Friday, February 7, 2014

Why we're so addicted to Flappy Bird

The success of Flappy Bird seems to have confounded a lot of people, who can't seem to understand why it's such a big deal. As a game designer, I see some very sound reasons (based on core design principles) why it's so darn popular and addictive, despite being so brutally difficult. Here's what I think :

It feels winnable

The objective of Flappy Bird is very simple - "Score 1 more point  than I did last time". That is all. No quests, no story, no faraway goals that seem unreachable or intimidating.

That doesn't sound so hard, does it? Surely you can do it?

Especially since you were this fucking close last time. Right? You only missed by a whisker. So you try again.

Play time is super short.

Each play lasts, for most people, about five seconds or less. Even the best players can't be playing for more than a minute. So where's the harm in trying just once more to score just one more point? So you try again.

Every small victory makes you feel Like A Boss.

Because it's so darn hard, scoring a single point gives you a feeling of epic victory and accomplishment. And the next epic win feeling is only five seconds and one point away. So you try again.

It feels fair

This is important - the basic physics and controls in the game feel solid and fair. So every time your bird falls to the ground, you blame yourself and your lack of skill. Not luck or randomness. So you still believe that you can beat it the next time. So you try again.

So by following four very basic design principles and implementing them well, the designer has created a game that is addictive. A game that people can't stop playing. A game that people talk about and get others to play. I don't think it's an accident - it is at its core a very well made game.

It isn't even the first of its kind - many recent games have achieved success by following the exact same principles. Super Hexagon, for instance. It's just that Flappy Bird takes these principles and distills them to their essence, cutting out even the most basic of embellishments, such as pretty graphics, music or a story. Which is why it works for such a wide audience. And which is why it will fade away quickly - because it lacks lasting value to anyone other than the most competitive of players.

The lesson here for anyone making games is this - the oldest video game design technique (one fun core mechanic tied to a high score ) still works very well.


  1. I agree. A lot of mobile gaming targets the more casual gaming crowd. While I used to like the more profound strategy games and simulations earlier, nowadays I prefer the less involved games.

    Could it be a sign of age that we prefer simpler, less involved games? Most of our parents still play Solitaire on MS WIndows.

    1. Actually even makers of traditionally hardcore genres are trying to make their games more 'accessible' to a 'casual' audience. Naturally, mobile play sessions tend to be short so more casual style games work better on the platform.

      Less a sign of age than a sign of how much time we have now for games, especially in terms of 'chunks of time' for play sessions. I don't 'prefer' more casual games but I do spend most of my time playing them.

  2. Absolutely. Doubt the fairness though, the bird seems to jump up a wee bit high at times, or may be it's just me.

    Not sure if you've seen this review, I kind of loved it. Do check when time permits.

  3. Yeah, the recent rise of Roguelike-likes with their procedurally generated levels, extreme difficulty and short playtime are fun to play. They are tapping in to that void created by lack of challenging short games like in the older days. It's that moment of success among multiple short failures that keeps you wanting more, keeps you trying again to feel that rush of topping your highscore.

    The fandom behind Flappy Bird reminds me of Spelunky (although not as minimal in design) and how there is a huge community around that game and it's daily challenges. Giving a scope to learn and excel at it, creates a dedicated fanbase.