Monday, 18 April 2011

Is Flash Cool?

Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s fly,
DJ’s Spinning, I said “My! my!”,
Flash is fast, Flash is cool.
- Blondie
A couple of days ago I saw a really great bit of Flash work – Magnum Pleasure Hunt which was flying around twitter. It’s a really fun (silly) bit of interactive media combining gaming, video and animation in a seamless way that only Flash can do on the web at the moment. It’s a classic theFWA-style Flash site. A couple of years ago I used to check these kinds of sites out all the time. Now, not so much. Why is that? Is it just me reaching a jaded, “I’ve seen it all” phase? Or has the world moved on? Is Flash still cool?

So I turned to you guys on twitter and asked the simple question #isflashcool? (and give it a score out of 10 to be scientific)/ Here are your thoughts...

For many respondents, Flash developers themselves are the thing that keeps Flash cool:

Kyle Rodgers offered the pragmatic “8/10 - It's still far more capable than the alternatives (except unity) and filled with hilariously talented people”. James Whiteley: "Flash is 10/10 cool. The coolest people I know are flashers!" Fran├žois Gillet: "Flash is cool because I use it and I'm the coolest guy in the world!"

For others, technology is irrelevant. Dan Stubbs: "Doing anything more creative than veging on a sofa, eating food from a packet & watching X-Factor is cool". One repsondant has never really got over his first love, Adam Montandon: "Is director cool? It's had 3d and physics for years!(wipes tear from eye)".

For some, Flash needs to work a bit harder to move with the times, and keep up with the competition. Miguel Arias: "I would say 7/10, it still has its space but needs to adapt to this new era." Simon Rohrbach: "Flash is an brilliant piece of technology, but its era is over. 0/10, but I'll give it a 1/10 because it ruled my childhood." Dan Rogers: "I'd give it 5/10, because it still has a place, but coolness is dropping."Mark Grossnickle: "7/10. Flash Needs to perform better on mobile. Future is promising with Molehill". Squize: "I think Clint Eastwood is cool, I think Flash is a means to an end and whose star is waning due to real competition". joseeight: "#IsFlashCool - it used to be 5 years ago; #IsHTML5cool - yes, it's the shizzle"

Although my twitter followers skew heavily towards Flash developers, there were still a fair share of detractors. Jon Gold: "Flash is as cool as Coldplay. 0/10". And we also had some jokers in there, like graham milton: "Flash is [THIS_CONTENT_REQUIRES_FLASH_PLUG-IN] cool".

Some rejected the premise of the question: Paulo Fierro: "I'm with @cspelsor. the tools don't matter, its what you do with them". Grant Garrett "It's ALL about how you use your tool!"

For some, the word “cool” was a bit of a stumbling block. Martin Darby: "Is this not a bit like saying are chisels cool?-Well if you want to carve wood yes. If you want to bake a cake, no." Matt Pearson: "Skateboarding = cool. Swearing = cool. Snorting drugs offa Angelina Jolie's back = cool. Can Flash do these? No." Chris Pelsor: "Wow, nice to see Twitter has made that final digression back to high school... it's called getting old. You reach a point where what's cool is your kid getting excited that they flew a kite for the first time."

But anyone who knows me, will know that I’m not really interested in “cool” in the sense of Ugg Boots or Ray Bans – I’m talking about cool in the intangible sense that The Millennium Falcon is cool, or doing a good deed is cool, or yes, flying a kite with your kid is cool. You look at it and say “cool!” But it terms of the highschool meaning of cool, many people noticed that Flash didn’t have the best public perception right now. Mark Burvill: "I'd give it 1/10 right now. But that's kinda why I love it more than ever. Being cool usually means you're a dick."

Richard Lord seemed to pinpoint the indefinable concept of cool the best, so I'll let him have the last word:

Flash is not cool, and hasn't been for some time (5/10). But it gets stuff done, which is more important. Boringly, iOS is still cool. Unity is cool. Kinect is cool. Scala is cool. On the other hand, Flash, C#, jQuery, XNA are not cool, despite being very good at what they do. I don't equate cool with useful, effective or high quality, which are more important in the tools I use. Don't chase the cool, build the cool.
I can't say it better than that!

