Flappy Bird: Exploring Fairness & Fun in Games

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get very different responses when asking, “Is Flappy Bird a good game?” From a monetization standpoint, it is an excellent game. Last I heard, the guy who made it was making 50K a day. From a game design perspective, I’ve heard a lot of, “It’s not fun. It just makes me want to pull my hair out.” Today we are going to explore why so many designers hate Flappy Bird. Additionally, we’ll try to figure out where the fun lies.

“I hate Flappy Bird.”

These words I’ve heard countless times. But when asked why, I usually get the response “It’s just not fun”. Well why isn’t it fun?

For the three of you who have never played Flappy Bird, let me elaborate on how the game works. The player taps the screen to accelerate their bird upward quickly in a short burst. After the burst from tapping is completed, gravity begins to take its toll and drags the bird down. This results in the player tapping the screen over and over again to attempt to keep the bird airborne. The player gains points via successfully navigating between pipes. Every pair of pipes cleared nets them a point. The pipes appear at various heights. If the bird touches any of the pipes on the screen, it falls to its doom and the game ends. Players earn medals based on how many points they earn.

·      Bronze = 10 pts

·      Silver = 20 pts

·      Gold = 30 pts

·      Platinum = 40 pts

At the ‘Game Over’ screen, the player can view their game ranking on a leaderboard or play again.

And that’s Flappy Bird.

So why do designers hate it? My guess is lack of depth. The game doesn’t really change as time goes on. It doesn’t ramp up and never increases in difficulty. No upgrades. No progression. It doesn’t speed up. There are no strategies. Just take deep breaths and focus. Really, there’s not much of anything.  It’s incredibly shallow. Arcade games from the 70s have more depth. It’s not fun to them because there is no variety. There is no challenge.

Side note: I'm not speaking for all designers when I say this. Just most of the ones who I have spoken to about this topic typically state their dislike for the game.

No challenge? The hell are you talking about this game is tough!

I’m sorry, that was poor wording. Let me explain. While the game in itself is difficult, there is very little reward. In something like Final Fantasy, the players will be rewarded by the feeling of power, seeing more of the story, and beautiful cinemas to watch as they progress through the game. They will defeat more powerful enemies and solve puzzles. But here, there is no reason to continue playing aside from beating your score. (Or your friend’s score) Within maybe ten seconds, players have already seen all that the game has to offer. This leaves no reason to continue playing. This brings us to the genius of Flappy Bird.

It’s fair. Because there are no surprises or variables which could change, aside from the pipe height (And even then the player can see it well in advance), there is no situation where the player could say, “Well that’s not my fault, the game cheated!” This helps to push the player to play again. They begin to think “Well, I made it through the first five. I’m pretty sure I can make it through one more.” So they decide to try again. When this concept is combined with the game’s simplicity and ease of getting back into the game, it makes it easy for the player to try just one more time. The player literally just needs to tap the play button from the game over screen.

Side note: The just one more try phenomenon is something hardcore gamers know oh too well. As well as the just one more level, and just five more minutes. But thanks to mobile gaming, a broader more causal audience can experience it too.

But this still doesn’t answer the question: Where’s the fun?

This brings us to the bigger question. Where is the fun in Flappy Bird? Before we get into that, let’s talk about fun. What is fun? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. That’s because the concept of fun is completely subjective. Take Destiny for an example. There are various points of fun. The players can chase loot, explore the world, chase achievements, become the best in Crucible, outsmart the A.I. and defeat all PvE challenges, complete the grimoire, etc. In a game like Angry Birds, the player’s fun comes from figuring out each level’s puzzle and progressing through the game. Maybe even scoring higher than their friends. But you get the idea.

Side note: My personal fun in Destiny comes from exploring the world and spending time doing challenging activities with my friends.

Every single person gets something different out of every single game. This is where knowing your audience comes into play. When people have a common view of what fun is they can be grouped into an audience. When designing a racing game for the Forza audience, the developers are not going to put in Mario Kart physics and controls because their audience wouldn’t enjoy it.

So where is the fun in Flappy Bird?

My gut reaction is the difficulty. The game is insanely hard, and some people might enjoy the challenge. Unfortunately, the fun is short lived because there is not a lot of depth involved in Flappy Bird. So why do people keep playing a game which isn’t necessarily fun?

Friends.

The same thing that is keeping the Destiny community alive (and many other video game communities) kept Flappy Bird going for so long. One person tried it, failed miserably, and then their friend tried it, and people just began to pass it around. Then they started to compete with each other. People began posting their scores online to social media. It’s kind of funny that a game which lacks any depth and any assistance to connect to social media would do so well.

Side note: We can take a brief moment to think about Dark Souls, another incredibly difficult game. But while Dark Souls is difficult, it offers so much more. A combat system which feels rewarding to master, a world to explore, lore and a story to uncover, and so on.  This gives it considerably more replayability and engages players for longer periods of time. This also appeals to a larger audience. I played Dark Souls initially because of the fantasy setting. I wanted to explore it and learn about the creatures I would encounter through the story. I fell in love with it because of the lore/story telling, combat, exploration and co-op systems. But Dark Souls will be for another time. I know I’m going to get some heat because technically Flappy Bird has access to a larger audience. But this is because of the device it is on, not because it has various hooks to grab players in and retain them.

The only other reasons I can think of as to why people kept playing it would be the same reason people stare at car accidents. They can’t help it. A sense of morbid curiosity if you will. How terribly will I fail? Or how terribly will my friend fail?

Or

It’s a great time waster. If we think about the average engagement time for players on iOS games, we know that it is very short. This game gets players in instantly, and as soon as they lose, it is really easy to get back in again. The entire game is designed around players having the minimum amount of down time. If players can get back into the game incredibly quickly and are constantly engaged throughout, that leaves them with no time to leave the app. It might just be the perfect mix of short gameplay and minimum downtime.

Side note: From my own analytics I’ve been running, typical engagement is less than ten minutes.

Looking at this game helped me to realize that maybe a fair game isn’t necessarily a fun game. People play games for a multitude of reasons. Some like them for the story, others to feel powerful. But I’ve never heard anyone say “I play this game because it is fair!” Maybe someone might enjoy Flappy Bird because they want a challenge, but endless games quickly wear out their welcome. Especially if there is nothing to unlock. With this post I hope I got you to think about where the fun in games are, and where is the fun in your game?

I’ll be off for the holidays for the next two weeks, so I will not be posting a long analysis or updates on prototypes during that time. If I can find some time though I’d like to try a shorter, more bite sized, “Bonus Round” post. I’ll return January 5th. I hope you have a Happy Holidays!

I’ll see you guys next year,

 

Scott