Why Flash Isn’t Dead

These days, there’s no short-supply of opinions extolling the demise of Adobe’s Flash. Last month, Adobe announced that they would stop putting efforts into continuing the Flash player for mobile devices. This isn’t terribly surprising for those following Adobe’s efforts. They haven’t proved that the mobile Flash player is stable or ready for wide-spread adoption. For performance-critical or multimedia-rich applications on mobile hardware, there’s an enormous performance cost of running applications through a browser plugin or virtual machine. The hardware offered today on mobile devices is still far from the capabilities of even a low-end desktop computer.

The nature of content in the Flash Player has been shifting over the last few years, even before Steve Jobs was openly critical about it, or before the iPhone or iPad. The things that you should do with Flash are becoming a smaller subset of things you can do with Flash. Rich application development, video streaming, and website creating are much better done these days as browser-native. As the JavaScript, CSS and HTML implementation in browsers has improved, the need for Flash to do certain things has decreased.

Flash’s long-term future as a distribution platform through a browser plugin (what’s referred to here as the “Player”) is dying a slow death, at best. The success of Apple’s App Store has underscored a shift towards device-native mobile apps downloaded through a marketplace as opposed to content delivered through web browser open-standards. However, in all this chatter about Flash, there are some overlooked aspects that, we believe, are important in understanding the future of this technology and why it isn’t going to disappear.

Flash Platform vs. HTML5

While Apple, Google and Adobe have agreed to support the HTML5 specification, the W3C which maintains and publishes the specifications for web standards has only released the Work Draft of HTML5, which was started back in 2004 (by comparison the first iPhone was released in 2007). Standards take a long time to create and an even longer time to adopt. As a developer who implements these standards, it often requires lots of programming hacks, workarounds and platform-agnostic libraries (e.g., jQuery) to compensate for the browser and platform fragmentation.

The landscape for HTML5 has gotten even more complicated than the days of Netscape versus Internet Explorer and HTML4. Not only are there more browsers, but the platform landscape is now a diversity of hardware, audio & video codecs, as well as different javascript capabilities. Asking “why do I want to build a house on mud?” is not dissimilar from asking and “why would I want to create a game with HTML5?”.

Flash’s Identity Crisis: Solved!

In the wake of Adobe ditching the mobile Flash effort, the coverage tended to overlook that Adobe was going to concentrate their efforts on native app publishing (Android and iOS) using Flash. We believe this marks an important shift from Flash as a publishing platform (via the Flash Player) to Flash as a publishing tool (via the authoring environment). The strength of Flash is largely attributed to Flash as an authoring tool. It’s one of the reasons why Microsoft’s Silverlight hasn’t enjoyed such wide-spread adoption. Even with significant blows to the Flash player, the authoring tool is still great for animation, storyboarding, and rapid prototyping. It’s still the best authoring environment available for creative people to create multimedia-rich experiences with very little programming knowledge.

Adobe has been working over the last several years on a compiler which builds Flash content to native iOS apps (formerly called iPhonePackager). In recent years, this functionality has been replaced with ADT (AIR Developer Tool) and iOS publishing in Flash CS5+, which allows the same functionality using a model built for publishing AIR Desktop applications. The tools are still in development but have already shown a lot of promise. Building content for multiple platforms in one authoring environment is the holy grail of device-native development, and Flash now has the best opportunity to make a go at it.

Hectic Harvest Game Process

In honor of Earth Day, we decided to give  y’all a look at the process of our latest game, Hectic Harvest.  This farming game was a lot of work and brought along a whole new set of challenges we hadn’t  faced in our game design process.

From the beginning, we had the challenge of setting our game apart from the dozens of online farming games.  We researched farming-style games and took note of what was working and what wasn’t.  In the early part of development, we had planned to have Henry and Avril serve as the main characters, and the user would control them on the farm.  When we began the design documents, we realized that it would be difficult having the Labbers walk from plot to plot on the farm without stepping on the plants.  We tried to brainstorm various game screens scenarios, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, one of us chimed in, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if they could just float from plot to plot” – it was our Eureka moment. Rather than using the Labbers, we decided to feature a character that does float – Mixie-Bot.  From that point on, Mixie was our farmer, and it actually worked out for the better.  With Mixie, we were able to introduce inventive gadgets and contraptions, so she could make mundane farming activities (i.e. watering and weeding) pretty awesome.

From the get-go, Mixie comes equipped with a handful of helpful gadgets, but as the game progresses and the player earns more money, they can visit an “upgrade store” and purchase add-ons for Mixie.  These upgrades were designed to help speed up farming production, allowing the player to plant and harvest a larger crop for a higher cash reward.  Some examples include a faster watering nozzle, rocket boosters that speed up Mixie’s traveling time from plot to plot, and larger upgrades such as the “Lady Bug Brigade” that eliminates all pests on the plots of land.  We realized that the larger upgrades were game-changers and made the game more fun and significantly easier.  When testing began, we only planned to have two large upgrades for weeding and pest removal, but watering (which is used more than any other action) didn’t have a large upgrade.  Near the end of production, we decided to add the “Mega-Water” upgrade, which allows Mixie to summon a rain shower to water all your plants at once. This late addition added A LOT to the gameplay.

