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Lessons Learned From Flappy Bird

In this blog post I discuss the internet phenomenon that was "Flappy Bird" and the lessons that I learned about game design by participating in "Flappy Jam."

If you haven’t heard of “Flappy Bird” you’ve probably been living under a rock for the past few months.  Flappy Bird was a simple, addictive, and frustrating mobile game created by Dong Nguyen.  Flappy Bird was originally released on May 24, 2013 as an iPhone exclusive title.  By the end of January, it was the most downloaded game on the Apple App Store.  

On January 30, 2014, Dong Nguyen released an Android version of the game on the Google Play Store.  For a short period of time, the game was generating over $50,000 a day in ad-revenue.

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Flappy Bird was quickly becoming one of the most popular mobile games of all time, and generating a small fortune on the app stores.  Despite it’s success, on February 8, 2014 Dong Nguyen removed the game from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store completely.

In an exclusive interview with Forbes, Dong Nguyen stated:

“Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”

It was one of those “easy to play, but difficult to master” games that is somewhat reminiscent of Super Meat Boy.  You know, the type of game that we all love to hate?  Although, with Flappy Bird the love/hate relationship may have gone a bit too far.  It was not un-common for users to throw, or break their cell phone’s out of frustration when they lost the game.

Over time, it escalated to the point that extremists were threatening Dong on his official Twitter account. Given the circumstances, I can’t say that I blame him for the way he handled the situation.

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From the indie game community, Flappy Bird received generally mixed reviews. Many developers criticize the game’s success, due to it’s inherent simplicity. However, many others were inspired by it.  In the wake of Flappy Bird, a game jam called “Flappy Jam” was organized.  

In the past 30 days, hundreds of independent game developers have created games in remembrance of Flappy Bird.  To date, Flappy Jam has already received over 800 unique submissions, and it’s still going strong!  I am honored to be one of those developers, paying homage to a game that no longer exists.  Jurassic, the eighth game in our “Game a Week” series is my personal memento to the internet phenomenon.

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Flappy Bird was created in less than three days, the typical length of a game jam. Not counting polish, this is about the length of our typical production cycles. Gears, Dong’s game company, describes it’s games as:

“Heavily influenced by retro pixelated games in its golden age. Everything is pure, extremely hard and incredibly fun to play.”

Ultimately, this is what we strive for in our own games.  Typically, we try to create short, and addictive mobile games with simple mechanics.  Bobby and I frequently play old Nintendo, Sega, and Atari games for inspiration.  Due to our rapid production schedule, we’ve found that it’s more effective to create games with randomly generated “rounds” than it is to create games with traditional “levels.” Due to hardware limitations, this was actually the norm during the “golden age” of gaming that Dong was referring to. I think that Flappy Bird was a shining example of this design philosophy being utilized correctly.

From a technical standpoint, there was nothing impressive about Flappy Bird.  It was a simple game that most programmers could create (without much difficulty) over a single weekend.  But from a design standpoint, the game was actually quite brilliant.

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Ironically, I tried to over-complicate things at first.  In the original version of Jurassic, the character was much more animated.  I also added a second mechanic to the game, where the Pterodactyl could drop onto all fours and run, rather than dying, when it landed on the ground.  In addition to the pillars, there were also holes in the ground that the Pterodactyl could fall into if the player wasn’t careful.

However, as the game was nearing completion, I realized that the additional work that went into the game didn’t actually add anything to the gameplay experience. Aside from making the game easier, it was somewhat contradictory to the simple design that made the game great in the first place.

Days before the game’s release, I went back and stripped out the extra features that I had added to the game.  Not surprisingly, it got a much more positive response from the friends and family members who lovingly beta test my games for me.

Creating a Flappy Bird clone was a powerful learning experience.  It taught me lessons about minimalism, which will heavily affect the design of my games in the future.

 - Aden 

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