Tom The Tank Engine, part 1
Newgrounds.com is surely the biggest and most influental Flash animation site on the web. Every minute of every day, animators the world around, novice to master, upload their shorts and games to the site. They all have the same desire – a collective ‘thumbs up’ from the Newgrounds community.
It all started 10 years ago as a way for Tom Fulp to get some exposure for his friend’s animated shorts. A decade later, Tom and his brother Wade welcome over a half-million visitors a day to their online network. What once was a hobby is now a thriving business.
And business is no longer just about the Flash portal. Along with Dan Paladin and John Baez, Tom has gone offline and into the platform gaming world. Capitalizing on the popularity of ‘Alien Hominid,’ the side-scrolling Flash game, The Behemoth was formed. The newly formed venture would soon shock the gaming world by launching a multi-platform title that wasn’t 3D. They took a Flash game that was originally hosted on Newgrounds.com, and turned it into a 2D, multi-level side-scrolling shooter. One could equate this to releasing a black & white, silent movie in today’s market and expecting big box office results. But results are exactly what The Behomoth gang received. After being crowned the winner in the The Biggest Suprise category at the 2004 IGN Awards, ‘Alien Hominid’ went on to take the Audience Award at the Independence Game Awards earlier this year. Many other nominations and awards followed, and this success helped The Behemoth gang extend their title to other platforms. As of today, ‘Alien Hominid’ is currently available for Playstation 2, Gamecube, and more recently Game Boy Advanced. Not bad for a Flash web game.
And it was a Flash game that garned Newgrounds it’s first worldwide news story. Back in 2002, a Detroit-native posted a simple suicide-bomber game called ‘Kaboom!’ on Newgrounds, and the upload exploded into a major news uproar. Senators and The Anti-Defamation League got into the mix, demanding that Fulp remove the game. Citing all American’s right to free speech, Fulp stood his ground, and gained even more respect from his massive community.
Since then, there have been other content submissions that have brought Newgrounds infamy. ‘Oklahoma City Escapades’ turned Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber into a video game star, and Jeff Weise, who went on a killing spree at his Minnesota high school, has previously posted a blood-soaked Flash animation on Newgrounds.
But the attention has typically been positive for the Newgrounds gang. ‘Numa Numa Dance,’ which originated at Newgrounds, ended up being broadcast on ‘Good Morning America,’ VH1 and CNN. After 9/11, Fox News gave kudos to Newgrounds for giving angry Americans a place to let off stream.
Fulp once wrote “thanks to this new digital age, hermits like me can finally lead the lives we were meant to lead. If I ever step into another office again, it will only be to help smash it.” But he should have qualified that statement – because he and the Newgrounds gang recently stepped into an office – their own. In the Philadelphia suburbs, they’ve plunked down a loan and set up shop. It’s a far cry from the months of 2001, when bandwidth bills nearly went unpaid.
Recently, Tom sat down in his new office and shared his thoughts on viral media, his next video game project and his recent appearance on G4TV.
AARON SIMPSON: Would you say that, overall, the animation submitted to Newgrounds is stronger than it was 5 years ago?
TOM FULP: Yes, by far! We receive submissions that don’t even rank in the daily top five but would have been huge hits five years ago. I believe Flash has created a generation of animators; past generations didn’t have the tools to animate within the grasp of the common kid. There is a much larger talent pool of experienced Flash animators compared to five years ago.
AARON: Who would you say are the 3 biggest animators to have emerged mainly because of their Newgrounds exposure?
TOM: Adam Phillips has received huge amounts of acclaim for his Brackenwood series, which includes ‘Prowlies at the River.’
Picking a third is so tough because we have a ton of hugely successful animators. I suppose I will say that David Firth is one of my personal favorites, for his strange and offbeat films such as ‘Salad Fingers:’
James Farr has a feature length film in development for his ‘Xombie’ series.
AARON: What makes an animated short or game viral?
TOM: For me it just has to be something different. A lot of people try to capture a formula for viral, but if they just copy off other viral successes it can come off as a lame attempt to be viral. Viral is unexpected… ‘Numa Numa Dance’ was just some goofy unexpected video and it spread like wildfire. Since then, tons of people have been trying to film themselves singing along to songs hoping they will be the next ‘Numa Numa’ – it just won’t happen, Numa Numa already happened. I get a sense that something is viral if I immediately send it off to my friends after watching it. I like plenty of weird stuff that never becomes huge, though.
I love everything by Marc M, who I think will become HUGE some day. A lot of my friends just aren’t into his stuff when I show it to them, but I still think he’ll take off big. He’s one of those people where I just start laughing as soon as I hear his voice.
AARON: What part of the process do you see is the biggest challenge for new Flash animators? Design, animation, voicework, story?
TOM: For young artists, I’ll say voicework is a big hurdle. It’s rough when you see a young kid make something that looks great, trying to be serious, but the voices are so obviously a kid. Older artists still struggle with QUALITY vocals, whether they don’t have the right voice for the job or the right recording equipment. Tons of great submissions fall prey to bad audio tracks, where voices are grainy, quiet and hard to hear in general. Voices are important to me because there have been plenty of submissions with not much in the design and animation department, but hilarious dialogue.
AARON: You seem to have quite a lot going on. How do you split your time up between Newgrounds and your Behemoth work?
TOM: It’s a big juggling act and both tasks are full-time jobs, which can be really overwhelming at times. I don’t like to turn away from opportunity, so it’s a difficult position when you have so much opportunity in your face and you just need to grab it all. My current schedule finds me at the office around 7:30. I usually start by catching up with Newgrounds administration and try to move on to console programming through the afternoon with more Newgrounds work in the evening. So it’s a 7:30-7:30 sort of schedule. In the early years of Newgrounds I couldn’t stop at night and would end up sitting in front of the computer until 6am. Nowadays, I try to keep a more defined “stop time” for the work, so once I walk away from the computer for the night I stay away for the night.
AARON: What’s the story with the ’4 Player Hack ‘n Slash’ game you’ve hinted about?
TOM: We’re going for the classic four player brawler, ala Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Golden Axe. It’s got a lot of new flair, such as crazy combos and air juggling. All the artwork is by Dan Paladin, so it’s got a unique and quirky style. We love revisiting the old 2D genres and bringing back memories of a more simple time in gaming. It’s all about making a game that is easy to play and tons of fun to watch and experience. Each of the knights has his own elemental magic, with tons of effects blowing up all over the place. We like to go totally nuts with the on-screen action.
AARON: How do you envinsion online users colaborating in the future – on video games, animation, music?
TOM: We’ve got tons of plans for integrating the on-line users in our projects. We are already involving people on a targetted basis, making use of music from the Newgrounds audio Portal as well as working with artists and programmers from the site. Moving ahead, we hope to involve people on a much broader basis, developing tools that allow fans to contribute to the game development process. The ultimate goal is to have a total convergence where Newgrounds provides the opportunity for everyone – programmers, artists, musicians, writers – to get involved in large scale projects.
That’s the end of the first half of the Cold, Hard Flash interview with Tom Fulp, the creator of Newgrounds.com. Check back soon for part 2.