Speaking At Flash Gaming Summit, Attending GDC 2012

Click here for slides and video.

I will be presenting “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” at the Flash Gaming Summit 2012. My session is at 3pm – be sure to come! I’ll be talking about the future of the Flash platform, how to future-proof yourself against upcoming technology sea changes, and sharing some steps I’ve personally taken in that direction.

GDC2012 is on my itinerary, too. I am getting some new, native, mobile-oriented game technology ready for launch. I’ll be doing some private showings at GDC, so if you want to get the skinny, track me down on Twitter or mail me at ben dot garney at gmail.

Have a great pre-GDC crunch! 😉

Fast Bitmap Fonts in Flash

FreeType Font Metrics Chart
I got fed up one day, and wrote a simple bitmap font renderer, BMFontRenderer. It parses bitmap font data from a generator like BMFont or Hiero (link on middle right of sidebar) and renders text of your choosing to a BitmapData.

BMFontRenderer is under the MIT license, so you can use it as you like.

Here’s an example:

// Load the font.
var bmfont:BMFont = new BMFont();
bmfont.parseFont(font);
bmfont.addSheet(0, (new fontSheet()).bitmapData);
            
// OK, draw some text!
var out:BitmapData = new BitmapData(200, 100, true, 0x0);
bmfont.drawString(out, 0, 0, "Hello, world!");

(You can see the complete example in BMFontRenderer’s GitHub page.)

Great. So – why would you want to use this, given TextField is right there, waiting for you? (Translation: why did you get fed up, Ben?)

It comes down to control. TextField has a TON of knobs and buttons you can set. They all do semi-obscure things which are, in and of themselves, very exciting, but confusing to work with if you aren’t a font expert. Worst of all, it pulls font data from hard-to-inspect places that are populated by mxmlc at compile time or located on the user’s system, so you get different visual results depending on who is running your app, where and when you compiled it, and maybe even what browser it’s in.

The Flash IDE does a good job of hiding all this, and for beautiful animated vector text created by an expert in the tool, there is a great workflow. But when I need to show a high score at an artist-selected size in an artist-selected-and-provided font that has artist-approved antialiasing so it looks good on top of the artist-created background, it can be a lot easier to let the artist export the exact characters they want, how they want them to look, to a PNG. Then all I have to do is copy pixels around.

Fonts are less restrictive about licensing if you ship pixels instead of TrueType/vector data. Shipping raster data can save you a couple grand in license fees, nevermind cut down on your download quite nicely.

Doing it this way also puts 100% of the font handling code under your control. There are no parts you can’t debug, analyze, optimize, timeslice, or otherwise fiddle with. Never underestimate the value of this when you have a deadline. This is why I love libraries like Sean Barrett’s stb_truetype.h, which is a self-contained TrueType font renderer in a single C file.

There’s another fantastic bonus. Once an artist has characters in a PNG, they can open them up and tweak them – distress them, add glows or cutouts, or anything else that Photoshop can do. That’s a big realm of possibilities, and a lot easier than learning a font authoring tool.

To be sure, Flash’s built in font rendering has solid uses. If you need to dynamically animate, scale, or rotate text, you need vectors, and Flash has got you covered. If you want to display fully arbitrary unicode text, you may need to fall back on system fonts to fit in your download budget (PushButton Engine has a nice glyph cache for speeding up rendering, though). Or if you are working with people who are very comfortable in the Flash IDE, why not use a system they are familiar with?

For everything else, there’s BMFontRenderer. Enjoy!

Flash Player: A Declining Asset?

4 YEARS AGO – “A DECLINING ASSET”

I’m working at a technology startup and today I am talking to one of the founders. He looks at me and says, “Our main product is a declining asset.

This is the product that generates 90% of our revenue and pays both of our paychecks. It’s the one that made our company a success, put us on the map.

Uh oh.

NOVEMBER 12, 2011 – ADOBE’S BIG IDEA

If you watched the Digital Media section of Adobe’s recent analyst meeting, you know that Adobe is putting a lot of focus on HTML5. Their recent announcement regarding dropping mobile web browser support for Flash Player caused a lot of turmoil, too, along with a shift in direction for the Flex SDK, their enterprise app framework.

