Flappy Bird Insanity and Mobile Gaming: A Retrospective

Screenshot 2014-02-10 04.04.52So it’s come to this.

To catch you up in case you’ve been spending your time wisely in the last two weeks, Flappy Bird is the new mobile game meme. In it, you control a Cheep Cheep from the Mario series and attempt to avoid the iconic green pipes. This may not technically be correct, but it might as well be. The game has gone from definite obscurity to more popular than any other game on phones to being delisted from those phone’s app stores all in less than a month. Just four days ago, the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, revealed that he was making $50,000 a day from ads displayed during gameplay, but he then turned against his newfound popularity and announced that he was removing the game from app stores. He claimed that he wanted to return to a simple life, one without piles of money raining from the sky and thousands of people talking to him about a game he made in his spare time over the course of three days. This action has driven a screaming mass of Internet people insane. Because of course it did.

Nguyen’s Twitter feed is a fountain of hatred in the day and a half since he’s decided to take his game off of the app stores. This happens despite numerous ripoffs that have all been developed in record time, some featuring ridiculous in app purchase requirements. Of course, since Flappy Bird itself is a pretty clear ripoff, that’s to be expected. EBay has been flooded with phones like the one above preinstalled with Flappy Bird and selling for ridiculous prices, hoping to take advantage of people who don’t know that it’s pretty easy to get a copy of the game if you need it. The auctions might have started off as a joke, but after more than 1,000 listings have been posted it gets a bit ridiculous. Actual news outlets like CNN and USA Today are reporting on this game, breaking into the mainstream like only the worst examples of the gaming medium tend to do.

Some people wonder why Nintendo doesn’t release their games onto mobile platforms in order to fix all their problems. One only has to look at the swirling madness surrounding this poor, yet very rich Vietnamese man to see why they don’t. Mobile gaming is a cesspool of a marketplace where stealing ideas, assets, and gameplay ideas is not only common, it seems to be the only way that anyone makes any money. Apple and Google have shown no interest or care in fixing the numerous problems that games face on phones, and why should they? Games aren’t the main attraction, they’re a bullet point. They’re something to do while you’re on the toilet or waiting on the bus. Flappy Bird is the latest “success story” on phones, and it has driven its creator to an ill-defined depression and exposed its fans as people unknowledgeable about technology at best and raving lunatics issuing death threats at worse.


Look past Flappy Bird and you’ll see EA pulling old franchises out of their dungeons and weighing them down with timers and fees. You’ll see Square covering their classic sprite based RPGs with awful graphic overlays that make them look like cheap knockoffs. You’ll see Sega blindly following the pack with their own franchise cash-ins, which in turn spawn stylized ripoffs all their own. And why shouldn’t they? AAA games don’t make any money anymore even if they sell millions of copies, and creating smaller projects seems to be a pipedream for any studio that isn’t French. Indie games pick up the slack, but those games almost never burst past gaming enthusiasts into to the popular consciousness.

In fact, that might just be the problem. Gaming is one of the most inclusive hobbies around, but we’re inclusive to people that want to join the club. We’re inclusive to people who want to be gamers, not to people who just want to play games. To those people, mobile gaming is video games. Xbox and Playstation are vague terms that they’ve heard about through a young cousin or a brother, or as the machine that plays Call of Duty. When they think of video games, they think of Angry Birds, Temple Run, Cut The Rope, and now Flappy Bird. To think that this is gaming’s representation to a majority of the population, it saddens me. In pursuit of the high tech consumer who wants a $500 Blu-ray playing beast, game companies have lost the favor of the audience that built them in arcades and rushed out to buy Nintendos. If something as simplistic as Flappy Bird can generate $1 million in two days while something as stunning and complex as Tomb Raider needs to be rereleased in order to make back its costs, than perhaps it is time for a change after all.

winners-dont-use-drugsThe only thing that’s clear to me is that real success that everyone can feel good about on the mobile market cannot exist in the system as it exists now. I love video gaming in all its forms, but gaming on phones is basically on par with gaming as it was before the great Atari crash. Some balk at gated marketplaces existing in 2014, but when the alternative is this ugly, I think it’s time to bring back the Nintendo Seal of Quality in some form or another. It’s obvious that Apple and Google could care less about the health of their systems as games platforms, so why hasn’t someone else stepped in? Why has Valve’s mobile efforts consisted only of a never-updated app that lets me buy PC games? Why doesn’t the Humble Store have a mobile presence yet, despite being home to their great Android bundles? Why are Sony’s Playstation mobile experiments so limited and wonky? Most damning of all, why do game companies of old seem gleefully willing to follow in the footsteps of the Skinner box factories that struck gold first?

There is a chorus of businessmen and analysts who all say that mobile gaming is the present and the only future for gaming. I’ve denied their thoughts creedence for a long time, but there’s something about Flappy Bird that has changed that for me. The passion that exists around this tiny nothing of a game, it reminds me of the passion that existed for games like Pac-Man and Centipede, the passion that existed around Mario. The mainstream audience for games is begging for something simplistic. They’re begging for a return to the days of arcades, and their wishes are being fulfilled by rip off artists and big game companies looking to make money with as little effort as possible. We had the chance to put our best foot forward to this new audience of would-be gamers, and we’ve instead trained them to be nothing but addicts looking for free hits of sub-par experiences. And that’s the future. I might have to get a new hobby.