Phil Hartup on videogames

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Flappy Bird: what is its secret, and why should we care?

The latest “viral” game is a decent take on a tried and tested formula. But is it really that good, or has it just piggy-backed on our love for <em>Super Mario</em>?

So Flappy Bird is a thing. It is a thing that has gone viral. Like anything that achieves mass popularity there should probably be some sort of examination of just why this happened. How does an obscure Vietnamese games designer suddenly strike it big with a game that is both extremely simple and extremely hard? What is the great secret, and why should we care?

The actual game Flappy Bird is notable for a couple of qualities. First of all it’s really hard and second of all it has really nice, friendly, welcoming graphics. There are simple explanations for both these.

The reason it is difficult is because this is the sort of game it is. Side scrolling games based around avoiding crashing into things are not new, indeed the fundamentals of Flappy Bird, the idea of trying to use bursts of lift to counteract the effect of gravity on your avatar, date back to Lunar Lander, which first appeared in 1979*. Such games are always extremely hard whether you’re trying to land on the moon or guide a little helicopter through a cave. While they are difficult by normal standards it is worth remembering that these are games designed to be played in the space of a few seconds. You play, you fail and so you play again, hoping to push the high score a little higher each time. There have been dozens of games like this over the years.

You cannot actually make a game like Flappy Bird easy, because to do so would, weirdly enough, just make it harder. Imagine if the game were half as difficult as it is now, for example if the gaps were twice as big between the pipes so you could fly through more easily. What happens? Your high score would be much higher and it would take much longer to reach that high score in order to break it. Has that actually made the game easier, or more time consuming?

Meanwhile the reason the graphics are so friendly and welcoming is because the developers set out, and succeeded, in making a game that looks a great deal like Super Mario. If Nintendo had made a game like this then it is a safe bet that it would have looked and sounded almost exactly the same as Flappy Bird. Does that make Flappy Bird a lazy rip off of the hard work of others? Probably, welcome to mobile gaming. It’s not like Nintendo actually did make a game like that for mobile phones though, and if you snooze, you lose.

But what makes Flappy Bird in particular so successful? This is a trickier question, but it could be seen as a combination of factors. Firstly and most importantly, it is fun. Given the fact the visuals are pure vintage Nintendo and the game mechanics are tried and tested over thirty years it is not a surprise that this is the case. In the same way that we know opiates make people happy we know that guiding a little character or vehicle along a sideways world dodging stuff is fun, and that Super Mario looked great. Nobody is blazing a trail here. Because the game is fun very few people are going to hate it, some will love it, and thus it will do okay in the app store ratings systems.

Secondly it is a very easy game to go viral with. It’s free, it’s on iPhone and Android, it’s small and it has an easy name to remember and to search for. Being small and free means the game isn’t asking much from the audience to be given a try, people will hear of it and give it a go, the download stats for the game will be boosted so more people will hear of it, and so on.

It could be argued that another reason that the game has gone viral in the way that it has is that finding good games on mobile platforms is extremely difficult. Games are churned out at a prodigious rate, many looking extremely similar to each other, some are free, some look free but are limited based on what you spend, some cost money up front, some apparently snitch on you to the NSA. It is a minefield. When a game gets mentioned in the media or people just generally seem to be playing it, that sort of endorsement counts and a game can be raised out of the festering mass.

So in the case of Flappy Bird the mystery is sort of solved. It's a decent take on a tried and tested formula with a pleasant visual style which owes very little to the talents of the game developer and a lot to word of mouth. It took off in much the same way that Angry Birds did and it probably won’t be the last game to do that. Mostly I’m just glad to see the words “bird”, “Vietnam” and “viral” in an article that isn’t about a SARS outbreak.

*The game appeared years before that, but the specific mechanic was from the 1979 arcade version.