Flap Flap Flappitty Flap Flap: Why is this thing so popular?

Flappy Bird is a spectacularly easy game to make, it’s monotonous as hell and it doesn’t provide any mechanics worth looking into as a game designer … and yet, it became EXTREMELY popular. To illustrate this point, let me just mention the fact that the ad-revenue (its only source of income and generally one of the worst ways to earn money) was generating $50.000 dollars each day.

This is the type of popularity that one can only dream of.

One could say that these types of events are dictated by luck … and, frankly, that is the truth. There are many many games that are absolutely brilliant but never achieve any kind of significant spike in popularity due to many reasons outside of the game itself. Then again, the games that do become popular do so for many reasons other than luck. One of those reasons may be a good marketing campaign, but most of the time the single most important reason is game design that caters to the masses in some way shape or form.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at this example and analyze what made this game so popular.

A half-chewed piece of lettuce could tell you that some reasons are:

  • It’s Free! (Let’s go viral! Yay!)
  • It’s Cute! (Mass market appeal! Yay!)
  • It’s polished! (Everything it does, it does well! Even if it is not much)
  • It has leaderboards connected to Social Media! (Let’s tap into that sweet sweet feeling of being one-upped by someone in something that doesn’t matter … Yay?)

Oooohhh, such insight!

such meme, much sarcasm, very overuse, wow
such meme, much obvious, very overuse, wow

*clears throat*

Alright, as you can tell by my sarcasm I’m not particularly interested in those attributes and I find it hard to believe that anyone would be. After all, those traits are common to 99.9999% (that’s a scientific percentage! you can tell by all the 9s) of all the games released for mobile platforms.

Cutting to the chase, what makes Flappy Bird interesting is that it became popular for two normally conflicting reasons.

  • The control scheme is so easy that a 2-year-old could learn it in seconds.
  • It’s friggin’ hard.

Yes, this is the novel concept of “Easy to learn, hard to master”. It is quite hard to believe that a game this simple, based on such an old design mantra became so popular. That is until you start thinking about the competition … please try to think of the amount of games you’ve played with absolutely f*cking horrible controls in a mobile device. Then think of the number of games that felt natural in said devices. Arcade games that felt natural, might I add.

Let me state this clearly: In mobile devices, there are almost no games that let the player control the action in a precise and elegant manner. Infinite runners are the only ones that had achieved this level of control and every single one is the same as the next. This is the first infinite runner variation we’ve ever seen (that I’m aware of at least).

Man, we as an industry suck at designing arcade games for mobiles. The only games that ever feel natural take the whole screen as one single giant button. Is this a limitation of the medium or is it the limited imagination of designers (myself not included since I’ve never truly designed mobile games … should I?). It feels like we are wrestling with a new concept, like a 90s website that tries and fails spectacularly at being intuitive.

Also, the creator of Flappy Bird took the game down because he … didn’t want the fame apparently? People were calling bullsh*t, that it was a publicity stunt but he really took the game down. Weird.

Also also, Kotaku said that this game ripped-off mario because it has green pipes </facepalm> Shouldn’t they mention too that it ripped off angry birds because it features a bird? </sarcasm>  I’m not linking to that article because f*ck them and their tabloid-like posts </indignation></novelty closing tags>


UPDATE: Ok, everybody was screaming bloody murder because it’s a ripoff of this: http://www.zanorg.com/prodperso/pioupiou.html

Go ahead, play that thing, I’ll be waiting here.

I’ve wasted 15 seconds of my life playing that and all I can say is that it’s no wonder it never became popular: The art is ugly and overcomplicated, the sound effects are horrible, the feeling of gravity and impulse is almost non-existent, it insults you when you lose and when you fly out of the screen the game kills you.

And people argue that flappy bird was a ripoff? What the hell?? Flappy bird took the same concept and mechanics and made them shine. It’s not novel in any way shape or form and there was an apparent CONTROVERSY over this sh*t????

</fed up with this world>


Free to play: Restrictions as features

Wanna play a game? Here play this. ... Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more.... or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! ...  Hey! Stop running away!
Wanna play a game? Here play this. … Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! … Hey! Stop running away! You’re missing out on a great game!

Energy mechanics are “features” of free-to-play games that restrict the player’s actions so that only a few things can be accomplished in a single day. If you were to wish this feature away, you’d find yourself paying real money for the privilege of doing more of the same virtual stuff at a faster pace. They are restrictions that serve to psychologically torture people into giving up money so the pain they cause goes away. They are systematic pain inducers that punish the player in the only way a game can: by wasting time. Although this type of system is quite new, this type of punishment has always been part of games in general, we just didn’t apply the concept in such a morally corrupt way.

