Why is ‘Flappy Bird’ so popular?

February 4, 2014
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Millions of players have given up work, social obligations, and nightmare-free sleep for just "one more try" at the tablet and smartphone game Flappy Bird. This deceptively simple, wholly unoriginal, and punishingly difficult arcade game shot to the top of the App Store's "free" chart two weeks ago, and has effortlessly held the #1 spot ever since. The question, though, is "why?"

Flappy Bird did not launch to popularity. It was released on May 23rd, 2013 and hung around the low 1,000s of download rankings for its first week before dropping off the charts. It received some moderate but inconsequential boosts around the holidays before beginning a drastic climb in early January. As of January 17th, 2014—eight months after its release and four months after its last update—Flappy Bird was nestled in at #1.

[credit: App Annie]

Adding to the unexpectedness of this delayed success is the fact that developer Dong Nguyen claims he did not promote Flappy Bird in any way. In a short interview with Elaine Heney of Chocolate Lab Apps (the only interview Nguyen has agreed to since this phenomenon began), the developer stated "I didn’t use any promotion methods. All accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram about Flappy Bird are not mine. The popularity could be my luck." While luck is an easy fallback for such sudden success, and some analysts wonder if Nguyen is using underhanded means, the reasons for Flappy Bird's popularity are more simple, and twofold: the game itself and how its features lend themselves to social media stardom.

Flappy Bird, the game

At first glance, Flappy Bird appears to be little more than an old Java game no one has heard of. Its graphics, gameplay, and goal are all based in simplicity. And yet, its features—or lack thereof—have contributed to its fame.

There's no barrier to entryFlappy Bird is 100% free: free to download and free to play, with no in-app purchases. The game itself is 2.2 MB on the iOS App Store, which is tiny in today's market where the average app is 23 MB. The time between hearing about Flappy Bird, downloading it, and playing is negligible.

It's transparent. There's no confusion as to what you're getting from Flappy Bird. The three screenshots and three-step directions Nguyen has included on the store page are the entirety of the game. No one that lands on the Flappy Bird page will need to stop and consider what they're getting before hitting the "install" button.

It's familiar. One of Flappy Bird's critical deficiencies is its reliance on other games' graphics and gameplay. With art taken almost directly from Super Mario Bros. and gameplay that is nearly identical to the popular Flash distraction, The Helicopter Game, there's hardly an original bone in this bird's body. Popularity-wise, however, familiarity and nostalgia are powerful draws. Being reminded of a past gaming love is often reason enough to try something out.

Anyone can play it. There's only one action in Flappy Bird: tap to make the bird ascend, let go to make him descend. If you have at least one finger, you can understand and play Flappy Bird.  

It never endsFlappy Bird has an entirely score-based goal system. Each pipe the bird passes earns you one more point. There is no end to the pipes, no greater goal, no changes in gameplay, and no increase in difficulty. It's an infinite gaming loop that anyone is capable of playing well (or terribly).

It's mercilessly difficult. It's not uncommon to lose your bird on the very first set of pipes. Players find scores of 30 or 40 brag-worthy. Although as an infinite game, scores of 1,000+ should be possible, encountering someone who's managed to break 100 is like meeting a celebrity. Because you die so quickly and so easily, the game creates a constant sense of "I can do better."

"Just one more try." After each inevitable and likely near-instantaneous death, players are encouraged to try again by the speed and simplicity of doing so. Games with longer attempts, like endless runner Temple Run, require more time at start-up and a potentially greater investment. If you just died at pipe #2 in Flappy Bird, did that run even count? It's easy to get lost in a loop of "Just one more" when each "one" lasts less than ten seconds and a retry is only two button-taps away.

Flappy Bird, the phenomenon

All of the features of Flappy Bird: The Game add up to an easy-to-play system that encourages replays through its short sessions and endless scoring. Thus, by its nature, Flappy Bird is readily sharable and a prime target for a social media explosion.

It's social. The scoring system in Flappy Bird means you're either competing against your own high score, or that of friends' you've challenged by sharing your score online. The only options available after a bird face-plant are "OK" (return to the main menu) or "Share" (your most recent score), offering little distraction from playing more or encouraging others to do the same. With such a difficult game, seemingly modest scores of 10 or 20 regularly pop up on social media, beckoning to new players who think "10 points? I'm sure I can beat that." They soon find out that no, they can't, and the play-die-play-share loop continues.

It's viral.  The quick-and-easy explanation for Flappy Bird's sudden success is that it "went viral," but this was comprised of a number of factors, and the "original" viral outbreak is still unclear. Popular YouTube gamer PewDiePie played it on his channel, but this was ten days after the game hit the #1 App Store spot. Twitter latched onto the game's insane difficulty, with numerous Twitter accounts based around "Flappy Bird Problems" with Tweets like "Relationship status: flappy bird" and "got 99 problems and flappy bird is all of them." Players have made a game of writing the most outrageous and soul-crushingly-ridiculous reviews on the Flappy Bird app itself, including warnings like "After two weeks of playing I had lost half of my body mass but still I continued playing. My family called an exorcist to try and remove this devil game but flappy bird had already firmly gripped my soul."

If you think your iPad or Android tablet game is the best, consider submitting it to the 2014 Tabby Awards.

It's a meme. The above two features, built off everything intrinsic to Flappy Bird itself, have taken Nguyen's app from game status to meme status. The overly-dramatic App Store reviews, the Twitter references that appear by the hundreds each minute, the abundance of "Let's Play!"s on YouTube, and even the BuzzFeed lists are part of a cultural phenomenon, not a gaming one. Flappy Bird mania is not about Flappy Bird.  It's about belonging to something larger than yourself, being included, and sharing some laughs.  

This also means that Flappy Bird's fame is destined to be short-lived. This is not the next Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga. Once players' friends and social media circles have stopped playing and Tweeting high scores or despair-filled lamentations about how they've broken their phone, playtime will also drop off. Like overly-attached girlfriend or Doge, Flappy Bird's over-heating spotlight is bound to burn out. But still: such wow, much bird.  


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