Are You Ready for the End of the Flash Browser Plug-In in 2020?

Filed under: Web — Simon Walklate

The End is Nigh

It’s been on the cards for a number of years now, with Adobe essentially giving up on getting the Flash plug-in onto mobile devices some time ago and embracing HTML5. In fact it seems like forever since we’ve created any Flash based content for the web. But now the deadline of the end of 2020 has been announced. After this date Flash content will cease to work in the web browser.

The major browser vendors are also following this same timeline, in phasing out access to Flash content. Even the ones that have incorporated Flash technology directly into their browsers (removing the need for a plug-in installation) are not exempt. So there will be no continued support for Flash beyond 2020 in Google Chrome either, despite there being no need for the Flash plugin-in there.

This really is the end of the road for web based Flash. No web based Flash content will work after the cut-off.

That gives you three short years to plan and execute the conversion of your Flash based content to HTML5. Either convert it, or lose it after Flash is gone.

What Content is Affected?

Short answer is anything on the web that requires the installation of the Adobe Flash plugin.

Any remaining Flash content you care about is likely to be anything you consider “evergreen”. It’ll still get enough traffic/use to justify it’s existence and ultimately the time, effort and budget to convert and keep it. This could be:

  • Marketing content – Any web based multimedia content that helps drive traffic or get links/social shares. This could be anything from a simple interactive widget to a complex web based game.
  • Training/e-learning content – Web based multimedia content either for conducting training programmes as part of your business needs to be addressed.

Basically, any Flash content that is useful/entertaining to your users, that isn’t time specific and still provides value to your business, should be prioritised. Especially if you have lots of content that you need to keep, starting to audit and planning for content update and replacement is essential now.

The End of Flash Games

This will also mean the end of an era in web games development. Any web based games built in Flash will need to be converted and replaced or taken down before the deadline.

This might not sound like a huge big deal, but it is. Most of the big games companies on Facebook are still to this day using Flash based versions of their games for desktop computer users. These will need to go through the potentially expensive and time consuming process of being converted to HTML5, or taken down.

This doesn’t just apply to big games companies though. If you’ve had any Flash based games developed in the past now is the perfect time to start planning to get them converted. Building a brand new version using modern web standards also gives you a great opportunity for an update/redesign to raise the quality of any dated games.

A Great Opportunity to Finally Go Mobile Compatible

If you’ve been putting off the conversion process, now is a great time to think again. Converting Flash content to HTML5 will future-proof it for years to come and finally allow mobile users to access your content on their devices. This will further increase the reach and ultimately value of your content.

Budget and Time

Obviously, the more Flash content you want to keep, after the deadline, the more time and budget you’re going to need. This is why you must start assessing and planning now. If you have lots of content to convert, it could be a monumental task. Don’t put it off until 6 months before, because there may not be time then to get the work done. Also, if you start now, you’ve got three years to spread the cost over.

Does This Affect Adobe AIR?

There’s been a fair amount of confusion over the name Flash in relation to the development tools and the web based deployment platform. Because of this Adobe even rebranded the tools from “Adobe Flash Pro” to “Adobe Animate” recently. The tools will continue to exist long after Flash is gone from the web. (In fact we still use Flash Pro tools to help with animation and visual asset creation for our HTML5 games).

The Adobe AIR platform for building mobile and desktop PC apps will still exist and be updated and supported by Adobe. You’ll still essentially be able to use “Flash” technology to create stand-alone application builds for computers and mobile devices. No existing Adobe AIR based apps will be effected. It’s just the web based component that will no longer exist.

Should I Stop Creating New Flash Content?

There’s no easy answer to this. In general though (with a few exceptions), I would say you need to steer away from creating new Flash content for the Flash web player, if you haven’t already.

There are some limited instances where Flash content may still make sense in the short term though. For instance if you’re creating content with a relatively short shelf life (e.g. for a marketing campaign and needs to be accessible to older, HTML5 incompatible browsers on desktop computers only). These instances will be few and far between at this point though. So 9 times out of 10 you should use HTML5 for all new content going forward, in order to future-proof it.

What Now?

We’d highly recommended that you start thinking about and auditing any Flash content you may have ASAP. Prioritise your most valuable assets and start allocating budget to convert any critical Flash based content (that you know will definitely still be valuable to you in three years time).

Three years sounds like a long time, but it really isn’t. Especially if you have lots of Flash content, the conversion process can be extremely time consuming. So start now.