On the other hand, an actually new system aimed at psychological manipulation is what I call the bait and switch. Simply put, the game presents you with something you won, congratulates you and then proceeds to inject an obstacle between you and the thing you won. Probably a share button or in the worst case, a convoluted system where you end up spending money. But wait, if you already won, why do you have to do anything to get it? Well, as simple as it may sound, you don’t want to lose what you feel you already have and if the same reward was presented as “Win this item IF…” then it wouldn’t have the same negative impact and therefore convert fewer people into paying customers.

The same brain mechanism worked wonders for Farmville, by forcing players into a schedule of planting and harvesting. Once players invested in-game currency into seeds and planted them, they were forced to harvest the results before the crops went bad and the investment went kaput. This pressure was designed specifically to form a habit in the player, so that they continue to invest their time on the game and eventually spend money. The more time invested into a game the higher the pain once things go bad.

The problem with these mechanics, apart from being morally corrupt, is that not many players respond to this pain by investing further into the game. It takes a susceptible mind* with enough spare time and income to consider investing in a painful game so that it momentarily becomes less painful. After that, the handful of paying customers will receive special treatment in the form of even more intense pain because statistically, once a customer puts money on the game they are X times more likely to pay again. So you get more pain for your money … yeah, that’s f*cked up.

Of course, as you might have imagined by now, the single largest problem with this scheme is that players can get fed up. Too much pain can drive a player away. Being painful translates into money some of the time, but it creates an expiration date for the product. No matter how massive a game gets, if it’s painful it will eventually fall on its face and be completely abandoned. Once the fad goes away, almost no player will speak well of the game or their creators.

So, in a nutshell, these mechanics make money, but they drive away their userbase in the long run.

I just hope that people start getting fed up with this kind of manipulation and start requesting content for their money instead of the removal of “features”.


*Teenagers and older people. The latter experiencing casual games just recently and both unaccustomed to these types of psychological exploitation techniques.

America’s fascination: a few questions

Generic space marine with a gun!

That? That is what megaman X was going to look like in its latest remake.

And here’s how far they developed this thing before it got cancelled:

Does everybody want megaman to look like this? Is american fascination with guns and space marines so universal that it must permeate everything under the sun? Are First Person Shooters the only genre that sells well these days? Is the dudebro community the optimal target audience? Must every unique characteristic of popular franchises be homogenized  in order to sell better? Should min-maxing sales projections be the goal? Should artistic integrity be sacrificed at the altar of the sales department?

Does copying the best-selling games actually increase sales? If everything looks the same, doesn’t the market saturate? If all the industry targets the same audience, what happens to the rest of us? If the same franchises release the same games every year and they always succeed, what makes the rest of the industry think that their games can steal the success of these already established franchises?

Giants like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft will never be dethroned by copycats, they’ll die as soon as the audience gets tired of them. And you know what? When that happens, people will move on to other games that offer an entirely different experience. Other kings will be crowned and the industry will proceed to copy the new kings in a futile attempt to steal their lightning.

Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to games. There are mountains of books that copy Twilight and 50 shades of gray. There are tons of movies that copy Transformers. I’m even willing to bet that there are broadway shows that do this exact same thing.

It’s a strategy that works, at least in the short-term and anybody who is quick enough to get on the market before it saturates is going to cash in on it. The problem arises when the same trend has been going on for more than a decade, as it happens to be the case with videogames. I haven’t seen such a cancerous spread of a single trend over such a large range of products anywhere else.

I could venture a guess, but I’d be lying if I said I know why this is happening . It may be the large budgets, the aversion to risk or executives being idiots. I don’t know. All I know is that companies are overestimating budgets and sales while at the same time dooming their games to mediocrity by homogenization. As a result, game development studios are being run into the ground, people are getting fired and customers are not getting the games they want.

I don’t know what you think, but if you ask me, I’d say something’s wrong. Very wrong in fact.

On the other hand, this is why indies are thriving. After all, they target audiences not being served by the rest of the industry and that is a very good recipe for success.

I guess it’s true what they say: Every crisis creates opportunities.


Image taken from here.

Chivalry on helium

Imagine a medieval war being fought by helium-based knights. Imagine the terror those knights feel every time they make a jump and see themselves being rocketed into the sky. Imagine the screams accompanying said terror. Imagine a whole battlefield of screaming knights fighting in the sky.

Now imagine playing said scenario inside a videogame.

Videogames are awesome.

The kick that won’t stop

Remember my last post about Kickstarter? Yeah, when I wrote that I saw nothing unusual with only linking to 5 or so game projects. I mean, that’s what I was expecting: A few new projects venturing into this new model of funding. Some will be successful some will fail but everybody will agree that this new thing is a good thing. Games that were previously doomed to only getting shunned by publishers now have the possibility of seeing the light, of getting into into the players’ hands.

Five is the perfect number that reflected what I was expecting.


Right now I feel like the alternate reality Bill Gates that actually said that 640K ought to be enough for anybody.

As it turns out, there were a vast amount of industry veterans just waiting for the chance to work in the project of their dreams under their own conditions. Silly, silly me. As always, hindsight is a b*tch mean lady.

