Actionscript & Flash Developer Quick Start Guide

In this guide we introduce ActionScript, explain how to set up a development environment, and provide links to resources you can use to become an ActionScript developer.

Quick Start Guide for ActionScript

ActionScript is the programming language of the Adobe Flash Player. With it, you can create:

  • Applications
  • Interactive website features
  • Games.

If you're new to ActionScript and Flash you will probably do best to read through this article sequentially.

If you have a bit more experience and know what you're looking for, feel free to use the table of contents to jump straight to the section you need.

What Is Flash?

Before we can really get into ActionScript, we need to discuss Flash. This is because ActionScript is really only useful for programming Flash. As you will see, ActionScript is a superset of JavaScript.

Maybe You're Really Interested in JavaScript

So if you are really only interested in the language, you should study JavaScript. And we just happen to have a very good Introduction to JavaScript.

But if that isn't the case, you really need to learn a little bit about Flash. Just because HTML5 has largely made Flash obsolete, doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of interest in it. After all, if you want to impress your tech friends, show them the Pong game you created on the PDP-11 in your garage.

Programming isn't just about making money. Any programmer will tell you about the joy they get from coding. Commodore 64 computers sell for about as much today as they did when they were new in 1982. And MIDI (music) interfaces for them are so popular they are still being produced!

About Flash

Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) is a software development platform for creating animation, browser-based games, web applications, and mobile apps, and games.

Flash was a key tool in early interactive websites. It offered web developers an easy solution for hosting streaming video and music, interactive web pages, and online games.

It was so popular, YouTube originally used Flash to deliver its videos to users (and it only recently stopped supporting Flash for older web browsers). Flash was also widely used to create interactive web portals and 3D web content.

The Introduction of HTML5

Unfortunately, with the introduction of HTML5, interest in Flash as a web development and streaming media tool quickly declined.

Adobe Flash Professional, previously a part of the Adobe Creative Cloud, has been replaced by Adobe Animate, a tool primarily geared toward artist and animators. Tools such as Adobe Flash Builder and Flash Catalysts can be used to develop Flash-based applications.

Content created in Flash must be viewed using a special player, such as Adobe Flash Player, Adobe AIR, as well as a variety of third-party Flash players.

Flash History

Adobe Flash was originally released by FutureWave Software, under the name FutureSplash Animator, in May 1996. In December of that same year, FutureWave was purchased by Macromedia, and FutureSplash Animator was rebranded Macromedia Flash.

After 8 major releases as Macromedia Flash, Adobe Systems acquired Macromedia in 2005, and the software was again rebranded, this time as Adobe Flash Professional (so as not to be confused with Adobe Flash Player).

Adobe Flash Professional was included as part of their Adobe Suite and later Creative Cloud.

Macromedia Flash and later Adobe Flash was for many years the go-to tool for creating web-based video and online games. However, with the introduction of HTML5, Flash has largely gone out of favor for web pages.

In recent years, Adobe has backed away from the use of Flash, in favor of HTML5 and other web standards-based content solutions.

The Sad Pseudo-Death of Flash

In 2011, they stopped supporting Flash Player on Android and iOS devices. While Flash content was still viewable on these devices using Adobe Air, there was no native support via mobile browsers, effectively killing its usefulness for website development.

In 2015, Adobe marked the end of their commitment to Flash altogether, when they rebranded once again, and Adobe Flash became Adobe Animate. While Animate can still create Flash files, it’s primary focus is HTML5 and other web standards.

Online Flash Resources

Despite the fact that Adobe Flash is no longer fully supported, there are still plenty of online resources available. There is a huge community of devout Flash designers.

And while there are better tools available for designing a website (particularly if you want mobile compatibility), Flash continues to be a popular environment for game design as we will discuss later.

  • Adobe Tutorials: these free tutorials will help you quickly get up and running with Adobe Animate (formerly Adobe Flash). They offer dozens of training videos, instruction manuals, and an online support community.

  • Tutorialized: this site offers thousands of Flash and ActionScript tutorials. Despite the outdated name, new tutorials are continuing to be developed and added to the site.

  • Flash Kit: this Flash resource site claims to be the world’s largest. They host tutorials, help forums, open source tools, movies, and more. Some of the content is extremely outdated; however, they also have plenty of new information.

Flash Books

Even though Adobe Flash Professional no longer exists under that name, there are still dozens of books available on the program (and dozens more for Macromedia Flash and Adobe Animate).

Many of these titles were updated with each new version, so make sure to check the version of Flash you’re using and find the book that corresponds to it.

  • Adobe Flash Professional CC Classroom in a Book (2014) by Russell Chun: this official training series, developed directly with the Adobe Creative product team, provides hands-on training through ten step-by-step lessons covering software basics through advanced video creation. The most recent versions also include discussions on web standards, including HTML5.

  • How to Cheat in Adobe Flash CC: The Art of Design and Animation (2014) by Chris Georgenes: this guide is designed specifically for animators looking to speed up the creation process and get the most out of Flash. While it covers some basics, such as an overview of the latest UI, it assumes some previous knowledge of Adobe Flash Professional.

  • Adobe® Flash® Animation: Creative Storytelling for web and TV (2010) by Philip Carrera: this is an older guide, but interesting for its unique focus on storytelling. It’s written for the creative professional, and builds lessons around specific objectives, such as developing animation for a TV commercial, preparing your short for a festival, creating an animated lecture, or developing short clips for the web.

  • Learn Adobe Animate CC for Interactive Media: Adobe Certified Associate Exam Preparation (2016) by Labrecque and Schwartz: if you’re serious about working in Flash, Animate can still do that. This study guide combines text-based lessons with over 6 hours of video.

