Flappy Bird has flapped its last. It is an ex-bird.
The minimalist pipe-avoidance sim that scorched to the top of the iPhone free game rankings earlier this year has been removed by its creator, Dong Nguyen. “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down,” he tweeted. “I cannot take this anymore.” Some have seen in this a sort of victory for honest game design. Others have lambasted Nguyen for whining about earning a reported $50,000 a day from the game. Both responses are reductive and unfair. Flappy Bird was despised, at least in part, because of misunderstandings about how the games industry and game creators work.
In case you have somehow missed out on the short flight of this fascinating game, Flappy Bird is a free-to-play smartphone title in which the challenge is to guide a cute bird character through a tunnel of pipes, varying its altitude so that it can slip through the gaps. The interface is simple – just keep tapping the screen to flap the wings – but the game is extraordinarily difficult. Many players take several minutes just to pass through the first pipe gate, and hours of concerted effort are required to get a score over ten. The reaction from gamers has been one of utter frustration mixed with the hopeless need to continue. People hate it, but they can’t stop.
Humble genius in a hateful system
This infuriating ambiguity seems to have come as a shock to many observers. Last week, The Guardian’s own Stuart Heritage amusingly wrote about how he wanted to smash Flappy Bird into a pulp. But to me, a child of the 1980s who spent every seaside holiday pumping 10p pieces into brain-squelchingly tough arcade titles like Defender and Gunsmoke, Flappy Bird is just a continuation of a particularly unforgiving approach to game design. There is a long history behind this title’s happy sadism.
Video games are about precarious balance – they are machines of compulsion, and they require an operator who is engaged enough to keep cranking the handle but not too comfortable that they get bored and want to stop. One good way to ensure compulsion is to make the operator believe that they can always do better – and to make them angry enough at themselves to trap them in the loop. Early in his design career, Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto obsessively studied popular arcade titles like Pac-Man, trying to work out what made them so popular. He had an industrial design background and didn’t understand the appeal. Eventually, everything clicked. “I concluded that [it] was born of the players being mad at themselves,” he once explained. “So I would try to analyse how the game made players feel that way.”
What he learned was that players must very quickly understand the limits of their presence in the game world; that if the controls are simple and fair, interactions with complex systems start to become compulsive.
Originally, the controllable character in Miyamoto’s classic arcade game Donkey Kong couldn’t jump, which made the controls easy, but rendered the experience impossibly difficult. However, adding a jump button so that the player could avoid the rolling barrels, made players feel more in control, but only very slightly increased the complexity of the interface. Miyamoto achieved the balance he needed. After this, he continually iterated and tested the extract angle and height of the jump to ensure it was just right – that it was just easy enough to use, but still reliant on skill and timing. It needed to be perfect, it needed to be an exact science, and it was. Donkey Kong became an enormous success.
Similarly, Flappy Bird is based around a simple interaction: press screen to flap wings. But it is clear that Nguyen has spent time working out the exact vertical lift achieved by this single input; just as he has got the gap between pipes exactly right. The alchemy of these different parts has created a machine that players feel they ought to be able to operate, and when they fail, they blame themselves. Once again, this is crucial – this is the kernel of compulsive game design, from Space Invaders to Call of Duty. A great game system turns a mirror on the player’s inefficiencies and errors. And Flappy Bird is great game design, when viewed at this molecular level.
“What makes Flappy Bird work particularly well is that it eliminates all extraneous complexity to focus on one very simple input mechanic,” says game designer Bennett Foddy. “It also adds depth to that simple foundation using one extremely elegant and subtle innovation: the width of the barriers is just slightly wider than the half-width of your flap/jump. This forces you to make a series of difficult split-second decisions about whether and when to flap while you’re inside the barriers. In my opinion this is a very small, humble piece of genius. Flappy Bird provides solid evidence that simply tuning a game well can be far more important, in terms of the player’s ultimate enjoyment, than adding clever mechanics or beautiful art.”
Super Mario Thieves
So why do people outside of the game’s large userbase hate it so vociferously? One familiar response is that the game has ‘ripped off’ its visuals from Super Mario Bros, that its character and pipe designs borrow heavily from Nintendo’s classic series. But then, video games have been appropriating elements of the Super Mario series for many years. The 1987 platformer Great Giana Sisters is an obvious pastiche of the Nintendo titles, yet received critical adulation. Since then a whole online community has grown around illicit hacks of the Super Mario titles, with authors adding new features and complications and distributing their works online to much press interest. They’re rarely for commercial game, but yet in these cases, the act of remixing Mario elements is seen as a creative endeavour.
“The art elements are no closer to Mario’s actual artwork than thousands of other famous and lesser-known indie games that have been released over the past 20 or 30 years,” says Foddy. “Much of the criticism has focused on the green ‘pipes’ that form the barriers in Flappy Bird — those green pipes have been cultural icons for three decades. Two of the most famous works in the indie games movement, Super Meat Boy and Braid, adapt language and visual elements from Super Mario Bros for exactly this reason, and quite rightly neither one faced anything like the kind of criticism that Flappy Bird has received.”
