How to improve the quality of your flash game

Some flash authors on Newgrounds have problems understanding really simple things, despite being able to program a game. That’s okay... Nobody can be good at everything. That being said, it is only okay if you stride to be better than you are. I’ve compiled a short list of common mistakes flash developers make.

My Background

I’m just a guy from the internet that has played a lot of games. I’m not a great game developer myself, so I can’t teach you how to be successful – but what I can tell you is how to objectively improve your game. I love games and ponder a lot about games and game experiences in general. For some reason many players and developers don’t see flaws in games that seem obvious to me – or they notice them, but can’t explain what bugs them.
I’ve been told that when giving advice, I can sound like I’m scolding someone, but I’m almost sure the emotional damage I cause to you will heal over time, so stay strong. It is my intent to help you, but frankly I don’t care about your approval, your thanks, or getting some love letters. All I’m trying to do here is to improve the quality of games – for everyone. Is that too much to ask for?

Technical Aspects

Preloader – Have some kind of loading bar and make sure it works. Otherwise, lots of potential players will close your game because they think it’s broken. Which it is, if it doesn’t have a preloader...

Menu Screen – When your game starts, it should, if even, show your logo, maybe a bit of story and then go to the menu screen. On there should be the Title, some game art, your name with a link to your homepage and some buttons: Start, Level Select (if applicable), Instructions, Options, Credits.
These things are not debatable.

Instructions – Imagine a player that has never played a game before. You are writing instructions mainly (but not exclusively) for that player. If your description is something like “It’s a Breakout-clone”, there’s always that new player that doesn’t know Breakout.

Mute – Your taste in music might be incredibly good (Who are we kidding: No, it isn’t!), but some players prefer to listen to their own choice of music, a podcast or an audio book. Having separate mute options for BGM, SFX and Voices (if applicable) or even a volume control would be even better.

Quality Setting – There’s no sense in beating around the bush: Flash just isn’t a very good platform. So even when your code is properly optimized it can eat up a surprising amount of resources. Have options to switch the quality setting to make you game run smoother on lower-powered platforms like older computers, cheap netbooks, or cellphones.

Disable Right-Click – Players pressing play, next and rewind, either accidentally or on purpose is something that can and will happen, if you don’t disable them. Since you’re at it, you can add your name and a link to your homepage here as well.

Disable Tab – If your game utilizes the mouse at any point, you should disable the tab key to prevent that ugly yellow rectangle from appearing. Cheating and everything aside: It just looks terrible and will make your game look terrible as well.

Pause – If your game involves any action sequences or timers of any kind, have a pause button. It might be hard to implement, but once you’ve done it, you can do it again, without having to worry about figuring it out first.
And have a hotkey for Pause, obviously.

Save – Have some sort of level select or save feature. Players have a life besides gaming you know...

Key Bindings – QWERTZ is what it says when I read the first few keys on my keyboard. Chances are, yours reads QWERTY, AZERTY or even something Japanese or Mandarin. Not every country uses the same type of keyboard. So add an option to set the keys to whatever the player wants to set them.

Highscore – Newgrounds lets developers use their Highscore-servers for free. Any game with a score system can be more fun and have more replay value if players could see how they did in comparison to others.

Language – You are publishing on a Portal that uses English as its sole language. Take a hint.

Play for yourself – Before you hit “Submit”, make sure your game will work as you intended it to work. This means you should play its latest version at least once from start to finish.

NG Medals – You have integrated some kind of achievements or medals into your game? Test those to make sure they can be earned. Players shouldn’t have to come back to do something they have already proven they can. Much less delete their save file and play through your game all over again to be able to do so.

Tags and description – You can use categories and tags for users to be able to easier find your game. The Author’s Comments are a great place to write down the instructions again, as well as notices about updates and bug fixes. I will personally find and vote zero for your game if you just write “lol”, “no description” or “This is my first game, please be kind.”

