“People think it’s dumb, or even the stupidest thing ever, but if you look at games as machines you interact with, Flappy Bird is perfect.”
You might be surprised to hear the words ‘Flappy Bird’ and ‘perfection’ in the same sentence coming from a seasoned video game reviewer. But CNET video game expert Nick Statt believes that the addictive game is far more clever than people give it credit for. Over beer and garlic fries in a cool dusk evening beneath the lilac-tinged sky at Southern Pacific Brewery, Statt dissected the meaning behind the newly-resurrected game’s success and the gaming industry’s development since the advent of massively mobile gaming.
For those who have yet to hear about Flappy Bird (in a wise effort to continue living your lives peacefully), Flappy Bird was a free-to-play game in which users guided a bird between pipes in a side-scrolling level by tapping the screen to control the bird’s trajectory. Its humble origins trace to a 26-year old programmer named Dong Ngyuen who programmed the game while living with his parents in a small village outside Hanoi, Vietnam. Flappy Bird’s meteoric rise was only paralleled with the vitriolic hate that users felt towards the game, akin to users going after their dealers for a fix denied. The antipathy reached a point where at the height of its success, pulling in fifty thousand dollars a day, Dong pulled it from the market and left this simple tweet:
But, like the Phoenix that dies and resurrects after numerous failed attempts at navigating between pipes of various sizes ad nauseum, Dong has announced that Flappy Bird will soar precariously back into mobile users’ hearts.
We’re at a point in gaming where one man can make an app that produces fifty thousand dollars a day while major multinational corporations spend years of research and development looking for the same success, albeit with greater stakes and overhead costs. So important are games coming from Microsoft and Sony, shares of publicly traded gaming companies drop if early game reviews skew negative.
Last week, gaming industry experts and professionals converged in San Francisco for Game Developers Conference, to determine the direction of an industry that has evolved and grown in ways that few could have imagined since the first coin-op games were introduced in the late ‘70s. But Flappy Bird’s origin and success stands in sharp relief to the state of the high-pressure world of the gaming industry today. And its runaway success raises the simple question: Are games like Flappy Bird the future of the industry
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The first games designed for what is generally regarded as the first mainstream console, the Atari 2600, seem simple now, but were revolutionary programs at the time. The amalgamations of asteroids and extraterrestrials represented a new form of player-controlled manipulation of an object in a world with a defined set of rules. Since those humble origins, games aspired to, and have largely been judged on, the ability to absorb complexity both visually and through game play innovation.
In-game graphics for both Metal Gear for NES (1990) and its latest sequel released this month. More complex gameplay and graphics have been the obsession of designers everywhere, but does the coveted mainstream audience care about the same things?
The vast leaps in gameplay design are harder to convey. What was once a basic list of commands a player had at their disposal to defeat, say a giant ape that kidnapped your girlfriend while throwing barrels at a plumber, is now a vast web of contextualized triggers that the player sets for the AI to act upon in certain scenarios.
But ultimately, what developers seek to deliver is what Statt calls “Flow.”
“It’s that moment where game and player unite into one unique form of satisfaction. There’s no reason why a game like Flappy Bird is any worse necessarily than a major big budget title like Bioshock if it ends up delivering that Zen-like experience to players.”
What about the fact that Flappy Bird pissed off nearly everyone one of its players?
“That’s the hook! The first seconds you play it and inevitably die, you’re saying ‘I should be better at this!’ and keep playing. That’s brilliant design.”
“That said, if this were an arcade game in the ‘80s, it probably would have been seen as exploitative.”
Around the time of the Nintendo Wii’s launch in 2006, Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, was asked to choose which rival presented the greatest threat to Nintendo: Sony, makers of PlayStation, or Microsoft, of xbox. Iwata said something prescient, and perhaps not fully appreciated, at the time.
With everyone possessing what is essentially a powerful computer with impressive graphical capabilities in their pockets, Iwata realized that Apple (and now Android) snuck past the video game industry’s vaunted barriers of entry like a pixelated Trojan horse.
Marquis titles like Titanfall and Metal Gear Solid exemplify the seemingly unlimited budgets companies are willing to risk in order to ensure that their game dominates all others in an already crowded marketplace. In their obsession to beat one another in a digital arms race, major game publishers might be ignoring the lucrative potential that games like Flappy Bird hold. Some companies specializing in mobile gaming, like Zynga and now King Digital, have attempted to strike out as public companies on their own after the runaway success of a few of their games. However, both companies yet to have captured the imaginations of investors as both companies’ share price languish. What is for certain is that we’re seeing two dominant forms of game development moving in tandem: Huge budget games that literally affect the fortunes of publicly traded companies and the bare-bone-by-design games developed by one guy powered by cigarettes and a laptop with a decent internet connection.
One profit model makes rational sense while the other continues to make iconic, innovative titles that push the boundaries of narrative.* Perhaps we’ll see a hybrid: game companies using their expertise to create lever-pull games to finance blockbuster hits. Why not? It’s cheap to design and the likelihood of failure brings little overhead. Flappy Bird, and to a lesser extent, Draw Something and Candy Crush may provide the equation for popular gaming low cost design with minimal budget for marketing and public relations. Maybe at GDC this year, major studios like Microsoft and Sony will be inspired to diversify their portfolios akin to the modern movie system – produce major tentpole movies while producing ‘indie’ titles at low cost.
“Maybe,” he said as he dipped another garlic sage fry into the housemade ketchup, “That would be interesting.”
“Actually, let me show you this new game I’m trying. It’s a game where you take three numbers and then slide it around- never mind, it sounds dumb when I explain. Let me just show you.”
As he took out his phone to reveal the latest gaming craze, daytime birds’ final songs could be heard fading into the night sky.
*If you don’t believe me, check out Naughty Dog’s Last of Us for the most terrifying and heart wrenching vision of post-apocalyptic America since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”