If you look at the marketplace and the technologies at play, it seems that Adobe has realized that Flash’s position in the marketplace is eroding, that the erosion probably can’t be stopped, and they need to treat Flash as a declining asset. Just to review, here are some reasons that Flash’s position is eroding:

  • The many 3rd party mobile, native, and web-targeted development tools like Corona, Moai, Unity and others.
  • Non-Adobe Flash runtimes like Scaleform, Iggy. Companies like The Behemoth have their own Flash-compatible runtimes, too.
  • And of course the big one – HTML5. It can handle more and more enterprise apps, animation/multimedia content, and 3D. Browser vendors are in competition but increasingly targeting Flash-like capabilities.

Long term, HTML5 and other non-Flash technologies are unlikely to go away. Adobe may as well be proactive about owning the space rather than fight an unwinnable battle to keep everyone on Flash.

One more point to consider: Flash is made up of three big pieces. You have the tools, like Flash Builder and Flash Pro. You have the runtime, like the web plugin, the standalone player binaries, and AIR for desktop and mobile. And finally, you have the platform itself – the file formats, AVM specification, compilers, and APIs that define the behavior of Flash content.

They are all independent to a greater or lesser degree. The only part that probably wouldn’t migrate to HTML5 is the actual runtime (but see Gordon). And Adobe has been rumbling about compiling AS3 to JS/HTML5 and supporting C via Alchemy 2.

LABELS AND COMMUNITIES

Now, the funny thing about that conversation from four years ago is that, because of the mental label of “declining asset” we assigned, (at least) two interesting things happened. First, the company got acquired and tried to diversify into a couple of new markets. Second, I along with a few other guys left the company and went on to start a new one.

But the “declining” product continued to make more money than ever before. And in fact, it lives on today, despite the original company getting liquidated by its owner when the diversification strategy didn’t work out. So what does it mean, exactly, to be a declining asset?

I think “declining asset” is a label you put on something to help you make decisions. In Adobe’s case, the decision they made was to move their long term focus toward HTML5 and away from Flash Player.

There are some important things to keep in mind with the communities that develop around technologies and products. First, realize that the conversation is often dominated by the vocal minority – so what is said most often and loudest often doesn’t reflect on the actual needs of your user base. Second, realize that the people who post on your forums are emotionally invested in the product, have it as part of their identity, and they will be deeply unsettled by any signs that support is fading. Finally, realize that users often have a limited perspective. Community members are not tracking major market trends, they are looking at how they can meet their immediate needs (like getting contract work or finishing a specific project).

In other words, the community tends to act like a mob.

And I saw no better example of this than when I was on a group video chat last week and saw Flash professionals practically weeping, calling out Adobe representatives, demanding, threatening to break up, over these announcements. It was more like seeing your drunk friend vent over his ex-girlfriend than it was watching a group of well-respected developers discuss their future. Everything is in a turmoil, it’s the end of the world, everyone is screwed, etc.

REPORTS OF FLASH’S DEATH

Ok, but that isn’t actually the end of “Flash” as a whole. Probably. Even though it really sounds like it. Let me explain.

Adobe has a ton of outs from this situation that let them preserve their and your investments. The most obvious out is replacing Flash Player with HTML5. You export from Flash Pro or Flash Builder and it runs directly on HTML5. In fact, they have been inching towards this in different forms for a while now (the conversion tool on Labs, Edge, Muse, etc.).

Even if they drop AS3 and go with JS, their tools can still be useful. If Flash Pro can still create banner ads and interactive experiences for a large audience, who cares what the output runs on? Life will continue relatively unchanged for a lot of Adobe customers.

There’s also a more subtle out:

HTML5 has its weaknesses. Lots of them. But public opinion supports it. Maybe it’s just a Betamax vs. VHS difference. Or maybe HTML5 is doomed due to the conflicting goals of vendors and the difficulty of the implementation task.

Maybe HTML5 ends up being great for less demanding uses – like basic enterprise apps, ads, motion graphics, etc. – but can’t get it together for highly demanding and integrated stuff like games. Adobe can keep Flash around and focus specifically on the game use case – which, by the way, is also highly beneficial for non-game apps, since they tend to use subsets of game functionality – and get as much value from it as possible for as long as possible.

Between the games angle and inertia, Flash could remain relevant for years. It could even end up totally dominating that space for a long time to come, even as HTML5 takes over the bottom of the market, due to being able to be more focused and agile.

CONCLUSIONS

Let me add two caveats. First caveat: At some point you can only expect so much out of a platform – you can’t get a guarantee that it will remain relevant for ten years. Even proven, still-relevant technologies like C have had their death announced many times. At some point you just have to say, “well, N years more relevance is good enough and I’ll re-evaluate in a year.”

