Before 1996, the web was a static, dull place. But the accidental creation of Flash turned it into a cacophony of noise, colour, and controversy, presaging the modern web
On June 9th, 2008, about an hour into Apple’s annual WWDC keynote presentation in California, the breakthrough Rob Small was waiting for exploded from inside a cake. Steve Jobs was up on stage, looking particularly pleased with himself. Small was in London, watching via livestream.
The cake, around the size of an elephant, neatly ringed with shiny summer fruits and topped with a single lit candle, glowed on the conference screen to the Apple CEO’s left. “As we arrive at iPhone’s first birthday,” said Jobs, his voice rising, “we’re gonna take it to the next level.” The cake bisected and a logo appeared. The audience cheered obediently. “Today,” shouted Jobs, “we’re introducing the iPhone 3G!”
Back in 2001, in his early twenties, Small had detected an opportunity – one he saw was being overlooked by the culture industry’s established players – to push compulsive, short-form hits of entertainment to the masses. Not yet knowing what form this entertainment would take, he founded a company with a name derived from this conviction: Miniclip.
Small and his co-founder Tihan Presbie set about trying to find the right platform to realise this goal. They quickly identified an animation software that could display interactive multimedia across any browser and over almost any internet connection, requiring only the download of a small player. This software, which had been purchased and renamed in 1996 by the web development company Macromedia, was called Flash.
Miniclip proved an immediate success. Dancing Bush, an interactive animation of the former president gyrating his booty on a Saturday Night Fever-styled dance floor, started as an email sent out to just forty people, and became one of the world’s first viral games. By 2002, the company grew to be the web’s largest distributor of Flash games, a title it held for the next four years. In 2006, Disney bought Miniclip’s Club Penguin – which consisted of just, in Small’s words, “a few penguins waddling around in Flash” – for $500 million. At its peak, Miniclip was drawing in 75 million users per month.
In the same year Disney made this purchase, Adobe wrote a press release celebrating Flash’s tenth birthday. The company had months earlier paid $3 billion for the software, and the document aimed to emphasise the sheer scale of Flash’s dominance. Flash Player, Adobe bragged, “is installed on nearly 98 per cent of Internet enabled desktops”. Approximately 70 per cent of Fortune 100 companies carried Flash content on their websites. The software was available on “65 million mobile devices, consumer electronics, televisions, media players, set-top boxes, digital billboards, cameras, educational toys, even refrigerators.” It powered the Jaguar XK4’s “single screen delivery” of audio, navigation, climate control, telephone, and vehicle settings. In 2005, three former Google employees, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, created a video site underpinned by the software. They called it YouTube.
By 2008, Flash had become the standard for web-based video. It helped animation, games and multimedia design permeate the web. It energised content-creation culture we now take for granted online. But now, as Jobs prowled around that stage, Small understood that the iPhone 3G would change how his audience accessed games.
He had previously explored the possibility of expanding his games onto Java-enabled mobile devices, but had found it difficult to replicate the Flash experience on phones. The App Store struck him as a revolution. “It was obvious that it was going to be a breakthrough moment for phones,” he remembers. “We hoped it would allow us to create a much richer experience for gamers.” But the iPhone did not support Flash.
Future Splash Animator, as Flash was first known, was born out of another product’s failure. It was created in May 1996, by Jonathan Gay. In high school, Gay had watched his family collaborate with local artists to construct a home in the San Diego mountains. Inspired, he dreamed of becoming an architect, working at a drafting table to draw up plans for his own houses. He would soon discover, to his disappointment, that most architects never touch a cement mixer – they design buildings, they don’t construct them.
Gay elected instead “to get into computers”. Programming seemed to offer the union of design and construction that architecture did not. He created a graphics editor in the programming language Pascal and entered it into a high school fair. His dad soon bought him a Macintosh. At a Mac users group, Gay’s father bragged to its organiser Charlie Jackson – later an early investor in WIRED US – about his son’s top-drawer programming skills. “Charlie was trying to start a software company but didn’t really have the capital, then he’s like: oh a high school kid, he doesn’t need to get paid until after the software is done,” remembers Gay. “So I got to work on this expensive, $10,000 development system and write game software. And that was my introduction to animation.”
