The Enduring Legacy of Newgrounds, the Flash-Based Proto-Steam

The Enduring Legacy of Newgrounds, the Flash-Based Proto-Steam

Tom Fulp is currently a member of the indie games house The Behemoth, but he got his start as the creator and curator of influential Flash game portal Newgrounds The Behemoth

Tom Fulp started the influential Flash portal as a lark, and it became the center of an unruly creative explosion

Tom Fulp started the influential Flash portal as a lark, and it became the center of an unruly creative explosion

For enthusiasts of a certain age, the term "Flash game" might evoke unpleasant memories: flickering ads that challenged you to knock down pins and win a prize, or shoddy sites filled to the brim with stolen title after stolen title and littered with invasive pop-ups. For the rest of us, these free games made in Macromedia/Adobe Flash and playable in nearly any web browser might have slipped from our recollections entirely. In their mid-to-late 2000s heyday, even the best Flash games were little more than harmless curios, often shamelessly derivative of other popular games and hampered by their own simplicity.

But for those of us who couldn't afford or couldn't bother to build a nuclear-grade PC to sample the likes of Half-Life 2, Flash games offered an enticing alternative. Perhaps the high-octane juvenile thrills of games like Spank the Monkey and Club a Seal couldn't quite compete with the likes of Counter-Strike or Call of Duty, but then again, Spank could run on your grandma's old Compaq. And, for gaggles of bored kids looking for sub-Seth MacFarlane gags while they avoided doing homework, there were few sites better than Tom Fulp's Newgrounds, still one of the largest Flash portals on the web. Today, nearly a decade after the site’s zenith of popularity, Fulp is better-known as a key staffer of notable developer The Behemoth, which counts early indie hits Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid in its catalog. Unlike most sites, Newgrounds wasn't just a money-making scheme, but a platform, a gallery, and a discipline. Most of all, it was a community – a community that managed to spawn a raft of successful developers, including Fulp himself. Like it or not, today's marketplace of games – embodied by platforms like Itchio and Steam – owes a lot to Newgrounds, even if modern gamedom isn't exactly chomping at the bit to acknowledge its debt. And few know all this better than Tom Fulp himself.

As Fulp recalls, Newgrounds started as a lark back in 1995, when he was still in high school. "We had dial-up Internet, and it came with some free hosting space," he says. "I had previously used the name for a Neo-Geo fanzine, so I called it New Ground Remix. I was just goofing off. Back then, it was exciting to put something on the Web. Occasionally, somebody would email me, so I knew people were seeing it. I even had a guestbook." Back then, Fulp experimented with primitive animation software, like Deluxe Paint, as well as coding in Pascal, but he never could figure out how to combine the two to make his own video game. When he discovered Flash in 1998, he knew he had found his solution.

As he tried to push the limits on what Flash could do, he attracted followers to the New Ground Flash Portal – then a relatively minor area of the site. After he featured a fellow developer's Flash animation, he was inundated with emails with SWF files attached, all vying for real estate on the site. "That was when I realized that not everybody had web hosting space," says Fulp. Initially, he had to upload the files to the site manually and construct pages for each author, a perpetual workload that quickly outpaced his patience. He and a friend built out a system to automate the creation of the pages, and the rest is history. "That launched in April 2000," he says. "I guess Newgrounds as we know it today was born then."

In its early years, Newgrounds became well-known for pushing the envelope on violent or other potentially offensive content. (After all, Fulp's early efforts included Club a Seal, which is exactly as crass as its name suggests.) As you might expect in the era of Fred Durst and nu metal, this quickly won it a reputation for "coolness," at least among its core teenage demographic. In Fulp's view, it was the first time that any of these creators had seen their work exhibited, and the sheer novelty of it was almost indescribable.

"It fit with the edgy '90s teen vibe," says Fulp. "I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of not having gatekeepers that determine whether or not you can put something out there. When I was a kid, if I got to show something I made to the class, that was the best thing ever. I made a lot of stuff that no one saw. At the time, my friends and I were really into Akira. When the Internet came along, we just let all those untapped feelings out. In retrospect, it looks weird to people, but it made sense at the time."

