Feature Article

The Rise and Fall of Flappy Bird

Victory for the haters.

Aren't mobile games the worst? They're so simple and forgettable, existing just to suck away money from people who don't realize there are far better ways to spend their time. Even calling them games doesn't feel right. There's no skill involved, no challenge, and without the elements inherent to a good video game, they're just time-wasters. Inconsequential nothings. The manipulative pricing practices prey on those too weak to fight against their addictive tendencies. Shelling out cash for instant-win items? Pestering your friends to grant you more turns? It's all disgusting. And when you throw in the mound of soulless clones littering the marketplace, it's clear that the mobile market is a creatively bankrupt wasteland that's killing the entire industry.

At least, that's what some people think. But such an extreme stance on the fastest-growing section of virtual entertainment doesn't mirror my own thoughts. I recognize that mobile, just like consoles and handhelds, has issues, but also a lot of good elements. Still, there have been so many insults flung at mobile games that echoes those angry thoughts, and it's really baffling. This came to a head last week when the innocuous Flappy Bird was tarred and feathered. I cannot understand the hatred directed toward Flappy Bird. And after the developer closed the door on this high-score challenge over the weekend, I am saddened that loud, angry voices prevailed over the calm, rational people who want nothing more than to have fun.

Not only is the art similar to Mario's, but the studio name is a shortened version of Gears of War!
Not only is the art similar to Mario's, but the studio name is a shortened version of Gears of War!

So what is Flappy Bird? It is (was?) a phenomenon that all too quickly ran its course. The concept is the epitome of simple. You tap the screen to make the titular bird flap its tiny wings, and you try to avoid green pipes by flying over or ducking underneath them. If you slam into one, your flight ends, and you start up again to try to best your previous high score.

The biggest strength and most glaring weakness of Flappy Bird is that it takes only 72 words (and I was being verbose) to describe the entire experience. People who wanted nothing more than a mild distraction flocked to Flappy Bird, comparing scores with friends while feeling slightly productive in the five minutes spent waiting for their bus to arrive. It's utterly harmless, something not worth the time and energy to be passionate about. And why would someone have strong emotions for Flappy Bird? It's utterly benign, something meant to be consumed and forgotten rather than dissected and dwelled upon by the gaming community.

I am saddened that loud, angry voices prevailed over the calm, rational people who want nothing more than to have fun.

And yet, there are very strong feelings surrounding Flappy Bird, though most of them came from the negative attacks. There's an article on Kotaku (that they later apologized for) that accuses the developer of copying the artistic styling of Super Mario Bros. 3. Remember, just a few weeks before this outrage, the Internet was up in arms when King tried to trademark the words Crush and Saga in order to stymie the horde of Candy Crush Saga imitators. Now people are just as angry because someone dared to have pipes and a bird in a game, as if Nintendo somehow has a monopoly on those two aspects of video games. Does it look a little like a Mario game? Sure. But not enough to warrant the heated response it generated. Is this just our unfettered disgust toward casual entertainment that has caused us to lose our senses? Candy Crush Saga and Flappy Bird aren't our games--they aren't for the hardcore--so when they prove popular or encroach upon a cherished property, we bare our fangs.

Flappy Bird also had the gall to be hugely popular. Dong Nguyen, the developer behind the game, revealed that Flappy Bird was pulling in $50,000 a day from advertising. Obviously, this is terrible for everyone involved (except Nguyen), because nothing as simple as Flappy Bird should be bringing in truckloads of cash. Allegations were made that he used bots to boost his popularity while other sites said that wasn't the case. People posted YouTube clips complaining about how difficult the game was. Of course, others feel very differently. Obviously, Flappy Bird is divisive. But the anger is disproportionate to what Flappy Bird actually did. it shouldn't be the torchbearer for everything that's wrong with the mobile space. In fact, given that its biggest sin is how hard it is, that doesn't seem so bad at all. Flappy Bird also defied many of the damaging trends in mobile by earning money through conventional means that didn't hurt the core experience or alienate the many people who loved the game. Flappy Bird's success is a good thing.

Flappy Bird was free. Not free-to-play, not free*, not any other misleading nonsense. It was completely free, no strings attached. If you loved Flappy Bird so much that you wanted nothing more than to give your money to the person who gave you that joy, it was impossible to do so. There were no in-app purchases. Crazy, no? The $50,000 that it made every day was through advertising. Unobtrusive advertising at that. Once again, I have to ask why Flappy Bird generated such a wave of negativity. By delivering simple fun for no money, it used a business model I wish more games would emulate. Nguyen could have maximized his money by including in-app purchases that let you dress the bird in different outfits. Or maybe you would be limited to three plays per day unless you paid some cash. Well, those dirty practices were certainly possible, but they didn't exist in Flappy Bird. But the hatred still poured forth.

Direct your anger this way, please.
Direct your anger this way, please.

Contrast that with the recent Dungeon Keeper Mobile. If any game is worthy of scorn, it's this one (and the detractors have been quite vocal). This game is designed to milk you dry, shaking you upside down so that every last dime and nickel falls from your pockets. Dungeon Keeper Mobile puts a strict limit on how much you can do within a day. Once you use up your moves, which takes only a couple of minutes, you need to pay more money. Fantastic, no? And if you disapprove of this payment scheme, you can't even express your displeasure through a negative review. Try to give Dungeon Keeper Mobile less than a perfect score in the Android version, and you're taken to a feedback form, instead of being able to post your review unfiltered.

Being angry at Dungeon Keeper Online makes sense; it's designed to take advantage of people. But Flappy Bird? It doesn't have any of those problems. Yes, the "hardcore" may demand more from games than one-tap interactions. Bravely Default is much more my style than a simple high-score challenge, after all, so that's where I spend my gaming free time. But not everyone wants an in-depth role-playing game. Weird as it sounds, there are people out there who want mobile entertainment but can't wrap their heads around Spelunky or would rather read a novel than partake in the bizarre-yet-awesome storytelling of Persona 4 Golden.

For some, gaming is just a distraction rather than a way of life. For those people, Flappy Bird gave them something to do during the five idle minutes they had. But we were loud and angry, couldn't live in a world where a game so mindless could be so popular. Our hatred ruined a lot of people's fun, and forced a developer yearning for a simple life to pull Flappy Bird from the app stores. I think it's healthy when we find something damaging and let our voices be heard. But we have to pick our fights wisely. Not everything that we don't like is worth attacking, and it's sad seeing Flappy Bird pulled from the app stores in part because we were making the developer's life harder. Are we finally happy now that it's gone? Or will we find a new target to rally against?

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