Flapping the Bird

Social Engineering at its Best

Age of Innocence

Flappy Bird Title Screen
This cute exterior hides an ugly interior.

“It’s a bad game!”, “It’s so frustrating!”

I paid these words no mind when they first started appearing on my Twitter stream about a week ago. Later on I found out that these appearance of these words went hand in hand when talking about a mobile game called Flappy Bird by .GEARS Studios.

My impression before playing the game myself was that it was a buggy mess. Completely unplayable to some. So I wondered why people kept talking about it. This wasn’t a Sim City situation where it was a somewhat liked game that got lambasted because it didn’t work the way people wanted or worked at all if they servers went down. So why were people talking about playing this game everyday if, to me at the time, sounded nothing more than wreak?

After Flappy Bird

You'll be seeing this. A lot.
You’ll be seeing this. A lot.

“It’s not that bad.”

Was my first thought when I started playing the game. Before I go on about my impression of the game, let me explain what this game is about. It’s an endless runner game where you play as a bird and your goal is to “flap” your way through gaps between two pipes that are too reminiscent of the pipes from any Super Mario Bros. game. There is nothing else to do besides that. And when you lose, you get to see if you’ve beaten your old record or check on an online leaderboard.

I didn’t feel that it was particularly tough or difficult to control but I did feel that the game lacked polish. There were no menus or options to adjust the sound effects. There were no pause button or a any way to exit the game but to press the home button and close it from your task manager. Little things like these that are taken for granted if it was made by a more seasoned developer.

The Hidden Claws

It's a trap!
It’s a trap!

So the question is why all the buzz for a barebones minigame? It’s very much a combination of factors. First off is how the game presents itself. It’s simple, appealing, has a cute character that you control. Then comes the devious part. It’s because of how frustrating the game is. The game has simple controls, you tap once to flap the wings and fly up and then you start dropping at an increasing rate. The height gained from flapping your wings is about 70 to 80% the height of the gap that you have to fly through and because you fly at a constant speed the width of the pipes means you have to tap again somewhere in the middle of the pipes. Which brings about the dilemma, do I tap now or hold out and drop ever closer to the bottom pipe so that I won’t hit the top pipe when I tap the screen. Even for those who have it figured out, there is no safe way to fly through the gaps and psychologically it creates this buzz because of the risk-reward of flying through the gaps successfully.

To me, it was similar to flying a Dodo in Grand Theft Auto III. The Dodo is a small plane with the wings clipped off because Rockstar North (previously DMA Design) was afraid of the controversy that a flying plane in a city might cause in a game released during the time of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. The Dodo was still present in the game, you could drive it but you couldn’t fly it. Gamers somehow managed to get it flying, but it wasn’t perfect. The process to do so was clunky but rewarding. Similar to Flappy Bird, though much simplified. But the thrill is there.

What happens if you don’t manage to get the game because of the clunky controls? Then you become part of the viral machine. You would complain. Saying how tough it is on social media. Gaming websites picking up on the news and reporting on it. If it was another endless runner, say Temple Run 2, which had all the bells and whistles and serviceable controls you wouldn’t talk about it. But because it is a frustrating game. Then you would post it on Facebook, Twitter, anywhere that people will listen to you about how frustrating this game is. You give the game free advertising and more people will try it and more people will get frustrated and the cycle keeps going.

Flappy Bird is not a bad game. It doesn’t have the polish that games with experienced developers have, but it’s not bad. The controls and premise are kept simplistic but challenging. Challenging enough for a majority of people to complain about it and keep word of mouth going. That is the point of the game, it’s socially engineering and creating hype by not being a ‘good’ product. If it were good, we wouldn’t be talking about Flappy Bird at all.

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One thought on “Flapping the Bird

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