Hey guys, I did an interview for BlueMaxima, the guy who runs the Flash game preservation project Flashpoint. He’s currently writing a book about Flash games, and wants to get lots of stories from game developers in there. Here’s some questions I answered for him – some of you may find the answers interesting.
- Tell me about yourself.
- What Flash games did you make?
Hi, I’m Matt Roszak, also known as Kupo Games, or Matt-Likes-Swords on Newgrounds. I live in the UK and started making silly Flash animations when I was 13, and moved on to making games when I was 18. I’m 31 now and still using Flash, so that’s 18 years of experience! My best known games are the Epic Battle Fantasy series (5 games), and related spinoffs, including Adventure Story and Bullet Heaven 1 & 2.
- How else were you involved in the Flash community?
Not very involved actually! I wasn’t a very social person and didn’t talk to other developers.
I did some achievement-hunting on Newgrounds and was moderately involved in the forum threads about that. It was mainly after Flash’s decline started and I realised that I needed to adapt that I started reaching out to other Flash developers to see what everyone was doing. I went to the Mochi London conference in 2013 (the last one!) and met Chris Jeff, Jimp, Jay Armstrong, Antony Lavelle, Reece Millidge, the Super Flash Bros, and other devs. Since then I’ve befriended many other ex-Flash devs on social media, and a couple who are still using Flash today. A lot of devs are also using Flash in their animation/art pipeline, and then doing the code in a modern engine, so there’s a lot of projects to keep track of.
- What was your first Flash game, and on what site?
“Mecha Dress Up Game” was the first noteworthy game I published on Newgrounds and DeviantArt. Dress up games were very popular on the internet at the time (especially on DA), and very easy to code. DA even had a lot of tutorials specifically about making dress up games. I thought I’d try something original, so the game is about building robots and not much to do with dressing up. It was well received, and there’s a Newgrounds forum thread dedicated to sharing screenshots of users’ creations: https://www.newgrounds.com/bbs/topic/924065/1
- What do you remember about the community? How they interacted, voted, shared games with eachother?
They were very honest in their comments/reviews! The internet was not very personal at the time, and users were generally more rude than they are today (or at least that’s the case on the major Flash portals). Users had no problem leaving lazy reviews like “it sucks”, “no mute button = 0/5”, “I hate anime art”, etc. But for me it helped build thicker skin, and there was enough useful and encouraging feedback in there to make all of the comments worth reading. When there’s no barrier to entry, and literally anyone can play your game for free, there’s a good chance many of them won’t be into it, and that’s fine. But it’s also a good opportunity to learn how to make your next game appeal to more people.
- What are your favorite Flash games? Both massive and obscure.
My favourite obscure games are “When Pigs Fly” by Anna Anthropy, and “Death vs Monstars” by GameReclaim. Both are short, quirky, action games that are fun to come back to and replay, and have aged well IMO. The “Frantic” series introduced me to the bullet hell genre. “VVVVVV”, “Machinarium” and “Binding of Isaac” showed me that even Flash games could be published on Steam/desktop and be seen as “real” games, so that was inspiring. Currently I’m playing “Run 3”, which I’m surprised supports my new ultra-wide monitor perfectly.
- What was your favorite portal and why? Any runner-ups?
I liked Newgrounds for the freedom it gave creators, and the weird and edgy stuff that the staff would feature. But I also loved the careful curation on Kongregate – the badge system and game categories made it very easy to find stuff to play, and know roughly how hard and long the games were. The featured content was always polished and accessible. Newgrounds’ achievement system on the other hand was fun, but un-curated, and completely dependant on random developers being reasonable, and often they were not.
- What would you consider your strongest memory of Flash gaming? It doesn’t have to be necessarily the best.
Dunno about gaming, but getting front-paged on Newgrounds was always exciting when I was a kid making Flash animations. Some of my animations even ranked #1 on the website briefly, which was very motivational.
- Do you remember any portals, users or general stories that a casual community member might not know of? I’d love to get some more obscure stories into the book.
The time an Art Portal moderator on Newgrounds was hacked, and all of the images were replaced with dicks. I really loved some of the April Fool’s Jokes on Newgrounds. There was one year when the website “made some changes to get un-blocked in China”. The front page was covered in pro-China propaganda. The forums filtered many words – user became “worker”, BBS became “rice paddy”, Tom Fulp became “glorious leader”, etc. Usernames were replaced with random vaguely Asian names like “brucelee” and “Xi-Jinping”, and avatars were replaced with Mao Zedong’s face. A lot of users didn’t realise what date it was, thought the changes were permanent, and got mad. In retrospect it was pretty offensive, so I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again, but it was great fun.