The ‘Build It and They Will Come’ Approach to Branded Games

Filed under: Branded Games — Simon Walklate

Branded games can be a great way to get huge exposure for brands, when integrated with your other marketing. The problem that I see more often than you would think (and I would like) is businesses insisting on taking the ‘build it and they will come’ approach, despite being strongly advised against it.

As with most bad ideas, it comes from a lack of knowledge and experience and it’s definitely not the client’s fault for thinking this way. People see the hype around branded games and think they’re something magical, where you build this piece of content, post it to your website and all of a sudden (by some sort of psychic link?) millions of people will suddenly know about it, visit and play it. Although branded games can be quite magical at times, in terms of just how many people they can reach, there’s nothing magical about the hard work that goes into launching one successfully.

The fact is, very little content goes truly ‘viral’, this equally applies to other forms of multimedia content such as videos. For something to be truly viral and grow in popularity exponentially, every person that sees it needs to pass it on to more than one other person, which rarely happens. If that was the case, you could literally tell just a handful of people about the content you’ve created and watch it spread out of control. In reality, banking on this is only going to lead to failure and that’s what you’re pretty much guaranteeing if you don’t do everything you can to promote a piece of content.

Now that isn’t to say producing a branded game is a waste of time and money and it’s doomed to failure from the start, far from it. They can be a brilliant hook to gain exposure within your industry, via your own marketing and PR channels. We’ve seen clients use press releases to really push their branded game and get great, targeted exposure by doing so. It goes without saying that a high quality game will serve you much better (in increased engagement, spread and ultimately exposure) than a poor game, but you need to be aware of the realities of launching a branded game. Whether it’s a game posted on your own website or on a third party platform such as Facebook or a mobile app, spending some time planning and effectively making use of all the channels at your disposal will only benefit you in the long run.

The process of launching a branded game involves getting as many eyeballs on the content as possible from the start, much the same as promoting any other piece of content. The most successful branded games we’ve produced have been successful because the client has been passionate about promoting the game and really gone the extra mile. We take care of production of a quality, engaging game, but that’s only part of the equation.

If you’re a small business without a good, targeted mailing list (and/or an extensive following on social media) and the means to promote a branded game to potentially get exposure in industry specific media then, in all honesty, a branded game (or indeed any multimedia content) may not be for you. But as long as you have those things (plus, put in the work to take advantage of them) and are able to fully integrate a game into a current marketing campaign to drive even more players, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t see good results from a branded game as an engagement tool.

I won’t go into specifics about what you should do to promote a branded game here, but it should definitely be fully integrated into your overall marketing campaign to see good results, not just left in isolation. It’s also worth noting that it’s possible to maximise your return by thinking about other ways you can use the game from the start. E.g. we’ve had clients have branded games produced for inclusion on their website, but also have a slightly modified version built to take to trade shows and events. This may increase the production costs slightly, but will allow you to maximise use of your game for a relatively small additional cost.

Long story short, to maximise exposure and return from a branded game takes some work on the client’s part. If you really make the most of the opportunity and think of creative ways to use your branded game as a promotional tool, instead of just seeing the game as the end of the process, you’ll undoubtedly reap the rewards.

Things Every Brand Should Do to Promote Their Branded Game

Filed under: Branded Games — Simon Walklate

Branded games really are the king of premium content that can help engage your audience, give your PR the hook it needs to get coverage in online and traditional media, help your SEO efforts and more. But like with any content, your branded game can be the most amazing piece ever created, but if few people know it’s there, it will fail.

Without a promotion strategy to drive a good number of players in the first instance, you’re fighting an uphill battle and will likely be disappointed with the results of even the most amazing branding game. On the other hand a good promotional strategy, implemented well, can produce great results. But it does require some work, above and beyond just producing and posting a branding game.

I’m not going to go into every single creative method you can use to promote a game, many of these are likely to be industry specific, or even specific to your particular brand. What we’re going to go after here is the low hanging fruit. The easy stuff that every brand can and should be doing as a bare minimum to promote a branded game in order to dramatically increase their chances of making it a success.

Most of them seem pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many brands fail to do even the most basic promotion and end up missing out on potentially huge amounts of exposure. Anyway, here we go:

Leverage Your Existing Audience

Existing Website Traffic

This is the most obvious one and it can make a huge difference, especially for brands that already have good amounts of traffic to their website. Promote your game with a link from your homepage (or some other high traffic page).

If it’s a web based game sitting on a page on your website, it’s not enough just to put it up and not give your visitors an easy way to find it. Same goes for a mobile app, or a game that sits on Facebook or some other external website. Link it from your homepage.

