Newgrounds Founder Tom Fulp Has Been Preparing for the Death of Flash for Years

When Adobe announced that it was planning an “end of life” for Flash yesterday, it shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. The web-defining software — once used for all kinds of browser audio and video — has been all but replaced by new standards like HTML5, thanks in part to the fact that it’s unusable on most mobile platforms. As important as it was, the plug-in became known as a buggy, memory-hogging security risk. Few are weeping over Flash’s corpse.

Except, maybe, at Newgrounds. Newgrounds is a hugely beloved early web portal that allowed budding Flash creators — game developers, animators, and artists among them — the ability to host their homespun SWF files for anyone to enjoy. Two decades later, the site is still going strong, though it’s a bit past its heyday, and is actively looking toward a future without Flash. Tom Fulp, the site’s 39-year-old founder, took some time to explain how the site has been preparing for the end of Flash for a while, and what comes next.

To start, what is Newgrounds? How would you describe it to someone who might not know about the site?
Newgrounds is a community where people can instantly publish and share their original animation games, art, or music. It originally grew out of being a Flash community, where people were instantly publishing Flash games and animation.

How long has the site been around?
I started it in 1995, but 1999 is when I added the portal, which was originally a place where I would put my unfinished projects. But I also started showcasing other people’s Flash work, because other people didn’t necessarily have hosting for their stuff, and they thought it would be a good spotlight because we had some popularity on the site from the things I had been making at the time. So many people started sending me their SWF files and I was managing so many pages, so I brought a friend onboard to develop an automated version of that. In 2000, we launched the automated portal, and ever since then, people have been able to instantly publish games and animation.

When would you say the Newgrounds heyday was? When was it at its peak?
There was a period around back when we automated it — that was the original real exciting period. There was also a period around 2007, 2008 where we were really just thriving with some popular animators, like Egoraptor. We had a lot of cool web games. Web games were really hitting their stride. We had people who were transitioning into making more commercially successful games. I had been a co-founder of [video-game company] the Behemoth, which we started in 2003. We made a console version of Alien Hominid, which started as a web game on Newgrounds. Then we followed that up with Castle Crashers, which has been a really successful independent game. Edmund McMillen, who made Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, also started making Flash games on Newgrounds. That 2007–2008 period — a lot of people see as a golden era, even though the site still is going strong now. We still have between 7 million or 8 million unique visitors per month. It was higher at the peak, but it’s still good. It’s still a nice sized community.

You said 2007–2008 was the golden time, but that’s also when the iPhone came out and Flash started feeling more vulnerable. What’s the last decade been like as browsing has shifted to mobile and Flash hasn’t gone with it?
The shift to mobile has definitely changed the way people use the internet beyond even just Flash. You can tell people aren’t visiting small websites like they used to. They get more captured by an app. They’ll be in Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, and they’ll be in the app and they don’t explore the web like they used to. On the Flash side, the difficult thing was people — especially game developers — started losing confidence in Flash. They didn’t feel confident starting a big project in Flash because they didn’t know what its future would be. Meanwhile, a lot of people were transitioning into making mobile-app games. Steam introduced Greenlight and started growing out its platform for independent developers. That made a lot of people transition there as well. The other difficulty was that even though everyone knew HTML5 was going to be the alternative to Flash, it hadn’t gotten there yet. Flash was getting cut out before there was a good alternative. Even now, it can still be tricky. We have HTML5 games on the site now that stop working after a browser update, and that never happened with Flash. We have Flash content from the ’90s that still works. It’s kind of frustrating to see someone make an HTML5 game and then a year later it doesn’t work anymore because Chrome changed something in the way it does JavaScript. It still is shaping up better and better. It feels like games on the web took a big dip, but I feel like they’re going to be coming back now that the quality bar is getting raised by HTML5 games.

