File picture: Pixabay
File picture: Pixabay

Flash is dead, but these 2000s games hope to live on

By The Washington Post Time of article published Apr 10, 2021

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By Elise Favis, Shannon Liao

In mid-January, a Twitch streamer named QuackityHQ rallied his 100,000 viewers to log in to the video game "Habbo Hotel" en masse. His plan was to overwhelm the game's servers and send a message to the developers: that longtime "Habbo" fans were unhappy with recent changes after a transition from Flash to Unity, which left out core features and changed the user interface.

"They're destroying their own game, and we're going to stop [them] from doing so," Quackity said during his stream, urging players to flood into different virtual rooms.

Flash, a programming language, makes it possible for games and animations to work directly within a Web browser (similar to videos, but interactive). In 2017, Adobe - the company that created Flash - announced the discontinuation of Flash Player, effectively ceasing updates, downloads and support for the plug-in by late 2020. In 2021, Flash was blocked on major Web browsers. "Habbo Hotel" was one of the browser-based video games forced to leave Flash behind, and the transition was rife with challenges, including bugs.

Quackity's stream drew significant social media attention, and eventually the hashtag #notmyhabbo was trending on Twitter. Thousands tweeted about their dissatisfaction, and rapper Soulja Boy - a "Habbo" player - took notice, streaming himself playing "Habbo" that day. The servers were stressed but did not crash, developer Sulake said, causing players to have difficulty logging in during the period of increased traffic. A month later, Sulake announced the return of an older version of "Habbo" through a downloadable client, a temporary workaround to appease an unhappy player base before the full transition.

"It's become clear that we're not making quick enough progress with getting the Unity client to a satisfactory, playable state," read a blog post on "Habbo's" official website.

Flash experienced a boom in the early and mid 2000s, with websites such as Newgrounds, Miniclip and Neopets being popular destinations for young Internet users. These websites still exist today, but have undergone significant changes to accommodate the absence of Flash in browsers.

As an easy-to-learn and versatile programming language, many creators used Flash as their entry point into game design. For example, indie hit "Super Meat Boy" began as a Flash game, and popular 2010 Flash platformer "VVVVVV" was eventually ported to the Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo Switch. Websites like Newgrounds, which act as a YouTube-like library where users upload their own Flash content, helped creators make their mark and build an audience. Going viral was not as obvious during the 2000s, and Newgrounds, hosting popular games that accrue upward of 20 million hits, helped creators rise to the top.

"Back then, Flash was really cutting-edge because the Internet was very much text and pictures without a lot of sound and interactive elements," Newgrounds founder Tom Fulp told The Washington Post. "Flash really drove the Web forward."

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"Habbo Hotel," described as a social game, saw its peak in popularity during the mid-2000s. Players create virtual rooms and decorate them with furniture, hang out and play games together. The advent of social media reduced its novelty, but "Habbo" still reaches 600,000 to 1 million monthly users, according to Sulake.

Sulake began working on a Unity version of "Habbo" in 2018, and the team faced several technical challenges with the transition. According to Sulake CEO Valtteri Karu, Unity is not known for "Habbo," which is presented as an isometric, pixelated sandbox.

"A lot of things had to be thought from ground up," Karu said.

The Unity version launched with poor performance, a confusing user interface and several missing features, many of which are absent today. However, not everything was omitted because of technical reasons - the Unity version was a chance for the team to try new ideas. One was changing how players trade items. But the new system turned out to be restrictive, with players unable to trade furniture among themselves privately. The decision was not "that popular with users," Karu said.

Neopets, a website where players can take care of a virtual pet and play games, similarly faced a challenging transition away from Flash. In 2020, the company estimated that the site had 100,000 daily active users and 1.5 million monthly active players.

"We're not like a hundred person dev team where we could just focus on everything at once," said Neopets brand manager Stephanie Lord. "So we definitely have to prioritize."

Lord described 2020 as a rush to get Neopets running without Flash. December was particularly difficult because Neopets typically celebrates Christmas on the site with special events. Users visit the Advent Calendar for a free daily gift and a cheery Flash animation. On top of the annual festivities, the development team had to fix major parts of the site to keep things usable.

Users took to social media platforms to complain about site lag, glitches and games not working. While Neopets developers tried to fix things, they set expectations: Not everything would be converted immediately. Instead they prioritized converting features more users were likely to use, such as customization of pets, daily activities and the Neopian Pound, a place to adopt or abandon pets.

"We're happy that Flash is gone now," Lord said. "We can just be like, OK, it's done, it's gone."

