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The flap over ‘Flappy Bird’

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Just as quickly as it flapped to the top of the charts, it was gone. The mobile game “Flappy Bird” briefly seized the attention of casual gamers and hardcore game critics alike, and it continues to do so even though it has been pulled from app stores by its creator. It’s a fascinating tale of low-budget video-game production and unexpected success, and it brings with it tangled questions about what it means for a game to be “good,” and whether “outsiders” are truly welcome in the indie-game world.

For those who haven’t yet heard the story: About a year ago, a game called “Flappy Bird,” created by the Hanoi-based indie developer Dong Nguyen, was released for iPhone and Android. It took a while for the game, which generates money through banner ads, to catch on, but by last month it had shot to the top of the download charts on both platforms (by then it had been updated from its original, less polished version).

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“Flappy Bird” was wildly popular, despite very bare-bones gameplay: as Flappy Bird flaps to the right, you tap the screen to give him a little altitude boost, after which he starts to sink groundward again. Your only goal is to guide him through a series of gaps between “Super Mario Bros.”-ish pipes, one coming from the ground and the other through the sky. With each set of pipes you clear, you get a point, and if you get enough points you win a medal. That’s it. That’s the whole game. It’s very, very hard; my high score is 13.

Apparently stung by some of the negative attention he received once the game went viral, including accusations that elements in his work were too similar to some in the “Super Mario Bros.” series (on which more in a bit), Nguyen announced with a Feb. 8 tweet that he would be taking the game down in 22 hours — an announcement that was retweeted more than 145,000 times. As of when I’m writing this, the game can’t be downloaded from the app stores (I nabbed my copy after I saw the tweet but before Nguyen took the game down). A slew of “Flappy Bird” clones have, of course, flooded the online marketplace. (I reached out to Nguyen on Twitter for an interview but didn’t hear back.)

What’s interesting is that there’s no real consensus, even among folks who are paid to think and talk about these issues, over whether “Flappy Bird” is a great game or a terrible one.

Perhaps the headline of a Joseph Bernstein article on BuzzFeed best sums up the general response to the game in the gaming community: “Why on Earth Is This Borderline Crappy, Impossibly Hard Game the Most Popular Download on the App Store?” Plenty of other commentators shared the assessment that the game was undeniably addictive, but by no means “good.” There is nothing innovative about the “Flappy Bird” gameplay, they argued, there’s not a single bell or whistle to be found, and it’s not pretty to look at. They wondered why casual gamers were devouring this soggy side salad as though it were filet mignon.

Others were more forgiving, though: Surely various elements of the game, from the randomization of the heights of the gaps between the pipes to the size of the boost Flappy Bird gets when you touch the screen, were tuned in a careful enough manner to elicit such an addictive response. Doesn’t this mean it’s a good game? As Ian Bogost wrote on the Atlantic’s website: “Playing Flappy Bird is like fixing an unfixable drawer pull, one that will never reattach correctly, one that you know will never do, but persisting in the face of such torpor nevertheless.”

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I’m in the middle. If the concept of a “good” game is to have any meaning, we game critics and journalists can’t ignore games that appear unsophisticated but make many thousands of people happy.

The other interesting aspect of this story was the manner in which some of the game’s art was received.
“Ripoff!” screamed gamers across the Internet once Flappy Bird had gone viral. The pipes that constitute the game’s one obstacle resemble the ones from the “Super Mario Bros.” series, after all. And the titular bird, as Kotaku (one of the biggest gaming blogs) pointed out, looks something like a cross between two enemies from “Super Mario Bros. 3.”

But soon after the backlash came a backlash to the backlash. Kotaku updated its story, softening its stance, and the editor of the site posted an apology saying the site never should have come down so hard on Nguyen.

What accounts for the angry response? It would be one thing if “Flappy Bird” were larded with ads or sleazy attempts to churn out revenue through “microtransactions” (“For just $1, increase the width between the pipes!”). But neither is the case.

Plus, it’s odd for gamers — not usually a crew obsessed with intellectual-property concerns, to say the least — to suddenly act strikingly concerned that someone may have lifted a few pixels from one of the biggest gaming companies on earth.

Some are speculating that this may be at least partially a case of ethnic animus. Nguyen is from a part of the world that many Americans rightly or wrongly associate with intellectual property theft. He wasn’t an American developer in a position to write a lengthy blog post (or whatever) defending his game. Rather, he was a distant, mysterious, and easy target, especially for those jealous of a game that reportedly brought Nguyen a staggering $50,000 a day at its peak.

Is this story over, or will Nguyen cede to fevered fan pressure to bring the game back? Either way, it’s an early candidate for the most intriguing gaming story of 2014 — one that highlights the low barrier to entry in the gaming world, as well as the massive viral potential for those who hit the jackpot.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.

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