Two more challenges that we faced were determining the point system and difficulty of the game.  When we design games, we always try to keep our audience in mind – kids.  We can’t create games that are too difficult for us to play or kids will definitely struggle. With this in mind, we spent weeks tweaking the point system. Originally, users won points and money.  Points were used to determine which ribbon you’d win and the cash reward was based on the number of points you accumulated. This system became confusing for us, so we decided to remove the “points” and focus solely on the cash reward.  The monetary values that the player earns in each level would also determine the ribbon won.  The money they earn in each level rolls-over into their “bank”, so they can earn enough and save money to buy the more expensive “large upgrades”.  Once the point system was figured out, we had to determine the target goals for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in each level.  We went through many rounds of testing and received a large spectrum of results.  Some people scored really low on levels where other people were coming back with huge numbers.  So, how was this happening?

We discovered it could be a number of things.  In the game, each farming action is signaled by a visual alert icon, which is accompanied by a timer.  From the time the alert pops up, to the time Mixie arrives at the plot, this time meter slowly expires. If the timer runs out before Mixie gets to the plot of land, the plant dies – This gives the game a sense of urgency and creates the fast-paced feeling.  In addition, if the action is completed before the halfway mark on the timer, the player receives bonus points.  We noticed that some people would immediately start planting seeds on every plot of land, and furiously send Mixie from plot to plot, but even if users were diligent, most of the actions would be completed near the end of the timers – resulting in less money earned. The best method is not to plant as many seeds as possible, but rather to plant a smaller crop and complete the actions before half of the time expires. This strategy will result in more bling.  We took both styles of play into account when building the point system for each level.

Replay-ability was also something we took into account.  We didn’t want kids to become frustrated for not earning high dollar amounts or ribbons, but we also did not want them to fly through the game and not want to replay it.  So, throughout the testing process we came upon a successful point target system for each level.  To get players interested, the 1st place ribbon is easily accessible on the first few levels. The later levels become more difficult to earn the higher ribbons.  This will make the player have to replay for a number of reasons: to earn enough money to purchase the expensive upgrades, and also to use those upgrades to try to reach the 1st place ribbon.

The fast-paced style of Hectic Harvest did present a handful of challenging game-glitches and bugs. We spent weeks testing and tweaking to ensure the final game had was flawless.  We definitely put a lot of thought into this game, and had to do a lot of problem solving to make it a success, but we also learned a great deal along the way.  Hopefully, all of our work paid off. Take a look at the visual process below and then, get farming!

Freestyle Fizz Process

We’ve being really busy over at the CloudKid HQ finishing up production on the second season of PBS Kids’ Fizzy’s Lunch Lab.  Our most recent game, Freestyle Fizz, launched a couple weeks ago, so we thought it’d be fun to give you all a little behind-the-scenes peek into the production.

We were very excited to start production on this game because it was our first side-scrolling experience in which the user controls the character, Professor Fizzy in this case.  But, we didn’t want to create just another roller skating game, so we decided to add a little something extra by creating a series levels and unlockable outfits, and we had a lot of fun designing flashy costumes for Fizzy (See below).  The animation component also proved to be more challenging to accommodate multiple outfits, but it  added a lot to the user experience and re-playability of the game.  And although Freestyle Fizz is a roller skating game, it still had to convey the main curriculum goal – healthy food decisions.  Each level has three good (and bad) foods that Fizzy needs to collect (and avoid) in order to hit killer tricks and get higher scores.

Freestyle Fizz was definitely a challenge  in terms of game experience, unlockable items, and animation but we’re really happy with the result.  And for some added excitement, we threw in a little “easter egg”.  Think you can find it?  Hint: Level screen, classic 80s code.  Check out our visual process below, then go play the game!  Good luck!

Supermarket Mania Process

We’re proud the announce the launch of our latest Fizzy’s Lunch Lab game, Supermarket Mania!  The development was a ton of fun, so we decided to give a sneak-peek into our process.

From the get-go, we wanted to produce an interactive “board-game”, but PBS was hesitant due to past experiences with similar games.  Needless to say, that made us even more excited to tackle this project.  We set out to create an experience where kids navigate the supermarket, collect Fizzy’s ingredients, and checkout before Fast Food Freddy fills their cart with junk.   The curriculum goal was to educate kids about food decisions through a variety of challenges: fresh vs. processed foods (Factory vs. Farm); nutrition labels (Food Label Fun); and food identification (Find the ingredient).  In addition, we spent a lot of time researching supermarket signage and artwork to create an experience that brings the shopping experience to life.

Supermarket Mania was our most complex game to date because it includes dozens of UI screens, a NPC (computer challenger), and well-over a hundred audio files. In the end, we’re thrilled with the results.  Check out the visual process below.  Then, go play it.  Enjoy!

Fizzy’s first iPhone App

Over the last few months, we have been working with PBS Kids and Boston-based App development house, DINO, to produce the Lunch Lab’s first iPhone game.  We’re proud to announce that the game has been submitted to Apple for approval.  It’s been an amazing process to translate the Corporal Cup Food Camp segments to a touch-based “cooking” game experience.  We’re hoping the approval goes smoothly, so you can enjoy the game when it hits the shelves – it’s been a blast to play test.  In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of the game:

Roach and Termite’s Sewer Escape

Roach & Termite's Sewer EscapeIn the last month, we’d been spending our free-time to create a game for Roach & Termite called “Sewer Escape”. In this game, Roach and Termite are being chased by sewer water and they must collect candy, swat robot bugs all while running on a can of beans. Thanks to all the people who helped us out on this one. To play the game, go here: roachandtermite.com.

To see more development artwork for this game, visit the Roach & Termite work section of our site.