A nicely designed image link is obviously preferable, but you’d be surprised how many brands don’t even promote their game with a text link (either to the game, or games index page, if you have more than one) on a high traffic page of their website. If you don’t do this, you’re missing out on a great, extremely easy opportunity to give your branded game a promotional boost  and dramatically increase play numbers.

Social Media

I’m going to assume your business is active on social media (Twitter and Facebook at least). Anyone that’s chosen to follow you on social media is already interested in your business. So make sure you promote your branded game to them.

I should also mention, this isn’t a once and done thing. Now I’m not advocating spam, but if you have a reason to post again, do it. E.g. if you do an update to your game, tell people about it.

It also depends the social network. Twitter for instance is very much in the moment and tweets “expire” very quickly. So if you have a very active business Twitter account, why not consider promoting your game there more frequently (maybe once a week).

Mailing lists

If your business has a mailing list (email or snail mail) use it to tell people about your game. Once again, this is a prime opportunity to target people who’ve shown an interest in your business, or have even been past customers/clients. Not leveraging your mailing list to promote a branded game is a big mistake.

Integrate With Your Other Marketing Activities

A branded game usually ties in with a specific marketing campaign, yet many brands forget to cross-promote their content.

Advertising

Whether you’re a huge multi-national corporation, or a small business, I’m guessing you’re doing some sort of advertising to promote your business. Whether online or offline and no matter what the scale, why not at the very least mention the game in your other advertising? Otherwise it’s a missed opportunity to generate interest in your game and ultimately promote your business.

PR

Same goes for your PR activities. Businesses (particular smaller, less established ones) often struggle to get media coverage. Without a good hook, it can be difficult to stand out from the mountain of similar, bland press releases received by media each day.

If you have a branded game, that may very well be the hook you need to stand out from the crowd and get the coverage your business needs, and deserves to help promote your brand. Unfortunately, many brands squander this opportunity by either not doing this at all, or not doing it effectively.

Increase Your Chances of Success

Don’t be one of the businesses that takes the “Build it and They Will Come” approach and forgo these easy steps to promote their branded game. It almost never leads to success, with any form of content, however good it is.

Make sure you go through this checklist and at the very least do everything on it. But don’t stop there, I’m sure you can think of many more creative ways to promote and drive even more traffic to your branded game.

HTML5 vs Apps for Branded Mobile Games

Filed under: Branded Games — Simon Walklate

Now that we are well into the age of mobile and businesses, marketers and content creators are more often than not putting mobile first, one of the biggest dilemmas is how best to deploy branded content to make it accessible to mobile devices. This is especially true of branded games.

The two main choices for branded mobile games boil down to either using HTML5 or making it downloadable and installable as a standalone application via mobile app stores. Each have a great number of pros and cons and it’s important to be aware of the implications of choosing one over the other, when planning a new branded game.

I’m going to break down the main considerations and the advantages and disadvantages that go along with them.

Technical Considerations

HTML5 has a whole raft of technical shortcomings, when compared to apps, some specific to mobile devices, some not.

Ultimately most of the problems come down to the fact that HTML5 is browser dependent (i.e. the web browser is responsible for interpreting the code into what you see and hear on screen) and the fact you’re creating one version of you branded game to (hopefully) work everywhere.

It is getting better, but each browser has it’s own interpretation of the HTML5 standard and some browsers even ignore the standards entirely and do their own thing. This can lead to different behaviour in different browsers and browser specific bugs and issues. It also means that an update to a specific web browser could actually have an adverse effect, or even break your game in future, without you doing anything.

Using an experienced HTML5 game developer will go some way to mitigating the risk of everything going pear shaped in future, but there are no guarantees. So you need to be aware, there’s a chance you may need modifications in future, should this happen.

Although most mobile devices and tablets currently in use support the HTML5 features needed to run most mobile web games, there are still some device specific issues that may or may not be important to you. Some notable examples are:

Sound on iOS devices can’t start until after the first touch event

In practice, this means that your game will start silent on iPhones and iPads, with no background music or sound effects playing until the first time the user touches the screen (usually clicking a “play game” button on the main menu screen).

Running in true full screen mode is problematic

Between browser address bars and phone status bars you’re usually going to lose at least a small portion of the screen, unlike with an app, where it’s easy to take advantage of the full screen area. This can be especially problematic on small smartphone screens.

