Flappy Bird: the Justin Bieber of indie mobile games?
The game development community has been buzzing with controversy over a game called Flappy Bird since the weekend, in an incident that has even gotten headlines in the mainstream media.
As of Sunday, the game has been taken down by its creator, Dong Nguyen, in response to harassment and even death threats, due to all the negative attention the game has received in the wake of inexplicable sudden popularity of the game.
Allegedly the game had been earning $50,000/day in ad revenue in recent weeks, since becoming the most popular download in the iOS and Android stores. There’s a certain amount of professional jealousy about this success, considering how undeserving the game is. As well, there is a great deal of resentment that the game’s art style appears to be borrowed from Super Mario Bros, and seems to ride the coattails of Angry Birds, and directly rips off the play mechanics of a variety of similar, earlier games, none of which has been anywhere near this successful. Since the takedown a slew of imitators have flooded the app stores with play-alike games, some of them parodies, some seemingly earnest ripoffs. Even crazier, a few people have put their iOS and Android devices with Flappy Bird installed on eBay for a ridiculous markup.
The combination of the game’s popularity, and lack of originality or quality makes a Justin Bieber analogy seem apt.
After hearing about the game for the first time on Friday night, I had to try it if I was going to have an opinion on it, and my impression is that the game is indeed not very good, yet it does undeniably have an addictive quality to it. Flappy Bird is starkly simple, lacks depth, and brutally difficult. In terms of “finish”, it is only rudimentary in it’s polish — there is a (apparently broken) leader board, and the graphics have a few color scheme variations, but beyond that there’s nothing. It has the feel of the first or second project of a newbie game developer, and tried to build a game imitating another game, without originality or polish, using ripped art assets and a derivative title that rides the coattails of both Super Mario Bros. and Angry Birds. No wonder the game development community is howling. Yet, apparently this minimalism has struck a chord with many players who appear to genuinely like the game.
Success is an enigma… an aggravating, annoying enigma
It’s seemingly inexplicable that this game should be super popular, and therefore curious. I suspect that the popularity is not accidental, but rather arose out of a perfect storm of factors.
First, it seems likely that the Mario pipe graphics account in part for some popularity, as it makes players curious about the relationship between this game and the Mario world. This might serve to entice would-be players to download the game and try it out. As well, the word “Bird” in the title probably contributes to curiosity as well, due to the popularity of Angry Birds.
Further, I speculate that the game inspires people to talk about it, either about how bad the game is, or how aggravatingly difficult it is. Some players may play it for the sake of irony, or to laugh at it. I downloaded and played it just to see what all the fuss was about, and to develop an informed opinion so I could write about it, and to see if there just might be something there that I could learn from to make my own games more popular.
Even so, for the game to have so many downloads, it must have some genuine appeal that keeps players interested after trying it. It seems unlikely that the game could generate the type of advertisement revenue we’ve heard it has if people were only downloading it to play it a few times and laugh at it. It seems that a substantial number of players actually like the game, or perhaps play it out of a sort of perverse masochism, hating the game’s rage-inducing difficulty as they try again to beat their high score, while hating the entire experience for being so utterly basic, so unvarying, so stupidly hard and unforgiving.
The simplicity combined with the difficulty probably accounts for the game’s appeal, whether people genuinely like it or hate it with a passion. And the controversy over the rip-off aspects of the game probably only added fuel to the publicity fire, resulting in this weekend’s climax. The game had been out for several months before suddenly catching on, though. What was the event that triggered the sudden spike? I’m sure every game developer is dying to know. Was it “organic” or engineered? Was it an accident or is there genuine merit to the design, hidden to critics and game developers, despite their scorn?
The fact that Nguyen has taken the game down, walking away from a $50,000/day paycheck may be the most remarkable development in this story. The pressures of all the attention, so much of it negative, must be incredible for him to shut down such an income stream. Of course, he may already have enough money in the bank that he’ll never have to work again. And there may be a few battles over that revenue to come from the various IP holders who feel wronged. But it seems like Nguyen may have been most sensitive to the criticism of the quality of the game itself. This is a most un-Bieber-like plot twist.
Flappy, we hardly knew ye
I don’t yet know what to make of all this, but it seems to point to a business strategy of making very simple, unoriginal games, rather than auteurs striving to craft high quality, original games that innovate. I guess it depends on what motivates you as a developer. But if I had even 1/100th the success of Flappy Bird with my games, I’d be set up to quit my day job. One tenth, and I could be free to make whatever games pleased me, to whatever standard of quality I wanted, for the rest of my life, regardless of whether any more of them were popular. It seems worth pursuing, then, to explore this apparently untapped “shitty games” market to see if setting my sights lower could bring greater rewards. The risk involved in a game that can be developed in 2-3 days, compared to the potential reward, seems far more attractive, compared to spending months or years building a labor of love that may or may not have an audience beyond the author.