Second caveat: Maybe Adobe screws the pooch and that’s that. Maybe they cut too many resources from Flash. Maybe they don’t build good stuff on HTML5. Maybe they ruin everything. So don’t bet the farm. Make sure you learn a few different technologies well. It will make you a better developer, even if you still just do Flash work day to day. And you’ll sleep easier knowing that if worst comes to worst you have an out. I’ve never seen a successful programmer regret having learned a new language or paradigm.

I don’t think Adobe is making bad decisions, just difficult ones.

Bottom line: Flash is a declining asset, but declining assets aren’t dead or even out of the fight. Everyone needs to look at technologies on their merits and see if it’s a good fit for your needs. There are a lot of places where Flash will continue to be a good fit for a while to come – and the places where it is ambiguous deserve careful consideration regardless of Adobe’s stated plans.

(Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, please consider voting it up on HackerNews or Reddit)

Game Articles Online

I wrote some game reviews/articles a while ago in collaboration with Blockland creator Eric Hartman.

All 12 are now online again, thanks to Eric. I’m especially proud of the history of every MAME-supported baseball game from 1976-1985, the article we did for GameDev.net titled Learning from the 3000 Classics, and our review of the 90s arcade version of Aliens.

Check ’em out!

Building the Best Gameplay @ Adobe MAX 2011

UPDATE: The talk is now available on Adobe TV! The slides are available, too.

You can find the code for the talk at https://github.com/PushButtonLabs/PushButtonEngine/tree/PBE2. They are fully explained via dokko, a literate code documentation tool. You can read the docs online at http://pushbuttonlabs.github.com/PushButtonEngine/v2/docs/PBEDemos.html.

A big thank you to everyone who came, and to Adobe for inviting me to speak! It was a real pleasure. MAX was great, and I’m already excited about attending next year.


I’m doing a session, Building the Best Gameplay, on Tuesday, October 4, 1-2pm at Adobe MAX in Los Angeles:

Take a dive deep into the techniques required to build the best games. Building games is fun, but building them well takes skill and experience. Ben Garney, core Flash architect at Push Button Engine and one of the most well-known names in the Adobe Flash gaming industry, will put some powerful tools into your game development toolkit: finite state machines, numerical simulation, components, data-driven definitions, and more. Build better, more interesting games faster and with less risk.

If you’re a Flash game developer and/or PushButton Engine user and you’ll be in the LA area around that time, I’d love to meet you. Tweet me at @bengarney or drop me a line via other means.

Molehill and the Display List

One of my posts on the Flash display list was quoted recently in a post by Amos Laber on his excellent blog. He said:

So developers like Ben Garney are opting to write their own renderers in order to gain better performance, but that is not an ideal long term solution. A much better one would be to utilize both multi-threading and GPU hardware acceleration for the standard flash Display List.

An example of a very basic game UI. We are seeing an uneasy alliance between Stage3D and DisplayObject. They work together but not fantastically. How can Adobe reconcile these two different worlds? As Amos points out, it’s a lot like the bad old days in the early 90s when UI libraries were non-existant for OGL/DX and games got by with the bare minimum in terms of UI.

Flash is pivoting from a rich content web runtime to a platform. Things that were previously built into the player need, in my opinion, to become a minimal native API that is enriched by powerful libraries. The display list is a great example of this. 90% of what the display list does can be done as well or better by pure AS3 (in fact, if you look carefully, many of the native DisplayObject methods are actually implemented in AS3). So why not move all that functionality into an AS3 library that comes with the platform, and focus on making the remaining 10% as good and generally useful as possible?

It’s like how an operating system has just a few basic routines for working with the file system, on top of which people build a wide variety of powerful tools like Finder, Explorer, Google Desktop, Alfred, bash, and so on.

The Flash team and the surrounding community has done the software world a tremendous service by developing great ways to build rich interactive experiences. Tweening and the display list are key foundations to those techniques. But they can work anywhere, and in almost any language – take a look at Sparrow, for instance, which provides a lot of the Flash API on iOS.

If I was going to make a prediction for Flash’s future, it would be that long term the display list will take a step back in favor of core APIs like Molehill. Of course, there will still be a display list or display list like APIs, but they will be conveniences on top of fundamental capabilities. This not only follows the trends seen in OS X, Windows, Java, and other platforms, but also enables more innovation and choice on the part of developers.

Flash Gaming Summit & Game Developers Conference 2011

What are you doing next week?

