Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Notes from FlashForward 2006

Matt and Mike Chapman, the artistes that draw Home Star Runner (and Strong Bad!) are Nintendo DS fans. They had put on a talk at FlashForward in Seattle and the first thing they did was announce that they had started a Pictochat session. While one guy talked, the other guy would doodle away and read messages from folks responding in real-time to their talk. They also showed an early version of their cartoon that they claimed was created in MarioPaint. I have no idea if it is true, but these guys rock. Hero worship should be encouraged in such situations.

Strong Bad

I have mixed feelings about the Flash community at the moment. At FlashForward, all the cool people get together and show off the crazy things and cool techniques they can do in Flash. The game industry has jaded my inner technophile. Pixel operations such as morphing of two images are nifty, but wasn’t that done in the mid 90’s on the desktop and even earlier in the research labs? One fellow showed off some crazy particle effects. They are certainly artistic, but the same basic stuff was being done on the Amiga and C64 in ages past. The demo scene for god sake…how can you forget the demo scene? It’s like someone playing Black and then claiming Criterion invented the FPS…because they never played that last decade worth of games.

Why the Web is cool
But complaining about the fact that Flash people think ancient technology is cool misses the whole point of Flash and web technologies in general. These platforms succeed based on two key points that the game industry might want to take to heart:

  • Reduced barriers to entry for the customer
  • Putting creative power in the hands of non-technical people.
Why make a web application? From the user’s perspective the benefits are huge.

  • You don’t have to worry about a CD that you’ll inevitably lose.
  • You don’t have to worry about putting something on your machine that will screw it up.
  • You don’t have to worry about losing that silly application icon that gets lost in the crazy hierarchy of the Start Menu.
  • You can type an easily remembered URL into your web browser and get to your stuff instantly.
These are all minor items to the technologist, but they are some of the thousand little paper cuts that make many users despise their computer.

From the author’s perspective, the benefits are equally cool.

  • You do not need to be a technical expert. With a simple piece of software and bit of scrounging around the internet, anyone can just start making something. The 99% of the population who can’t code their way out of a paper bag can still make a blog. The 99% of artists who can code can still draw in flash and maybe even hook up a button or two. More passionate people working in a medium = better content. It is a simple thing.
  • For many simple projects, configuration management, updating users about versions, etc, etc are a thing the past. Upload to a central location and your users get the newest stuff. The cost of maintaining content goes way down.
A case in point are the Home Star Runner guys. Earlier in the day, you had the Adobe pitches gushing about the latest wild improvements to Flash 8 and beyond. Matt and Mike have what many attendees consider a dream Flash job. They are self employed, profitable, have their own office and produce kick ass creative content. Guess what they use? Ancient Flash 5, baby.

They use some simple drawing tools and the ability to navigate around. But that’s about it. No fancy pixel manipulation. No crazy XML integration. Just some basic tools and a lot of creative spark.

A pencil is a stick of graphite (but no body cares)
The best creative works are not only about technology. All artists have this pounded into their heads from an early age. A pencil is just a stick of graphite. It is cheap, readily available and easy to publish the results. It may not have the latest Gel Ink 5.0 technobabbloid writing engine. But that’s okay. Art is always about using what you have in a manner that inspires and entertains. The user doesn’t see a thousand flecks of graphite on a pressed sheet of paper fibers. They see a beautiful sketch by Leonardo.

The same goes for the web. The end user doesn’t care that Matt and Mike use Flash 5.0 instead of Flash 8.0. They could care less that the graphics technology behind Flicker or Google is 10 to 20 years old. These experiences are fun, hassle free. They showcase unique creative voices that may never have had a chance to blossom in other forms of media.

Imagine a day when two guys in an apartment working part time can make a world class game that garners more success than most big publisher properties. It has certainly happened in the past. The trends are such that it will happen again.

  • As the middleware industry matures and morphs into artistically friendly tool
  • As the deployment platforms become more standardized,
  • As the language of game design becomes more accessible and broadly taught
  • Production costs will fall and entry barriers to talented creative whackos will decrease.
The exciting part is that the web, as a platform, is in some ways much further along this path than our vaunted consoles or desktop PC games. Pretty cool. The fact that Flash-based casual games are one of the fasted growing segments of the game market is not an accident. Of course, now I wonder where all those AJAX web 2.0 games are lurking and why they aren’t more popular. :-)

Take care