles and consoles, Flash games are conspicuously missing from the picture.

This is where online communities of preservationists can make a difference, as they have in other game preservation contexts (Bachell and Barr, 2014). Indeed, the more promising efforts at Flash preservation — such as Newgrounds Player and BlueMaxima Flashpoint — would not have been possible had it not been for their active communities of supporters. The significance of these communities extends beyond collectively developing and testing technological solutions. If, as the social shaping theory posits, technological change has social and cultural underpinnings, then preserving the legacy of past technologies cannot be accomplished on a purely technological level either; rather, it requires active social engagement. This in part means just having a community of people who care and who share a cultural memory of the technology. But this also means sharing this memory with society at large.

There has been some progress on that front. Both Flashpoint and Newgrounds Player have received mainstream media coverage, with articles about them appearing in Wired [8] and on the popular gaming portal Kotaku [9]. The former may have referred to Flash preservationists as a “ragtag squad,” highlighting just how much damage the reputation of Flash has sustained, but it also praised them for “stav[ing] off annihilation” of “seminal digital culture” (D’Anastasio 2020). This shows that, while Flash preservationists may receive little outside support, their mission still matters to wider society and is an important effort in the domain of digital heritage preservation.

This mission, however, remains an uphill struggle. Newgrounds’ catalog of over 80,000+ Flash games is but the tip of the iceberg (and the rest of the iceberg is rapidly melting). But even many of these games are not yet perfectly compatible with Newgrounds Player, and it will take much effort on the part of the community to test them, identify existing issues, and work out ways to fix them. BlueMaxima’s more ambitious effort at preserving games from various sources is even more challenging, since these sources are disappearing from the Web due to servers closing, domain names expiring, and entertainment portals reorienting toward other types of content. An equally big challenge has to do with the current copyright laws, which place many of the ongoing preservation efforts in a legal grey zone due to some games’ rightowners being gone from the scene and impossible to track down, as well as due to many hobbyist games’ using copyrighted material such as music and containing textual and visual references to popular mainstream games.

In the face of these challenges and in a race against time, it becomes particularly important that the various communities interested in Flash content preservation work together. This is an area where many efforts currently fall short — unsurprisingly, given that in the heyday of Flash, less-than-friendly competition between Flash game communities was often the norm, exacerbated by successful creators being lured away through sponsorships and games often being republished without permission. This legacy of fragmentation and strong community identity is visible even now. For example, despite BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint being mentioned in posts by several users, the community at large, while supportive of the initiative, has shown little actual engagement with it. There are, moreover, numerous other efforts at Flash preservation, of varying degrees of maturity and by various online communities and individuals; these, too, generally exist in isolated pockets without much interaction with each other. Some Newgrounds users have reflected on this multiplicity, with one poster finding it a “bit of a shame if the same apps are being made for the same things,” while another said they were “glad to see there’s multiple projects going after the same goal.” There is little doubt, however, that there is much to be gained if Flash preservationists combine their efforts, expertise, and existing accomplishment in pursuit of their shared goal. This need not necessarily diminish their “local” community identities, which, as the case of Newgrounds demonstrates, have been a major driving force when it came to preserving their creations. Instead, a more autonomous model could be adopted, with the focus being on exchanging know-how and collaborating on technology and metadata.

In the long run, the success of this collaboration may be the key to the survival of the communities themselves. The Newgrounds community, for example, may no longer be bound by the same technology (as was the case when it was entirely dedicated to Flash content), but that technology has done much to shape its metaphorical DNA. In addition to shared interest in making animations and games, the Newgrounds community thus has a shared history; and preserving this history — and enriching it through interactions with other, similar bodies of cultural memory — is what can help Newgrounds thrive long after Flash, the technology that started it all, becomes a thing of the past. End of article

 

About the author

Mikhail Fiadotau is a lecturer in the School of Digital Technologies at Tallinn University, Estonia and a doctoral candidate in anthropology in the School of Humanities at the same university.
E-mail: fiadotau [at] tlu [dot] ee

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank First Monday’s anonymous reviewer, whose thoughtful and detailed feedback greatly improved the focus and argumentation of the original manuscript. I am also thankful to all the people who have shared their ideas on videogame preservation with me: Pawel Frelik, Camille Laurelli, Maria Garda, Yuhsuke Koyama, and many others.

 

Notes

1. Manovich, 2005, p. 7.

2. Ibid.

3. Boellstorff, 2015, p. 81.

4. Newman, 2012, p. 135.

5. https://web.archive.org/web/20111111004039/http:/www.alexa.com/siteinfo/newgrounds.com.

6. http://archive.is/DY9IH.

7. https://bluemaxima.org/flashpoint/.

8. https://www.wired.com/story/flash-games-digital-preservation-flashpoint/.

9. https://kotaku.com/over-36-000-flash-games-have-been-saved-and-are-now-pla-1841389493.

 

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Editorial history

Received 10 October 2019; revised 26 March 2020; accepted 10 June 2020.


Copyright © 2020, Mikhail Fiadotau. All Rights Reserved.

Growing old on Newgrounds: The hopes and quandaries of Flash game preservation
by Mikhail Fiadotau.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 8 - 3 August 2020
https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/10306/9585
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i8.10306