A picture is worth a thousand words – Don’t just take a shot of the menu or the title-screen, unless those look really exceptional. You don’t need to produce an amazing box art cover, but you should be able to come up with either a good shot of what your game looks like or something that represents your game rather well. Together with your short description, this picture will represent your game in its entirety to the average Newgrounds user that is just passing by. Nobody is going to look at your game after it has left the rating stage, if it is represented by something you scribbled in MS Paint, or a random picture from the internet that has nothing to do with your actual game. If you didn’t find the time to come up with a decent description and icon, you probably didn’t find the time to come up with a proper game as well.

Consistent Aesthetics – There is a special place in hell reserved for people that mix different fonts and/or different art styles. Unless you are doing some sort of collaboration you should stick to a single style so it gets easier for your players to become immersed.

Third-Party Scripts – If your game uses scripts from a third party that aren’t hosted on the same server as the game, make sure the player knows this as well. Otherwise you’ll be getting a lot of complaints, bad reviews and bug reports, complaining about your broken game. As long as a player doesn’t know that he had to whitelist a certain page in his script blocker, you can’t blame the player for assuming your game is broken...

Technical Problems – Sometimes, you will encounter stuff that you don’t know how to program. Before you spend the time explaining your problem to someone, spend at least some effort with finding the solution in the Newgrounds forums or elsewhere on the internet.

Get help – If all you can do as a graphical artist is drawing stick figures, get some help. Newgrounds has a matchmaking system where you can find other users to collaborate with.

Elevator Muzak – If you don’t have mad musical skills get your games BGM(s?) from the Newgrounds Audio Portal. That way, you can feature and support an ascending artist as well. There is a reason why Newgrounds features more than just games... ;)

Testers – The vast majority of your future players won’t be using the same approach to your game’s obstacles as you did. So let one or more people test your game before you publish it. If you have no friends, politely ask in the Newgrounds forums for users that are interested in testing. After they have tested it, and you’ve maybe made some adjustments, you can show your game to a broader audience. Then your game will enjoy much higher ratings and a much warmer reception than it otherwise would have.

Updates – If your game is broken, fix it. If a game has bugs for just two players, it is probably broken for 200 players and only two players bothered telling you, because the rest was lazy or stopped caring for your poorly made game instantaneously.

Game Design

Once upon a time... – Have a story. I’ve played thousands of games and I don’t remember half of them, because many authors are more interested in making a tech demo rather than telling a story of some kind. If you are not invested enough in your game to make up a decent story for it, maybe making it isn’t such a good idea. Space Invaders had a story, for crying out loud!
However, don’t forget that players should be able to read or sit through your narration in a timely fashion. For example, having an elaborate back-story that takes 10 minutes to read won’t do a 15 minute game much good. You won’t necessarily have to cut it short – just make sure it’s appropriate for the length of action-sequences your game has.

Title“Do you remember that game? You know, ‘that one game’... Oh well, Nevermind.”
This is not just about search engine optimization: The title (and to some degree the description) will help players in either finding your game or remembering and finding it again. Try keeping a balance between using generic terms (like My first game, Kill all the things, or Generic Mario Clone - now with stolen sprites) and giving it a name that was entirely made up (like GLeeMONEX or Pangya). In doubt, enter "[Your Game’s Title Here]" into the web search engine of your choice.
Abbreviations can work, but clever ones are both tricky to use and tricky to come up with. An example that stands out is K.O.L.M.. Once a player has beaten that game, he will remember what that title stands for – provided he put some effort into it in the first place. Said game was published in December 2010 and despite my bad memory, I was able to remember the title effortlessly more than 4 years later. However, in this particular case it only worked for players that had beaten the game. It’s not the formula for instant success, but it might inspire you.
No genius title in the world can excuse a subpar game, but if your game is good, a solid and descriptive title will help it a bunch:
Music in MotionBAM!
Toss the TurtleHell yeah!
You Have To Burn The RopePerfect!
Of course, there can be exceptions: If your game is really good, there’s a chance players will set a bookmark, add it to their favorites, etc. Some of my favorite Newgrounds games have titles that are generic to a point of absolute forgettableness:
Statues“That ‘Weeping Angels’ game”
Looming“That game with the archeology and the lost culture... The black and white one...”
Lusfod“That must be what LSD feels like...“ (I even know what the title means, because I liked the game so much that I asked the developer about it. And I still can’t remember the damned name...)
All these latter games where great and I respect their developers’ naming decisions. Still, I just can’t help but wonder how much better they might have done with a more unique title that would have just nailed it. Coming up with a good name for something can be ridiculously hard work, that shouldn't be underestimated. But neither should the results! This paragraph is as long as it is for a reason.

