Getting in a flap

The lesser of two evils?

Earlier this week on Twitter I saw one Indie dev exclaim “why do we even try!?” His ire was pointed at Flappy Bird, an iPhone app that’s been floating around since last May but has only just hit the public consciousness.

In Flappy Bird you are a bird. A bird that flaps. A tap of the screen will send your pixelated form lurching upwards, only momentarily, though, before gravity begins sucking you back down to earth. Continued tapping will keep you airborne, but you need to time your ungainly motions carefully as our uncoordinated avian tries to navigate a series of gaps in some rather familiar scenery. Points rack up as you progress but be careful: hit anything and it’s back to the start.

Having played it I find the Tweeter’s reaction understandable. I know many small developers, working out of backrooms and in their spare time between job and kids, trying to craft something that they feel is as good a game as they can make. To them it’s not just a job; it’s a labour of love. They take months, if not years, trying to extract the vision from their head and encode it for the public to enjoy on their phone.

And then they look at Flappy Bird. With over 50m downloads and taking in over $50,000 a day in advertising revenue it holds dream financials, but set that against its simplistic, monotonous gameplay and they despair.

It’s a game that does one thing and one thing alone: goading people into improving at a seeming impossible challenge. It’s not uncommon for players to struggle to even clear a couple of gates in succession, yet the time invested in doing so is mere seconds and so they’re pulled back in for another try. It’s a game built upon high scores and sheer obstinacy. If something like that is drawing in an iOS user then developers everywhere must be asking why on earth craft exquisite sagas, beautiful landscapes, or deep adventures. Lob a handful of ripped-off sprites on screen, some impossible gameplay, label it a challenge, and be done. Next!

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Combine this with the dismal revival of the Dungeon Keeper franchise and it’s been a very sorry week for mobile gaming. Like many I was looking forward to the return of the cult title. A Bullfrog classic from the 90s, it amusingly turned gaming clichés on its head and placed you as the evil overlord of a dank, underground maze of tunnels tasked with stopping the “noble” heroes who entered your domain.

Already the premise alone sounds deeper and more engrossing than persuading a pixel bird to stop flying head-first into pipes. It was – at the time – quite unique: half strategy, half tower defence, and it spawned a faithful following. To an extent the core principles remain, but you only need to spend a short amount of time with EA’s latest Trojan horse to see it’s not nostalgia that caught the publisher’s eye.

Dungeon Keeper has been panned across the media for being little more than a cynical piece of profiteering. At every turn, what used to rely on a simple and balanced in-game economy of resources and labour has been exploited to prey on gamers’ wallets. Excavating new areas can take days at a time and mining gems produces scant rewards if you go in unaided. Yet drop some real-world currency in the store and you’ll find your troubles ease. At least until you want to do anything else. It’s an insidious piece of software that I resent calling a game.
I’ve no issue with the Free to Play business model when handled with care, but when it’s operated in a manner that treats the end user with such disrespect then it’s no wonder that the mobile market is considered by some to be teetering on the brink of a reckoning.

Whilst neither game may push the envelope of creativity (or at least not in any positive sense) I at least have respect for one of the pair. Personally I may find the one-dimensional gameplay of Flappy Bird tedious but I can completely understand how such time wasters are at the core of phone gaming. For starters it’s free and simple to understand. It’s also extremely suited to filling a few minutes here and there, whether you be waiting for a bus or in the smallest room in the house. This is a pure, addictive, time suck and because of that you have to tip your forelock to the developer, Dong Nguyen.

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The Vietnamese developer behind this most divisive of apps has a history of making simple games in a similar vein. Each features one basic mechanic that then proceeds to tug on the player’s inbuilt want to do better. They have a certain Warioware quality to them. All give the impression that they’ve escaped the sanctuary of a larger compilation and struck out on their own. There’s no epic story or artistic expression, instead he’s focused on the core experience and done what is necessary to get them released.

For that I admire him. Flappy Bird is just one project of many he’s completed in the hours after his regular job, and one that took him only a handful of days to make. It’s by no means a unique story and Nguyen is just a guy who has struck lucky and, whilst the artistic merits can happily be debated, at least it’s a pure experience. A nugget of simple gameplay that you can take or leave and it will cost you nothing to do so.

A lot of the furore may come from the Mario “inspired” artwork or the sneering way a lot of us look at something so trifling but I ask you to compare it to Dungeon Keeper. Part of me weeps at the misuse of such an esteemed studio such as Mythic to produce such drivel. An utter waste of resources given how hell bent someone high-up in a suit was intent on making this more about the dollars than the game.

If it were down to a straight toss-up between the two I would take Flappy Bird any day. Though the actual game, should you be able to strip away the pay walls, behind Dungeon Keeper may be far more rewarding, the philosophy is deeply unattractive. That which is behind Flappy Bird speaks to me more of simple ideas; of Game Jams and short deadlines; of people throwing concepts around until something sticks; of coders trying over and over again until they have even a modicum of success. It may be an odd view of a game that could have existed in the Game & Watch era but I’m a romantic at heart.

So, why even try? Well, for one, I think that’s very uncourteous to suggest Nguyen didn’t. Not everyone has to be like Kojima when plotting the scope of a project.

But if you want the greatest reason: because Dungeon Keeper obviously didn’t.

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About James Thomas

I make my living as a programmer at a British games developer. In my spare time I try and spread myself between writing, gaming, drumming, goalkeeping, rolling dice and keeping my hair blue. Somewhere around that my wife fits in. Disclaimer: the views expressed are my own and do not neccessarily reflect those of my employer.