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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Flash is dead. These games from the early 2000s hope to live on.

Illustration for Launcher story about the death of Flash games (The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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In mid January, a streamer named QuackityHQ rallied his hundred thousand 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 following 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 gonna 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 develops 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 a lot of bugs.

Quackity’s stream drew significant social media attention, and eventually the hashtag #notmyhabbo was trending on Twitter. Thousands tweeted about their dissatisfaction, and even rapper Soulja Boy — a “Habbo” user himself — took notice, later streaming himself playing “Habbo” that same day. The servers were stressed, but didn’t 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.

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Flash experienced a boom in the early and mid 2000s, with websites like 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 wasn’t 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.”

A challenging transition

“Habbo Hotel” saw its peak in popularity during the mid 2000s. Described as a social game, 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 roughly 600,000 to one 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 isn’t known for building games like “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 still 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 wasn’t “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 the site still 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.”

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Lord described 2020 as a mad rush to get Neopets running without Flash, as the end of year deadline loomed. 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 also set realistic 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, okay, it’s done, it’s gone.”

While parts of the Neopets site still don’t work, without the looming deadline, the development team is just 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 successfully 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 will 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.

Preserving a piece of Internet history

Newgrounds, a website with a library of 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 was run via 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 like YouTube — was soaring in popularity. Newgrounds took note, and added a video player for its animated content and support for uploading HTML5 games, but they still needed to figure out a solution to keep the thousands of older Flash games alive.

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Mike Welsh, a web developer for Newgrounds until 2012, had an idea: He 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 on webpages 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 either. The most robust is Flashpoint, a 500 Gb-sized library of approximately 79,000 Flash games. It’s entirely volunteer-based, with a team of about 200, and is completely free — and 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 Washington 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 worked on projects like conserving old-school 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 still feels he could have been quicker to act. The warning signs, he says, can be traced back to around 10 years ago, when former Apple CEO Steve Jobs restricted Flash from being used on iPhones.

Creating Flashpoint was tricky. Among other complications, there are often security locks in place 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.”

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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.”

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