While this attitude kept the masses pouring in, it also brought scorn from the usual crowd of concerned parents, ambulance chasers, and media organizations. In 2002, a member of Congress and the Anti-Defamation League called for Newgrounds to remove a game called Kaboom, which cast the player as a non-descript suicide bomber looking to maximize their body count. Not surprisingly, Newgrounds didn't budge – the game is still playable today, in all its boxy, lo-fi glory. (A recent review declares that it is "still relevant today" – a testament to its enduring tastelessness.) This smorgasbord of controversial user-generated content also kept the ad rates for the site precipitously low, meaning that despite the site's soaring traffic numbers, it barely earned Fulp enough income to cover the site's massive bandwidth.

As Fulp is quick to note, however, the creators that pumped out school shooting games and mindless brawlers featuring then-current celebrities weren't the entirety of the site, but merely a durable faction that managed to grab headlines. "It was a different experience for different people. I was interested in pushing the envelope on taste, sure, but I also wanted to push the technology as far as it could go. I wanted to make a console-quality webgame. For example, we had a guy named Adam Phillips who had done effects for Disney, so he upped the bar for everyone."

By Fulp's reckoning, Newgrounds set the stage for today's indie scene, albeit accidentally. "I talk to a lot of devs today, and they all seem to have a Newgrounds backstory, either as a creator or as a fan," he says. Fellow Flash alums agree, such as Thomas Brush, who recently released the Burtonesque platformer Pinstripe, and Brad Borne, the one-man team behind the acclaimed Fancy Pants Adventure series, which started as free webgames on Newgrounds and graduated to consoles in 2011. Borne is still developing World 4 of the series in Flash today, even as swaths of the community have headed for greener, better-supported pastures, like Unity and GameMaker. "I just need to be able to see how the game will animate, right there. Nothing but Flash will let me do that. People say I'm crazy, but it's how I work."

It wasn't just the community that created a crucible for Internet nobodies to showcase their creative work – Fulp's curation had a lot to do with it. In Borne's mind, getting to the front page of Newgrounds felt like hitting the big time. "Tom and the team were always out there, making sure that the cream was rising to the top, with the daily top placement, and the community votes, and stuff like that," Borne says. "If you made something good, people would notice it. And if you couldn't make something good, you could email somebody who did and they would help you out. That was the culture of Newgrounds. It was very collaborative. Now, on Steam, it's really not like that. It has a serious curation problem."

"Honestly, people just don't seem to get together in groups anymore, at least on Steam," says Fulp. "On Newgrounds, both the animators and the game guys were using Flash. That meant everybody had a common language. When somebody figured something out, it was easy for somebody else to replicate it. Now, things aren't like that."

Unfortunately for Newgrounds, its fate was inexplicably tied to the software that powered it. In both Fulp and Borne's view, the infamous "Thoughts on Flash" letter that Steve Jobs penned himself that detailed why the iPhone wouldn't support the software heralded the slow demise of Flash as a game-making tool. "Once it shifted from Macromedia to Adobe, it went in a direction that I didn't really want, anyway," says Fulp. "But it was a huge blow. Steve Jobs has his legions, and they thought everything he said was law. I never had my computer infected by a Flash file. He was opening a store, and it was mostly just PR, but it worked."

Newgrounds' popularity peaked in 2008 – soon after that, storefronts like Steam began to chomp at its pie chart, and it's been in decline ever since. "If I hadn't had my success with console games like Castle Crashers, it would've gotten ugly," says Fulp, with a weighty sigh. "We would've had to make some tough decisions."

For now, Fulp and co. have begun the long and arduous process of making the site's many pages compatible with mobile browsers. All of the content will remain free, but Fulp hopes they can move to a supporter-based system in the near future, which would allow them to remove ads from the site. "That's the dream. Then, it wouldn't matter what the advertisers thought of your content. With YouTube going the way it's going, I think it might be doable."

Regardless of the actual site's fate, its legacy lives on. "I never wanted to be a game developer until I discovered Newgrounds," says Borne. "I was really into animation, sure, but it was the community aspect that pushed me to developing games. And there are a lot of people like me out there."

As for Fulp, he just wanted to get his stuff out into the world. "I sometimes wonder if kids of this generation feel the need to get out there the same way I did 15 years ago. On Newgrounds, you could upload anything, and anybody with a web browser could play it, even if it was absolute shit. That was what it was all about. I hope people understand how important that was, because I definitely still do."