Flap Your Wings to Fly… to the Top of the Charts: Why Flappy Bird is Genius

I highly recommend you play Flappy Bird before reading this post. Not a plug, but it will be critical for you to experience a few rounds of Flappy Bird flights in order to best relate.

My highest score is 15. Can you beat me?

Flappy Birds
So we have another one, mobile gaming world, another tale of an indie developer’s app that flies up out of NOWHERE to perch on that ever-so-coveted ranking of #1 in the Apple App Store (of all Apps—btw—not just  Games) just last week on January 17th, according to App Annie.

Flappy Birds Ranking
Let me walk you through the Flappy Bird experience – spookily the exact same experience across each of my 9 test players.

You see a game called Flappy Bird at the #1 spot in iTunes, or…perhaps more likely, someone told you about it. Either way, you’re intrigued by its cute 8-bit ducky character.

The game begins and the first thing you think is, “Hey I know that background and grass… and those pipes, they have a similar look and feel as Mario!”

And your flappy bird nose dives to crash into the ground.

GAME OVER?

That was less than 5 seconds! Well now you have to try again. Pay attention to the tutorial this time!

Flappy Birds screen shot

Tap? That’s all there is to it... okay you’ve got it this time. You’re focused. You can at least get through one and then you can be done with this game.

Nope, crash.

Repeat and repeat for as many flight attempts it takes you to get past that first pipe. Maybe try with your pointer finger this time instead of your thumb? Or maybe try laying your phone on the table instead of holding it?

10 minutes later…

YES, you finally made it through that first pipe—awesome!!!  And then you choke.

You see your Score: 1. You’ve hit a new Best: 1.

Annoying.  Now you have to at least get 2!

Here we go. Now that second tube strings in another area of panic, because your actions from the previous pipe window affect your positioning for the next pipe. Oh, that’s the dinging coin chime from Mario when you pass through a pipe, sweet!

Slowly you start to get the hang of it, and maybe you eventually get your score up to 5 and that’s good enough for you.

During those last 10 minutes of game play, your brain hit a variety of emotions:

  • Curiosity, of the mysterious app that appeared at the top of the charts.
  • Endearment: The little 8-bit duck is pretty darn cute
  • Nostalgia, from the Mario theme and the coin chime.  Everyone has a warm fuzzy feeling when they are reminded of playing Mario.
  • Vindictiveness:  Hey they just ripped off the Mario theme! Bogus.
  • Confusion: Wtf, I got Game Over in 5 seconds?
  • Panic: OMG, you’re about to get your new best score… don’t blow it…!!”
  • Rage: Insert your choice profanity here.
  • Frustration: “Ugh I suck at this game!”
  • Denial: “This game is impossible,” or “It’s TOO hard. They need to make it easier,” or “This game sucks.”

Emotional games are powerful.

So what’s the big deal?

Let’s break it down.

It’s a skill-based game, where reaction time, precision, and accuracy are critical—or you crash your bird. Skill-based games are highly addictive because the player gets frustrated when they can’t perform the skill well, so they are motivated to get better. The tiny increments of advancement in Flappy Bird give players just a small prize that keeps them starving for a little bit more.

The simple scoring model (0, 1, 2, 3…) catches the players’ attention.  As modern casual gamers, we’ve become accustomed to seeing scores in the thousands and millions, the ability to level up, XP to gain, achievements to unlock, badges to earn, etc. It can get pretty complex.

Game developers, strategists and scientists devote hours to determining the best types of scoring and leveling models for various game genres. Match it with a virtual economy that engages players in just the right way and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a hit title.

Why does DotGears outright ignore all these industry insights that have been gathered from years and years of game analysis? Why are they betraying all the rules?! Why not? Simple almost always trumps complex. Users get a simple score (3 digits at MOST for a pro Flappy Bird aviator) that they can easily remember and see how they compare with their friends and the world; because of course you have the ability to share your score through your social media channel of choice.

There’s only a single goal in this game. One task to be mastered.  Just take a look at the app description:

>Tap to flap your wings to fly.
> Avoid pipes.
> Try to get 4 medals: Bronze, Silver, Gold (hard), Platinum (very hard)

It’s extremely addicting.

Albeit stripped down to extreme simplicity, they’ve still hit all the key components of building an addictive game:

Competition – There’s a leaderboard to display what the highest scores are. You KNOW the top scores can't be much higher than yours… you feel like you’ve gotten pretty good once you make it to 20. Since the game is so difficult, it’s fun to compete with your friends or co-workers on who can get the highest score. The current high score of our NativeX office is 58.

Challenge – The game is infuriatingly difficult. No one wants to get owned by a game that’s got nothing to it. Players keep coming back to prove they are better than this remedial game.

Skill Mastery – The craving for improving our skills in games or sports keeps us coming back for more.

Fast Sessions - The appeal of the extremely short sessions is that you can... The barrier to starting a new round is lower, because you know it’s going to be quick. Look at Candy Crush for example. If you fail a round, you have to assess the amount of time it will take you to start the level over again, which are often several minutes long. Do you have 5 minutes to squeeze in another round of Candy Crush? How about under minute to squeeze in multiple rounds of Flappy Bird. The barrier for the decision is much lower.

You Can Never Win – The top 4 leaderboard hacked scores suggest that the highest achievable score in the game is 9999. You can always continue to work on improving your score… as 9999 seems impossible to achieve.

Nostalgia Makes Players Feel Good - Visual cues to instill nostalgia into a user is huge and most likely to put your user in a happy state.  They even subtly use auditory cues—each time you pass successfully through a gap, it makes the coin chime.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that you’re flying through memory lane when you see those shiny green pipes.

Virality, although I hate that word—Due to the extreme roller coaster of emotions the game takes you through in a matter of seconds, you’re compelled to not only share your experience, you want to watch others go through the same experience you did.

Alright, fine, you’re thinking. So it’s a highly addictive game, but they’re never going to make any money.

Not when they are using poorly placed banner ads (are banners ever well-placed?) as their monetization solution. Not only do people experience banner blindness, they are distracted by the banners that show up mid-flight. The game takes tremendous focus and concentration, so a banner interruption can be fatal.  There are several better options the company has for drawing significant revenues from Flappy Bird’s short flight through fame.  In-app purchases? In most other cases, I’d recommend it. But adding boosts to slow your bird down or give him a shield would change the whole point of the game. The bird flaps and falls at specific rates and doesn’t like pipes—deal with it.  Sometimes we get caught up thinking we need to feature-fill our projects to death and forget that something simple can capture people’s attention and make them talk about it. Gunking up the game with a bunch of boosts and power-ups would kill the integrity of Flappy Bird’s psyche.  That being said, intelligently placed native ads that don’t disrupt the game design or experience may be the secret sauce that DotGears needs in order to cash out on its prize bird before it nosedives right off the charts.

Love it or hate it, people are hooked and eager to boast or complain about their scores.  Just check out #flappybird on Twitter, or #flapflap per the game’s in-app Share to Twitter function includes.

Is Flappy Bird going to be the game of 2014? Not likely, but it’s for sure a hit that shouldn’t be dismissed, and DotGears should make the most out of it while they can.

Happy Tapping!

Flappy Birds is hard

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Blog Contributor

Sarah Young