Never thought I’d be making a debunking article about Adobe Flash but here we are. As someone with a YouTube Channel focused on Indie games often covering Flash Games, I hear the line “sure sucks you can’t play Flash Games after 2020” a lot. So what’s the deal? Is Adobe Flash and Flash Games really dead? Will I never be able to play Bloons TD again?
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Adobe Flash’s Official End Of Life
What’s really happening after December 2020 is that Adobe’s official security patch support for Flash will end. (And we all know how useful Adobe’s security support has been). More directly, official browser support of Adobe Flash will end which is probably where you heard about Flash’s death, particularly from Chrome’s lovely little bar warning.
This is basically akin to your OS not natively opening .ZIP files. You won’t be able to, without extra effort, open them up, and sure, to many people that’s all it takes. ZIP files were an impregnable barrier to some until Windows started natively opening them. But a lot of us would just download 7Zip (or god forbid, in those dark times, WinRAR) and go right along.
But how will people play something that’s not officially supported? Flash Games, like ZIP files, are mostly just…files. They’re SFW files generally, just a bunch of data that a program on your computer has to know how to open and process for it to work properly.
As a passionate preservationist the topic is pretty near and dear to me even if I didn’t like Flash Games so much, but before we talk about the how of preservation, allow me a brief sideline to talk about why we actually don’t like Adobe Flash itself.
Isn’t Flash Literally Internet Hitler?
Not quite. You’ve probably heard of Flash’s countless flaws (or maybe you just heard Apple didn’t like it, and that’s all it took), and to be sure, back in the days when advertisements, video players, and even whole website designs were in flash, it was a mess. Adobe’s never been big on stability, or security, or, …well, let’s just say they had to patch Flash a LOT.
Flash and Adobe’s…’security culture’ or lack thereof, meant dynamically loaded flash content from third parties was an incredibly risky move, which is why Flash ads were a disastrously bad idea, and they used a ton of resources too. …modern ads are still resource hogs, but most of that badness is because they’re ads from third parties who don’t give a crap—turns out that’s a bigger problem than the ad serving technology. Whodathunkit.
Flash also wasn’t good for website layouts at all—it’s not designed for accessibility so screen readers and other assistive technologies had a heck of a time with it. Video players weren’t much better, Flash just never ran too fast and had a habit of crashing if you had lots of tabs with Flash open. When most of the web ran on or expected you to use Flash, it was a big problem.
So what could Flash possibly be good for? What redeeming feature could this evil, hateful technology have?
Well, it’s pretty damn good at animations. And games. Which is. You know. The things it was made to do. And that’s one of the biggest reasons Flash became such a problem; it was so easy to use and on so many people’s computers, people started using it for stuff it was not made to do. If no one ever made an ad or website layout in Flash, we probably wouldn’t be here having this not-quite-conversation honestly.
Anyway, back to saving Flash, now that we know why some crazy person like myself would want to do such a terrible thing.
Adobe Flash Beyond 2020: Emulation, Players, Extensions
There’s three basic ways to play Flash after the official extension is unsupported/removed. The most basic way is Browser Extensions—with native Flash support they aren’t necessary, but official (or sideloaded) extensions could allow one to just run Flash in browser with a little extra work.
Then there’s Flash Players, like the Newgrounds Flash Player. Flash is just a way of encoding executable information, so downloadable players can (and do) just run .SFW files similar to how you can load .nes files in your favorite emulator. It’s a little more effort, but you won’t lose it after 2020 and don’t have to install any browser extensions which people—for good reason—often don’t trust. For a laugh, try the flash player with a Homestar Runner cartoon to see how it works. Here’s a direct SFW link to a classic H*R cartoon, open the file in Newgrounds Flash Player and boom.
The most advanced, promising, and (slightly) far off way of preserving Flash content is Flash Emulators. More on these later, but like all emulators, Flash Emulation is basically an interpreter or compiler that lets a system play games or content that your system doesn’t natively run. In this case, it would be a program that interprets Flash games/animations without directly relying on Adobe’s code.
But Are Flash Games Safe?
Of all the reasons to abandon Flash, safety was by far the biggest and most reasonable. Is it even safe to still run Flash stuff after 2020 then?
Most of the Flash game and animation content people actually care about is years, even a decade or so old. New Flash security vulnerabilities will surely be found, just like new MSDOS vulnerabilities are found occasionally. While a new Flash Player’s official support certainly could keep up with Flash files, the basic assumption of security would basically move from “is the platform secure” to “is the file secure”.
The best way to play Flash Games post Flashpocalypse will be basically the same way it is now—to only play Flash Games from reasonably secure sites like Newgrounds, Kongregate, Armor Games, places that take down actually malicious software instead of trusting your Flash Player to be secure. This is basically the same paradigm your phone’s App Store uses.
It’s not like trusting Flash Player to be secure on its own ever worked when Adobe supported it anyway.
To a lot of people that’s still very scary and that’s fine; I’m not saying your average user is going to download SWFs and play them without even thinking about it. But for those of you who download Fallout 4 mods on the regular, playing a post-2020 Flash Game is going to be similar in difficulty and security—and frankly a 15 year old flash game is probably a lot safer to run than Fallout4NudeMod.exe. Just saying.
So I’m not trying to argue the security aspect too much, as a pretty hardcore “gamer” I regularly download stuff from Itchio and even Mediafire and I know some people would flip out doing that, and the same will basically be true of non-packaged Flash games for a bit. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of comments that it’s unsafe and I acknowledge for the average user, fine. The average user doesn’t run DOSBOX either though, some of us will always go a step beyond the path of least resistance, and in this case it’s not really too big a step.
The Future Of Flash Games Is Emulation
But even if you’re too scared of trusting individual flash files (including those that have worked without issue for 15 years…), Flash Emulators and other solutions can replace Flash while keeping their own security as well, it’s not like we’ll be using a Dec 2020 version of Adobe flash for 2000 years, just like DOSBOX isn’t exactly using a wild and wooly 1999 release of DOS begging your real OS to be invaded by Napster viruses.
Even if you’re too scared to download Newgrounds’ Flash Player, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future of Flash Emulation. I imagine in a matter of years Flash Emulation will be as pleasant and smooth as SNES emulation is now—smooth enough to run in your browser without even knowing it’s emulation, in fact. The Ruffle demo is already pretty close, though its support isn’t yet universal. It’s very likely in the future Flash emulation will just happen in the browser with no manual installs or downloads at all.
So Will Flash Die? Official Support will end, yes. Will Flash Games and Animations still work? Yep. The two aren’t as mutually exclusive as you might have thought. Flash isn’t an MMO or service that requires server-side support—oh, and MMOs can be preserved too by the way!
In short, whatever happens, my obstinate keister will still be playing Flash games for years to come, and you’ll be able to too. In fact, join me on YouTube to check out some Flash Classics!
(Subtle plug, TapTap. Nice.)