- Overall, what is your favorite part of Flash games, major or minor?
At the time, Flash was simply the coolest thing on the web. Every computer could run it, social media wasn’t widely adopted yet, and internet video quality sucked. Exciting new games were being published every day – and for free – and you could play them during your lunch break at work! As a gamer, you had a basically endless amount of content to play, and as a developer, you had a potential audience of tens of millions of players. It was really groundbreaking stuff.
Developing for Flash
- What made you consider developing a Flash game?
All the kids at my highschool knew about Newgrounds and how to pirate Flash, so the software was available and exciting. I started off making animations in Flash 4 or 5, and I loved the attention I got from it. But animation was too much work on its own. I eventually figured out that adding some simple interactivity to your 5 minute animation could turn it into a 30 minute game – your work produced so much more content and novelty with just a few lines of code added. I think I was always interested in game design (I drew a lot of game mockups when I was very young, basically copying the style of games like Zelda and Pokemon), but never knew how to get started until I saw how easy it was to add interactivity in Flash.
- How difficult was it for you to get started?
Not very difficult at all. Even if you have no programming experience, you can still make games with simple commands like onPress gotoAndPlay(scene). That’s all you need to add some basic interactivity, and there’s already a lot you can do with that. My first 2 games, “Mecha Dress Up Game” and “Brawl Royale” were essentially glorified slideshows (with good animation though!). For my 3rd game, “The Kitten Game”, I learned to use variables to add a simple scoring system!
- What drew you to making Flash games specifically? Did other platforms like Shockwave, Unity, Java or so on carry any appeal?
I just used what I was exposed to. I didn’t see a lot of games made in those other engines, so I never considered them. With Flash is was really easy to see what kinds of content could be made, and there was a lot of free tutorials for it too.
- Did you work alone? If not, who did you work with, and how did you meet them?
When I got my first sponsorship offer from Armor Games (for Epic Battle Fantasy 2) in 2009, I realized that I needed to use original music in my games, as they probably wouldn’t be happy with all of the stolen music and Pokemon characters used in my games. I think I made a Newgrounds blog post about it, and soon Phyrnna (then known as HalcyonicFalconX) messaged me to say that I could use her existing music in my next game. We’ve been working together since, and she’s done the music for all of my games so far. I’ve also crowd-sourced translations for my bigger games, and occasionally commissioned cover artwork and trailer narration.
- Can you give me just a quick, point-by-point overview of how you developed games? The technical side of things purely – how you program for Flash, how you create resources like graphics & sound (if applicable), how functionality improved & things changed in later versions of Flash, anything you can think of that might be noteworthy.
I generally start by making a small prototype to get a feel for the final game, and to make sure it’s something I’m actually capable of programming. Once the core mechanics work, I make all of the art and animations, and then program the levels and interface last. I guess it could be described as the waterfall model, as I don’t go back and forth between different tasks very much. All of my art is made in Flash with vectors, and sound effects are from free sources, or cheap general purpose sound packs. I tell Phyrnna vaguely what biomes/areas the game will eventually have, and ask her to make appropriate music from them. I would test my games on my DeviantArt page, so I could fix all of the bugs before publishing them on other portals. (funnily enough sponsors didn’t see DA as a competitor, so they had no problem with this)
- Were there any interesting technical challenges you had to face while making a game in Flash?
Mostly being aware of hardware limitations. Internet was slow, so your game filesize had to be reasonably small, and Flash content was completely powered by the CPU, so you shouldn’t overdo it with the complexity of graphics. I think the most complex thing I actually coded was the path-finding function in my RPGs, and even that was based on existing algorithms, so I can’t take credit for any groundbreaking technical accomplishments. There was always a forum thread somewhere where someone programmed the same thing before me.
- What was the development community like? Any forums or boards or other sites that are worthy of mention?
Wish I had used them more when they were still active! I think the Starling forums are currently the best place to go to chat about Flash dev, and it’s mostly related to mobile now.
- Did you make games as a hobby, on the side, or a full time job? Did it ever get ‘serious’, and if so, when?
