An interesting thing happened last week. A game called Flappy Bird gained an unbelievable amount of attention, generating $50,000 in ad revenue before the creator took the game off the app store this weekend. He apparently didn’t like the attention.
The game is notable for it’s difficulty and simplicity, though the gameplay is no different than any Helicopter variation. The player taps the screen and the bird rises or falls. The game keeps score by flying through some weird pipe obstacles that are strangely reminiscent of Super Mario Bros.
The strangest aspect of this game is that it’s been available for about a year on the app store before Buzzfeed put up an article about the difficulty and popularity of the game, and then the game was featured on just about every mainstream business blog you can think of: Forbes, CNET, Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, etcetera and etcetera and etcetera. Ads ran in game, popping down while the player tried their damnedest to get a few points, often times (at least for me using an inferior iPhone 4) slowing down the game.
I found it interesting how difficult people found it. The CNET article writer claimed that they replayed the game about 12 times before they scored even one point. Myself, I scored seven points on my third try (I was allowed a grace period to learn how the game works). I found it simple: Determine how much space the bird raises, and then tap the button, using projection algebra to beat the obstacles and score points. Though the hit detection is shoddy, and the ads slow the game, so it’s very easy to lose, and losing is where it gets interesting.
Most of the attention to the difficulty was about how addictive it is. When a player gets a “game over,” instead of turning it off, they just restart and keep playing. They’re determined to get that extra point, to outdo themselves and to get that medal.
What strikes me about all this is the attention the game’s getting. A very simple game of subpar quality that’s entirely empty of substance but crunchy and salty enough to keep the player digging in far past the point of it being any fun, only to find validation in big-time business publications reminding us of the unusual quality of it being simple, difficult, and addictive. Flappy Bird is video games as McDonalds.
I find it fascinating with how it’s taken up until now to get mainstream audiences exposed to what makes video games so addictive and manipulative. This game certainly isn’t the first “soul-less,” mind-numbingly “annoyingly difficult” game to have been released, nor is simple addictive games even a recent phenomenon. I’ve been playing games like that for years. Gaming community and blogs dedicate great deals of time to discuss and analyze the way games are so addictive, and many games designed explicitly to call attention to how addictive games and manipulative games can actually be. “Skinner Box” is a phrase that comes up often when discussing games.
Flappy Bird is truly nothing special or new, except for the fact that it’s caught the attention of a ton of people and has been manipulated by certain powers, and covered in business publications, in order to manipulate mass amounts of people to generate a ton of money. The creator himself made a couple million, or at least Forbes predicted. And, like McDonalds, it won’t take anyone very long to catch onto that strangely specific formula and imitate Flappy Bird and to generate a similar amount of money, except the next creator may not be quite as morally adept as the creator of Flappy Bird. The next guy (or girl) may be as cynical and evil as the pre-Christmas-Scrooge, and money will be made.
That’s not entirely fair though. Flappy Bird probably wasn’t initially created at a cynical attempt to make money. It just feels that way after recent events. Though it does seem to me that the driving force in today’s economy is products that appear to be extremely amateurish projects that are backed by mega-corporation. At least, that’s the sense I got from Alexis Ohanian’s Without Their Permission. I used to think Reddit was a stupid website until I found out it was bought by Conde-Nast.
I think it’s fair that video games are coming closer to the mainstreams eye and being more and more accepted as a legitimate art form, but I think Flappy Bird demonstrates that nothing escapes the free market when profit is at stake.