While parts of the Neopets site does not work, without the looming deadline, the development team is focused on fixing features gradually, Lord said. The company is also considering bringing Neopets to Nintendo Switch, to modernize the product and expand its audience.

As Neopets gradually improves its site, it's bringing older features back online.

One example is the Wheel of Monotony, an iconic stone wheel in the prehistoric land Tyrannia, which spins for hours before landing on a prize. After Flash died, the wheel was down until February, when developers brought the feature to HTML5. As a daily activity, it was on the list to be fixed quickly. That proved to be a technical challenge. The wheel's main feature is that it would spin for an extensive amount of time, until a Flash player engine told it to stop. Neopets developers needed to use extra math and a countdown timer in JavaScript to keep the wheel running.

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Newgrounds, a website with nearly 100,000 in-browser games, saw Flash dying from a mile away. Newgrounds launched in the early '90s, and by 1998, every single game and animation on the website ran through Flash, and that continued until 2012.

"The excitement over Flash died off a lot after 2012," Fulp said. "We pretty much spent the past decade with that on our mind, preparing for a future without it."

In the early 2010s, HTML5 video games were in their "infancy," Fulp said, and video - particularly on platforms including YouTube - was soaring in popularity. Newgrounds took note, and it added a video player for its animated content and support for uploading HTML5 games, but it still needed to figure out a solution to keep alive the thousands of older Flash games.

Mike Welsh, a developer for Newgrounds until 2012, built the open-source software Swivel, allowing users to convert their Flash content into high-definition video so it could be archived for the long term. Later, Welsh would help build Ruffle, a Flash emulator that can be downloaded as a desktop application or a browser extension. Once downloaded, users can access Flash content as it was before its discontinuation.

"We've been integrating Ruffle with the site and so far, the majority of content [on Newgrounds] from before 2007 is running with Ruffle," Fulp said. "The goal is to run all of the Flash content with Ruffle as it progresses."

Ruffle is made by volunteers, and the software is free to download. It's not the only preservation project out there. The most robust is Flashpoint, a 500-gigabyte library of about 79,000 Flash games. It's entirely volunteer-based, with a team of about 200, and is free. Its creator aims to keep it that way.

"It's part of the culture [of Flash], right?" Flashpoint founder Ben Latimore, known by his handle BlueMaxima online, told The Post. "Everybody gave away everything for free. That was always the thing. It was a meritocracy, and that was the best thing about it."

Latimore, a 26-year-old from Australia, began Flashpoint in 2017 shortly after the announcement of the discontinuation of Flash. He has a passion for digital preservation, having previously conserved mobile games that ran on Java. With Flashpoint, he was one of the first to start preserving Flash games.

"Projects like Ruffle didn't exist yet," Latimore said. "There wasn't any other preservation project for Flash of any kind."

Although he was earlier than most, Latimore says he could have been quicker to act. The warning signs, he says, can be traced back to about 10 years ago, when Apple CEO Steve Jobs restricted Flash from being used on iPhones.

Creating Flashpoint was tricky. Among other complications, there are often security locks on Flash files that only allow them to be played on certain websites or in specific circumstances. Latimore solved this problem by having his Flashpoint program emulate a "fake Internet," as he calls it. Basically, your computer is tricked into believing you're on the Web when you aren't, allowing for Flash to run properly in the background - even without Flash Player installed on your computer.

"It works amazingly for the preservation side of things, because not only do we have access to all of these games in their original form, we also don't have to touch them," Latimore said. "We don't have to go in and edit them to make them work in the first place. So we have the original copies as they were on the Internet."

Many of the games on Flashpoint no longer exist on the Web, Latimore said. He and his team of curators scour the Internet for Flash games, which are then downloaded and preserved within Flashpoint's growing library. This is done without the consent of game makers, and occasionally, some are irked that their content is distributed without permission, but Latimore says most developers are happy the project exists at all.

Latimore believes there are several factors that made Flash unique - so unique that we may never see anything like it again. He cites how it encouraged "free consumption" similar to the mobile market, but without predatory tactics such as loot boxes. It was a tool with universal compatibility across the Web, coupled with a "sense of community that was unparalleled," Latimore said, as people helped the best of the best rise in popularity by word of mouth.

"The idea of playing games through a Web browser may well go away in the next few years," he said. "In general, with programing languages, if one dies you can just replace it with another. Flash isn't the same, because it worked everywhere and it was relatively easy [for anyone to learn and publish]. There's nothing like it really, and probably will be nothing like it again."

The Washington Post

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