So one-thumb survival game and viral hit Flappy Bird flew too close to the sun and got deleted from the App Store by the developer. This morning, writers are aiming to make sense of what happened, such as in Keith Stuart’s piece for The Guardian, where he likens the game’s “cheerful sadism” to 1980s arcade games, worries that negative reactions were xenophobic in nature, and argues Flappy Bird was well-tuned and balanced—in effect, a model other games designers should learn from rather than scorn.
I wouldn’t go quite that far. I played Flappy Bird a bunch of times over a day or two, and I saw nothing that made me think it was anything more than a mediocre survival game. Judging by the response on my Twitter feed, the game was hugely divisive, with some getting totally addicted and others wondering what all the fuss was about. But I do agree with Stuart, in that there are things we can all learn from Flappy Bird’s short-lived success.
If it’s free, people will try anything. There are plenty of people who argue that free gaming will be the death of iOS, but I’ve never seen it that way. Although I will continue to champion great games with a price-tag, the fact is free games remove a barrier to entry. If something’s free, pretty much anyone will try not only something they were recommended as a good experience, but also something they just ‘have to see’. If you can make such an app compelling enough to make money, free can be a good starting point; just don’t gouge your users.
Design for on-the-move play. Some iOS titles, such as the superb Eliss Infinity, are very much sit-down experiences, but many people play mobile games on the go. I quite often get people on Twitter asking me for games that would work during a commute, when they’re standing on a train, only able to interact with an iPhone with a single digit. This is where Flappy Bird got everything right: it worked in portrait; a thumb didn’t cover the gameplay; controls used one digit; and games were short, meaning you could always fit one in. This of course isn’t the recipe for mobile gaming, but certainly a recipe, and there are oddly few short one-thumb titles that work in portrait.
Success is immediately cloned. Flappy Bird was not a remotely original concept—endless avoid ’em ups have existed since the dawn of gaming. But the App Store and Google Play are both cesspits when it comes to IP infringement. As Flappy Bird stormed the charts, a slew of imitators appeared. At the time of writing, various clones were flying high in the charts, having merrily stolen artwork from other developers, shoving ‘Flappy’ in their names, and in one particularly egregious case having welded IAP to the concept. One of the things that first drew me to iOS was the sheer innovation on display; these days, mobile gaming is increasingly full of crappy knock-offs.
People can be really nasty. In an earlier Guardian piece on Flappy Bird, Stuart Dredge said the game had “put the noses of a few gaming snobs out of joint along the way”. He later clarified to me that this wasn’t a response to critics offering a constructive opinion, but people responding in a mean or vicious manner to those who liked the game. Rather than argue about the game’s merits (or lack thereof), some accused others of being stupid for liking it. Worse, the developer has now been getting death threats on Twitter due to having removed the game. It’s depressing what people get so worked up about these days—imagine if all that energy was put into something worthwhile.
Reporters need to investigate more. Another related issue in terms of communication was the slew of reports about Flappy Bird, most of which didn’t investigate but instead assumed. Figures were bandied about regarding the small fortune the dev was making daily, and about him having ripped images from Nintendo titles; elsewhere, accusations of chart-rigging weren’t offered as a possibility, but as facts. The dev himself, freaking out under a deluge of press requests, pled for peace, which only made reporters write yet more about him, adding a ‘mysterious’ label. With writing being the profession in which I now spend most of my time, the lack of research into the Flappy Bird phenomenon, and assumptions and guesswork trotted out as facts, was merely indicative of reporting as a whole—but that in itself is deeply worrying.
We need to champion better games. The final point—and one I explore in more depth in an upcoming piece for TechRadar—is that we need to shout louder when great games come along. Flappy Bird was not an objectively great game; at best, it was a compelling, convenient and free time killer. But iOS and Android both have reputations that are being flushed down the toilet, to take their place among a sea of IAP and freemium effluent. But mobile gaming can be brilliant. Mobile gaming gave the industry a kick up the arse, combining the innovation then seen on Nintendo handhelds with the kind of open audience access only previously available to people working on the PC. Even now, despite the dross, there are titles being released for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices that are wonderful and simply couldn’t have existed on any other kind of system. But devs that succeed in making great games are increasingly failing, because discoverability on the App Store and Google Play is so poor; we need to do more to bring such titles to people’s attention, before it gets to the point such titles are no longer viable, and all we’re left with is the Flappy Birds and Dungeon Keepers of this world.