Flappy Bird: The Story of an App That Lost its Wings

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

For any developer, including myself, there is always the dream that you will develop a product that users would love to use and, even better, will make you money. So when you hear of an app developer whose globally successful app has been downloaded an estimated 50 million times, reportedly making on average of $50,000 a day through in-app advertising, removing the application from both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store it may strike you as absolute madness. The name of the app is Flappy Bird and the developers name is Nguyen Ha Dong .

So what’s the big deal?

In Flappy Bird you take control of a miniature 8 bit birds fate by tapping the screen in order for it to avoid all of the on coming pipes. There is no finish or kind of level structure the user just has to keep the bird from hitting the obstacles for as long as possible. Each pipe that’s avoided is another point added to your score. Simple enough right? Easy you might say? Nahuh. This game is insanely difficult.

And therein lies the secret to Flappy Bird’s addictive nature. An incredibly simple design and premise, but a goal that is nigh on unachievable.

For Nguyen Ha Dong, he had achieved the perfect formula. A game you could pick and play with little to no instruction, minimal time commitment and an addictiveness that just kept users coming back to try and achieve the near impossible. Social Media only served to heighten and enhance the addictive nature of the game, pushing users to out compete their friends, a feature that filled newsfeeds when the games popularity began to snowball. My own first encounter with Flappy Birds came through Facebook after a raft of friends started posting pictures of what looked like a knock-off Mario themed game. After countless pitiful attempts my high-score was an astounding 3, and thinking about the safety of my iPhone and the fact that my insurance didn’t cover “Breakage’s Due to Getting Angry over a Tiny 8bit Bird”, I decided to escape the grasp of the flustered avian.

Never the less, I understood the sheer addictiveness of the game. The sheer difficulty of the game and the constant need to improve on your previous score kept you locked in. However, does the extraordinarily brief story of Flappy Bird and its withdrawal from the app store really figure to have any impact on the game application industry?

Addictive gameplay is nothing new, and you don’t have to look far to find obvious inspiration for the Flappy Bird concept. Step back a few years to possibly the greatest Flash game of all time, The Helicopter Game. The similarities are painfully obvious to anyone who has played both of the games, whilst the design obviously pays homage to the infamous Super Mario pipes that have become a cultural icon in the gaming industry. These games have always impacted the design and function of their successors, and will continue to do so.

Will Happy Poo Flap provide the next App addiction?

For a period of time, it is fairly predictable that a host of developers will try and build on from where Flappy Bird left off. We have already seen a collection of virtual clones arise to fill the void left by Flappy Bird, such as Flappy Wings, Fly Birdie – Flappy Bird Flyer, Clumsy Bird, Birdy Flap and a variety of wackier concepts such as eloquently named Happy Poo Flap. Yep, you heard me right. Happy. Poo. Flap. The world has gone Flappy mad.

Outside of copycat clones, the raging success of Flappy Birds could prompt a change in trend amongst games developers that encourages them towards the simpler sensibilities that Flappy Birds embodies. Developers will find the success of Flappy Birds too hard to ignore and will likely seek to emulate similar gameplay techniques to recreate the ridiculous levels of addiction that Flappy Birds managed to cause. You know you have achieved it when the developers Twitter handle is accosted with Tweets such as “you’re a clown, kill yourself” and “You’re a f****** p****!! And this game sucks anyway!” of course, these tweets came from exasperated gamers.

The end of the Flappy Bird legacy

If there is one tweet that truly summarises the lifespan of Flappy Birds, it is one that came directly from developer Nguyen Ha Dong’s own account: “I can call Flappy Bird a success of mine, but it also ruins my simple life. A saddening tweet of a developer who realised his dream, made the money and was driven to hit his own creation due to the addictive nature that made it such a success. The Flappy Bird legacy has obviously left a mark on game development culture (iPhones 4s with Flappy Bird installed are on eBay for up to £6m!), but did it really do anything that hadn’t been done before? The circus of events surrounding this app has really made it a bigger deal than it should be.

The combination of simple yet addictive design, public outrage over its difficulty, criticisms of cannibalization from other games such as Super Mario and Piou Piou, and allegations of bot use to raise its profile has provided Flappy Birds with a snow balling media coverage that aided its rise to the top. Still, perhaps this will herald a new direction in simpler, yet hellishly difficult gaming. We may be seeing a lot of broken smartphones folks.