This Flappy Bird thing amirite?
So yeah, I tried out Flappy Bird. I downloaded it to our iPad 2, played it for about 10 minutes and uninstalled it. It’s a bad game with blatantly ripped off ideas, the same kind of dreck that clogs up app stores everywhere and which I can find many examples of within seconds on my Windows Phone. But hey, it was free so I lost exactly nothing except 10 minutes of my time which I waste more of on dumber things every day. It’s roaring and sudden popularity was simply confounding but the drama around that rise and its subsequent removal by its creator has been something else entirely. As is common on the Internet, lines are being drawn, trenches are being dug and social media is once again showing how it’s largely just a cesspool for assholes to sound off in. As is also common, I’m taking a somewhat skeptical, middle of the road viewpoint on this because what was just a curiosity has now become a full blown confusing phenomena and I think there’s potentially a lot more to this than anyone is discussing in their snide tweets on the matter. It also shows just how much those who cover this stuff have to grow.
First off, let’s discuss what concerns me about the game’s popularity. The instant response you’ll get from many people when you bring up how seeing a bad game like this succeed could be a negative thing is “Don’t play Flappy Bird if you don’t like it! It’s not stopping games you like from succeeding!” That’s crap. There’s only so many gamers in the world, only so much play time and only so much money to go around. A bad game being popular absolutely does come at the expense of other, potentially better titles that are getting ignored as a result. Can you quantify this exactly? No, but look at how many games on all platforms fail to recoup their investments now while stuff that’s widely regarded to be creatively bankrupt continues to rake it in. Don’t believe me? Then look at television, Hollywood and music instead. People who want to make games for a living (which let’s be honest, is most of them) go where the money is and seeing something that took a few days for one person to make taking in a reported $50,000 a day (a figure which I’ve yet to see confirmed, yet taken as universal fact) absolutely will influence the thinking of those people going forward.
Most mobile gamers just buy what’s in the top charts on their app store of choice because they’re too lazy to search out quality stuff. Is that more of the fault of the general public not caring about what’s good, so long as they don’t have to search for it? Given the success of reality television and Michael Bay movies, yes I’d say that’s true but it doesn’t change the fact that a bad product reaching incredible success does indeed draw a greater share of the pool away from potentially better things. I will lay hard currency on the table that in this past weekend, numerous games that are far better quality than Flappy Bird came out on iTunes and Google Play, got overshadowed by it and have now flopped because of it. That sucks. Regardless of where the blame for that ultimately lies, it’s naive to suggest that one thing doesn’t succeed at the expense of many others.
What concerns me more is the fact that the creator may have used bots to juice his numbers, thus getting himself artificially catapulted to a place of increased visibility he otherwise wouldn’t have. If you read the analysis in that article (which is also only theory, unconfirmed and probably never will be), it makes a compelling case for that. Crazy viral sensations are becoming more common and it’s entirely possible that’s what happened here too (the article even says so) and if that’s the case, sure. However, if this guy did in fact use illegitimate means to push up his game, then that’s a scam and all of his gains are ill gotten. There’s no virtuous intent in such actions. I’ve seen it claimed that the creator wasn’t proud of Flappy Bird and it was actually just a practice project but I don’t buy that. You don’t monetise a practice project and yes, putting ads on it is a source of monetisation, obviously since that’s what this story is all about.
Since then, an entire maelstrom has erupted. We’ve had supposed game “journalists” like Jason Schreier screaming from the rooftops that this game stole assets from Nintendo (it didn’t) and that it’s a scam and anyone who plays it is supporting a thief. I have no idea why he’s so vehement in that opinion but he should know better than that. Frankly, if this were not coming from him but instead just some random guy on the Internet, it would be considered a troll and instantly dismissed. Once again, we have a field that’s desperate to be recognised as a journalistic one, having key respected members of it dropping down to the level of cable news commentators and no one calling them out on it because I guess no one wants to ruffle feathers? Way to stand up for principals guys.
The bigger issue is the games press once again using vague, unconfirmed bits of information (largely from tweets) as ammunition to attack their audience as driving away creativity. As one would expect, the incredible popularity of this game and it’s creator has resulted in him instantly gaining a massive social media following and the buckets of despicable, vile hatred that’s without a doubt been flowing at him, probably more than others because his game is not good. People hate the game and need to tell him in the least tactful ways possible that they do and what a bad person he is as a result. Later in the weekend, he said he was taking the game down because “he can’t take it anymore.” He provided no details or context for that statement but got even more vitriol for it, as idiots who think a game being taken down means it gets deleted from their phone (it doesn’t and by the way, you didn’t pay for it anyway) decided to send him more hatred and a bunch of death threats thrown in as well.
