There Once was a Game called Flappy Bird

Flappy Bird

I was talking to Yannick LeJacq a week ago as he was writing an article on The Unflappable Brilliance of Flappy Bird, about the surprise mobile hit of early 2014.

To my surprise, Flappy Bird received an inordinate amount of hate (which I will get to below), so this was one of the very few articles to show any kind of interest in what made the game popular.

My thoughts on the game, some of which also made it into the article:

  • Flappy Bird is so simple that it appears ironic. For a modern game, we expect upgradesachievements, variation in the game, score increments larger than 1, forgiving collision. And none of those are present in the game.
  • Perhaps this was intentional from the designer, perhaps not. Certainly, to play Flappy Bird is to engage in a bit of irony, marveling at all of the things that we expect, but which are missing.
  • We tend to hope that we will find the perfect game; that there is some formula for creating the best, most addictive game possible. And whenever we have a new hit, those hopes get projected onto it. In recent times, the perfect game has been thought to be games like World of WarcraftFarmVilleCandy Crush. And then another game comes along. Charles Pratt and Tadhg Kelly have made similar points. But I think it goes further: people play Flappy Bird because it flies in the face of what every game designer knows at this point. Not because players care the least about what game designers or theorists like myself think, but because the shared conventional wisdom of How You Shall Design Your Game is making games similar, and players know a breath of fresh air when they see it.
  • The game is hard, but hard is casual: the fact that you fail every few seconds means that the time commitment dwindles down to seconds. (Super Hexagon being another recent example.)
  • Like Qwop, Flappy Bird was a sleeper hit. Very challenging games have a particular snowball effect, where they undergo a phase change from being a challenging game, to being a game where we collectively can marvel at how challenging and unfair it is. (And hence not feel bad about failing.)
  • Naturally, the simplicity is a feature. As I say in The Art of Failure, “This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy – an inadequacy that they create in us in the first place.” In Flappy Bird we very quickly learn how adequate we are, but the game is so simple that we also immediately know how to escape that inadequacy (flap sooner or later).

The backlash and the removal

And then the developer removed the game on Sunday February 9th.

Leading up to his, the Vietnamese developer had received a considerable amount of hate, the high point possibly being the claim that Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art mostly because the pipes look like Mario pipes. This seemed to start a meme that somehow this game was in legal dire straits both for making green pipes and because other flap-the-wings-and-avoid-obstacles games already existed. Some sites gloated at the removal and suggested that it could have been caused by legal challenges. All of this is nonsense, of course. In my limited legal understanding, there is nothing copyrightable about green pipes, and nothing copyrightable about a core game mechanic. Flappy Bird is among the least guilty games in terms of cloning and borrowing graphics. Also remember that this was the game that no one expected to see.

Some other quotes:

  • “as a game, the tap-to-fly-between-the-pipes gameplay is almost insultingly simple and uninteresting” (source).
  • More thoughtful was Ian Bogost’s article. “Flappy Bird is a game that accepts that it is stupid to be a game.” (Source). Ian shares the feeling that there is something excessive about the game, and that this provides a certain enjoyment.
  • But don’t get me started on comments.

The Backlash Backlash

All of this is very depressing. For reasons hard to fathom, a game by a small developer in Vietnam receives huge amounts of not-very-well-thought-through vitriol for making a game that confounds our expectations.

Get a grip everybody! The point is to be able to understand why people might be playing something that you are not naturally gravitating towards. If you want to be cognizant about games, your task is to understand why,  not just shout that “this game is stupid”.

And [all] journalists should try calling a legal expert before they point their fingers. And not to fan the flames. Sigh. Try to find that inner curiosity.


PS. Robert Yang has another critical look at the whole affair.

PPS. And just after I posted this, I see that Keith Stuart has posted an article featuring Bennett Foddy.

PPPS. And here is an interview with Dong Nguyen himself, where he says that he took the game down because it was too addictive – which differs from the motivations that everybody else ascribed the game’s removal to.

4 thoughts on “There Once was a Game called Flappy Bird”

  1. @SLotman I know Piou Piou. But that’s not really the way copyright works. Compare Unreal Tournament to Quake. First person shooting. Sci-fi. etc. etc. etc. Would you say that Unreal Tournament is a blatant clone of Quake? Aren’t they mechanically more similar than Flappy Bird is to Piou Piou? The fail state in Piou Piou is being pushed to the left of the screen rather than to hit the pipe. And the Piou Piou has cacti rather than pipes.

    Since the Mario game has a fish, rather than a bird, it is not ripped. Nintendo does not hold copyright on green pipes or pixelated characters, the same way that Id does not hold a copyright on sci-fi soldiers, or on shooting in hallways.

    It would be a copyright or cloning issue of you had the same gameplay as Piou Piou + cacti + nearly identical visual style. Or it could be copyright or cloning issue in relation to Nintendo if the graphics had actually been ripped, or if it involved an Italian plumber jumping on levels with similar layout as Super Mario.

    For just about any popular game you can find dozens of earlier games that are similar in gameplay and graphical style. I don’t understand why people would be so critical of Flappy Bird.

  2. So then what was it that took Flappy to hit a critical mass? I understand there was a ton of viral mkting through reddit from the founders nephew(?). There are a plethora of games out that with the model you have outlined, why then was it Flappy that rose to the top?

    I want to boil this down further…was is the physics, was it the design, was it the nostalgia of the Mario-esque pipes. There may not be any answer to my inquiry, but the app’s meteoric rise to success had me thinking quite a bit.

    I am also looking into the “masterability” of the game. Not too steep as to scare new players away, but not flat enough to give seasoned users a reason to stop.

    We are in a confusing age of gaming; one in which former RTS, RPG, MMO etc players have shifted to games like Flappy.

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