Editorial: Flapping over Creativity

Why does that first pipe continue to foil me?
The addictiveness of Flappy Bird comes from its insane difficulty.

It is fair to say that most people had not heard of Flappy Bird prior to its explosion of popularity at the end of January. For that reason, it will come as a shock to most people that the game was released all the way back in May of last year. The sudden exposure of both Flappy Bird and the games creator, Dong Nguyen, have also unearthed a few shady practices in regard to how developers can take a game that has fallen into obscurity, and turn it into an overnight success. Nguyen’s decision to remove his highly successful game from both the Apple and Google app stores is attributed to the disruption of his simple life. Criticisms have been leveled against him of similarities between his game and other works that have come before it.

The most obvious are the pipes that form the obstacles of the game. They look like they could have been ripped out of Super Mario World, except they have not. They are original, although uncreative, sprites. Mario disappears down pipes, everyone knows that. Those pipes are green, and the best way for anyone to convey that something is a pipe is to colour it green for instant recognition. That being said, any number of other obstacles could have been used to gate progression during play, perhaps something more relevant to the bird that does the flapping, like trees for example.

Dominating the mobile market, it is no surprise that Flappy Bird has spawned several imitators to its crown, but the games itself has similarities to another that has come before it, Piou Piou. While yes, both games are about avoiding obstacles on a constantly moving screen, that is where the similarities end. The obstacles in Piou Piou are not lethal like they are in Flappy Bird, nor are the gaps quite as narrow. Death comes from being pushed off the edge of the screen when failing to dodge quick enough. Also, gravity is more of an issue in Flappy Bird, forcing the player to tap the screen more often and therefore make more mistakes. As the game goes on, the pace begins to pick up in Piou Piou and eventually becomes impossible to continue, whereas the difficulty never increases in Flappy Bird, leading to a more skill-based game.

Must. Collect. Them. All.
The Pokemon formula changes little between iterations.

So, while Flappy Bird is not very creative, it is an original piece of software that has enough difficulty to drive people insane while keeping them coming back for more. But creativity is something that people continually ask for, yet the market seldom seems to want. Pokemon is such a strong brand that it can sell hardware as well as software, yet the core game has changed little between its iterations. Yes, there are quality of life changes and improvements to the gameplay with each new title, as well as a host of new Pokemon with each generation, but nothing is radically different. If the RPG mechanics were removed and people had to rely on skill rather than better stats, would the game still be as popular?

Games cannot get away with blatant theft though, as the developers of Limbo of the Lost discovered when people realised that the game contained assets from no fewer than ten other sources. These were not coincidental texture usages, but complete architecture theft in some cases. Despite spending thirteen years in development, the game was pulled shortly after its American debut. Duke Nukem never had it that bad.

At the end of the day, Flappy Bird is no longer available for most of us to play, short of spending a few thousand on eBay. Nguyen will continue to reap the benefits from people who still have access to it, and for now is free to continue developing more games in relative peace. Until the next big thing comes along, the internet will continue to simultaneously rage over not being able to play the game, and not wanting to play a rip-off.

Have you played Flappy Bird? Do you think it needed more creativity? Does the mobile market lack creativity in general? Let me know in the comments!


  1. We’ve heard today from both Nintendo and Nguyen. The Big N affirms that they did not contact Nguyen and that they are in no way responsible for Flappy Bird being pulled. Nguyen, for his part, says that he chose to take the game down because it is ‘too addictive’.

    What I think is remarkable is not that Flappy Bird made money, or that it was pulled, or that it exists at all, but that we are talking about it. It is by all accounts an extremely ordinary/sub-ordinary iOS title which, like many other similar titles, borrows heavily in gameplay elements and design. This is wrapped around coding which is far from optimal.

    So why is Flappy Bird generating this kind of press at all? One feels it is almost a Lemming effect, where one person starts talking about it, and so others feel they must also, and suddenly everyone is talking about it, even though the subject is, itself, worthy of but very little attention indeed.

    There is a real place for a study here–not of the game itself, but of the explosive hype/furor/interest surrounding it, which appears to have come from nowhere but hype/furor/interest itself: the sort of wholly media-generated ‘news’ that our industry, in particular, is known for.

  2. Flappy Bird is the gaming version of a viral youtube video. And evidence that you don’t need anything more than a lot of (moronic) people talking about something in order to make that something famous and sought after.

  3. Things often get blown up to silly proportions when the thing itself is quite ordinary. But people aren’t talking about Flappy Bird because of the game itself and I don’t think (too many) people think Flappy Bird represents a unique or outstanding case. What happened was an incidental piece of news, in this case it was Flappy Bird’s sudden success, got everyone talking about a topic they all clearly had strong opinions about. Mobile platform shovelware is a topic we’re all familiar with and have an opinion on (most of them negative and therefore loud) and Flappy Bird became that catalyst for the subject at large, it became a singular topic we could all talk about it through. The only thing that makes Flappy Bird unique was its timing.

  4. People are only playing it because it has become a watercooler conversation starter.

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