So, Adobe finally did the inevitable, and announced that they've given up trying to make Flash relevant on mobile devices. Plenty has been written already about what lead to this situation, and the "tech" blogosphere certainly has proved their lack of insight in matters of development again, so maybe I won't go there. Flash plugin has a bad rap, and HTML5 will share that status as soon as adware crap starts to be made with it. It's not the tech, but its application.

So, lets focus on the developer angle. Richard Davey of Aardman and PhotonStorm is offering a developer-focused review into the alternatives. TL;DR; Flash is what's there now, but learn HTML5 too. Yeah, for web, I would agree.

However, that misses the big picture as well. Choosing any tech today for the purpose of building games for Web is deciding a future course by the back-view mirror. Web, as it is today, is about a 500M connected, actively used devices market. Sure, more PCs have been sold, and about that many are sold both this and next year, but the total number of devices sold doesn't matter - the number of people using them for anything resembling your product (here, games) does. So, I'll put a stake in the ground at 500M.

In comparison - iPad and other tablets reach about 100M devices this year, and projections look like about as much more next year. I would argue that most of them will be used for casual entertainment, at least some of their active time. That makes tablet-class devices (large touchscreen, no keyboard, used on a couch or other gaming-friendly situations) a significant fraction of the Web market already, and that will only be growing going forward.

Mobiles are a class of their own. Several billion devices already, maybe about a billion of them smart phones, some projections claim another billion smart phone-class devices to be sold next year. Just by limiting the market to only those devices which sport installable apps, touch screens, significant processing power (think iPhone and Android devices, possibly excluding lowest-end Android and the iPhone 1.0 and 3G), you're still looking at a potential market of 1 billion devices or so. Now, phones are not in my book very gaming-friendly - the screen is small, touch controls obscure parts of it, play sessions are very short, the device spends most time in a pocket and rarely gets focused attention, and play can be interrupted by many, many things. Still, as we've seen, great games and great commercial success can be created on the platform.

However, lets not pretend that a Web game could ever have worked on either a tablet or a phone without significant effort, both technical and conceptual. The platforms' underlying assumptions simply are too different.

So, how would you go about choosing a technology for creating a game for the future, instead of the past?

The choices are:

  • Native, writing for iOS only. Decent tools, except when they don't work, one platform, though a relatively large one with customer base proven to be happy to spend on apps.
  • Native, writing for iOS and Android. Perhaps for Windows Phone too, if that takes off. Welcome to niche markets or fragmentation hell.
  • Native, but with a cross-platform middleware that makes porting easier. Still, you're probably dealing with low-level crap on a daily basis.
  • HTML5, if you're willing to endure an unstable, changing platform, more fragmentation, dubious performance, and frankly, bad tools. Things will be different in a couple of year's time, I'm sure, but today, that's what it's really like. I would do HTML5 for apps, but not for games, because that way you'll get to leverage the best parts of web and skip on the hairiest client-side issues. In theory you'll also get Web covered, but in practice, making anything "advanced" work on even one platform is hard work.
  • AIR, if you continue to have faith that Adobe will deliver. In theory, this is great: a very cross-platform tech, you can apply some of the same stuff on Web too, get access to most features on most platforms on almost-native level, performance is not bad at all, and so on. Except in practice HW-accelerated 3D actually isn't available on mobile platforms, its cousin Flash was managed to oblivion, and perhaps most crucially, Adobe's business is serving ad/marketing/content customers, not developers. I keep hoping, but the facts aren't encouraging. For now though, you'd base your tech on a great Web platform with a reasonable conversion path to a mobile application, caveats in mind.
  • Unity, if you're happy with the 3D object-oriented platform and tools. You'll get to create installable games on all platforms, but lets face it: you will give up Web, because Unity's plugin doesn't have a useful reach. Here, the success case makes you almost entirely tables/mobile, with PC distribution (in the form of an installable app, not a Web game) less than a rounding error. This is probably what you'd be looking for in just a few years time anyway, even if today it looks like a painful drawback.
Conclusion: Working on tools? HTML5. Web game for the next 2 years? Flash 11. Mobile game? Unity, if its 3D model fits your concept. AIR if not, though you'll take a risk that Adobe further fumbles with the platform and never gets AIR 3 with Stage3D enabled on mobile devices out the door. Going native is a choice, of course, but one that exceeds my personal taste for masochism.

On the upside, Unity is actively doing something to expand their market, including trying to make Unity games run on top of Flash 11 on PC/Mac, so in theory you might be getting the Web distribution as a bonus. Making code written for Mono (.NET/C#/whatever you want to call it) run on the AS3/AVM Flash runtime is not an easy task though, so consider it a bonus, not a given.