In January 1993, certain using a stylus and tablet to interact with your computer would take off, Gay convinced Jackson and another former colleague, Michelle Walsh, to found a new company with him: FutureWave Software. It was not successful. The intended operating system for SmartSketch, their graphics editor for pen computers, failed. The product was eventually ported to Microsoft Windows and Macintosh platforms, where it sold averagely.
In the summer of 1995, Gay attended SIGGRAPH, an annual conference on computer graphics, to showcase SmartSketch. He was humiliated, failing to sell a single copy. Yet those who did stop by Gay’s booth to try the software kept telling him the same thing: he should turn it into an animation product.
Though Gay had previously considered this route, he thought the animation market was too small: distribution was limited to videotape and CD-Rom, so the only organisations that created animations were big studios. But then he heard about the capabilities of this new thing called the internet. ”It seemed possible that it would become popular enough that people would want to send graphics and animation over it”, Gay recalled in a 2006 memo. The company added animation capabilities, and changed the software’s name first to CelAnimator, then to FutureSplash Animator. It was released in May 1996, and marketed as the “complete website graphics tool”.
Success, which relied on users actually downloading an accompanying player, came almost immediately. Microsoft needed software capable of showing video on their website, MSN.com, then the default homepage of every Internet Explorer user. It chose Future Splash. Disney would later adopt the product to build animation for its own online site. In December 1996, Macromedia bought FutureWave Software, raising its profile further, and distributed it as a free browser plugin. It also changed the name, which it thought too unwieldy. FutureSplash Animator became Macromedia Flash 1.0.
Flash, like most long-running and regularly updated software, evolved drastically over the course of its life. (“We had trouble getting that in a whole book,” says Anastasia Salter, co-author of Flash: Building the Interactive Web, when pressed to offer a description of the software.) But at its core, Flash’s appeal derived from its low entry level – its simplicity allowed anyone to quickly learn how to be an animator.
Every Flash user is confronted by a canvas – a blank white page. Onto this page, a user can draw an image; for the sake of this demonstration, imagine a happy little cloud. Your cloud, like everything else on the canvas, is governed by its own timeline, split into frames.
Currently, your happy little cloud is stationary. Imagine now that you want it to float across the page. You must first choose where you want it to end up and how many frames you want it to take getting there. Now, if you press play, Flash algorithmically generates the movement in between these two points (known as key frames) and your cloud floats across the canvas. (Bad Flash animations had a very particular lilting movement, due to over reliance on this calculation.) Later versions of Flash, particularly after the introduction of the scripting language ActionScript in Flash 5, added deeper interactivity, the building blocks of games. You could add a behaviour, for instance – perhaps so that a viewer of your cloud could evaporate it with the click of a mouse.
This movement between keyframes is known in the animation industry as tweening, short for “in-betweening”, and it’s traditionally carried out by artists lower down the animation food chain, at tedious length and prohibitive expense. That Flash filled in this process for the artist was revelatory. “I could do entire production line pipeline, basically what a studio does, in this one little program,” says Adam Phillips, who was already an established specialist in conjuring water, smoke and fire for Disney when he discovered Flash at the age of 30. He recalls that a fellow animator creating a three minute pilot pitch produced enough paper to stack above his head. He then had to pay $10,000 to get it digitised. This process took seven months. In Flash, a similar animation could take as little as three days. (His unlucky friend discovered Flash right after dropping the cash.)
Flash is inherently visual, as Gay intended. “We had this simple frame-based animation model – you could start with the graphics and the drawing, and then sort of gradually add and build the skills for behavior,” he says. He does not find Flash’s success a surprise. It fulfilled three functions the online world had pined for. The first was a general yearning to create something richer than you could with a GIF or with HTML: Flash provided a platform for short-form video on the internet. The second was Flash’s universality, it worked on different browsers, and different devices.
