Flappy Bird is proof that no one knows what the audience wants

Everyone in the games industry is trying to figure out what "the people" want.

The big players in the AAA sector believe the people want military shooters and open-world games full of the old ultra violence. The indie community believes that what people really want is experimental games with heart and a unique visual sensibility. And puzzle platformers. And roguelikes.

The mobile and social game companies, like Zynga and King, are of the opinion that people want something inoffensive to click on every now and then, but not too often, unless they’ve got cash to spend.

Recently, the people have spoken, and what they’ve said might come as a shock to many of the prognosticators and taste makers across the video game business. It turns out that what the people really want, for the moment at least, is Flappy Bird.

Flappy Bird is a very simple game for smartphones where the player taps on the screen to make their bird avatar pop slightly higher into the air. Tap rapidly and the bird will begin to climb quickly, but stop tapping and the bird will plummet like a rock. Once this mechanic is mastered the only task is to fly the bird through narrow gaps in an endless series of pipes.

As you might expect, this is easier said than done.

Created by a single indie developer in Vietnam, Dong Nguyen, Flappy Bird is currently being downloaded several million times a day and as of this writing sits atop the charts in both the iOS App Store and the GooglePlay Store.

This has come as a surprise to many people, most of all Nguyen himself. The game doesn’t seem like something that would capture the hearts and fingers of millions of gamers, as it has no marketing, no story, no established IP, no viral hooks, no levels, no candy, no visual sophistication, no cross promotion and no achievements.

What Flappy Birds teaches us about what "the people" want

First, they want games about birds. If Tiny Wings and Angry Birds weren’t enough to convince you of this then Flappy Bird, with its malformed duck-like avatar, should settle the matter. Indeed, people are so crazy about birds that they won’t care that the bird in Flappy Bird appears to be a horrifying cycloptic version of Cheep Cheep, the flying fish enemy from the third Super Mario Bros.

Second, polish does not matter. Not only is the visual language of Flappy Bird almost entirely re-appropriated from early NES games, but it seems to be engineered and designed by someone still learning how to create games. There are frequent slowdowns and animation glitches in the Android version but, more importantly, Flappy Bird has absolutely no sense of what indie game developers call "feel."

The hitboxes are ridiculously large, which is the source of much of the game’s difficulty. The flapping mechanic, while serviceable, is entirely ordinary. It looks and feels like a game design student's first project in their intro to programming class.

Third, people want games that are bone-crushingly difficult, but not punishing. Probably the most commented on aspect of the game is just how hard it is to maneuver your cyclops-duck through the endless gaps between pipes, which constitutes the game’s only challenge.

It feels like finding yourself in a quiet countryside after living your whole life in a noisy city

A single mistake, even a light brush of one pixel from the bird against a pipe will result in instant death. This sends your avatar plunging face-first to the ground, its single eye suddenly vacant. This setback doesn’t last for long, as the game makes it easy to make another run for a new high score.

The generosity of this easy restart has gotten commented on less than it should, perhaps because for most game developers it’s a benevolence they take for granted.

For those discussing the mobile space this might seem like a wasted opportunity. After all, that’s where the micro-transactions are supposed to go! The absence of any upselling and the swift return to the task at hand is what’s addicting about the game, and a little off-putting. It feels like finding yourself in a quiet countryside after living your whole life in a noisy city.

Finally, and most importantly, we should learn once and for all that we will never really know what ‘the people’ want. The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman famously suggested that in Hollywood "nobody knows anything." The success of Flappy Bird is above all a reminder that this maxim is as true in game development as it is in movie making.

Flappy Bird has been compared to Dark Souls on the basis that both are very difficult, but the more fundamental commonality is that they both serve as wake up calls to their respective parts of the game industry. In 2011, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s gothic, mysterious, complicated and punishing masterpiece became a huge success despite bucking many of the trends of the AAA industry as a whole. Never again could journalists and executives and developers pretend that, for better or for worse, all people wanted was over-the-top roller coasters with larger-than-life characters firing at each other from behind cover.

Now, three years later, the same wake up call has been given to the burgeoning mobile game space. Years from now, whenever an executive talks about how they’ve cracked the code for keeping players hooked and reeling in the whales, or a marketer begins laying out their intricate plan to make some game a viral success, or a game developer talks about refining their addicting new mechanic, there will be one exception to their plans and models and "industry wisdom" so large they’ll always have to mention it:

Flappy Bird.

Charles Pratt is a game designer and Assistant Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center, where he teaches game design, theory and history.

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