The casual games market is fickle and has a punishingly long tail for developers. Lately it has seemed that only large companies like Rovio, Zynga and King have the resources to promote games to the top of the app stores and create the deep, behavioral engineering required to keep them there.
Then, every once and a while, a surprise comes out of nowhere. The latest is from an independent developer in Hanoi, Vietnam named Nguyen Ha Dong. His .Gears game studio consists, up until now, of just him, and yet it now has three games in the Apple App Store’s top 10 rankings—a first for an indie developer. In the number one ranking is the winged flagship of his fleet is a maddeningly simple and challenging game called Flappy Bird (you can play it online here or download it from the App Store for iOS or Google Play for Android.) Currently in second position on the App Store rankings is Dong’s soccer game, Super Ball Juggling and in sixth position, his martial arts-themed splatter fest, Shuriken Block.
In contrast to other recent game successes like Candy Crush Saga which feature hundreds of levels and multiple play and social mechanisms, Flappy Bird is incredibly simple. Dong told TechCrunch that the game only took him 2-3 days to develop. And yet, it has all that is required to create a habit-forming, viral success. A look at the stripped-down components that make it tick is instructive for anyone approaching the minimum viable product question.
1. The Tap: Flappy Bird is an example of what is known as an “endless tapper.” Tadhg Kelly discusses in a separate TechCrunch post why it is dangerous for developers and game companies to extrapolate a pattern from this successful instance and flood the app stores with more games from this genre. Indisputably, however, the combination of simplicity and difficulty is a key to its success. The basic game action is to tap the screen, not “too hard and too fast,” according to Dong, to keep the Flappy Bird at the right level so it can pass through the openings between the sets of green pipes that act as the game’s only obstacles (see image above.) This is actually quite hard to do, and most players fail repeatedly before they even make it through the first “gate.”
2. The Flow: Once you master the action, the frustration has just begun. Your score is based on how many openings you can successfully navigate in a row. Hit a pipe and game over. So no matter how finely calibrated your tapping becomes, you need to maintain that focus for longer and longer durations in order to raise your score. Anyone who has ever studied or taught meditation knows that concentration is a muscle that can be exercised and strengthened. The primary payoff of Flappy Bird is what behavior designer Nir Eyal refers to as “Rewards of the Self” in his new book, Hooked. The achievement of sustained periods of focus become their own rewards. This is what Eyal refers to as an “internal trigger.” The game itself, on your phone, is an external trigger. You see the icon on your home screen and it reminds you to play. But once the internal reward cycle kicks in, once you are “hooked” in Eyal’s parlance, this external trigger is replaced by a far more powerful internal trigger. You now have an itch that needs to be scratched.
3. The Infinite Game: Unlike complex, multi-level games, Flappy Bird extends itself merely through duration. The top players on the leaderboard boast perfect scores of 9,999, so we know that the game is not truly infinite, but considering how difficult it is to crack double-digits, it might as well be. This is not infinite in the truly open-ended sense articulated by James Carse in his book Finite and Infinite Games, but rather durational, like performance art. How long can I tap? How long can I maintain my focus. How do I balance the satisfaction of endurance with the tug of everything else in my life demanding my attention? This is not exactly sacred, but it is gameplay expressed as a dimension out of the normal flow of time. (On a related note, have a look at this story on How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time.) The only variation as you endlessly scroll to the right is the height of the pipes. (I imagine Flappy Bird 2 could introduce a variable by changing the amount of space between the pipes in unexpected ways over time.)
4. The Social: Finally all of this frustration and hard-won success is exactly the kind of micro-content that people like to share via social media. When you (quickly) get to the “Game Over” screen, you can acknowledge defeat by tapping “OK” or you can tap to “Share” your score. The helpfully pre-formatted tweet reads “OMG! I scored pts in #flapflap!!! ->” followed by a download link. These social communications are actually a form of “investment” in the app. Once you have exposed yourself to your friends (and likely gotten them hooked as well) you will feel pressure to improve your score—and compete with your newly infected friends. This social dimension add what Eyal calls the “Rewards of the Tribe” to the motivational mix.
The lesson of Flappy Bird is that a game, or any product, really, does not need to be complex to command your attention and loyalty. Sometimes the most satisfying things are the simplest. The key is for them to be habit-forming enough for you to develop your own motivation to engage with them. Many large, emergent systems are built out of such simple components endowed with scaling mechanisms that allow for rapid growth and efficiency of flow. Flappy Bird is a trivial example of the power of simplicity scaled, but no conspiracy theory is required to see how it has become such a success. Dong admitted that “The popularity could be my luck,” in a rare interview with Chocolate Lab Apps. There are some reports of a viral Twittter app review campaign that may have fueled the app’s downloads, but the fact that Dong has two other successful games with no built-in cross promotion between them indicates to me that it is his overall approach to games that is having its moment. It will be interesting to see how he scales this simplicity.
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