Monday, 11 April 2011

What have I been up to?

I haven't updated the blog in a while as I've been a bit blah, so I thought to help organise my brain a bit better I'd write a list of everything I've been up to, and what's coming next. I'm also slightly hung-over, if that information helps. This is exactly the kind of post I set out not to write when I started my blog. Good blogging is about writing articles, I think. Ideally, they should be good enough to print them in a magazine that someone would buy. However, a few personal milestones have also gone by in the last couple of years with little fanfare, so it's probably past-time I got into a bit of reflection. (I failed to mark 10 years using Flash, 10 years in the industry, 3 years of blogging, 2 years running my own business and, more depressingly, turning 30 - oops.)

I've been a freelance Flash game developer, or as I like to call it "Managing Creative Director of my own company", for over 2 years now, since leaving Bloc. My main business is still developing games and game-like-things for clients, using Flash. I've played with other platforms like XNA/Windows Phone, JavaScript/Canvas and Unity3D, but each one just reminds me how much I love Flash, and how much my knowledge of the language and platform helps me get things done. Obviously, other developers have this feeling about other technologies, and that's great. But for me, for now, Flash still rules. I find flipping between Flash Develop for code and Flash Professional for layout to be a joyous way of working. Tools aside, one of the best things about Flash is that everyone can see your work without having to own an expensive smart phone, download anything or worry about what browser they are using. End users don't even know or care what Flash is. They just know that there are fun things on the web as well as the "information" that geeks tend to obsess about.

My most recent piece of released work is a physics toy I made for Users have made all kinds of crazy scenes with it - you can look at them here. It uses the excellent Nape physics engine, which I love. I'm now working on a "generative art" application also for Muzy. It's not finished yet, but it can make things like this:

The graphics for both these projects were supplied by my occasional collaborator, my wife Amanda, who nicely fills in a lot of the gaps in my skill set, like realistic drawing. You can see a few more of her lovely pixels on her new website. Amanda is still finding her style as an illustrator after a previous life as a developer, so expect even prettier things from her in the future.

As well as keeping up the client work, I am now taking independent game development more seriously. I love making games, and I've been doing it for over 10 years, but when I look back at the output of my 10 year career, I don't see a body of work that represents a great deal about who I am, what I like or what I know about game design. Even though I'm vaguely notable on the Flash scene, nobody in the games world knows or cares who I am or what I do. And I don't have a single game that I could point them to that would convince them they should. Most of the work I do is "white label", which means I can't really talk about it, or sometimes even say that I did it. My biggest hits such as Zwok and Stackopolis were many years ago, and largely forgotten, and besides, they were team-efforts rather than my own particular visions. It's time I put my money where my mouth is, or as Joey deVilla puts it so beautifully, put a rocket up my ass.

Owl Spin

The next game you'll see from me is Owl Spin. That's a picture of it, there. With the spinning owl. It's a casual skill/puzzle game. I'm very happy with how it has turned out, and I've learned a lot making it. It's currently available for sponsorship offers on, but I just put it on "Last Call", so if you're a portal-owner, you'd better hurry if you want your name on it. While it probably won't make anything like the same money I'd have been paid had it been a client commission, it's still enough to convince me that I can develop games independently and not starve (I could do with losing an inch around the waist anyway).

I keep all the intellectual property, and I got to make the game how I wanted it to be. And I got to do the art myself - an itch that has remained largely unscratched since leaving university. (The interactive media business likes to pigeon-hole and force specialisation on people for reasons of efficiency, regardless of what they actually enjoy, hence how I somehow went from being a Junior Designer with a mixed portfolio of skills to a Head of Interactive who eats, drinks and sleeps ActionScript.) If I did some things wrong in development, I think it's these...

I probably did it a little bit too much in stealth mode. Nobody really knew I was working on a game, and then I announced that it was finished. This means there's not a great deal of anticipation or awareness of Owl Spin. From now on I'm going to try to be more open early on, perhaps get some earlier feedback on how the game plays, what could be improved, etc. I'm rectifying this by announcing my next game now.