Ending – When a player finishes the game, he or she has just invested a portion of their lifetime to do so. Have the courtesy to give them some kind of reward. While playing the game should be rewarding in itself, just showing “You won!” and rolling the credits in front of someone is no suitable reward for finishing the it. Have at least one screen where you depict what difference their effort made in the game world – in picture, words or both.

Difficulty – What’s the point in making a game that only 5% of the players will finish? Unless you only want to make games for an incredibly small community (in which case: Why do you publish on Newgrounds?) you want the average player be able to see all your content and feel good about themselves finishing it. If you want incredibly hard content in your game, you can still use it in bonus levels or as optional objectives.

Franchises – Some people use skins or characters from already popular games or shows. Unless you are going to do a really clever parody on them: Don’t use another person’s characters! It is a cheap shot at cashing in on the fame of somebody else’s work that will be obvious as being cheap to pretty much everybody. If you can come up with your own intellectual property it will be yours to shape into the role you need it to fill and it will appear much more natural to your players.

Inspiration – Even if you just created a whole new sub-genre of games, you will still be able to compare it to something. Look at other games and think about what they do better than yours. You don’t need to best them in every single aspect, but if you’re doing nothing innovative or better than them, what’s the point in making yet another Snake- or Flappy Bird-Clone?

Know What You Want – Good games have to be compelling! You should decide on the way you want to achieve that in a very early development stage. Do you just want your game to be technically challenging, or do you want it to have real depth? Whether your goal is to make the players laugh, cry, feel pride, bite the table out of anger, turn from a scene in disgust, marvel the world you’ve created, or consider their own lives will influence almost every design decision, from pace and dialogue, to the selection of music and art style. Creating games, like any form of art, is about evoking emotions. If you just toss a bunch of everything into a 5 to 20 minute gaming experience, players will perceive it as kind of wishy-washy. So unless you’re going for a 3 to 10 hour game, you should try to focus on a single theme, and do that one really well.

Replay Value – A game that people enjoy playing for about 45 minutes is good. But a game that players come back another day to play it a second time is great! Spend some time thinking about what you could add to your game so people would come back for it. Obviously, creating a great game is the best motivation for players to come back, but a highscore board, achievements or unlockable game modes, like New Game+, can add replay value as well.

Quality Control – Once you’re done, you should look at your game again. Play through it and take notes what you didn’t like or what doesn’t look right. Then fix those things. Compared to the time you already put in it, this will be done pretty quick, but sometimes that’s what distinguishes an unpolished 3 from a shiny 5.
Of course there are always limitations when it comes to working with flash, so nobody can expect your free game to be better than something off the shelf that costs 60 dollars and was made by a team of paid professionals over the course of about a year. You can certainly strive for perfection, but when it comes to the impossible, you might want to choose another platform.

“That Ad Money” – Having an advertisement in your game can earn you a little bit of money and there is nothing wrong with that. However there have been developers that have gone crazy with placing ads within their games in the past. It gave them a bad reputation and horrible reviews. But I’m sure you would never do something like that, so consider this just being me, babbling about the history of the Newgrounds portal.