Others have pointed out the similarities between Flappy Bird and earlier titles such as Piou Piou and early Flash title, Helicopter Game. The word ‘clone’ is chucked about with abandon. In truth, the history of video game design is one in which inspiration and plagiarism have often been virtually indistinguishable. The big genres we know today have come about through developers taking ideas from successful releases, modifying them, and releasing new variations. Space Invaders begat Galaxian and many others, spawning the rich lineage of the space shoot-em’-up; Tetris gave us a new era of block-sorting puzzlers; Minecraft borrowed elements from earlier building games like Infiniminer and Dwarf Fortress. The British games industry of the early ‘80s was practically created by the young coders who got hold of cheap computers and made their own versions of games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. This is how ideas spread and evolved.
“The truth is that Flappy Bird is a genre game, in one of the oldest genres of all, the forced-scrolling dodger,” says Foddy. “The roots of the genre go back to arcade games like Caverns of Mars, Jump Bug or Fly Boy from the very early 1980s, and there have been thousands upon thousands of similar games across the years, just as there have been thousands of falling-block games inspired by Tetris, and thousands of vertical shooters inspired by Space Invaders. One of my favourite indie games, Thrustburst, is very close in gameplay to Flappy Bird.”
Of course, there have been deliberate attempts to misdirect gamers toward titles that are virtually identical to successful products – if only in name. This is now a common occurrence on smartphone app stores where unscrupulous developers will produce titles that mimic big sellers almost completely, taking advantage of a store where buying decisions are obfuscated behind difficult-to-use search options. This is what we mean by cloning – it is a business rather than game design practice. It is the reason why major publisher King felt it necessary to trademark the word Candy; the company wanted to protect its successful puzzler Candy Crush Saga from dozens of copycats. But then, in game design terms, Candy Crush owes much to other ‘match three’ titles like Bejeweled, which owes much to Puyo Pop, which owes much to Tetris, and on and on, back through the complex history of design and inspiration.
It’s something a few game designers have picked up on. Tweeting on Sunday morning, Robert Yang, a teacher at the NYU Game Center tweeted:
And from Sophie Houlden, a comparison with the recent uproar over Candy Crush Saga:
Aside from design, there are the economic objections. There are criticisms of the fact that Flappy Bird is overloaded with adverts – and true, the screen is awash with them. But then, if you hate that, you’re really expressing frustration at a marketplace in which ‘free-to-play’ has become the only viable option for many designers. In the smartphone market, most players baulk at spending as little as 69p on a game that may have taken someone months to program, test and release. But 69p is a third of the cost of a Starbucks latte, a purchase many of us make almost by instinct every workday morning. I’ve actually heard from developers who say they have received death threats when seeking to charge a couple of pounds for add-on packs or new levels for their smartphone titles.
So you don’t charge. But then how do you make money? You either start building your titles around microtransactions, asking players to pay out for customising their characters or getting around the time barriers artificially installed between game levels, or you sign up with an advertising platform and display ads on screen. Some players dislike both, but they dislike paying upfront too. You can’t win.
Although of course, Nguyen has won. He was making a reported $50k a day from ad revenue, provoking even more fury. Such riches from a game that’s barely his own – and now his inability to cope is read as whiny ingratitude. There have been suggestions that he used bots to post fake reviews and artificially boost the game up the App Store rankings. Certainly the meteoric rise of the title looks suspicious; it usually takes many months to build from utter obscurity to chart success. Rumours persist that Flappy Bird’s removal was forced, although Nguyen denies legal pressure. We may never know.
Lurking behind it all is the shadow of xenophobia. Perhaps if Nguyen had been called, say, Jake Stern, perhaps if he’d been a USC student or a San Francisco media hipster everything would be okay. Then critics may have referred to his project as a pastiche of Super Mario or a new entry into the cultish ‘masocore’ genre like respected indie title I Wanna Be The guy, which ‘references’ Metroid, Mega Man and Castlevania rather than stealing from them. But no, Nguyen is from Vietnam in Asia, a region hazily associated with counterfeit consumer goods and online fantasy game gold farming. As game designer Merritt Kopas put it on Twitter:
Flappy Birds is clearly a game that borrows heavily from predecessors in its confined sub-genre. Its visuals hark back to Mario, just as many other titles have done. But somehow – perhaps with the sort of illicit tactics a digital app store invites, perhaps not – the title exploded in popularity, bringing in money and millions of players. But it has been decided that the title is unworthy, that simply not downloading it isn’t enough. The sometimes infinitesimal divide between genre entrant and clone has apparently been breached. “I cannot take this anymore,” wrote Dong Nguyen over the weekend. And unless this is the clever marketing scam that some are now theorising, he has learned the age-old lesson that success does not always bring happiness. No, sometimes success brings the opposite, and in these days of instant social media judgement, it brings it in force.
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