The third, in Gay’s words, is that Flash let designers, “right-brained people,” build interactive media and deliver it to large audiences. Flash brought visual artists online. “You could pair a visual to a programming action, and when your animation looped, your behaviour would loop too,” says Marty Spellerberg, a designer who contributed to early Flash website Halfempty.com. ”It tied those two ideas together, which I think was an important hook for a lot of visual artists to get involved. We didn’t even know we were programming – we thought we were just learning Flash.”
The online world Flash entered was largely static. Blinking GIFs delivered the majority of online movement. Constructed in early HTML and CSS, websites lifted clumsily from the metaphors of magazine design: boxy and grid-like, they sported borders and sidebars and little clickable numbers to flick through their pages (the horror).
Flash changed all that. It transformed the look of the web. Just as your happy little cloud floated, just as Bush’s hips swayed, websites were given life. “Flash was sound; it was movement; it was interactivity,” says Spellerberg. “It was kind of the internet that was portrayed in movies, right? When you see the internet in pop culture, it’s this dynamic, immersive experience – you could create those kinds of things with Flash.”
Animations could be limited to an interactive box on the page – a little video or game on a MySpace page – or they might encompass whole websites. “It’s almost akin to the difference between what we see today on a console to like virtual reality,” agrees Small. “It was a massive leap forward in terms of sophistication and kind of depth and engagement.”
Some of these websites were, to put it succinctly, absolute trash. Flash was applied enthusiastically and inappropriately. The gratuitous animation of restaurant websites was particularly grievous – kitsch abominations, these could feature thumping bass music and teleporting ingredients. Ishkur’s ‘guide to electronic music’ is a notable example from the era you can still view – a chaos of pop arty lines and bubbles and audio samples, it looks like the mind map of a naughty child.
Even genuinely gorgeous examples of the era, like Vodafone’s Future Vision – a shifting, shimmering hallucination of graphics, video and sound that proposed how the company’s products might look like in ten years – seems to expect users to be compelled by the delights of their own exploration. “They were mazes!” says Spellerberg. “No business would commission such a thing now – we have business expectations for things and we know what works.” In contrast to the web’s modern, business-like aesthetic, there is something bizarre, almost sentimental, about billion-dollar multinationals producing websites in line with Flash’s worst excess: long loading times, gaudy cartoonish graphics, intrusive sound and incomprehensible purpose.
“Though I love that era of web design there are lots of problems with it,” says Salter. “It was completely inaccessible because there’s no metaphor of a page inside Flash. The browser, screen readers, text, everything just becomes a bit of a disaster. When you look at it from a archivists perspective, or a screen reader perspective, these websites were bad in a lot of ways, but they were fun!”
Of all these websites, one commands the strongest legacy. It would engender an understanding of the internet we now take for granted: as a portal to a limitless audience, where people and their creations could be seen and judged.
It was founded in Perkasie, a small town in Pennsylvania, when teenager Tom Fulp launched a fanzine to celebrate his favourite line of consoles, the Neo Geo. He called his magazine New Ground, and published issues of it on the web using Prodigy, an early online service. When he obtained his first web page, in 1995, he called it New Ground Remix; in 1998, preparing for a TV interview about one of his earliest creations, the game Assassin, he changed the URL to one he thought he might be easier for TV viewers to read. This name, Newgrounds.com, has stuck till this day.
Fulp’s early attempts at animation, created on an Amiga with Deluxe Paint and then programmed in Pascal, were laborious. He had not yet found a software that would let him create sophisticated animations. “I always wished there was a tool that would let me apply my programming to the art animation,” he says. “Because anytime I tried to get into actual game development, it was a way steeper learning curve that was way harder than it seemed like it needed to be.”
In 1998, he discovered Flash. He recognised its importance immediately. “Even though the action script was a lot more limited back then, it was immediately like scratching that itch”, he says. “There was no other way at the time to make that level of interactive content and to have it also be so multi platform – if you made something in Flash, it worked on every single computer, like every single web browser.”
