Terrible or terribly addictive? The viral video game phenomenon of Flappy Bird

Programmed by one man - Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen - Flappy Bird is one of today's most popular games for mobile devices

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 7:07pm

Flappy Bird is a viral video game phenomenon. Sitting at the top of the Apple iOS and Google Play stores, the game is currently being downloaded by an estimated two to three million people per day.

Programmed by .Gears, a one man company headed by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen, Flappy Bird’s rise to superstardom is an odd one.

The game is a simple affair, where players must tap the screen to make a chubby, pixelated little bird – sometimes resembling a disembodied penguin head with wings – fly between gaps of green pipes that bear more than a passing resemblance to those from Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros.

And that is Flappy Bird in a nutshell. There are no levels, no special achievements to unlock and no variation in gameplay whatsoever. There is only a bird which flops to the ground with a loud “thwack” if players fail to avoid the incoming pipes.

In the words of technology website TechCrunch, Flappy Bird is nothing more than “an awful little thing [to] play in spare chunks of time when you only have seconds…to kill in between some other activity.”

But the game is also highly difficult, which may explain its appeal. Managing to fly the bird past the first few pipes requires a certain rhythm, and obtaining a high score requires players to maintain that rhythm as the pipes become increasingly trickier to avoid.

The desire to surmount Flappy Bird’s difficulty and acquire high scores has seemingly led to many players sticking with the game. Twitter abounds with Flappy Bird fanatics, and multiple accounts – each with over 400 thousand followers - have been set up for players to share their highest scores.

News of Flappy Bird has also spread worldwide. The game made headlines in China on February 3, and Chinese netizens on video game forums and social networks like Sina Weibo have called the game everything from “terrible” to “terribly addictive.”

“This game is horrible,” one commentator on QQ Tech wrote. “Playing this makes me want to commit suicide because it’s so hard and I’m so bad at it. The highest score I’ve ever gotten was when I managed to clear five pipes; usually I can’t clear more than three.”

“A pure waste of time,” another wrote. “Nevertheless, my high score’s 30 pipes.”

Despite blasting the game for its unrelenting difficulty, many Chinese netizens couldn’t help but begrudgingly acknowledge that its addictiveness had kept them playing for far too long. Several were also impressed that Flappy Bird had been programmed by a single person.

“This game shows that the mobile app creators in Vietnam are tons more innovative than those in China,” one Sina Weibo poster wrote. “Vietnam is definitely not the weak country that Chinese media always paints it as.”

Flappy Bird’s fame – as well as the attention focused on its country of origin – comes as a surprise for 29-year-old Dong Nguyen, who told TechCrunch in an interview that he had been making games for four years and preferred to maintain a low profile.

“I didn’t use any promotion methods,” Nguyen said. “All accounts on [social media] about Flappy Bird are not mine… I have no resources to do anything else besides uploading the game. The popularity could [just] be…luck.”

Nguyen originally uploaded Flappy Bird to the iOS and Google Play stores in May, but the game did not receive its sudden surge of attention until the beginning of 2014. Following Flappy Bird’s success, other mobile games that Nguyen created in the past have been downloaded by interested players, and the developer currently has an unprecedented three titles listed on the “Top Free Downloads” chart of the iOS store.

“I don’t know how my games can be so popular,” Nguyen said. “Most of my players are kids in schools. I would like to thank them for playing my game and sharing it [with] other people.”

Some have speculated that despite his denials, Nguyen may have promoted Flappy Bird by using “bots,” or automated programs that can generate positive reviews.

Others, including members of popular internet message board Reddit, have said that a combination of maddeningly difficult yet addictive mechanics likely helped the game spread via word-of-mouth.

“[It’s] far from the only game which uses simple but challenging gameplay to become popular,” said a Reddit user named “idemockle” who likened Flappy Bird to similar titles like Minesweeper, Tetris and Temple Run. “The controls are extremely consistent and easy enough to learn that the player sees immediate improvement in their skill and is motivated to continue to try for a higher score.”

“Basically, the game passed the bar of being decently made, replayable and easily approachable, which are the minimum set of qualifications for a successful mobile game,” another Reddit user named “HPLoveshack” added.

And then there's the name.

“I suspect that the fact that it’s called Flappy Bird probably brought it some early credibility just through word association with Angry Birds.”

To play a computer version of Flappy Bird, click here.