Note: This article was originally published in Cult of Mac Magazine, available on the App Store.
Flappy Bird came onto the scene with a bang, ruffling feathers from Hanoi to Hannover. Dong Nguyen, the developer of this seemingly overnight sensation, was as taken aback as the rest of us, evident from his shocking decision to stop offering the game for download as well as his recent decision to bring it back.
Game developers and publishers can only hope to reproduce this kind of crazy success. And each and every one of the people we talked to at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was eager to share opinions on how Flappy Bird happened, how it might happen again, and why it was such a runaway hit to begin with.
In case you’ve been holed up for the last few months, Flappy Bird is a one-button game with absurdly simple mechanics: tap the screen to keep a goofy-looking Nintendo-styled bird in the air as he rushes across the world, avoiding hitting randomly placed Super Mario-inspired pipes. The difficulty is brutal; super low scores are common, even among gamers who love twitch games.
The game spent eight months perching, unnoticed, in the app store until it went viral this February. Suddenly, Nguyen was under fire from the press for “ripped off artwork,” and inundated by email from parents squawking that the incredibly addictive game was distracting their children from homework and chores.
Nguyen tweeted that he was overwhelmed by the attention, that he needed to take the game down from the various app stores, and that he would no longer offer it up for download.
In solidarity, a ton of indie developers, including Acceleroto’s Bryan Duke, put together a Flappy Jam, each creating an homage to Nguyen’s hit game, to show him that it was ok. They were willing to support him through the discomfort, and tweeted their support immediately.
Duke feels that the game itself is difficult, but feels fair. “If you screw up,” he told us in the lobby of the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Francisco, “it still feels like it’s kind of your fault.”
Flappy Bird, said Duke, is like hundreds of other games in the App Store that offer short play sessions, a high level of difficulty, and an approachable, appealing art style. Ultimately, though, Duke feels like making another game to reach the same level of success as Flappy Bird is, in his words, “a crapshoot.”
Peter Molyneux, the creator of big triple-A games like Black & White and the Fable trilogy on consoles, thinks that the Flappy Bird craze was not random. He points to influential Youtube star Pewdiepie, who posted a video on the crazy difficulty of Flappy Bird in late January, just before the game took off. Titled “Flappy Bird – Don’t Play This Game,” the video earned over 15 million eyeballs on the Youtube page alone.
“It was a moment in time,” said Molyneux, sitting with Cult of Mac in his posh suite at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. “It’s like in the music industry. Just like all the other one-hit wonders in the world, Flappy Bird hit the public consciousness at the right time.”
Molyneux also admitted that the viral nature of social media like Twitter and Youtube helped this simple game go large. “Like that Chicken Dance song,” he said, humming a few bars of the classic instrumental that has been “cloned” in its own way over the years, “it’s simple but it sticks in your head.”
Seth Sivak has some time in the industry, toiling as the CEO of independent game studio, Proletariat Games. Sivak admitted that Flappy Bird was not original, but that the controversy surrounding press-shy developer Nguyen and the App Store removal helped the tapping game get even bigger.
“Flappy Bird is a fun, free, easy to learn game that you can play really quick,” said Sivak, told Cult of Mac. “It was a perfect storm of variables, including the fact that it seemed to come out of nowhere.”
Sivak notes that a lot of the word-of-mouth, especially among the pre-teen set, is a lot like the excitement we all may have felt as younger people when finding a fun new thing to try out. These days, however, instead of four or five close friends, youngsters have an entire internet to share with, who then share with others, and so on, exponentially raising the coverage of a funny game where one small bird falls to its death over and over.
“All the 12-year-olds have phones now,” he said, “making it super easy to share a game with all your friends, who then download it, laugh over it, and then share along to their friends.”
Other indie developers we spoke with agreed that the simple mechanics, over-the-top difficulty curve and approachability of the game made it resonate with mobile gamers.
“People are gluttons for punishment,” said Serban Porumbescu, an independent developer with a new game, Gunship X, coming out next month. “When you taste something awful with friends, your first reaction is to offer it to them. ‘Here, taste this, it’s terrible’ is a common thing. We’re set up psychologically to share our connection to a miserable experience.”
Ultimately, then, making a game that will hit with the same furor as Flappy Bird has far too many variables for any one developer or pr firm to control. The game needs to be simple and approachable, yet unsparingly difficult. It needs to be picked up by a luminary taste maker on Youtube, but you’ll need to surround yourself with secrecy and press-shy behaviors. Then, you’ll need to pull the game from the app store at the height of its ascent.
Still, there’s too much magic in the system to yield a recipe for the next game people will flock to.
For those wanting to replicate the experience, Porumbescu says that they may be out of luck. “The App Store,” he told us, “has no formula. And that’s what makes it great.”
Roy Liu, an executive with a mobile gaming data analytics firm, agreed with a quip delivered before a big panel meeting of such agencies at an office in San Francisco.
“How do you win the lottery on purpose?”