Molehill + Scaleform = hardware accelerated 2D in Flash?
This post is pretty much an open letter to Adobe, so if you know anyone who works there, please send it to them. I've had what I think is quite an interesting idea, and I think it's one that Adobe should have a long think about. The Flash player is about to add hardware accelerated 3D rendering with "molehill". The demos that have been released so far look great - amazing 3D scenes rendered with no impact on the CPU. All the rendering is handled by the GPU, leaving the CPU free to process your game logic, including physics, collision detection and AI - which allows for more advanced gameplay (and stops Flash-haters fixating on how much of their precious CPU the "bloated" Flash plug-in is consuming).
However, this will only apply to 3D games. In fact 2D games - which we must not forget are what has made Flash the number 1 gaming platform on the web - will see no benefit from this release. What's the message from Adobe here? That 3D is the future of gaming - 2D is not important, or at least 2D games already have good enough performance. But when you consider that native 2D iPhone and Android games have similar (if not better) performance than 2D Flash games on much inferior hardware, you can see there is plainly massive room for improvement. Now look at the iPhone and Android appstores, where there is a genuine choice between 2D and 3D games. The charts are dominated by 2D games like Angry Birds, showing that 2D is still the dominant style for casual games.
Ok, so what can we as game developers do about it? Well, we could make all our 2D games using bitmaps rendered on 3D planes, and so leverage the GPU rendering of "molehill". Now our CPU is free for game logic. But what have we lost? Well for starters the display list with it's powerful nesting features, filters, textfields, use of the Flash pro IDE for layout. In short everything that makes Flash what it is.
So what can Adobe do about it? Well, there already exists a technology called Scaleform that renders the Flash vector engine using GPU accelerated 3D by tessellating 2D graphics - effectively turning them into flat meshes of 3D polygons that the GPU is designed to render fast. This technology is used to make 2D user interfaces for console and PC games. Now, I'm no expert in scaleform or graphics hardware, but it seems to me that this technology or something very like it could feasibly be integrated into the Flash player, meaning whole Flash scenes and timelines could be rendered largely on the GPU. This would keep the Flash pro IDE as a relevant product, and take Flash beyond being the most popular platform for 2D games, to being the best platform for 2D games.
In 2008, along with many other developers, I asked Adobe for joypad support in Flash. At MAX last year, Adobe finally announced their plan to add this feature. I'm just as certain that I'm right that Flash needs hardware accelerated 2D.
This video shows how much power the GPU brings to Flash - wouldn't it be awesome to have that much power in our 2D games? Comments / reasons why I'm barking up the wrong tree are greatly appreciated! :)