Flappy Bird Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad

Hey Everyone, it’s been a while (far too long, in my opinion.)

What I’d like to discuss today is what I’m calling the Flappy Bird trend. In late 2013, Dong Nguyen published a small game in Veitnam. The game was called Flappy Bird, and was built using recycled art.  I’m not entirely sure if it wasn’t a project of boredom, something to keep his skills up to date while he focused on other projects.  In early 2014, the game exploded.  Flappy Bird was pulling in $50,000/day from in-app adverts, and everybody wanted a piece of Flappy Bird. A mere month after it was released, Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird from the app store for being too addicting.

This far into the story, everything is fine from my perspective.  A new game hit the market, and had all the elements of a perfect iPhone application: it was simple, easy to learn, difficult to master, and apparently had some excellent replay value.  Sure, the game isn’t the best game ever created. There may have been one or two complaints about poor collision detection, and some goofy stories of people injuring one another when someone beat their high score. The game was addictive, and, for better or for worse, Flappy Bird is a game and is welcome as part of the gaming community.  It’s popular because it’s stupid, sure, but simple games is the foundation of all modern gaming.  Before Call of Duty there was Super Mario 64.  Before that there was Duck Hunt.  Before that there was Zork.  Before that there was Pong.  Before that there was tic-tac-toe on pen and paper.  Games have come a long way, and even just being able to recognize that not every game is visually stunning, challenging to play, or even a lot of fun is valuable for the game industry as a whole.  Remember where we came from.  Games don’t have to be triple-a titles to be good games.

There’s a big negative element to the saga of Flappy Bird, however- the fallout of Flappy Bird put a negative element of the gaming industry in the spotlight in a bad way.  The gaming industry tends to be a little broken. There are veins of cancerous behavior that many developers indulge in, because they think it will make them money. I’m talking about game clones here. We’ve seen it before- whenever a popular game hits the shelf, copies of it are spawned within a week of it hitting the bestseller charts.  It happens to almost every game, but there are two places where game cloning runs rampant and unabashed.  I’m talking about the mobile game market and the social game market.  Any time somebody comes up with an original idea, somebody else steals it and shamelessly tries to ride their own game above the others.

Let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders:

  • Temple Run- after Temple Run’s immediate success, everyone bought the same game engine and threw a new skin on top of it.  Temple Run is a popular promotion style game, as you don’t need a programmer to get the game up and running.  The game’s already been made, you just need to purchase the engine and then supply your own graphic designers.  So, you get a handful of 3d modelers in a room, and tell them that you’ve got a movie coming out in three weeks and you need to have a version of Temple Run skinned up and ready to go out the door at $4.99 a pop to coincide with the movie’s release. I’ve seen dozens of these games pollute the App market, such as Secret Agent temple run, Despicable Me Temple Run, so on and so forth.  It’s pathetic, especially when you consider that the entire game is basically a rip off of Sonic the Hedgehog, which is in turn a rip off of Pitfall.  What’s even worse is that Sega or whomever owns Sonic these days actually did a Temple Run version of Sonic the Hedgehog.  They gave up the few elements that kept them unique and churned out a mindless clone to join the rest of the market.
  • Farmville- Everyone remembers when Farmville destroyed as many lives as games like Everquest or WoW ever did. Farmville’s a simple enough game where you don’t even need to buy a premade engine- anyone can make a Farmville app without really ever needing to try.  All you have to do is create a game where you can build an item on a square, and occasionally swing around to tap and collect resources.  While Farmville games definitely went through a phase where nobody could come up with a better idea than just directly cloning the original, a lot of Farmville games are still being made and have gotten a lot better at creating new content with the clones.  I’m actually playing a Farmville game right now that I picked up a month or so ago called Dungeon Keeper, which is a remake of an older game anyway.
  • Mafia Wars- Which I like to call the “Energy Game” series, or the “Shamelessly attempting to collect in-app purchases” games.  These days, almost any time I see an “Energy” counter in the upper left or right corner detailing how many actions my character can take before I have to wait for 8 hours to play more, I know that I’ve played this game before, it was called Mafia Wars back in the day.  The problem with Mafia Wars is that it isn’t actually fun.  If you were able to perform as many actions as you wanted and never run out of the ability to do things, you’d get bored of the game in half an hour.  The only thing that keeps you coming back is that you have to continuously wait, and those kinds of games are addicting! See Farmville for proof.

I could go on with more examples (100 Floors, Impossible Quiz, Hate My Boss (ragdoll games), Fruit Ninja, etc.) but I could also go on for another ten years before I hit triple-a knockoffs of Call of Duty and Jak and Daxter.  Point is, whenever the video game industry sees a trend, a few dozen developers turn ship and dump a load of useless clones onto the market.  Flappy Bird was different in the sheer scope of the copy disaster. Zedge reported that there were over 800 clones of Flappy Bird by the end of February, and at the peak of the uploads there were almost 80 versions of the game being uploaded every day.  What goes through the mind of a Flappy Bird cloner, “Well, everybody else is making this game, so I COULD BE RICH! LET ME MAKE SEVEN CLONES AND ONE OF THEM WILL PROBABLY MAKE ME LOTS OF MONEY!”  When you release a Flappy Bird clone, odds are you’re not bringing anything new to the market.  You’re not going to change the way that people play Flappy Bird forever.  You’re not going to attract the adoration of the world by spawning more garbage into the app store.  You’re not going to make money.

