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


  1. Danc, Your homestarrunner link is busted.



  2. 90% of my "kids these days" moments come when I mention the demo scene and nobody knows what the hell I'm talking about.

  3. There are some negatives to web applications that we must not forget. The most important of which is a single point of failure. If it goes down, it goes down for everyone. If my friend messes up his Word Processor I can still work on my computer. If Flickr goes down, everyone is screwed. The worst part is that no matter what your technical skill, you can't help bring it back up faster.

  4. Flash can be good, but when some people use it they think it's amazing it they can make an object move across the screen and feel they need to show it to everyone. Others are actually good. It all depends on the quality. So I do agree with your comments on the FlashForward stuff. Morphing images? It's, like, the first thing you learn. Anywhoo, those are my thoughts.

    Peace Out.
    Aein Silverwolf

  5. Lost Garden and Homestar Runner on the same page? It's a little too much for me to handle! :D

    Have you played Darwinia, Danc? I think it's one of the best games made in 2005. It was coded by three guys in their flat. Not quite 2 guys, but I'm sure you can forgive them. Anyway, I think you should try to check it out :)

  6. The reference to Flash and game development touches slightly (ever so slightly) on a post I made just yesterday to my blog,

    The basic premise: what can game developers learn from the whole "web 2.0" development scene? I think it's the fairly orthogonal separation of HTML/CSS/DOM, i.e. structure/aesthetics/behavior.

    I'd be curious to hear what you think.

  7. Danc,

    Long-time reader, first-time noter...

    While I appreciated everyone's comments as I'm sure you do, I always come away from your posts and essays with the sense that your ideas go beyond the subject matter presented. It doesn't have to be about Flash specifically, the core idea is of-course that other industries have a lot to learn from them.
    I'm sure you've heard it plenty of times before, but I think you're extremely talented in your perceptions of our industries - software, games etc. to name a few.
    I always enjoy reading your articles, so I hope this goes some small way to contributing to encouragement. While we as readers might not always agree with your perspectives, I regard them as highly valuable perspectives on the industries you commentate on.

    Perhaps one of the best elements of your writing is that many of your ideas, be they detailed and developed or not, can be easily applied to almost any industry, technical or otherwise. That is a rare talent in literature and journalism indeed.

    Keep it up.

  8. Awesome insight once again Danc.

    I see an interesting parallel between your speculation and what has already taken place in the web design you speak of actually. I friend I mine I spoke to stated that 5 years ago his company would get payed $6000 to create a presentable database-orianted website (like or something). Currently, they'd be lucky to get $600.

    The reason for this is because web design tools became cheaper and more user-friendly, and thus the entire process slowly broke down to individuals, just like you said. I can't wait for game design to follow suite. :D

  9. Yeah, but product design can't possibly be a means to help generate entertainment you madman...

    Ooops, wrong topic :)

    100% agree.

  10. Just FYI, I think the old H*R cartoon was done in Mario Paint, but the voices and sound we added after the fact.

    Nice article, btw.