I made animations and games for a few years just for fun, and for the fame I got on Newgrounds. I didn’t even know that one could make decent money off Flash games until Armor Games contacted me about EBF2. Their offer was generous enough that I immediately realised I could make a career out of it. For EBF3 I gambled and went with a performance-based deal from Kongregate, which paid off (EBF3 got 1 million play on Kongregate in the first week!). I continued to work with Kongregate until they stopped doing sponsorships (Bullet Heaven 2 was one of the last games they ever sponsored). Today my Flash games are making more money than ever on Steam, even though my audience is much smaller than it once was. Flash games have been consistently profitable for me since EBF2, so I’ve luckily never had a day-job. Always been self-employed, working from home.
- What was your first “viral game”, what were the circumstances around it, and what was it like inside your head and on your site/portal entry when it did go viral?
I was actually on holiday just after EBF3 launched, so I don’t remember following it that closely, other than being exciting about the play count on Kongregate. It’s still my most played game ever, and it’s got somewhere around 20-25 million plays across the whole internet.
- Did you ever have a strategy when making games, marketing or business wise? Or did you just work on what was fun?
I tried to make sure that my art style and characters were always recognizable, and it worked. People today still find my new games on Steam, and recognize my art style from 10+ years ago.
Other than that, I always make sure to manage my risks and expectations – I won’t put in more than a couple of months of work into a new type of game. If the game is successful, then I can work on a bigger, better, sequel. And if not, I can just move onto something else without wasting a lot of time. I won’t work on a big project that I don’t think will pay off. For example, EBF1 and 2 took around 4 to 6 weeks each to make. EBF3 took around 4 or 5 months. EBF4 took around 15 to 18 months. EBF5 took almost 4 years, and was published on the web just before Flash stopped working – like EBF4, it was a huge success on Steam though.
I do miss working on smaller projects just for fun, but I think working on what the people demand is more satisfying in the end, and it’s hard to go back to a lower quality of work once you’ve raised the bar for yourself.
- What was it like working with Flash portals like Kongregate? What sort of deals would you make, if any? Did you ever use something like Flash Game License, and if so, can you tell me about your experience with it?
I didn’t use FGL and just contacted Kongregate and Armor Games directly for bidding. With Kongregate I was always paid based on how many users I sent to their website (usually linking to my previous games worked best). I preferred this sort of deal as there was almost no upper limit on how much money I could make, and I still lived with my parents so didn’t need any sort of safety net. EBF4 was the first time I offered an in-game DLC purchase, and that did pretty well on Kongregate too. The contracts were very friendly, and the sponsors never owned any of my IP or the rights to any sequels, which was not the case for everyone. In many cases we didn’t even bother with contracts, everyone in the industry trusted each other enough for that. EBF4 was also the first game I published on Steam, around 7 or 8 months after the web release – I added a lot of new content to make sure people would pay up for it.
- How much did the community support you, and how did they contribute to your success?
They clicked the links and bought the games! But also they were very happy to test buggy, beta versions of the games, which helped make sure there wouldn’t be any major surprises on launch day. There’s also a ton of fanart of my characters, which I always feature on my website and also in the games themselves!
- Were you around pre-and-post Macromedia era Flash? Are you able to draw a comparison between the two companies’ handling of the technology?
- Do you think Adobe buying Flash at the end of the day caused more damage than it would have if Macromedia hadn’t been bought out?
I think Adobe just never figured out how to make money from the Flash/AIR tech. They developed ActionScript 3 and Stage3D, made Flash run efficiently on mobile, tried to charge money for some of those extra features, but gave up on that plan when developers got mad about it. I think after that, momentum started to fizzle out and they just continued to do the bare minimum to keep the tech alive. The new subscription model of Creative Cloud removed any incentive for Adobe to add new features to their software – devs were simply forced to keep paying for Animate/Flash whether they liked the service or not. Most of the cool features and frameworks since then, like Starling, DragonBones, Spine, and AIR Native Extensions, had to be developed by 3rd parties. I think if Adobe kept actively working on Flash/AIR, it could still be a competitive 2D game engine today, and many devs agree with this view. Instead, only a small niche of veterans are still using it. AIR has been handed over to HARMAN, who seem to be maintaining it for now, but who knows how long that will last. Windows is very backwards compatible, so Flash/AIR should run on it for many years to come, even without maintenance, but that’s not true for mobile or Mac.
The End of Days
- At what point did Flash go into “freefall” in the public consciousness, in your point of view?