I also probably misjudged the game portal market somewhat. Games about cute birds do well on mobile devices that have a broad, casual audience. But on reflection, I think the Flash portal audience is really more of a mini-hardcore audience. RPGs and action games with guns, zombies and wizards etc seem to be more popular than casual, cute bird-based titles. (The Flash equivalent of Angry Birds, Crush the Castle, features medieval weaponry and gory explosions!) There's no wish-fulfilment for a 14 year old kid in become an Owl with rotating wings, alas. I'm rectifying this with a load of guns.

Lastly, I don't think I made my dream game, the game I couldn't wait to play, if only it existed. So what kind of games do I enjoy playing? Fortuitously, I happen to like games with guns and wizards in. My favourite games at the moment are freeware sensation Super Crate Box and action-RPG Mass Effect 2. I also have very fond memories of games like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight and Metal Slug. So I'm making something that's a bit like all these games, and I'm calling it Super Gun Kids.

I'm doing the art in the same really simple vector style as Owl Spin. It's quick to do, looks OK and animates well, and lets the player concentrate on the gameplay. While previewing Owl Spin I have had a few criticisms / suggestions about level design and gameplay, but nobody criticized the graphics, despite the fact that I knocked a whole games worth out in about one day. I'm also sticking with cuteness and blue skies. It worked for platform games in the 16-bit era, and I think it still works now. I'm hoping Super Gun Kids will be the game that catapults from jaded hired-gun to indie game hero, but who knows!?

Ok, so what else is happening with me? I'm getting more and more into teaching game design / development. I've been doing loads of guest lectures at colleges and universities, and I'm setting up an evening course in Flash games for complete beginners at Truro College, which will be starting in September, as long as 10 people sign-up. On the advanced level stuff, if there is enough interest from you guys, I will try to run some professional training in advanced gamedev with AS3 in London (or anywhere else it's wanted) this year. If you're interested in coming, please let me know so I can work out if it's worth doing. I'd also like to write a book on advanced gamedev, but I'm not sure if there's still a market for Flash books, and from what I understand it's a lot of work for not much reward (I found being tech reviewer for a book was pretty exhausting!)

I'm also involved with the Extended Play indie games meetup group in Plymouth. We get a great mix of lovely people coming along to talk, listen and show their games. There's going to be a bigger Extended Play festival down here in October, with proper visiting speakers, workshops etc, so I'll probably be trying to get you all down here after the summer! (or come sooner, there's great surfing). If you've ever thought about organising or attending an indie-dev meetup, do it, it's fun! The meetup has also introduced me to the guys from interactive studio Mutant Labs, who are not only freakishly talented, but also ruddy nice blokes. I've even some how convinced them to team up on a game with me in the near future (more info on that soon).

I'll be attending Game Camp in London in May - it's a 1-day unconference where lots of smart, friendly people will be talking to each other about games. There are still tickets left and they're only about £15! I would love to do Flash on the Beach again this year, but getting on the line-up is very competitive and organiser John is spoilt for choice with great speakers (so if you'd like to see me speak there, please let him know, he's @FOTB on twitter! hiiiiiint!)

Seb Lee-Delisle and I have also been doing The Creative Coding Podcast, where we talk about all types of creative development - games, game-like-things, visual programming, digital installations, experiments etc. It has been incredibly popular, and based on the great comments we get, it obviously fills some gap in the universe for hearing people talk about development from a creative perspective. Most episodes now have over 5000 downloads, which is a lot more people than read my blog or follow me on twitter, and I'm pretty sure it makes us one of the top developer podcasts.

I've probably burned through about 3 posts worth of content there - oh well! The next couple of blog posts from me will be the one announcing that Owl Spin has been released and a review of Away3D 3.6 Essentials, which the publisher has just sent me and I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in to. Let me know what you guys have been up to and where you're going next in the comments or on your own blogs if you got 'em. Thanks for reading!