That year, he created Teletubby Funland, which featured the Teletubbies smoking, drinking vodka and fucking sheep. The BBC’s lawyers were displeased. “They sent me a takedown notice – how much of a nightmare for a teenager to get into a legal situation, right?” he says. “This UK group called Internet Freedom – they came forward defending the right of the site to parody the Teletubbies.”
Though Fulp never heard from the BBC again, the site’s notoriety was confirmed, and the Newgrounds community grew. Fulp added a chat room and message board. He soon became inundated with flash art from people who had created something but didn’t have a website of their own to showcase it. He placed these in an area of the site he dubbed the Portal, but the manual labour of this process became too much. His next step was revolutionary.
“In April 2000, we basically set up an automated publishing system,” he explains. (The first animation to be migrated over into the Portal was three-part series Scrotum the Puppy, about a puppy called Scrotum.) “People could instantly upload games or animation and then, as a sort of quality control and a concern for hard drive space, the users would vote on it. And if the score was too low during the judgment phase, it would get deleted automatically – the community just grew from there.”
To grasp the significance of what Fulp is describing here, it’s useful to consider some of the ‘firsts’. Newgrounds was the first website to allow real-time publishing of movies and games. It provided the first ever video voting system. One of the first viral videos, Numa Numa dance, originated from its pages. Its community members created some of the 2000s most celebrated games (such as Alien Hominid, N plus and Super Meat Boy) and popular animations (Potter Puppet Pals, Charlie the Unicorn and Salad Fingers). “It’s actually frustrating because some of the really popular content on YouTube was actually on Newgrounds first,” says Fulp. “It made us a little jealous that YouTube got so much attention for it!”
Newgrounds also laid the foundations for the participatory culture we now take for granted on the web. “Newgrounds was that perfect place where people could envision themselves creating some of the content that was shared, and immediately participate,” says Salter. “Now we’re we’re spoiled for choice on platforms where that has become more feasible.”
“The internet comes along, and there are no filters whatsoever,” remembers Fulp. “So instead of trying to make more of what already existed, it kind of became like how crazy, how insensitive and how horrible can we make some of the stuff?” This attitude would lead to genuinely breathtaking works of animation, like Adam Phillip’s acclaimed Brackenwood series, sharing space with what Fulp now calls ‘edgy stuff’ – the kind of content that titillated teenage boys, including animated school shootings, celebrity killing games and mountains and mountains of porn. (Fulp would tire of this kind of animation; in 2007, he changed the site’s motto from ‘The problems of the future, today’ to ‘Everything for everyone’ to stop “attracting bad attitudes”.)
But Newgrounds openness was also its strength. “It was instrumental in me remaining freelance and developing a career in the creative industry,” says Jacek Zmarz, an amateur animator on Newgrounds, now a freelance filmmaker. “I remember logging into MSN every evening and working through games with my pal Shinki, an actionscript programmer, who I’d never met.” Only 14, Zmarz was paid £300 for “a Halloween game where you play as monsters who throw bombs on trick-or-treaters for impersonating them”. This was enough money to buy a new laptop. Flash allowed groups of hobbyists to create legitimate businesses from their passion. “Flash was an outlet to tell our own stories,” says Phillips. “That accessibility is what it brought for me. It was an outlet for any animator, any artist, or even people who weren’t artists. People were trying their hand at Flash, just experimenting, and maybe discovering that they were artists through that.”
“Back in 2007, you could be making Flash games and actually be making a living,” remembers Fulp, when asked about Flash’s golden age. “That was a really fun time, because that’s kind of what everyone’s dream is: to make the games you want and be able to make a living off it.”
In an April 2010 letter, entitled ‘Notes on Flash’, Jobs explained why Flash would never be supported on the iPhone. His assessment is brutally candid. Flash drained batteries. It ran slow. It was a security nightmare. He asserted that an era had come to an end. “Flash is no longer necessary to watch video or consume any kind of web content,” wrote Jobs. “Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.” In 2017, Adobe announced that Flash Player would cease to be developed and supported by the end of 2020.
