By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of Flappy Bird. It’s the number one app in the iOS App Store in over 100 countries. The game comes from a developer based in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. That’s right. One Vietnamese guy has surprised the world and beat the likes of Supercell and Rovio single-handedly. And the irony is that he hasn’t done it with any lessons from the big guys.
You’ll remember a few years ago how Rovio took the world by storm with Angry Birds. Angry Birds was the 52nd game from Rovio. Since then, many gaming companies have not only cloned Angry Birds, but they’ve also taken the principles learned from Angry Birds and applied them to their own games. Making multiple levels, adding a three-point star system, allowing users to share, buying packages of more levels, and turning it into a full-blown franchise with Star Wars versions. Rovio successfully defined and packaged the principles of mobile gaming success. The same can be said of Clash Of Clans from Supercell and Candy Crush from King.
Flappy Bird does none of this. And that’s one key reason why people across the world are taking to it. They’re sick of the bullshit of in-app purchases and levels that go on and on with increasing difficulty. People want something new, and Flappy Bird does just that. Flappy Bird brings with it a whole new set of lessons for game designers and casual gamers. Some may say that it’s a fluke, that Dong Nguyen, the lone Viet designer is a lucky guy, but I’d say he’s touched a chord in what people really need and want in a casual game in 2014.
Why else would his other games also jump to the top of the App Store? While Flappy Bird retains the top spot, his two other games, Super Ball Juggling and Shuriken Block, have also jumped into the top ten. Not to mention Ironpants , a Flappy Bird clone, which only has 2.5 stars compared to Flappy Bird’s solid four-star rating, is at number three. And don’t forget, .GEARS, as Dong Nguyen’s brand also has three more games on his website which are not featured on the App Store but may be coming soon. This includes Smashing Kitty, Droplet Shuffle, and Ninja Assault. All of which can be played on your mobile. In other words, there’s much more to come from .GEARS. And if you’ve played all of them as much as I have, you’ll start to get a feel for Nguyen’s aesthetic.
Here’s my breakdown of the principles that Flappy Bird is bringing to the gaming table.
1. Make it really hard
Of course, the first thing you notice when playing Flappy Bird is how hard it is. Some of the team at Tech In Asia haven’t even flown past the first pole. It’s so hard that it’s ridiculously frustrating, annoying, and somehow existentially hilarious. It’s so hard it’s funny. In this way, Flappy Bird is punishing. If you take a gander at the reviews on the App Store, you’ll immediately see how much people love to hate it. And this is probably the single biggest reason for its success. People love to torture themselves, and they love to share it. The difficulty of the game is engineered for virality.
2. Make it extremely simple
Flappy Bird has almost no barrier to entry. Angry Birds, Clash of Clans, and other big-name mobile games take minutes on the dollar for gamers to learn how to play. And for every second you have to train a new user how to play, you lose another user. I can hand anybody my iPhone on the street and they will, within one second, know how to play Flappy Bird. That means anybody can play and anybody will play. And this is somehow perfectly balanced with the difficulty of the game. It’s easy to learn but it’s near impossible to master. Flappy Bird is in the sweet spot of learning curves.
3. Make it feel almost winnable
Probably the worst, and therefore best, part about Flappy Bird is that it always gives you a feeling that you could have done better than last time. With the case of Angry Birds, I’m usually satisfied even if I just get two stars on a level. The feeling is “at least I passed it”. With Flappy Bird, there is no such relief. It is essentially one level. And each point just tells you how much you suck at it.
- “Oh, you got two points? You suck”
- “Oh, you got 25 points? You suck”
- “Oh, you got 100 points?! Wow! You still suck!”
The moment Flappy takes a nosedive, you get a sinking feeling of failure that you just want to beat. You want to be better than last time. And in the midst of that, you’re going to go tell everyone you know: “Hey! I got 20 points!” But on the internet, there’s always someone better than you.
4. No in-app purchases
This is probably the most deceptively compelling aspect of Flappy Bird. Most of the top apps these days are all about in-app purchases. You open up a new app wincing at the inevitable fee, paywall, ad, or random in-app purchase that will beautify your character or make the level easier for you. Flappy Bird has none of this. Yes, it’s littered with ads, but the ads are placed in the game as if to hamper your gameplay. It adds another difficulty level. In other words, it’s totally free. It breaks the chains of greedy game designers. And it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Users don’t want to have to pay anymore. They’re sick of it.
5. No more than three buttons
If you notice, when playing Flappy Bird, there’s only ever three buttons on screen. In total, for the whole game, there’s Start, Score, Rate, Pause, Tap, Okay, and Share. That’s seven buttons. It’s part of Nguyen’s dedication to simplicity and also what makes the game so viral. In other games, users will be easily overwhelmed by the options games throw at you. Would you like to take a screenshot? Would you like to share points with your close friends? Would you like to look at the leaderboards? Would you like to get a hint for this level? The mechanics of the game make for a game that is instantly replayable and immediate.
6. Rely on gravity
If you haven’t seen the movie Gravity, you may not know what I mean here. But the physics of Flappy Bird are visceral. You can feel yourself nosediving along with Flappy at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared. You can feel for the little guy. With Angry Birds, you don’t feel much for the birds, nor the pigs. It’s the same for the little characters in Clash of Clans. They’re just part of your strategy, your tactics, or your game. When Flappy falls, you can hear your mind going “Oh damnit. I died again.”
7. It’s all about skill
Some people just suck at Flappy Bird. After a few tries, they throw their phone against the wall and they give up. They never pass the first pole and they’re done. App uninstalled. But there are shining knights on the App Store that are pushing past 50 or even 60 points in Flappy Bird. This is not a game where you can skip levels or get hints on how to solve puzzles. It’s not a rewarding and happy time game like Cut The Rope or Fruit Ninja. This is the big league. This is Flappy Bird. Only the truly skilled people will get to the top. If you pass beyond ten points, it’s because you really know how to tap your fingers. You know how to anticipate the gravity of Flappy’s world. With Flappy Bird, you know exactly why you suck at it. And you also know why you’re good at it.
8. Make gameplay as brief as possible, so you get as many plays as possible
One of the other really compelling mechanics of Flappy Bird is that since it’s so hard to play and you die so easily, that means you will essentially play the same level over and over again, many times. It’s like a bad habit that you can’t shirk. The more cupcakes you eat, the more cupcakes you want. Flappy Bird is a dopamine fiend.
9. Pollute the App Store
Flappy Bird has also been accused of hacking the App Store. I’m not sure how feasible this is, given that such accusations don’t get leveled at other apps in the App Store. It’s also now a moot point. Even if Flappy Bird was seeded in the beginning (I think it would be hard to deceive Apple also) it is now growing on its own organic viral growth. And this virality is mainly fueled by people’s vaunted hatred of the app itself. Hop over to the reviews and you will see all sorts of five-star ratings from people who just hate on the app no end. Flappy Bird has succeeded in becoming the game that everybody loves to hate. It’s the Justin Bieber of mobile games.
10. Don’t do what Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Clash Of Clans do
The best part of what Flappy Bird has done is that it’s breaking out of the gaming mold. It’s a welcome underdog to the big incumbents. Here’s hoping indie developers like Dong Nguyen can continue to see popularity at this scale into the rest of the year.
(Editing by Steven Millward)
- What IronPants has failed to do is make the game as responsive to the touch as Flappy Bird, rendering it a cheap knock-off from a guy named Eduardas Klenauskis who clearly, after looking at his games, doesn’t make gravity-based games for a living. It takes an expert on game gravity to make a good gravity game. ↩