The Fate of Flash

While no longer the go-to development tool it was in the early 2000s, Adobe Flash continues to be a popular tool for desktop and mobile applications.

Flash’s use for website development has been waning for many years, though it’s still not uncommon to come across a flash-based site. Unfortunately, if you’re using a mobile device, this typically results in an error, as Flash is not supported by most mobile browsers.

For this reason alone, if you’re looking to create an interactive website or provide streaming content on your site, it’s advisable to use an alternative solution, such as HTML5, which is widely supported across all web platforms.

What is ActionScript?

ActionScript (AS) is an object-oriented programming language that works hand-in-hand with Adobe Flash Player to create website animations, online games, desktop applications, and mobile device apps.

Web browsers are designed with native support for HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. However, browsers do not include native support for AS.

The ActionScript Virtual Machine (AVM) is needed to run AS code. AVM is an integral component of Adobe Flash Player. Therefore, in order to use AS, the environment where the code will run must be equipped with Adobe Flash Player.

The first version of ActionScript was released in 2000 at the same time as Flash 5 and was used to animate simple 2D vector graphics.

With the release of Flash Player 7 in 2003, the capabilities of ActionScript were enhanced and ActionScript 2.0 was born.

The most recent version of the language, ActionScript 3.0 (AS3) was released in June of 2006 coinciding with the release of Flash Player 9, the first version of Flash to support AS3.

AS3 is radically more powerful than previous iterations of the language and required a new virtual machine, ActionScript Virtual Machine 2 (AVM2), to run the enhanced code.

Flash Player 9 is the earliest version of Flash to include AVM2. As a result, AS3 code can only be run by Flash Player 9 and later.

ActionScript and JavaScript

ActionScript and JavaScript are two different implementations of ECMAScript.

What that means is that they both comply with the ECMAScript specification, but include additional features that go beyond the ECMA spec.

A useful analogy is to think of ECMAScript as the engine of a vehicle. ActionScript and JavaScript are two different cars that are both powered by the ECMAScript engine.

Because they are both built on ECMAScript, ActionScript and JavaScript look a lot alike and share certain core features. If you already know JavaScript, ActionScript should come to you pretty quickly.

To see how JavaScript and ActionScript have similar syntax let's look at an example of how a function would be written to create a variable holding the string "You kids get off my lawn!"

First, here's how we would create the function in JavaScript:


function LawnResponse() {
var response = "You kids get off my lawn!";
return response;
}

Here's how the same function would appear in ActionScript:


public function LawnResponse() {
var response:TextField = new TextField();
response.text = "You kids get off my lawn!";
addChild(response);
}

As you can see, the syntax is similar and if you already know JavaScript you can read the ActionScript code and understand what's going on.

Set Up an ActionScript Environment

Learning to program JavaScript is simplified by the fact that all browsers support JavaScript natively and mainstream browsers include a JavaScript console to help with development.

So it's easy to write code and see what happens by simply loading it in the browser and keeping an eye on the console to find errors and other messages from the browser.

Programming ActionScript isn't as straightforward. You need to set up a programming environment that supports ActionScript and can run the code before you export it as an SWF file to be run by the Adobe Flash Player.

There are at least three major implementations of the ActionScript language which you can use to set up a programming environment:

  • Adobe Flash Products: Adobe Animate CC is the modern equivalent of Adobe Flash Professional, and is used to build animations for deployment on the web. Adobe Air is used to package up Flash-powered content as a stand-alone application for installation on Windows, Mac OS, iOS, Android, and other operating systems.

  • Scaleform from Autodesk: a proprietary gaming user interface design tool used to create Flash-powered graphics. Scaleform is used along with Autodesk Stingray, a professional video game development platform.

  • Apache Flex: an open-source framework which can be used to develop applications for iOS, Android, and Blackberry mobile devices, as well as traditional Windows and Mac OS desktop applications.

Of the available options, Adobe Animate is the easiest program to get started with. However, it isn't free. If you want to get started with ActionScript without investing in a proprietary development environment Apache Flex is your best bet.

Learning Resources

Use the resources below to pinpoint the educational content that best fits your current needs and knowledge level.

Apache Flex Guides

If you've decided to work with Apache Flex here are two resources to help you get Flex set up and running:

Guides and Tutorials

With your ActionScript environment set up, you're ready to start learning. In this section we highlight some of the best free online AS3 guides and tutorials.

Learn by Building

ActionScript is perhaps most often used to develop Flash-based browser games. If you want to build simple games, there's no faster way to learn AS3 than to learn as you build simple Flash games:

Reference Documents

If you're stuck looking for a specific function or language feature the official reference documents are the right place to find the information you need.

Books

Most professional developers get to the point that online tutorials no longer provide the depth they need to take their skills to the next level. That's when in-depth technical texts come in handy.

The books below are the most popular and useful AS3 texts.

Summary

ActionScript 3.0 is a powerful object-oriented language which can be used to create interactive website features, web-based applications, games, desktop applications, and mobile device apps.

If you want to become a Flash developer, adding AS3 proficiency to your qualifications is an important step.


Further Reading and Resources

We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to coding and development:

  • ImageMagick Introduction and Resources: ImageMagick is a collection of command-line tools for doing graphics manipulation. Although it's been around a long time, it is still actively used.
  • SMIL Developer Resources: learn all about this system for time-based markup. It's kind of like animation but for presentations.
  • SVG vs SWF: find out about the differences and similarities of these vector-based graphic formats.

Often what seems great today tomorrow looks tacky. In our infographic Web Design Trends You'll Never Forget we run through decades of designs that were once thought to be the height of coolness.