How many Flash assets are on Newgrounds right now?
We have over 84,000 games and the majority of those are Flash, even though more and more now are HTML5. We have over 150,000 animations on the site, and we’ve been working to convert them to video format. We developed a software called Swivel, because Flash never had a good video-conversion option, that animators can use. They can run their SWF through it, and they kind of get a perfect-quality or best-quality MP4 out of it. We did that years ago and it actually kind of accelerated the migration to YouTube because a lot of animators originally couldn’t put their work on YouTube because they only had it in SWF format. That sort of accelerated that movement over there. It also allowed us to launch an HTML5 video player and keep more and more of the legacy animated content safe over time.

What are some of the difficulties in preserving interactive stuff that can’t just be converted to video?
The most difficult part has been with the games. There are different efforts going on to do it, but no one’s gotten it perfect yet. With AS2 [ActionScript] games, it’s easier to look in the SWF file and use a code and parse it over to run on different platforms. AS3 games can be trickier. If you don’t have the original source file, it can be hard to use the SWF to pry out the information. There are ongoing efforts to do it, and some of them are JavaScript-based, where a JavaScript thing on the page would interpret the SWF file. Another option is WebAssembly, which is still a growing thing in browsers that needs to mature a little bit more. Other options include a way to compile games into JavaScript, so instead of having the website run an SWF file through JavaScript, someone would pre-convert it to a JavaScript file and upload that. There are a lot of things going on and the big hope that something will do it right by the time 2020 rolls along. That’s the big hope, that when 2020 gets here, WebAssembly will have matured enough and we’ll have a good alternative there, or someone will have made a great JavaScript tool or something.

It definitely seems like Adobe knows that it needs to give people three years’ notice on this stuff. You said yesterday that you’d like to see Adobe open-source Flash in some way. Do you think that’s going to happen?
It feels like it’s unlikely. I guess they have various reasons why they wouldn’t want to do that. It would definitely help a lot if people could access all that, because if they could access all the Flash code, they could make their own things to run it a lot easier. It would be nice if Adobe at least could find some of the people that are trying to preserve it and maybe work with them more directly to assist them. I’m hoping that they’re at least helpful if they won’t release the source code.

2020 comes around, Flash is basically dead. What do you see happening to Newgrounds? Do you see the site sticking around?
Oh, yeah. We’ve actually been planning for it for years. It kind of started in 2012 when we did a site redesign. We removed Flash from the language of the site. We no longer called it the Flash portal; we just referred to it as the games-and-movies portal. As it stands right now, we have an audio portal where all the music will keep working; we have an art portal where all the art keeps working; we have the animation portal where everything in recent years has been uploaded in MP4 format, so the only challenge there is the time it takes to convert all the classic content. We’ve already converted most of the favorites over, so it’ll just be more like the granular thing of trying to get everything over in time. The games portal is the biggest one. In games, all the day-to-day new uploads have a lot of HTML5 now, so that will keep going in that direction. It just comes down to how well we’ll be able to preserve all of the old games. At the least, people can download them and play them in a stand-alone player on their desktop, though we’d really like to let them keep playing them in the browser, too.

People seem to have a love-hate relationship with Flash. Are you sad to see it go?
I think a lot of people misunderstand Flash. I think a lot of people associate Flash with bad advertising on the web, which they really need to blame the ad companies for. They might not realize most of the bad ads they see now aren’t Flash anymore. Now that the ads are being done in HTML5, they’re actually, in a lot of cases, slower to load, and they consume more resources than they did. In the past year, we’ve had a lot more problems with ads that redirect people away from the site, or ads that will steal the focus of your browser. Flash was never able to take over the focus and make your page scroll to an ad. Now, we’re seeing ads where I’ll be on the page and it’ll start scrolling to the ad. It’s not like that problem got solved by getting rid of Flash. The people that make the ads are the ones that are being exploitative and not making well-optimized ads. The other thing is, the whole security-exploit side of it. I just feel like that became a meme because — I feel like I’m setting up myself now — I don’t know anyone who had their computer compromised by Flash, and I know lots of people who are on Flash all day long. I just feel like it became popular to criticize it for security holes, even though all software have security holes and have patches. It definitely is time to move to an open platform, something that’s not so closed off. It’s still upsetting that people cheer for it to die because they just associate it with bad things and not good things.

Talking to the One Man Who Might Miss Flash