Recently, I stumbled on a number of stories about “Flappy Bird”, a little smartphone game. The graphics and sound are copied from Super Mario Bros. There’s only one level. There’s no complicated gameplay.
It’s a huge hit.
It was actually released back in the middle of 2013, but it suddenly became popular in the past few weeks.
I didn’t really pay much attention to the game until I saw two stories: “Flappy Bird is proof that no one knows what the audience wants” and “Indie smash hit ‘Flappy Bird’ racks up $50K per day in ad revenue”.
Intrigued? Here’s a video of the game:
I’ll admit that it’s a little disappointing to find out what’s popular, especially when a lot of game companies are running on shoe-string budgets or bankrupt. The developer of Flappy Bird is reportedly bringing in $50,000 a day in ad revenue. It makes me think, “Gee, I wish I had written Flappy Bird. Not because I think it’s a great game, but because I could form a pretty awesome game company and make great stuff with that money.” Of course, I’d probably just take that money and then make some complicated game with awesome graphics and AI (which doesn’t seem to be what the audience wants).
As a game developer, I’d like to think that games that require some thought and strategy would be more popular – if for no other reason than they are more challenging. I admit that I’ve spent plenty of time playing mindless first-person shooter games, but when it comes to building games, I’d like to think that I’m creating something more than making mindless entertainment (though, there’s something to be said for entertaining people). Sometimes I wonder if I’m like one of those early French filmmakers who had visions of what could be done with the medium (we’ll bring enlightenment and culture and knowledge to the masses!), but then they discovered that they go bankrupt with those kinds of ideas. Rather, the slapstick humor or Micheal-Bays-style fight-scenes and explosions are what brings the audiences and profitability.
I will say this for Flappy Bird: it’s simple to learn, it’s simple to play, like Angry Birds there’s a mixture of luck and skill involved, and it’s setup really well for competing with your friends and siblings (“I got a score of 30, what’s your best score? Ah, crap, I have to beat you now.”).
I also can’t help but think the money he’s making from Flappy Bird makes a joke of the whole idea of people getting justly rewarded for their work. There are people are working their entire lives as teachers, educating kids. Meanwhile, here’s this guy who put together a simple smartphone game, and making more money from it than they’ll earn in their entire lives.
One other thing I’ve noticed is that virtually no popular games require any Artificial Intelligence. I think there’s something interesting about the idea of playing against intelligent enemies. Instead, games either have no intelligent enemies (either no enemies, or they follow simple and predictable routines – like Space Invaders or Mario Bros.), or they have you play against other players, which saves them the work of creating AI.
I think the polygon article is spot on when it says that nobody really knows what’s going to be popular. Even Notch (of Minecraft fame) had no idea that Minecraft was going to be a success. This makes the game industry feel more like a crapshoot. (As one developer put it: “games are a hit-driven business”, which is essentially saying, “Most games are money-losers, but if you get a hit, you hit the jackpot. It’s like playing a slot machine.”) As a developer or a gamer, you’d like to think you’ve got some ideas that help you predict what’s going to be popular and what won’t be popular, and games like Flappy Bird make you throw up your hands and go, “I don’t know”. It also makes me wonder if a lot of game developers will be unable to repeat their past success. Admittedly, once they have achieved fame through games like Minecraft, they have a popularity that biases them in favor of success again (in other words they’ve got a large audience watching their subsequent games). I can think of quite a few game companies who had big success with one game, but then fell on hard times in subsequent years.
On a related note, the creator of Flappy Bird has taken down the game from the app stores. I guess he was unprepared to deal with the attention and/or money that comes from millions of players. (The game has over 10 million downloads.) You can read about it here: The Verge: Flappy Bird creator says he’s pulling the game offline tomorrow.
Who knows if it’ll be up again in the future. I predict that there will be lots of people writing clones of the game. That’s not a bad idea. Though, if I wanted to do that, I bet that I’m a little bit behind the curve already.
Update: The Bottom Feeder (Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software) had some interesting thoughts on Flappy Bird and Indie Developers: “Why Indie Developers Go Insane”