The bird falls from the sky.
Tap the screen and the funny looking bird jumps slightly before dropping again.
From the right side of the screen, two green pipes block the way, except for a small gap between. Get the bird from left to right and between as many pipes as possible, but touch a pipe and the bird “dies”.
This is the basic premise of the recent app store sensation Flappy Bird – its infuriating difficulty a catalyst for its success.
And who created this? A man named Dong Nguyen from Vietnam. You might think this reason to be cheerful: an indie game made by a previously unrecognised developer, based in a country not normally known for its game development, has now become a worldwide hit.
In April of last year, Flappy Bird was first created and then shortly after released on the Android Play Store and iOS App Store. It wasn’t an instant hit. However, it gained popularity over the last month or so, presumably as more people found out about it. Some have suggested that Nguyen cheated the ranking systems on the app stores by using bots that would post positive reviews or download the game multiple times. I have not seen enough evidence to confirm this.
This controversy, along with allegations of breach of copyright (which I’ll go into later) would only help raise the game’s status on websites such as Kotaku and, eventually, the mainstream media.
But on February 9, Nguyen tweeted:
“I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore”.
This could have been interpreted at the time as either a bluff or his true intentions. As you may already know by now, Nguyen has indeed pulled the game from both the Android and iOS app stores. He’s received many death threats, plenty of criticism from reviewers and gamers alike, he’s been accused of breaching copyright and ridiculed.
Not exactly a reason to be cheerful then.
There are a few questions that need to be answered here. Firstly, why has Flappy Bird received this attention? Out of the thousands of games available, what makes this so special?
Looking through the tweets about it, the first thing that comes to mind is its gameplay. Its extremely simple interface quickly reveals a beautifully cruel level of difficulty. Let one pixel of the bird touch a pipe and it nosedives into the ground, leaving you unable to do anything but stare in horror.
That might be an exaggeration, as you’re promptly offered the chance to try again. But, just like Doodle Jump and Angry Birds before it, this replay factor is what makes it so hard to resist.
It also helps that, despite how some might describe it, the game is designed perfectly. There are no glitches when the bird “jumps”. The height it flies is the same each time you tap. The only noticeable difference is when the pipes increase in frequency.
So, the game is fair. It forces the player to realise that failure is their own wrongdoing. Similarities can be drawn with the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games. But these games are actually a throwback to previous generations when games were much simpler.
Games like Super Mario Bros. where the basic principle was to get to the end of each level in as quick a time as possible, whilst collecting coins and dodging bad guys. Except, in Flappy Bird, your objective is to get through the pipes and your incentive is earning medals. But both games will drive people to frustration, knowing how easy they are to play but so hard to master.
Flappy Bird’s appeal is in what can be learned from each play. For example, fly a little higher next time to avoid the bottom pipe on your way down, or press intermittently to “hop” through the sky.
Now, having allegedly made $50,000 a day from ad revenues, this once small-time developer achieved the success that many other game developers could only dream of.
So why give that up?
Many have accused Nguyen of trying to take advantage of “Nintendo” art to succeed. Actually, the pipes really do look like the ones from Super Mario Bros. and (like I said before), the screen moves from the left to the right. Look at the background, it looks like it’s from the Mario games!
Let’s stop here. There are countless examples of games that are inspired by classics. For example, recently Oceanhorn was released on the App Store and it’s been described as ‘Zelda for iOS’. It didn’t receive this kind of criticism despite actually being a £5+ title (Flappy Bird is free to download). In fact, Oceanhorn can be revered as a tribute and enjoyed for its nostalgia inducing gameplay. So I don’t think Flappy Bird is very different and certainly doesn’t deserve this criticism.
There have also been allegations that Nguyen stole the idea for this game from an older one called Piou Piou. That game is still available on the Google Play Store, at least, and I can see the resemblance. But Nguyen has denied taking the game down for any legal reasons and, if he did do such a thing as stealing from Piou Piou, it wouldn’t make sense for him to freely choose to remove the game (as seems to be the case).
Although Nguyen has mostly turned down invitations for interviews from news outlets all over the world, his Twitter account can help shed light on what caused the end of Flappy Bird.
Firstly, Nguyen tweeted a lot and had a lot of people tweeting at him. A quick look through the Twitter history reveals that, unfortunately, some people have taken the game too seriously. It’s easy to see that people can get quite angry with a game, directing their abuse at both the bird and its creator. Some have even threatened to kill Nguyen.
Yeah, that’s going too far. But game developers aren’t immune to this hate and Nguyen certainly isn’t the first victim. So why doesn’t he just shrug it off?
When someone tweeted they had been obsessively playing the game for several hours, Nguyen responded by suggesting they take a break.
The man was telling people to stop playing his game and to live their lives. As more harsh words came his way, his tweets continued like this.
Going back to his oldest messages, tweeted before the game was released, I read something that really struck with me.
“A man only lives once and the best strategy is always to make the most of it. Success is not the only reason for existence.”
Following on from the success that his game actually did receive, after all the complaints about theft, all the angry gamers that started sending harsh messages, all the death threats and hate, Nguyen stayed true to his words. It seems he genuinely wants people to be happy and enjoy playing the games he makes.
Until we know better, we can continue to speculate on the real reason why Flappy Bird was removed by its owner. Whether you think it was the negative comments, too much pressure or attention, or the allegations surrounding the game, we can all learn from this.
We can all understand this message that’s come from – not a politician or a poet – a game developer.
To me, at least, that’s the lesson to be learnt from this and the purest message that can be taken on board by anyone.
To conclude, Flappy Bird became so popular because as a game it worked but the controversy around Nguyen and the game only helped the bird soar higher into fame.
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