It’s horrendous but as I’ve said before, it’s the Internet reality. I admit that this guy went from having no popularity to all of it literally overnight and got not just thrown into the deep end of the pool but thrown in with cinder blocks tied to his ankles. He isn’t Phil Fish who to a certain degree, reaped what he sowed, this was one seemingly humble guy from Vietnam whose thing went viral, maybe. That’s unfortunate but it’s also the Internet reality. The press has used this as part of their continuing moral guilt trip to go “Look how evil you people are! This guy got driven away because you let this happen and don’t call these people out!” as if it hasn’t been proven a billion times already that calling out trolls is exactly what they want and just encourages them. I’ve been on the end of Internet hate and death threats before (and I’m talking phone calls here, not tweets), I know better than most people what it’s like. It’s also never going to change and when you call out your audience for doing it while just going “Oh you!” to the people in your own circles that fan the flames, well that’s just plain hypocrisy and a lack of universal standards isn’t it?
Let’s be very clear here: We don’t know why Flappy Bird’s author took it down and just like his potential bot juicing, this is also incredibly fishy. Why did he wait 24 hours before taking it down and make a point of publicly announcing that? Why did he not give any reason beyond a vague statement on how it was impacting his life? Why did he specifically say he’d continue to make games and leave all his other ones up? Why didn’t he just lock his Twitter account and let the money keep rolling in, allowing him the financial freedom to make the game he’s always wanted? If he in fact hates what this game has done to his life, why is he still monetising it with ads on the millions of copies that are already out there? What is the source of the rumoured $50,000 a day the game was making and has anyone actually verified that to be true? There may be perfectly valid answers to those questions but he hasn’t provided them and no one in the press knows any more than that.
So where do the press get off climbing on a high horse and assuming that this is yet another guy we’ve driven away from the medium? Based on his vague statements which are all we have to go on, we have in fact not done that. The games press likes simple, controversial narratives and this one has been a boon. Game writers and creators receive a lot of unwarranted hate online and I imagine more so than those from other media. But once again, this is the Internet reality and has been for a long time. Chastising your audience for what a bunch of anonymous dicks do and which cannot be stopped accomplishes nothing, especially when it’s done in aid of someone who has largely kept themselves shrouded in mystery.
Flappy Bird’s creator may very well be a legit guy who got a viral hit and has had to deal with the fallout from that and if so, I really feel for him. The Internet reality may be just that but it’s also horrible. Don’t get me wrong, though I don’t think it’s something that will ever change, it’s wrong in every way that it exists and says some pretty terrible things about humanity. If he’s legit, I hope he’s able to take his earnings from the game and do something amazing with them. The dreamer in me hopes that he’ll maybe even be able to start a mini surge of indie game development in Vietnam.
However, so much of this is clouded by mystery and press-fueled theories that I can’t help but be skeptical, as much as everyone involved would prefer we all just pick a side. I’m reminded of the fiasco of Bob’s Game, where a guy who may or may not actually be making a game played the headline hungry press like a fiddle to get a bunch of free attention and succeeded, before fading into obscurity after continually failing to produce anything tangible. Mystery leads to speculation and that’s all we have right now, whether the creator intended it to be this way or not. I don’t think this is some sick PR campaign by a large publisher like some do but I also don’t think this is simply a case of one poor guy whose otherwise lame product ran away with itself. The realities of this whole mess may never become clear but until they do, there are no finite conclusions to be drawn.
Make no mistake about it, a lot of better games didn’t get the attention they deserved this weekend because of Flappy Bird. That’s another reality that is all too common and probably won’t change and I’m cool with that. However, those who are supposed to evangalise the good games were willing participants in that and are a big reason the whole thing got as out of control as it did. Report on the Flappy Bird phenomena sure but maybe pointing out the suspicious facts (or lack thereof) of the affair and pointing out the better games rather than once again selectively preaching to people would have been a better use of their time and the audience’s time. Just a thought.
In any event, I hope the creator of Flappy Bird is able to do something good with his new found wealth, whatever means he was able to obtain it with. I really hope more hard data comes out about this soon because for as many faults in as many people as this shows, it’s also fascinating to watch. Not having another one of these massive dramas for a while would also be great.