Fighting the fear: Why the industry is as scared of Flappy Bird's rise as it is Nintendo's demise

Full Indie UK's Alexandru on the dearth of craft

Fighting the fear: Why the industry is as scared of Flappy Bird's rise as it is Nintendo's demise

The first response to things we don't understand is fear.

For many, fear has been the immediate response to the incomprehensible level of success an unknown developer can have with a one tap game that seemingly caters to the worst minimalistic excesses of the mobile space.

But while Flappy Bird has been stealing the headlines of late, there's been another trend that's also generated despair and dismay, and it revolves around Nintendo.

Or, rather, the apathy and slow tail spin of a company responsible for the creation of the modern game industry that is now by all accounts being driven into the health gamification space.

These two separate events makes games industry appear like a topsy-turvy world where logic has gone out the window. For many, the rise of Flappy Bird and the apparent demise of Nintendo both truly terrify, and it doesn't take Yoda to figure out just what all that fear leads to.

As with any previously successful company fallen on hard times, Nintendo is seeing its fair share of perhaps not wholly undeserved criticism. As with any previously unknown, but suddenly successful product, Flappy Bird is seeing much the same.

Cultural conversation

Flappy Bird has been accused of everything from being a clone to having been pushed up charts with the help of bots. Nintendo is accused on a daily basis of having their head in the sand and failing to anticipate or capitalise on the rise of mobile.

Despite no solid evidence of bot farming, it's certainly a plausible explanation of Flappy Bird's initial chart placement, but bots aren't what kept it at the top for so long.

Bad games with no redeeming qualities don't set our cultural imagination on fire the way Flappy Bird is right now and Mario has been doing for three decades.

Even good games very rarely arrest the level of cultural conversation Flappy Bird has been party to in recent weeks: YouTube videos of phones smashed in frustration are commonplace, as well as - and this is the important bit - the admiration of prominent industry craftspeople.

The idea that Flappy Bird is a stupid, undeserving game has been thoroughly debunked by incredibly qualified people. Indeed, I'm in truly august company when I tell you that Flappy Bird is a truly excellently crafted game that achieves its goals with simplicity and elegance.

But what does the fact that this "stupid" little game's success has blindsided the entire free-to-play, ad network, KPI-obsessed industry tell us?

The fact that the only thing this game had going for it was a new twist on a popular genre, a taut core loop and heaps of immediacy and that's not even considered enough to get a seat at the table?

Probably the same thing that Nintendo's stagnant Wii U, bloated development cycles, dearth of new IP and over reliance on proven franchises does.

Down on Dong

For the vast majority of the games industry in 2014 – both the people consuming its output and people writing about it - the role and consistent application of craft in developing new paradigms of game design is considered either irrelevant or folly.

Worse, that systemic misunderstanding of the importance of purpose and ability in building game mechanics has led to as potent an application of craft as beloved indie greats like Super Hexagon or Canabalt being met with derision not only from a typically unsympathetic public, but from those tasked with protecting game culture from knee-jerk reactions.

That said derision was then internalised and turned back upon Flappy Bird's developer Nguyen Ha Dong was only to be expected, but that doesn't make it any less depressing.

By the developer's own account, Flappy Bird's untimely demise was caused by the response his game was garnering.

He'd created a game the simplicity of which belied its addictive power, making his skill complicit in the misery of people who were abusing his creation. A creation that in itself was widely considered of no real value despite the obvious power of the craft on display.

But craft is not an afterthought. It's not a 'value add' or a way to eke out marginally different gameplay from a veteran franchise. It's certainly not pressure mechanics or two hard currencies or four soft ones. It's what makes those currencies worth something.

It's the whole thing. It's the point. It's knowing how to make a player fear a six pixel drop and come out of the other side exhilarated.

It's how to turn doing something you've just done thirty times one more time into an impossibility. And it's bringing that in as part of a core loop not yet seen, but as compelling as anything that has come before.

A question of craft

Craft is a business necessity that, when employed correctly, can make or break a studio, a market or even a whole industry.

It can turn Nintendos into Nguyens or, indeed, the other way around. Craft is what makes a player reach for their credit card or keep 50 million of them playing enough to display a thousand ads and serve up 2p each.

It's the only thing that even gives your game a fighting chance of tapping into the roiling waters of culture, giving you a hook into the brains of millions for as long as you can deliver compelling experiences and if you do it for long enough, long after.

In many respects Dong Nguyen, like many indie devs, has rediscovered what Nintendo used to know but has forgotten. Craft is powerful and valuable when used in the service of the new first and foremost.

When you run out of things to reinvent, when you forget who you are and how you got here or even worse, if you never knew it in the first place, that's when you're well and truly lost.

Catalin Alexandru is a game designer who runs game design consultancy Spicy Thunder Games, consulting on projects for MIT, Kuato Games and various academic institutions.

Catalin also co-founded three man indie developer Darkest Timeline Studios. His six years of industry experience include companies like EA, Mind Candy and Beatnik and franchises ranging from Star Trek to Moshi Monsters. Follow him on Twitter @CataAlexandru.


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