Some of Job’s critiques, particularly regarding Flash’s security issues, were well placed. But broadly the Apple CEO’s move was tactical. (“He was known for his reality distortion field,” says Fulp. “Basically – he decided how he wanted things to be, and then he bent reality to his will!”). It was economically viable for him to rubbish Flash – he wanted to encourage people to create native games for iOS. “I mean, it’s easy to see why Apple made that decision, from a marketing point,” says Salter. “It’s a very good way to keep keep control over the software and app-like experience on the phone.”
Regardless of the reasons, says Small, Miniclip’s audience had already begun to stop using the software. “From 2008, 2009 onwards, we started to see our audience declining,” he says. “And we knew that was because they were going into smartphones. So we needed to follow that audience.”
The launch of the iPhone 3G, spurred Small to act. “Within two weeks of seeing Jobs wandering out onto that stage with the iPhone 3G and launching it, we started to explore the iPhone as a potential platform for us to launch mobile versions of our flash games,” he says. Miniclip started production of Monster Truck Nitro for the App Store, a conversion of its successful Flash game. It was released in early 2009 and immediately went to number one and sold more than 3.8 million copies. “That was when we went all-in-one mobile,” says Small. “We aggressively cross-promoted all the mobile versions of our most popular flash games to our players on Miniclip.com, which resulted in Miniclip being one of the top 3 referrers of traffic to iTunes in 2009-2010”. In 2000, 95 per cent of Miniclip’s revenue had come from the web. By 2012, 95 per cent of their revenue was coming from mobile.
Small, whose 8 Ball Pool is now one of the top grossing games in the western world, compares Flash’s decline to VHS: sad but necessary. “Today, we’ve got 200 million users a month – we’re way bigger than we were,” he says. “But everything that we see in the mobile free to play game space today started in the browser in Flash games. It was part of this story that’s created, a business – the mobile games industry – that’s now worth $70 billion a year.”
The post-Flash internet looks different. The software’s downfall precipitated the rise of a new aesthetic, explains Salter, one moulded by the specifications of the smartphone and the growth of social media. The former demanded developers think more pragmatically about their design philosophies – they must think about what works on a small screen first. “There’s been an increased respect for user centered design, usability and accessibility concerns that were less prevalent when we talk about the old school web,” says Salter. “If you go back and look at some of those websites, there’s some seizure-inducingly painful elements and unreadable color schemes – some of that change is just the fact that we are thinking more about users.”
The second change has been the rise of Facebook. Its minimal early design stripped back the control and customisation a user might have expected from LiveJournal, or MySpace. “That type of aesthetic and uniformity has had a huge influence on how all social media platforms are handling user content – we’re getting a lot of interesting user created content that’s in the little box within a very rigid social media ecosystem template,” says Salter. “It’s practical, it works well across lots of devices and purposes. And it’s boring!”
Gay believes that there was also a general change in the design aims of the internet. Flash designers, Gay says, tried to immerse and thrill their audience; they aimed “to emulate the TV or the movie experience”. “It turns out, Twitter’s a better model for holding attention,” he explains. “The key is the hit of information, or the picture of Kim Kardashian. People want that hit, not the immersive experience.”
Newgrounds hasn’t used Flash in years. In 2012, in a site redesign, it dropped the ‘Flash’ from the Flash Portal. But Fulp bemoans the loss of a universal platform, and the dispersal of the internet into separate ecosystems. “If you made something in Flash, it worked on every single computer – every single web browser,” he says. “It’s a shame that they didn’t do a better job at continuing that mentality.”
Fulp is working diligently to preserve Newgrounds’ Flash content. Like every internet site, it stores a vast and valuable archive of human behaviour, celebrity butchering games and all. In 2012, Newgrounds launched Swivel, which converts old Flash files into MP4 video files. In April of this year, it beta-launched Newgrounds Player, a desktop player for Flash content. Fulp hopes, “in the not too distant future” to have developed a Flash emulator – which will keep all those old games and animations playable in browser. “It’s kind of fun to imagine someone who thinks Flash is gone coming to the site in like, 2021, and playing an old Flash game in the browser, and being like, ‘Wait, how’s this even working?’,” he says. “It’ll be like Flash never even left.”
All Rights Reserved for Will Bedingfield