How to make a game like Flappy Bird

Flappy Bird is the retro designed game that has given every independent developer hope at the start of 2014, by racing to the top of the App Store and Google Play charts.  The app has demonstrated that with a solid amount of good luck, the top of the charts remain in reach of all those brave enough to fail.

Flappy-Bird- app-icon

History

Flappy Bird was created by Vietnamese Developer, Dong Nguyen, and launched in May 2013.  The game’s publisher, .GEARS Studios, is actually currently just Dong, who developed the game in 2-3 days.  It was initially developed for the iPhone 5, and updated for iOS7 in September.

The game didn’t initially take off, and it was November before its incredible run began.  In this, it shares something in common with Snapchat, which too enjoyed almost no traction, before suddenly taking off months after it had been released.

Technology

The first thing that jumps out at the user when they open Flappy Bird, is the rudimentary design – as Iain exclaimed: “it looks like  Super Mario” and that’s exactly where Nguyen drew his inspiration for the graphics from.

The green pipes are icons of the game, whilst the main character, the bird, was inspired by Cheep Cheep, the fish Mario encounters while he swims underwater.

The game was built using Nguyen’s own framework on iOS and AndEngine on Android, whilst he reused artwork from other titles.

Gameplay

Flappy Bird is free to download and the user’s only interaction involves tapping the screen, to flap the bird’s wings and keep it airborne.  The main character is a small, yellow bird that the player must keep airborne and guide through gaps in long green pipes that block its path.  The user controls how high or low on the screen the yellow bird flies, by how frequently they tap.

Flapp-Bird-screenshot2

That sounds like it would be really easy – and in that may lie the magic – because the game’s incredibly, frustratingly difficult to play – with a learning curve of such steepness, it would never pass a large game studio’s internal compliance testing.

There has been some conjecture that the game’s difficulty comes from its physics engine being out of sync with the real world.    Frank Noschese used Logger Pro to analyze a video of Flappy Bird being played on his iPad.  Using the tool, he was able to track the bird’s vertical position on the screen to see if it was falling in a realistic manner.  Using the assumption that the bird on the screen would be the size of a robin (24cm across), Noscehe estimated a gravitational acceleration of 9.75m/s^2, compared to the real world of 9.8m/s^2.

What’s startling about this, is that the gamer’s who suspected Flappy Bird was cheating them, may still be right!  It’s just their assumption was wrong.  It’s popular among game designers to actually slow things down when they are flung in the air, in comparison to a real life situation.  For example, the gravitation acceleration in Angry Birds is about 25% of that in the real world – 2.5m/s^2.

So, paradoxically, gamer’s have actually become acclimatised to an unreal environment, which is what’s disturbing them in Flappy Bird – which reverts to real life gravitation pull.

That’s not the whole story though, as Noschese also looked at the velocity of the flap.  Since there is no difference in the strength of each flap, it should be uniform.  However, Noschese found that the impulse provided by the taps is not realistic.  The upward momentum changes based on the pre-tap, to produce a matching post-tap velocity.  In real life, the change in velocity would be constant.

So, perhaps it’s this inconsistency that makes the game so infuriating!

Flappy-Bird-how-to-make-a-game

If you’re out there playing on a iPhone or iPad right now and struggling, however, take heart that the game’s a little easier on Android devices, something Nguyen himself has confirmed.

 Viral or hacked

The game’s stunning success, without any paid advertising or the support of a large games publisher’s promotional machine, has inevitable led to controversy as to how it reached the top of the free charts across both major app stores – App Store and Google Play.

Some have suspected Nguyen must have used bots to cause the sudden rise in popularity –   spamming the app stores with false ratings and accounts from cloaked IP addresses.

Initially when questioned by London’s The Daily Telegraph, Nguyen said:

“I respect all other people’s opinions.  I won’t give any comment to this article.  I’d like to make my games in peace.”

When Newsweek then inquired about the matter, Nguyen tweeted:

“It doesn’t matter. Don’t you think?…If I did fake it, should Apple let like live for months.”

So, whilst that hasn’t been completely ruled out by Nguyen himself, he also deserves great credit for the viral components he included.  There’s the leaderboard so it’s easy to compare your crazily (and yes, they’re normally this) low scores against your friends, but that level of emotional rage is also perfect for the modern social media channels – which channel today’s word of mouth around the world in minutes.

Flappy-Bird-screenshot

People tweet about how much they hate Flappy Bird – they make videos of how much they…hate Flappy Bird; they’ve built websites and made memes on the subject too.

In a world where everybody’s become aware of the need to be seen to succeed – ‘the Facebook life’ – Flappy Bird seems to have been accepted as a place to share in failure.

Game over?

Within 2 weeks of Flappy Bird gaining notoriety, Nguyen tweeted that he’d be removing the game from the app stores in 24 hours, so as to return to his quieter, simpler life away from the glare of international attention.

Whilst some commentators remarked cynically that this was a further social media marketing masterstroke, predicting a 23rd hour change of heart, having been to Hanoi (a place where time appears to have stopped in a time before industrialization) , we were inclined to take Nguyen at his word.

And sure enough, the game has now been withdrawn from the stores – although those of us that had already downloaded it can continue to be frustrated by it and the ad revenue from those players will continue to accumulate.

Show me the money

When asked by a reporter of The Verge, as to why he thought the game has proven so popular, Nguyen said:

“The reason Flappy Bird is so popular is that it happens to be something different from mobile games today, and is a really good game to compete against each other.  People in the same classroom can play and compete easily because [Flappy Bird] is simple to learn, but you need skill to get a high score.”

Again, in contravention to current trends, Nguyen has ignored the in-app-purchase model to monetize his efforts, in lieu of simple banner advertising.  In doing so, Nguyen said he was inspired by the custom in another Asian market:

“I want to make an ads-based game because it is common in the Japanese market – mini games are free and have ads”

And, how that has worked for him, with the game now bringing in over $50,000 a day – that, achieved from a country where the average daily wage is $6.08.

Often, mobile apps that include advertising, allow the user to pay in order to enjoy the app, without being disturbed by any ads – but Nguyen has said that he has no intention of updating the game to allow users to do so.

So, a simple idea, quickly executed and eight months later earning $50,000 a day – it’s these opportunities that prompted us to create our Course teaching non-technical people how to go about turning their app ideas into an app.  To learn how to make an app with your own idea, then start on a free trial with the first Course tutorial today.

Update

Nyugen exclusively confirmed to Forbes on February 12, that Flappy Bird would not be returning to either the App Store or Google Play:

“Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed, but it happened to become an addictive product.  I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird.  It’s gone forever.”

And for Nyugen – he just wishes to continue to enjoy sleeping well again after all the hype of the past few weeks, and is looking forward to resuming game making, more confident and with the financial freedom to do whatever he wants to do.

We salute him and wish him well.  Any price King removing Candy Crush for being too addictive!

Vijay Santhanam

Vijay Santhanam wrote on

Vijay's a co-founder of AppInstruct. He won the Vodafone Java Games Challenge in 2003 with his Skidlock Racer mobile game. Vijay taught various School of Software subjects at University of Technology, Sydney from 2010-12. He has built numerous apps for Big Name clients, including the Lasoo app and Optus (Australia's second largest mobile carrier). His favorite app is Tweetbot, for its beautiful design and elegant functionality.