There is a “dead area” at the top and bottom of the screen

It’s not advisable to put any interactive elements in these areas. Touching here can cause browser navigation and address bars to reappear over content on some mobile devices. This is most problematic on iOS devices and further reduces the actual usable screen area, although a good experienced designer can usually work around this.

It’s web based

This means to play, you need a live internet connection (unlike an app, where once it’s installed you can usually play without access to the internet). In practice, this means that players on devices such as tablets, that are Wi-Fi only, or even players who’ve gone over their mobile data limits will lose access on the go.

Quality of the End Product/User Experience

This is where apps really do shine over HTML5 for branded mobile games.

Because apps are effectively a stand-alone software product and don’t exist within the confines of a web browser, they get around many of the technical limitations of web based games.

You get an end product that’s more akin to a “real” computer game, rather than just a piece of web based content. Better multimedia and sound support allow for a slicker experience. Plus, being able to go truly full screen (especially on smartphones) and being able to position interactive elements over the full area of the screen is hugely beneficial.

I should add, this doesn’t mean it’s not possible to create great branded mobile games with HTML5, on the contrary. But the fact is HTML5 imposes more restrictions on the design process and will almost always lead to a technically inferior end product to the app equivalent.

Timescale

This is a big one and the number one reason to choose HTML5 over an app.

More often than not, when a client comes to us with a branded mobile game project, the timescale is measured in weeks, not months. Until more businesses start planning much further ahead, the number of projects where time allows a mobile app to be a viable option are few and far between.

As long as a cross platform solution such as Adobe AIR is used, actual production time for an app shouldn’t be significantly greater than a web based game. However, the problem comes with actual deployment. For small scale projects, the necessary submission/review process to get published on app stores might add as much time to the project as was spent on production.

Which leads us nicely into…

Ease of Deployment

HTML5 makes it incredibly easy to actually publish your branded game and make it available via your website. It’s simply a case of uploading the files to your server (or adding a bit of embed code, if it’s hosted elsewhere). So, once production is finished you’re usually looking at hours or days, not weeks or months to go live on your website.

Not so with apps. If you want to publish your branded mobile game in your business name, first of all you’ll need to sign up with the appropriate app stores. This can take some time and should be done well in advance of project completion. Then there’s the app store submission and review process, which each mobile app needs to go through before being able to go live on the appropriate app store. We usually recommend allowing an additional month to any branded app game project timeframe. This allows plenty of time to get through the review process and make any changes, should issues arise.

Which us brings us to…

Control of the Content

Ultimately, one of the big trade-offs with branded mobile app games is the fact that you’re relinquishing a degree of control over what the finished product is allowed to be and the speed at which you can make the content available and potentially update it afterwards.

The app stores and their review processes put up a barrier between you and your audience. Although app store guidelines rarely limit what your content can be, there is always the possibility of having to make modifications to fit within these guidelines to get your branded app game approved. You also lose control of timings to a degree, with often lengthy review procedures being a requirement in order to make your game available for download. Should updates be required in future, the review process needs to be repeated each and every time.

This is the exact opposite of HTML5, where you retain full control of your content. The choices about what it will be, where and when it’s made available are completely yours. As well as being quick to upload and make your branded mobile game live, it’s also just as quick and easy to push out updates in future, should they be required.

Ease of Access

When it comes to actually being able to almost immediately get access and play your branded game, HTML5 is the clear winner. Simply enter the web address into the browser, or click a link and you’re ready to play. This immediacy makes it easier to try your game, so is a big bonus when it comes to branded games.

With apps there is an extra degree of persuasion to get people to go to the app store, download and install a mobile game in the first place. Plus, requiring that they download and install on their device may dissuade some people.

However, you could argue that the install process with an app game brings it’s own benefits in terms of player retention. Once completed you have a nice clickable icon on their home screen, reminding them to go back and play again.

Potential Exposure

HTML5 is the clear winner here. The fact that it’s possible to deploy one version of a branded game that’s not only available on most modern mobile devices, but also on desktop computers with a modern browser installed, means you can maximise your potential reach.

A mobile app game usually limits you to not only just mobile devices, but the specific types of devices that correspond with the app stores you’ve submitted to. Obviously the iOS and Google Play app stores will cover a big majority of mobile devices, but unless you target the minority app stores (Amazon Kindle, Windows Phone, etc.), then those devices will be off limits.

Hosting

Because apps are generally downloaded from appropriate app stores and use third party services for additional features like scoreboards, there isn’t usually a significant hosting requirement.

