February 12th, 2014 14:00 EST
Flappy Bird - The Takedown and the Legacy
On February 9, 2014, Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen announced on his Twitter that he would be removing his popular game from the iTunes and Android stores on the grounds that he "couldn`t take it anymore." Nearly a day later, the app was officially removed from the mobile market.
The game had been in the market since May 2013, but didn`t gain it`s viral success until around last month. Before the takedown, it was the most downloaded free app on the Apple store.
Dong revealed in an interview with Forbes that his reasoning for axing the game was because he had designed the game to be played for only a few minutes, and the people playing it were doing so for hours on end. The guilt of starting such an addiction absorbed him to the point where he couldn`t even sleep. So Dong decided to administer his own brand of gaming rehab and cut the gamers off. He insisted that his game was "gone forever." Perhaps in the mobile world, but knowing the large, expansive world of the Internet, those words hold no true water.
The game received some controversy for lifting both game and art assets from pre-existing material. On February 5, French developer "Kek" of Zanorg tweeted a picture comparing Flappy Bird to his 2011 game, "Piou Piou vs. Cactus." Both games involve a yellow bird flying to the right while avoiding vertical poles with the goal of earning a big score. It has also been compared to Copter Game, an old flash game that I remember playing from when I first started using Facebook back in 2007, which has the same "fly to the right, dodge stuff, and earn points by flying" style of gameplay. Accusations/confirmations of games ripping off other games is nothing new. Many have been eager to point out that the king of the mobile game world, Angry Birds, took its gameplay from a 2009 flash game called Crush the Castle.
In terms of art, the game`s publisher, .GEARS Studios, prides itself in providing games that are "heavily
influenced by retro pixelated games in its golden age. Everything is pure, extremely hard and incredibly fun to play." "Influenced" might not be the right word to describe some of the game`s art assets. Even those who are not avid gaming enthusiasts can immediately point out the green Super Mario Bros. pipes that the bird dodges in the game. The ground featured in the game looks like they took the wooden ground from the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 and colored it to make it resemble the grassy ground from the first level of Super Mario World. It seems fitting that Flappy Bird`s Wikipedia page totes that the game has "Super Mario World-esque graphics." The titular character also resembles player ships from certain 1980s horizontal space-shooters, including Opa-Opa, the player ship from the 1986 Sega arcade game, Fantasy Zone, and Twinbee, the ship from the 1987 Nintendo Entertainment System classic, Stinger. What`s interesting is that many of .GEAR Studios` other games are not only available on the Apple and Android Stores, but also on their HTML5 enabled website. If one were to look at some of the games featured on the website, they would find that while the games featured are retro-influenced, none of them really present anything that could be viewed as artistic plagiarism. The closest any of the games came to ripping off something artistically was having the enemies of Smashing Kitty look like a cross between the polka-dot hills from Super Mario World and Diglett from Pokemon, and even that`s not as direct as Flappy Bird`s liberal use of Mario pipes. Despite some legally questionable artistic decisions, Dong stated in a tweet that the game`s takedown had nothing to do with any legal issues.
In terms of writing this article, I felt that I would be in a better position to talk about this game if I first
played it myself. Unfortunately, due to my tendency to never update my iPhone, I couldn`t download it during its final hours on the Apple store. Rather than go through the trouble of deleting stuff off my phone to make room for the latest update, I found a free flash version (much to Dong`s chagrin) developed by Kongregate user, maxblive, to play on my computer instead. Considering how simple the game is, I doubt that this flash version is much different from its iPhone counterpart.
Within only a few minutes of playing, I immediately understood the appeal of the game. The game puts you in control of a bird that has a very small "jump" and drops like a rock. The game expects you to fly through these very narrow passages using this intentionally limited control method. Aside from needing to "jump" constantly just to maintain altitude, the bird`s "jump"/flap is not affected by how hard you tap the screen (or in my case, tap the space bar.) Since a lot of games that use jumping as a mechanic are programmed to have the height of the jump be determined by how hard or soft you press the button/screen, there will be times where you think you can make
a smaller or bigger flap than the game allows. There`s also the randomized layout, and how it relates specifically to the very start of the game. The game has you fly in clear, pipeless air for a few seconds before the first pipe corridor appears. Before those pipes appear, you have no idea where the clearing is going to show up, so reaching the right altitude becomes a temporary guessing game. When those pipes do appear on-screen, lining yourself up with the clearing depends on your previous position and the timing of your flaps. There`s also fighting back your finger`s desire for physical feedback. Whenever you`re in a situation where flapping means instant death, your finger will practically beg for some kind of physical sensation. Those who are fidgety will find themselves dying a lot.