What I’m trying to say is, if you want to make a game, go make your own game.  It’s hard- being a creative person doesn’t always come naturally even to those of us who make our living by being creative. The best ideas never come when you demand them, and often you’ll be sitting at your design board, looking at an empty landscape and just thinking, “I’m so screwed.  I’ve got nothing.” It’s so tempting to just look at another game that’s been made and borrow it.  “Everyone steals ideas in gaming,” you justify to yourself. “I’m just being honest- I don’t have any unique ideas.” To a certain degree it’s true- ideas in games tend to proliferate into other games, and these days there’s no such thing as the truly unique idea.

That being said, I’m currently involved in 5 side projects- 2 board games and 3 video games. Of these 5 games, I borrowed ideas from Fruit Ninja, Plants vs. Zombies, Left 4 Dead, Angry Birds, a Brandon Sanderson novel, WoW, Age of Empires, Arcadia Quest, Zombicide, Minecraft, Farmville, and many more besides. I don’t think that a single idea I’ve had as any part of these games is a unique idea, except for maybe some character design elements.  And yet each and every one of these games is it’s own island in a world of gaming.  I never looked at an existing game and said, “I want to make that game.” What I’ve done is forge my own path- Let me take my least likely to be completed project, Pizza Sling, and tell you about it.

When I was designing Pizza Sling, I wanted to generate a mobile game that had the appeal of Fruit Ninja where the player swipes the screen a lot. I also had been playing a lot of Plants vs. Zombies recently, so I wanted to design a “defend the castle” style game.  I came up with the idea that you would play a character located in the center of the screen, swiping items out towards incoming enemies. This made me think of L4D, with zombies rushing the character, so I initially wrote the characters as zombies.  However, I decided that there were too many zombies in the modern gaming world, so I focused on the “rushing” part of zombies and focused on coming up with a different idea for the entire game.  I then focused on the swiping element- and realized that I didn’t want the straightforward swiping that Fruit Ninja has, I wanted more of a “slingshot” effect like Angry Birds.  Now, I was throwing items to the “zombies”, and I won’t be ashamed to admit that since I hadn’t pegged what the “Zombies” were yet, my mind went to “brains” and since brains aren’t just a thing you find lying around, my mind went to “babies.”  You were caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse in the middle of an overpopulated nursery, and to keep the zombies at bay, you threw the only thing you had to hand at them- the children.  Almost ready to be a game in it of itself, but I wanted to create a game that was a little more kid-friendly.  Throwing the kids at zombies was determinedly not kid friendly. So I looked at the brains- I was effectively throwing zombie food to zombies. And that’s when everything clicked- what’s the best food? Pizza.  Imagine the situation- there’s a town somewhere that has never had pizza before. In fact, they’ve only eaten broccoli and cauliflower for the last twenty years. One day, you open your new store, Pizza Slingers, and the townsfolk discover that they like pizza.  They love pizza.  Actually, they pretty quickly became obsessed with pizza. They began to swarm the pizza store daily, and you quickly saw some property damage.  Your solution was to install a gigantic slingshot on top of your restaurant and shoot the pizzas out to the customers before they reached the building.  Certainly nothing wrong with that logic. Now pizza, unfortunately, isn’t very healthy. As the game progresses, the town of somewhere between 50-100 people gradually become more and more overweight. The move slower, but require more pizzas with toppings and other other modifiers to sate. The game ends when the pizza store is overrun and destroyed.  Thus is Pizza Sling!

In summary, Pizza Sling is based off many games, and yet is unique and different. I’ve borrowed almost every idea that went into the game- from what I’ve just discussed, I’ve borrowed the core gameplay concept from Fruit Ninja, the genre from Plants vs. Zombies, the “feel” of the game from L4D, and literal gameplay mechanics from Angry Birds. While you can see these elements plain in the design of Pizza Sling, it’s abundantly evident that the game is unique.  You would be hard pressed to find a Pizza Sling clone on the app market. So, while it’s true that no idea is unique, I’ve still managed to create something new via a new combination of existing ideas. Recycling doesn’t produce the same quality goods as the original, but can still be better if geared towards a new type of product. So the next time, fellow game developers, when you’re sitting at your drawing board, empty of ideas and turning towards desperate measures, remember: the game world does not need a new Flappy Bird. There’s no money in Flappy Bird. There’s certainly no art in it. There’s no market for more Flappy Bird, no more market for Temple Runs. You won’t make a better Angry Birds than Roxio, or a 100 Floors game that stands out from the original.

Now, I should say that it’s not impossible to bring some inspiration to these games and create new Flappy Birds and Temple Runs that give a new light to the game and make the game more interesting. For a real example, there’s a First Person Flappy Bird game- it’s the same game, but the twist of being done in the first person is enough of a difference to make it a better game than, lets face it, all the other Flappy clones. For a fake example, imagine a Temple Run game that’s combined with something like Dear Esther or The Path or even The Stanley Parable- something like that could be very clever and brilliant.  The mechanics of a simple game combined with the terror of The Path, or the profound nature of Dear Esther… this would be a unique game, a statement of all forms of Game cloning.

I’ve been kind and shared my Pizza Sling idea with you, but ultimately it’s my intellectual property so please don’t steal it and make a bunch of money (because I will be a sad Zip! :'[ ). I’m not attached to the Temple Run clone, however, so go nuts! If you make it I will play it.

That’s it for me- see you all next time.

-Zip! out.


PS. If you don’t know what Arcadia Quest is, it just got Kickstarted by the same folks who did Zombicide! It’s a sweet board game and I *may* have poured like $300 into it so uh whoops. HERE’S A LINK https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/coolminiornot/arcadia-quest

About Zip!

Gamer, Audiophile, Author and more
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