The life of a smartphone app is normally a short one. The majority that are launched, live and sink without a trace to little or no fanfare. For the lucky/well-made few, they gain public attention, spread by word of mouth, get a few dozen online editorials before consumers eventually move onto something else once the novelty wears off. (Seriously, who still plays original Angry Birds, or relies on Tinder for their weekend hook ups?) The launch, rise and subsequent fall of an app can occur quite easily in the space of three months, and to an extent, the case of Flappy Bird is just one of the same.
To an extent….
Flappy Bird, for those uninitiated, is, or was, a very simple game for iOS and Android devices that was free to download. Players were tasked with navigating a small bird through a series of small gaps between pipes - get past a gap, score a point, and see how many points you could rack up before your bird hit a pipe and got game over. Wrapped up in a colourful Super Mario type aesthetic, to the untrained eye, Flappy Bird is just one of many pleasant throwback arcade games that are good for whiling away a short commute on your smartphone.
Only Flappy Bird is hard. Really hard. Monstrously hard. Papa Bear’s chair from a twisted Goldilocks story from hell hard. The average person playing Flappy Bird for the first time will finish with a score of zero. After about an hour of dedicated play, they might get past five pipes. People with a double figure high score are regarded as suspicious, (“If you have more than 10 on Flappy Bird, then your [sic] Illuminati fam” is one of my favourite Flappy Bird tweets).
Flappy Bird makes people do this in search of a high score.
Flappy Bird is not a fun game; by many descriptions, it may not even be a good one. There are no new levels or anything to unlock, there is zero sense of profession outside beating your own score. It’s just a constant, ceaseless fight to get that bird safely through those pipes. Strangely enough, that seems to be the point of it all.
I want to be a good, mature games journalist and call Flappy Bird a masterpiece in player interaction and manipulation. I want to tell you that Flappy Bird works so well because everything is designed to make it as addictive as possible. That the fact the distance travelled with each birds flap is * just * smaller than the gap between pipes gives Flappy Bird a perfectionist quality that makes every success that much sweeter. I want to say that Flappy Bird’s popularity lies in its simple gameplay – that successfully getting a even one point provides the type of dopamine hit only having sex, or base jumping, or getting a bunch of Facebook likes would provide. If I was really pushing it, I’d even say Flappy Bird is so successful because it harkens back to the Golden Age of arcade play, like Centipede, Q*Bert or even Pac-Man.
Thing is, that’s all baloney. Flappy Bird sold so well because it was so hard. After three weeks of playing, my high score is a grand total of three pipes navigated. So I said fuck Flappy Bird. Every single time I failed with a pathetic score, I said fuck Flappy Bird. I tweeted fuck Flappy Bird. Over and over again. And that’s how Flappy Bird spread. Hordes and hordes of people loudly and profusely exclaiming, “Fuck Flappy Bird, this game is too hard!” and recommending it to their friends in some sort of weird anti-gift. “Here, play this, you’ll absolutely hate it” we went, and people downloaded Flappy Bird in droves. First released in May 2013, Flappy Bird only recently reached prominence thanks to some Buzzfeed articles decrying it for being the masochistic hell beast it is. By the end, it was estimated that Flappy Bird was downloaded over 50 million times on the Google Play Store (for Android devices) alone. Flappy Bird was drawing in over £30,000 a day in ad revenue for its Vietnamese creator, Nguyen Ha Dong. Not bad work for an indie/amateur-retro throwback that he claims was made in less than a week.
Then, as quickly as it burst onto the scene, Flappy Bird was gone. On February 8th, Nguyen would tweet this….
Some 25 hours later, Flappy Bird was removed from both the Apple and Android app stores. Nguyen pulled the game from the stores for the very reason it spread so quickly – because it incensed people. While rumours remain Nguyen pulled it to avoid legal issues, (Flappy Bird sports a number of similarities with French indie game Piou Piou. while those devilish pipes are a bit * too * similar to Super Mario Bros), in a Forbes interview Nguyen Ha Dong says that he killed Flappy Bird because he was the subject of hundreds of death threats. Saying the game ruined his simple life, Nguyen called Flappy Bird an addiction that need to be stopped and so had the game removed.
The thing about addictions though, is that making something harder to get hold of tends to drive up the price on the black market. Canny entrepreneurs are now selling devices with Flappy Bird installed for several thousand pounds at a time. Whether or not this is a hoax, or a few cheeky chaps trying to makes are ridiculously easy buck (surely you can factory reset the phone upon receiving the money and play dumb?) only time will tell. What we do know is, Nguyen assures us that Flappy Bird will not be returning to stores any time soon, so for the time being, the formerly free to play digital headache has become one of the internet’s most sought after properties.
While I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear of Flappy Bird or its enigmatic creator (who will surely be snapped up by a games company shortly), the curious case of Flappy Bird for me epitomized entertainment in the Twitter. It shone brightly and profusely, and then it was gone as soon as it came in a flurry of curse words, masochistic recommendations and thoughtless and unfortunate death threats. Goodbye Flappy Bird, you shall be missed.