So, in an effort to give a little more dimension to this whole Kickstarter thingy, I’m going to proceed and link to every single game-related project I find.

Let’s start with the already funded game campaigns:

  • Starlight Inception. A classic space combat game in the veins of Wing Commander, X-Wing, etc.
  • Nekro. An action game in the style of Diablo.
  • Bionite Origins. A First-Person Shooting action with Real-Time Strategy elements. Kind of based on Battlezone ’98.
  • Shadowrun Returns. A 2D turn-based game with tactical combat. Think of the original Fallout but with a different setting.
  • Grim Dawn. An action role-playing game being created with the tools and technology used to build Titan Quest.
  • Jane Jensen’s Moebius and Pinkerton Road Studio. Basically a kickstarter for a game studio that will make one adventure game with the money pledged and another one under a more traditional publisher model.

To put things into perspective, in two weeks time we went from only six games funded counting the Double Fine adventure to a total of 12 games now. That’s a 100% increase in games funded, so I’d say we’re off to a good (kick)start.

But wait! I’ve yet to link to the not yet funded game campaigns:

  • Storybricks. It’s a … a …. a game kinda like Storytron? But more restricted, not as grandiose and with 3D graphics? Just watch the video above.
  • Republique. A stealth/survival game for iOS and PC. Even with the wide coverage this game will get funded only at the last minute it seems.
  • Battle Chess. You know, like that other Battle Chess but this time it’s the official developer with the actual rights to the “franchise” (a one game franchise up until now).
  • Carmageddon Reincarnation. Another Carmageddon game? That was unexpected, though not unwelcome.
  • Xenonauts. A strategic … turn based? 4X? I seriously don’t know, but it looks as dense as concrete (in a good way). [EDIT: Woops! Funded while I wasn’t looking!]
  • Two guys SpaceVenture. From the guys that did the Space Quest games, a comedic adventure game in  space! Kinda like Space Quest! Shocking! Seriously though, this is nothing but awesome.
  • Haunts: The Manse Macabre. An almost black & white turn based horror game with grid-based movement and isometric view. It lets you play as the dangerous denizens or the intruders.
  • Diamond Trust of London. A Jason Rohrer boardgame for the DS that is already done and only seeks funding for publishing.
  • Redux: Dark Matters. A shmup for PC, XBLA, PSN and … Dreamcast???? Wow.

So … 9 more games, huh? That makes it all a total of 21 game campaigns I’ve seen on Kickstarter…. that’s a lot more than five isn’t it? More than four times as much. Thank you for making me look stupid, internet. Really. Thank you.

Seriously though, this is nothing but great news, especially when almost every single game has been easily funded. We’ll see how all of this goes, because this is quite literally the beginning. Some of these games won’t come out. Some of them will inevitably be victims of development hell, and unlike the traditional publisher model, the developers can’t easily ask for more money with the promise of actually finishing the game this time.

Imagine the PR disaster that Duke Nukem Forever would have been if the funds of its 10 year development came from the customers instead of a publisher.

Kickstarting the impossible

As expected, the success of the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter campaign has motivated a ton of people to attempt to fund their projects through the website. This is both, awesome and maybe not so awesome after all.

As I see it, there’s not that many people willing to pour their money into this type of funding, especially so for the niche projects. So seeing a lot of projects come up practically at the same time kind of worries me a little. It means that money will be spread more thinly and that some more ambitious projects might not make it.

At least so far, these are the projects that I’ve seen after the double fine explosion; most of them already successfully funded … the last one not so much for now.

  • The Banner Saga, a “role-playing game merged with turn-based strategy, wrapped into an adventure mini-series about vikings”
  • Idle Thumbs, a videogame podcast
  • Wasteland 2, a sequel to the now classic original
  • Auditorium 2: Duet, an indie game about creating music by bending rivers of light and color
  • A remake of the first Leisure Suit Larry Game


IGF Nuovo award

So, everybody’s talking about how the IGF has a broken judging system, how the award categories should be redesigned and so on, but today I’d like to bring you something that just makes me smile as a latin american (and from Argentina at that):

The winner of the IGF Nuovo Award

That right there is a link to a recording of this year’s IGF awards. Don’t worry, the important bit is right at the beginning 🙂

Go watch the first 4 minutes and then come back, I’ll wait.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Daniel Benmergui
This is Daniel Benmergui confusing more than half the audience.

Unless you understand spanish, let me translate that bit at the end: “and I’m sorry about this english speakers but … I want to say hi to all the latinamericans and spanish speakers, so that you know that if I’m here, anybody can be here. Even us! Thank you very much”.

For those of you that don’t know, Daniel has been pretty much the only indie representative that Argentina has, so seeing him win a prize of this importance fills me with a fuzzy feeling. Add to that the inspiring speech and … well, let’s just say that I’m fired up to do some game making!