Here is what is on my agenda:

  • On Sunday, I will be at the Flash Gaming Summit. This year is not to be missed; Adobe is going to be announcing some great news, adding a whole new dimension to the capabilities of the Flash Player. As an advisor to the conference, I’m excited to see how it turns out this year!
  • On Monday evening, I am speaking about “Building Gameplay with the PushButton Engine” at a FlashONGames event at 6pm on Feb 28 at Adobe’s SF offices. Some of my friends at Frima will also be there, showing off their awesome 3D Zombie game built on Flash.
  • Monday and Tuesday I will be at the Social & Online Gaming Summit. It’s a natural point of interest, given that’s my career focus. And a bunch of cool people from Playdom (with whom we partnered to build our last game, Social City) will be presenting!
  • Wednesday evening, I am presenting again: Building Gameplay with PushButton Engine at the Plug & Play Tech Center. The event starts at 5:30pm. (It’ll be similar to my talk Monday night but a bit longer. So if you miss one, come to the other! Or come to both, I guess. :P)
  • For the rest of the week (thru Thursday), I’m at Game Developers Conference 2011, of course.

My schedule is busy but not crammed. If you are interested in meeting up, just shoot me an e-mail at ben dot garney at gmail dot com. I’m also on Twitter as @bengarney.

See you at the show!

Justifying Social Games

I ran across this quote recently, which reflects an opinion I’ve seen frequently online from people in the AAA game space:

Now, for the social game developers out there – let me help. You know that bad feeling you have in your stomach? That’s not embarrassment. That’s not inadequacy.

That’s guilt – it’s what other people feel when they are doing something shitty.

So, if you want to roll that way, fine. Just don’t waste your time justifying it to the rest of us.

Jeff Roberts

Ouch. Before I respond, though, let me tell you about a recent trip I took to PAX in Seattle. It was a lot of fun; I got to hang out with a bunch of friends, play a great game of D&D and go to some awesome panels! However…

The most important thing I saw at PAX was Warren Spector’s keynote. The point that stuck with me comes about 32 minutes in, where Warren says:

When we go outside this room, when we go out the real world, I see people get sort of insecure. It’s almost like we yearn to get accepted by mainstream media and by normal people, you know? And yet, once they start paying attention to us, when casual gamers start flocking into our world, we start complaining about it. They’re diluting the experience. We get upset when developers try to reach a broader audience. Casual is perceived as the opposite, even the enemy, of what we do.

Social games are a billion dollar industry, maybe more. Farmville is played by approximately 1% of the earth’s population and it’s just one game. Farmville is free to play, yet Zynga is doing very well off of it.

Is this due to slimy business practices? Are companies like Zynga using viral marketing to get millions of people interested in a boring, brain-dead experience so they can drain their wallets one micro-transaction at a time? Are their games just vehicles for numbers driven, A/B tuned Skinner box tricks?

In a word: NO!

(At least, no more so than any other genre of game.)

Zynga’s designers have gone on record as saying that “Fun and monetization are synonymous.” Is that self-serving PR bullshit designed to reassure us? I don’t think it is. I worked on Social City, which won the Best Social Network Game at GDC Online. And we had the same experience. We focused on building a fun game, and it did better in the market than other games developed in the same timeframe by talented teams that focused on A/B testing, monetization strategies, or demographics.

Remember where I said that Farmville has been played by 1% of the earth’s population? Most of those people have never played games before. It doesn’t bother them, yet, that these games aren’t very sophisticated. That will come (this is where social devs are saying that “quality will increase”) as they become more educated. The audience will be more discriminating. Some will go on to play hardcore games, and that is cool.

Many will not. But that’s OK. Because the part of working on social games I like best is this: Social City is the only game I’ve worked on that my parents played and liked. I had a thirty minute phone conversation with my mom where she suggested new features! That didn’t happen with the twitch console game I worked on… or the networked PC space shooter I helped build… or even any of the hundreds of titles built on Torque (which I helped maintain). But a simple, engaging, accessible social game hooked her.

On Social City, when we had crunch time, the wives of the team didn’t mind (much). The wives wanted us to get bugs fixed and the new features pushed out so they could enjoy them! Some of the guys on the team had been doing games for twenty years, and this was the first time their wives really cared about the game they were working on.

A brief aside. What do I mean when I call something a game? Most people think of an interactive activity with a clearly defined goal and rules. If you fail the goal, you lose. Often, you accomplish (or fail to accomplish) the goal in one sitting. So, for instance, chess is a game, but painting is not. I think a lot of traditional game people come to the social space and look at the products with this definition in mind. Farmville isn’t a game, because you can never truly lose. Restaurant City doesn’t have a victory condition, so it’s not a game. Sometimes the term “activity” is used. Some people even use it as justification to reject social “games” as entertainment entirely!

