You’ve probably heard about it already. “Flappy Bird” appeared so suddenly, and so suddenly everyone was playing it. It’s known for it’s brutal difficulty (at some point it was even compared to Dark Souls!) and simplistic gameplay. I first heard about it from this review that was posted and got some attention in Reddit. After trying it out myself, I’ve found some interesting characteristics under its sadistic fundamentals, which I’d like to share with you game design enthusiasts.
What the heck is a Flappy Bird?
Flappy Bird is a mobile game developed by .GEARS Studio available for Android and iPhone. It seems that they’re slightly different (the iPhone version has a pause button, for instance), but are essentially the same. That being said, I played the Android version, and this dissection was written based on that version.
The game is very simple: you control a bird by tapping on the screen, causing it to flap its wings and hopefully remaining airborne for a short while. Touch anything and you’re dead. You’ll need to go through a series of Mario Bros-esque pipes while trying to avoid the slightest contact with them. Every time you pass a pipe you gain one point. Accumulate enough points and you might earn a medal and bragging rights on the leaderboards. That’s it. That’s the whole game.
Formula of the Devil
Behind the simple and definitely unoriginal mechanics, there’s a few design decisions that makes the experience… charming in its own way. You could say that those decisions are what sets Flappy Bird apart from the rest.
- It’s accessible. Flappy Bird doesn’t put much between you and the action. There’s no complicated controls, and you don’t need to go through a lengthy tutorial in order to learn how to play. The pixel art graphics are cute and simple and they don’t really grab your attention, so you’re able to focus on the gameplay itself.
- It’s unforgiving. Touch anything and your voyage is over, see you space cowboy. There’s no powerups, no 1-ups, no health. You only have your skills to depend on. Making contact with anything solid will result in death. Fortunately, your hitbox is pixel perfect. When you’re dead, it’s because you fucked up. Start all over again.
- It’s fair. The game won’t cheat on you. Even though the obstacles are generated randomly, all the factors as the bird velocity, flap height, hitbox size, gravity and space between pipes and passages are balanced in such a way that every scenario is possible to go through, given you have the necessary skills.
- No difficulty curve. This is one of the most interesting points in my opinion. The game starts at a certain difficulty, and as that it remains for the rest of the game. The challenge doesn’t change at all during a run, so the first point is as difficult to achieve as the 100th. This is uncommon in games, as generally games are designed with an increasing difficulty so players will have time to hone their skills and be put against more elaborated challenges – the so-called balanced game flow.
- It’s an endurance game. After all it boils down to this. Flappy Bird is an endurance challenge. Once you learn how to get through the pipes it’s easy to repeat the feat, but you’re fighting against your own mind to keep your focus on the game. You’re trying to keep your rhythm and composure to have the necessary reaction time to either flap or dive through the air to reach the passage between the pipes. The game, however, is not doing much to keep you from progressing, because the difficulty doesn’t change during the play. After you understand the game, the pipes aren’t your enemies anymore. You’re your own enemy.
Show Me Your Moves
Flappy Bird doesn’t have any rewards. In a way, it is not different from the old arcade games. There’s no narrative to be followed, no final boss to be fought and no glorious ending to be watched. Technically, there’s no reason one would play it more than once or twice. Except, of course, because people are of a competitive nature.
The game quickly spread like a virus, not because of its originality or its guerrilla marketing strategy (it didn’t had any of those things). The game became this popular because it’s difficult, although it doesn’t look like it. People tend to underestimate the difficulty of the task and overestimate one’s own abilities, and specially considering how familiar and ordinary it looks compared to our previous experiences, you could assume you’d be able to beat it as well. Humans are competitive, so when you see a game like Flappy Bird being described as frustratingly hard, you’re tempted to try (the game is free, after all), and you may feel compelled to challenge your friends to try it themselves, and so it spreads through the network.
The problem here is that because there’s a lack of rewards, the game’s longevity is as good as the players own competitiveness. By themselves, the players aren’t likely to continue playing unless there’s a social motivator. Once a set of competing players (e.g. you and your friends) have mastered the game mechanics (which is not that difficult to do at all), it becomes a matter of who is willing to play the longest. Because the score is directly proportional to the play length, when this set of players reaches a median play length, weaker players will lose the interest and drop out, and the top players will soon follow for the lack of competition. Because of this, even though Flappy Bird is seeing a fast rise in popularity now, it most likely won’t last long.
Flappy Bird got so many attention that there are many clones appearing in the market already, but it seems that Flappy Bird is a clone itself of a game called Piou Piou, created by Zanorg. It’s hard to determine what’s a clone and what isn’t nowadays, and this is a debate that happens every so often between developers. I’m not here to defend or oppose the practice (although I really dislike it), but assuming that Flappy Bird is in fact a clone of Piou Piou, I want to discuss why one got this popular while the other hasn’t.
At first glance, both games share several similarities, mainly aesthetically speaking. They both features a big-lipped bird as a main character, avoiding tall obstacles (cactus in PP, pipe in FB) and generally flapping its way in a notably similar fashion. But there are some differences. First of all, Flappy Bird is a game of pure skill, no luck involved. Piou Piou, on the other hand, has several elements that may contribute or undermine the player success.
Piou Piou has items that helps the player in scoring, like the invincibility star and the cacti remover, and also items that makes it harder for the player, as the burger and the raindrops. Because of that, the gameplay differs a lot between them. In Piou Piou, your experience and aptitude may help you in scoring, but luck could give a completely unskilled player a huge advantage. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that you get several stars consecutively, largely increasing your score. Thus, the score then has no relation to how skilled the player is or how long he has played. Not only that, but Piou Piou is also more forgiving, so touching obstacles won’t kill you instantly, and it doesn’t seem to try to make every obstacle passable without touching.
Does that mean Flappy Bird is a better or a worse game than Piou Piou? Not really. They differ so much that the gameplay experience is totally distinct. However, in my opinion at least, Piou Piou “fails” in that it’s too generic. There are many games with the same premise, and Piou Piou doesn’t bring much novelty to the genre to set it apart from the rest. Flappy Bird, on the other hand, goes bold by appealing to a more hardcore niche while using a casual game premise, hiding its sadistic nature with a cute retro art style. For that I must give credit to Flappy Bird. I believe, though, that the fad will fade eventually.