Flash-derived iPad game tops App Store charts

Machinarium today became the top-selling app on Apple's App Store, indicating that at least some people are fine with Flash apps on iOS.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Machinarium, a Flash game repackaged for iOS, topped the iPad top-sales charts.
Machinarium, a Flash game repackaged for iOS, topped the iPad top-sales charts. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some folks must be happy that exactly one year ago, Apple reversed its ban on Flash-derived iOS apps.

I'm not talking about Adobe Systems--maker of Flash, its close cousin AIR, and the Flash Pro developer tools that let programmers turn AIR apps into native iOS apps--though of course Adobe is happy. I'm talking about the programmers at Amanita Design, whose Flash-derived game Machinarium just ascended the popularity charts at Apple's App Store.

Machinarium, a $5 game for the iPad 2, rose to No. 1 on the paid iPad apps chart. It's a Flash game recompiled for iOS, according to Andrew Trice, an Adobe evangelist.

In Machinarium, released yesterday, the player guides a robot through a variety of brain-teasing puzzles in an pleasantly grungy junkyard world. I confess I just squandered an hour playing it instead of writing this story.

Machinarium has a lavishly rendered world full of ducts, rust, plants that look like they got lost on the way to the bottom of the sea, and buffoonish bad guys. Graphically, the game has got lots of animated sprites moving around the screen, but I wouldn't guess it's pushing the processing envelope the way full-screen video or high-powered physics engines do.

So perhaps it doesn't reveal the performance limits of Adobe's approach. But hey, there are plenty of apps that people will enjoy that don't need next quarter's quad-core tablet chips. All Adobe really needs is a proof point that its cross-platform approach has enough merit to create a top-selling game--granted, one that got a boost by being named iPad app of the week on the iTunes store.

Because of course Machinarium also runs as an ordinary Flash app in a browser--though it costs $10 that way.

Apple doesn't permit the traditional Flash browser plug-in on iOS, so Adobe came up with its AIR workaround for Flash developers, letting them compile Flash apps into a native iOS app. Just as Adobe released the tool, though, Apple banned the approach.

Machinarium, a Flash game repackaged for iOS, topped the iPad top-sales charts.
Machinarium, a Flash game repackaged for iOS, topped the iPad top-sales charts. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Steve Jobs explained his Flash antipathy in an open letter. Among other things, he rejected the idea of apps running on an intermediate layer of software:

We know from painful experience that letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in substandard apps, and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third-party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features. Again, we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor's platforms.

After the move, Adobe scrapped its developer tool and launched an attack-ad campaign against Apple's practices, and an Apple developer scrapped a Mac programming conference in response to "Apple's naked power grab" and the many people who defended it.

Eventually, though it didn't detail its reasoning, Apple relented, and Adobe resurrected its Flash-packaging approach.

The Machinarium developers were happy, too. They've been working with Flash since before Adobe took it over through its acquisition of Macromedia. In an interview by Adobe gaming evangelist Tom Krcha, Jakub Dvorsky, Amanita Designs game designer and director, had this to say:

We don't know any other tool for making such rich and interactive animations like Flash. And AIR was for us the only way how to get the game on iPad and other tablets in a relatively short time.

Krcha commented that the app doesn't run on the original iPad because of memory limitations--near 115MB of memory per app, when Machinarium needs 80MB to 90MB. "The app was originally made for PC and upgraded for tablet devices. When you start creating tablet apps from scratch it's a whole different story," Krcha said.

A different story indeed. A year ago, the app wouldn't have been allowed under Apple's rules. But now Apple is getting $1.50 each time another person downloads Machinarium.