Web based branded games however need to be delivered by a web server (usually via your own website). So if you’re planning to go down the HTML5 route, it’s necessary to consider the web hosting requirement in relation to the expected traffic. For instance:

A simple branded HTML5 game might be 2-3MB in size. If you think you can realistically expect to drive 500 players per day, that’s roughly 15,000 plays per month. So the traffic volume attached to that would be around 45GB per month.

Obviously, the more complex the game and the more players you get, the more traffic volume generated (that needs to be accounted for on the hosting side of things). Although not a huge issue for most businesses with a dedicated server, it’s definitely worth being aware of the bandwidth implications for delivery to large numbers of players.

So Which is Best?

There is no right or wrong answer to this and it totally depends on the specifics of the project. But generally, if you need a fast turnaround and you can live with the technical limitations of the platform, HTML5 is usually the way to go. If having the best quality end product is a priority, you’re planning your project well ahead of time and playing on desktop computers is less of a concern, then apps are usually the best choice for a branded mobile game.

Controls – A Huge Problem With Mobile Game Design

Filed under: Game Design — Simon Walklate

I know some would say we’re just conditioned to expect a mouse and keyboard combo, or a gamepad when playing games and it just requires thinking outside the box. But there’s no doubt about it, a lack of any sort of meaningful input device on mobile devices is a huge barrier in mobile game design. We’re only offered a very basic, imprecise input device. This basically boils mobile game controls down to prodding or swiping with a finger or tilting the device, making it difficult to implement many of the traditional genres we know and love.

Of course it is a very different market than for web based, or traditional PC and console games, so I suppose it comes with the territory. Dumbed down, “one-button” and grid based puzzle games, with little depth, are what the devices thrive on. But I’d argue that the market is due to the limitations of the device, not the limitations of the device are due to the market. If, for instance, you want to implement a retro action game, platform game or anything at all that involves shooting (to name but a few) you’re really out of luck.

The main problems with designing mobile game controls are:

Visibility

Being forced to put your hand/finger right over what you’re looking at and/or tilting the device obscures our view of what’s going on. This is all without taking into account the greasy finger smears that can end up partially obscuring the screen.

Pointer Accuracy

Touch screens obviously lend themselves towards mimicking other pointer devices such as mice, trackballs and graphics tablets. The problem is they are much less accurate than all of the traditional pointer devices. This means hit areas such as buttons need to be bigger and people with large hands and fingers often struggle.

This and the visibility issue are huge inherent problems with touch screens and a big part of the reason why touch screens are also a bad idea on desktop and laptop PCs.

Lack of Multiple, Physical Buttons

Without multiple, physical buttons your control options are seriously limited. Say you’re faced with having to design a game to coincide with the release of an action film. Then you’re struggling. Prodding a screen with a greasy finger, whilst watching a constantly moving character simply jump through hoops just isn’t going to do it.

Current Solutions

These devices were never made for games. Their crude, simplistic input devices were designed for a totally different purpose.

If you need to implement multiple distinct interactions required by most retro game genres (such as movement, jumping, attacking/shooting) without a keyboard or controller you’re left with having to use a virtual, on screen controller. Again, this can obscure the on-screen action (particularly on small smartphone screens) and provides none of the feel or physical feedback of a physical input device.

The other alternative is to try and force a basic point and click based control system into every game. This leaves you in a similar position to only having a mouse for PC games (but with much less pinpoint accuracy). It’s ok for certain genres, but try using just a mouse to control a retro 2D platform game. This is why these sorts of games tend to turn into overly basic single action, one-button games, with most other actions happening automatically.

Physical Controller Add-Ons

Physical gamepad controllers for smartphones have started to emerge, usually clipping onto and extending the phone. This is a step in the right direction, but I worry about the practicalities of having to carry around a physical add-on that is at least as big as the smartphone itself. These are meant to be mobile devices and with smartphones getting bigger and bigger anyway, is anyone really going to be bothered to carry another bulky item around with them? There’s also the price issue. These controllers can often be an expensive addition to an already extremely expensive device.

A Solution is Required

As it stands now, gaming on smartphones and tablets is great for the Nintendo DS casual crowd. Although these are often people that wouldn’t normally play computer games. Until the control issues on mobile devices are sorted out it’s going to be extremely difficult to lure gamers away from consoles, PCs and even dedicated handheld gaming devices. Anything other than simple timewaster games are difficult to pull off on mobile devices and at best involve some serious compromises, in terms of controls at least.