We want your soul! – The more love and effort you put into your game, the more it will show. Also, the more love and effort you put into your game, the more your friends and family will start to worry about your mental and emotional health. So, get invested into your game, but also take a break once in a while.

Raising Attention – If you’re using any kind of news or social platform to get the word out, the date of your announcement should be relatively close to the date you will publish the game. Otherwise, you’ll just end up wasting all that increased interest in what your creation is going to be like. People will only stay excited for so long before they completely forget about that game that’s supposed to come out. Having some sort of delay between those dates is good, so the word of mouth can spread, but after a while, all the potential players which whom you raised awareness will just disappear again.

Trailers?If you’ve got the talent for it (and no one will blame you if not), you could even make a trailer to gather more attention for your game. Giving players a taste of your game before they decided if they want to play it can lead to a vastly increased player base, if done right.
Here’s an example that I think was done rather well: The Concerned Joe Trailer (YouTube).
While of course in this case most of the trailers attractiveness comes from the voice acting, that voice acting is in the actual game as well. After watching the trailer you’ve got a good impression of what the game will be like: Genre, core mechanics, story, style... All told in a minute and a half and almost exclusively with untampered game content.

Hit the books – If you aren’t just doing this as a hobby, you should read a book about game design. I’m going to do something dangerous now: I will provide you with two titles that I haven’t read myself yet. Those are supposed to be very good and were recommended by a source I trust.
The art of game design by Jesse Schell
Level Up! - the guide to great video game design by Scott Rogers

Reviewers and Psychology

Players hate your guts! – You should have discovered this by now, but the combination of anonymity on the internet and its large audience can turn an average person into someone that inspires social features like the ignore list. If you can’t stand a harsh tone, don’t publish anything. Ever... Anywhere...

Good ReviewsGood reviews are almost worthless. “Great game”, “love your game” or “lol” won’t help you evolve as a developer. People telling you to keep doing what you’re doing can be a nice and reassuring, but basically, you want the reviewers that notice every single flaw, criticize it and are able to express why they’re criticizing it as well. In an optimal case they can even suggest solutions, but that would be just icing on the cake.

Answers – You don’t have to respond to every single review. But if you do, have the courtesy to respond to a review in a polite fashion and write more than a one-liner in cases were reviewers touch several topics. Since reviewers on Newgrounds can neither edit their reviews, nor answer back, offer them to send you a private message to continue your discussion, should you be interested in that. Some people are shy and need a little nudge. They could do it anyway, so there’s no harm in pointing out that possibility.

The whole picture – Let’s face it: Some people won’t, for whatever reason, finish your game – but they’ll review it anyway. They will write about what they saw until that point, which can still be valuable insight, especially into why people quit playing. You do not want people to quit playing prematurely!

Ponies gonna pwn, Hatters gonna hate – While you might grow your fan-base with each new game, you will inevitably gather a hater-base as well. These guys won’t go away for quite a while, because they see potential in you and want you to stop wasting it. Or, you know, they just hate your face. That works too, I suppose...
Whatever their motivation might be, they have some concerns that are at least real to themselves. Those concerns will actually go away if you deal with them. If, for instance, some players complaints about the lack of a female protagonist in your games, why don’t you add a choice for the characters gender, or have a female character be the hero in your next game? You sexist pig, you!
The same example applies to things like the skin color, disablements, world views, etc. but it is safe to assume that you will inadvertently discriminate the most players by not giving the character’s gender a second thought.
On the other hand, some reviewers just want your games to be something that you don’t want it to be. You can at least try and explain your artistic vision to them – which can help you on several levels.

Competition – If your game isn’t any good, people will quickly ignore it and move on to the next title. And frankly: Why shouldn’t they? Why would they waste their time with a bad game? You have published on Newgrounds, a portal with hundred thousands of games. Despite your effort and enthusiasm, your games will be judged against the best of the best. Nobody will come back to play a game he deems mediocre. So please avoid acting like your game and the time you sunk into it is worth more than those of any other person publishing on Newgrounds.

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