But this is bullshit! There are very successful traditional game titles that don’t fit the win-lose model. Will Wright has done a lot of them. SimCity, for instance, only has “goals” if you choose to play a scenario (I never did… did you?). Nintendogs features dogs that will never die or run away. Microsoft Flight Simulator has done pretty well over the years, too. Most games, of course, do have win-lose conditions. But it is silly to view social “games” as an aberration because they often do not allow you to lose. Sometimes I feel like this lack of victory conditions throws people for a loop, though.

OK, enough with definitions. Let’s go back to Warren for a second:

And, you know, I don’t really understand it. As if non-gamers enjoying the things we have all grown up with, and we have all loved for years… As if non-gamers discovering that diminishes us somehow. … We have to get past this not wanting let more people into the club. “We don’t want girls and grandmothers.” “We don’t want normal people hanging with us.” … Basically, it’s as if we don’t know whether to fear or embrace the mainstreaming of gaming. And to my mind we have no choice. We have to embrace the fact that the world is catching up to us. Catching on to us. And starting to love the things that we’ve always loved.

I love working on social games because I am directly helping to bring millions of people into gaming, into experiencing the joy that games have brought me and that inspired me to get into the game industry in the first place. And I am doing it in a social space, where friends and families can play together. My favorite game experiences have always been social – playing Mario Kart, Quake, Tribes, D&D, or StarCraft with friends have always been joys, not because of the games but because of the way they bring us together. When my mom sends me a gift, or I get to see the cool farm, city, or restaurant my brother built, it is an opportunity for us to connect in a small way, and I value that.

Are social games a fad? I’m not sure. Maybe in five years “social games” won’t exist anymore. People might get bored or companies might get greedy or stupid. But I think that there is a legitimate place for games that are connected and browser based. Maybe it isn’t a $2B/yr space, but I think it is a viable market for at least a few companies to live off of.

Coming back to Jeff’s point: I don’t feel guilty about how social games monetize. Social games are free to play. No one is forcing you to pay. Facebook is very strict about how games can post to your wall or access your friend information. It might not be obvious but companies like Playdom and Zynga have teams of people whose job is to make sure that they conform to Facebook’s terms of service, because if they don’t, they are financially sunk.

Social games do want to spam through you, but at least on Facebook they must have your approval at every step – and they can’t gate the game on whether you allow spam or not. If you are concerned about it, don’t click yes. And if you aren’t having fun, you can disable the app. But millions of people do play, and continue to play, and some even spend modest amounts of money to add to their experience.

Should I feel any more guilt about making money than the guy at the gaming shop selling tabletop miniatures and Magic or Pokemon booster packs? Or the marketing guy at EA who sends ads to all the poor schmucks who filled out the registration form in their copy of The Sims? At least anyone who spends money on a social game has played it first, maybe for months, without paying.Doesn’t that put me in a better position, ethically, than the guys pushing box titles where you pay $60 up front to play what might be a crappy game?

Personally, I am grateful to work on products where I can build smaller scale, fun experiences and push them out to a huge audience. I am glad that it is a financially viable market where I can make a comfortable living. I love that I can be at a party and say I work on Facebook games and people have a clue what I’m talking about. I love that I don’t have to worry about licensing character animation, sound, or video libraries (although I have always been a huge fan of RAD’s products and highly recommend Telemetry :)). And it’s fantastic that I can get realtime feedback on how people like new game features, pricing changes, and added content.

Are social games designed to keep you playing? Certainly. Do we tune them to try to make you want to spend money? Of course. Do we want to use your social graph to grow our market? Definitely. But the fact of the matter is that people are smart enough to identify and dislike games that take advantage of them. You have to give people experiences that make them want to come back, not ticking timers. You can’t force people to spend money right away and not lose your audience. And the thing that will make your game spread fastest is making a remarkable experience that people want to share with their friends.

Social games are taking their place along side many other successful kinds of games. Not every gaming experience needs to be a high-end single-player console experience or a twitch multiplayer FPS. Not every game player wants that. There is a place for accessible, people-oriented games in the world, too. No matter what type of game you are building, it’s a good thing for more people to be introduced to computer games. I’m pretty sure that people aren’t going to ditch God of War or Mass Effect in favor of Farmville or Social City – if anything, they’ll probably play both!