When you first play the game, you probably won`t get past this first set of pipes because of all of the factors listed above. In fact, it will happen to you the next five or six times you play it. By that point, you will probably think the game is incredibly stupid because there`s seemingly no way to score a single point. However, this frustration is what draws you into the game, as you constantly wonder that there has to be some way to beat this game. It wouldn`t be so popular or even on the Apple and Android stores if there was no way to earn a single point. It`s at this point where you take the time to learn the control scheme and get used to timing the flaps. Once you get past that first set of pipes and start flying through more and more openings, you will feel a sense of satisfaction from accomplishing what seemed so impossible. Soon, this extends to social settings. Because of the common usage of smartphones and the fact that Flappy Bird is a free game, others might talk about the game and compare their best scores with each other. This creates a desire to further your skills at the game so that you can beat your friends` scores and earn bragging rights within your circle. It`s a lot like the days when arcades were a thriving business, when players would deposit quarter after quarter to earn a high score worthy of the top of the leaderboard, or seeing the end of the game if there was one.
One question that`s worth asking is that if Flappy Bird was supposedly a copy of Kek`s Piou Piou vs. Cactus, why didn`t that game achieve any critical success? Luckily, that game is also playable via the flash format, so I took it for a spin.
While the basic format of the game is the same as Flappy Bird, it has very different mechanics. Instead of narrow, closely-laid pipes, you fly through cacti that leave lots of room to fly. While Flappy drops like a rock, Piou Piou floats gracefully towards the bottom of the screen. While the pipes will kill Flappy if he touches them, the seemingly more harmful cacti push Piou Piou back towards the left side of the screen if he runs into them, and they can only kill him if Piou Piou can`t get around one and is forced off the screen. Piou Piou also earns points not from passing the cacti, but from every half-second he`s still alive. The game also differs from Flappy Bird by including items, including a star power-up that gives Piou Piou super-speed and the ability to phase through cacti and a "cactus" power-up that removes some cacti in the level. There`s also some items that hinder Piou Piou`s progress, such as a burger that makes him fatter and gives him Flappy Bird-esque flap physics and a rain item that pours rain down on the bird to lower his altitude.
To put the comparisons into perspective, Piou Piou has a lot of mechanics that make the game much easier than it`s more popular counterpart. Piou Piou is given too much room to move around in, obstacles that pose very little danger, a flap that allows him to adapt to changing environments a lot easier, power-ups that allow him to bypass obstacles, and power-downs that don`t truly increase the chances of ending the game. In other words, it doesn`t really challenge or infuriate the player to want to be better at the game and gain the satisfaction of beating something they thought was impossible. The closest thing it does to activating that motivation is by insulting the player if they don`t get a score the game finds satisfactory, such as "You really suck...", "You shouldn`t play this game," and "Not to bad but not that good thoug (the "h" gets cut off.)" Sure, it might slightly annoy the player, but it doesn`t give them the rage and ambition that dying before they even earn their first point evokes.
While it`s not a terrible game, and at least has a 3.8 score on Google Play, it doesn`t have the grab of its "copy" due to giving the player too much leniency. I can at least say that the game looks nice and I did get a chuckle out of Piou Piou`s animations for when he gets fat.
After a short, but significant success, Flappy Bird`s legacy on mobile devices has his the pipe. Fortunately, the flash version is still online, so if you`ve just heard about this game and want to give it a try, it`s available on Kongregate, and unless Dong requests that it be taken down, it`s not going away anytime soon.
Dong has tweeted that he will still make games. Will he make lightning strike twice with his next retro-inspired game, and if it does, will that game also get deleted when it reaches the peak of its popularity? I honestly doubt it, but it`s not inside the realm of impossibility.
Flash Flappy Bird: http://www.kongregate.com/games/maxblive/flappy-bird-flash
Piou Piou vs. Cactus: http://www.kanogames.com/play/game/piou-piou