Fake news had a lot of fun painting the tech as being unsafe, slow and old-fashioned. The problems they talked about weren’t unique to Flash, and often they only acknowledged some use-cases. (such as talking about Flash being used to make malicious ads, but not talking about it being used for animation on YouTube, etc) I think a lot of big companies like Apple and Google felt threatened by Flash and planned those attacks.
- Have you ever met anyone blatantly anti-Flash or anti-Flash games specifically? Did you try to change their mind? Were you successful?
Just morons on Twitter. I just tell them that Flash still works outside of browsers and don’t bother arguing with them beyond that. Most gamers don’t care what game engine you use.
- What didn’t you like about Flash as a platform, either during its peak or fall? Anything specifically egregious worth mentioning?
Mainly just Adobe’s lack of communication and outreach. They seemed very clueless about what developers actually wanted, and didn’t fix a lot of bugs that had been around for years. Also the Creative Cloud subscription sucks ass. I wish I could permanently buy my favourite version of Flash, and then never give them money again. It’s ransomware.
- How many people were still playing your games at the end? Did you ever find out overall total player numbers? Any thoughts on those numbers?
EBF5 got around 2 million plays on the web in 2018-2020, mainly on my website, and on Kongregate. Not a lot compared to EBF3’s 20 million, but there’s still enough people playing web games for devs to get some feedback and experience there, before moving onto other platforms. That’s not really a fault with Flash specifically, web gaming in general has become unpopular since mobile took off, and HTML5 games aren’t doing any better.
- Any opinions on the state of the indie gamedev industry, and what it was like compared to Flash at its rise & peak?
It seems incredibly cluttered and competitive now. It’s possible that this was always true, and devs are just more vocal about their problems on social media now. But either way, the bar for making a successful indie game is so much higher now. There’s not many examples of small indie games like Friday Night Funkin suddenly getting 10s of millions of plays, where as at the peak of the Flash days, it seemed to happen all the time. (I think you should contact or follow Lars Doucet (Defenders Quest) about this – he has a lot to say about the indie games scene)
- What do you think of efforts like AwayFL and Ruffle? Do you think they might recapture the magic of Flash if ever completed?
Ruffle seems very promising – it can already play a lot of my old games, and with better performance than on Flashplayer. But without all of that portal sponsorship money, I don’t think there’s gonna be any incentive for web games to come back. Instead, I hope that Ruffle can help improve the performance of my Flash games on desktop and mobile, or on whatever platform is popular in a few years. But even if Ruffle worked perfectly, I would still find Flash hard to recommend due to the problems with getting a Flash/Animate license from Adobe.
- Speaking of recapturing the magic, how do you feel about HTML5 games today?
I haven’t seen HTML5 do anything that Flash couldn’t already do 10 years ago.
- How can we play your games now that Flash has been exorcised from most browsers?
I would recommend Flashpoint to most people – all of my stuff is there. My biggest games (EBF3, EBF4, EBF5, and BH2) can be purchased on Steam with more content, and my older games will also be released there, eventually. My mobile port of EBF5 is also almost ready, and after that, I’ll likely port a few more of my games. (I say port, but it’s still running on Flash, I’m just optimizing the performance and changing the UI)
- Anything else you want to say?
I keep needing to repeat this, but Flash is more than just the browser plugin. People are still using the software to animate cartoons, and Flash games are still being published on desktop and mobile. And all of those old web games are still playable, and probably always will be as long as someone remembers to back them up.
I really think a renewal of Flash games as a principle (easily accessible tools to create simple but still decent games and share them online) would be fantastic for indie devs: what better advertisement but to share minigames and prototypes for free for whoever could be interested in a bigger and more polished game?
I liked Flash games/animations for one reason: creators going wild with whatever idea they had, leading to both incredible variety and edgy stuff you would find nowhere else (all entertainment I was exposed to before visiting Newgrounds out of curiosity was incredibly sanitized or kid-friendly and the edgy humor on this site was both fascinating and a breath of fresh air) and the gaming industry as a whole would probably benefit from this freedom to experiment without risking your livelihood.
What flash games would be recommended any genre?
I hope you get to do an interview with Graeme of 2 Left Thumbs as part of his Flashlight series. It would be interesting to hear about how EBF has evolved as a series while listening to you talk about your experiences with Flash in general.
Really great interview, flash and web games had such a huge impact on me as a kid so I always love seeing how other people viewed those times, especially developers! 🙂