What Games Are: Flappy Bird, Patterns And Context

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He manages developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It’s nice to know that the games industry can still surprise you and that – just when everybody thinks it’s been figured out – there’s room for a Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird, if you don’t know, is the latest game-from-nowhere that’s taken over the App Store. It’s another Dots, Temple Run, Ridiculous Fishing, Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle and Dragon, Tiny Wings or Fruit Ninja. The game that seems to just pop, leaving many heads scratching as to how it did it.

The repeated success of these games shows that there is always room for a new game mechanic. Players still like to play a fun game that seems new compared to all the other stuff they’ve been playing lately. Simple. Yet if there’s one thing on which you can always rely, it’s that the industry will over-complicate what it means.

Patterns Patterns Patterns

I have no doubt that developers and publishers from here to Timbuktu are now looking at Flappy Bird and trying to figure out what the “endless tapper” genre will look like. They’re probably adding categories into spreadsheets to model it against other genres. Some may be theorizing that successful iOS games should all feature retro graphics and birds, just as some console game makers used to believe that success on PlayStation in the US meant making games featuring ninjas, vampires or Nazis (true story).

We’re always acting like mathematicians trying to solve quantum relativity, to figure out the magic ingredients that make video gaming hits. The games market often behaves somewhat like the Hit Parade, and so we try to respond with better tactics. We assume that the task of succeeding in games involves many factors that need to be broken down and analyzed, compiled into strategy for success. We persistently believe in the existence of the fun boson

There’s always plenty of room to speculate about tactics. Maybe Flappy Bird was featured somewhere. Maybe someone influential tweeted it. Maybe it happened to run a successful ad campaign through a partner channel. And maybe if we do the same then we will see the same success. It’s very attractive to think that way because it feels like finding signals in the noise, and who doesn’t like to do that? That’s why numerous companies right now are rationalizing themselves into making a Tappy Penguin or Swingy Stork or Flapping With Friends or Flap Saga.

We’re predisposed to think in patterns, but our thinking rests on shaky axioms. Our central assumption tends be that the appetite for games is fixed and therefore partially predictable, and so success lies in figuring that pattern out. This is a reassuring kind of problem to pose for ourselves because it feels analytical, scientific and solution-driven. Whole sections of the industry thrive on that basis, providing advertising and partnership channels, cross-promotion, metrics packages, behavioral analysis, player research and so on. 

However their value tends to be inflated. Within some sectors where the inputs and outputs are very knowable (such as casino or first person shooters) they are worthwhile. But the awkward problem that we don’t like to acknowledge is that most of the time the market is too fluid. What worked for one game at one time rarely extrapolates into a formula, and so we fall back on is lots of rules-of-thumb. If we want our game to succeed it must have levels, we say. Or it must have achievements. Or it must use an energy system.

Pattern Bias

Ultimately most of our complicated thinking is nothing more than dressed-up confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, but it’s still powerful. The financier class (investors, VCs, publishers, etc) particularly finds it hard to resist falling into these mental traps, and so money spent making games tends to follow this way of thinking. Contract developers specialize in making outsourced games for publishers who think this way and have become experts at pitching to their concerns. Learn to think and talk this way and your game will get funded. Do it well enough and your funding is actually your profit margin. Cynical perhaps but all too true.

Depending on the strategy of the publisher and the depth of its pockets, a fast-following game can achieve significant success. But the formula for 2011 fails in 2014. Why? Because by then every other pattern-driven game maker who thinks the same way has flooded the market. They reduce the act of making exciting new games to a process of profit margins that may look excellent for a while but will inevitably narrow.

Thinking in terms of fixed nodes and genres tends to over-emphasize the idea that games can be solved and under-emphasize the role of context. Flappy Bird, for example, is a one-developer game supported by advertising that’s been live in the App Store since May last year. For some reason it recently became more visible and caught on. It’s not that complicated to understand. It just happened. The context in which it emerged matters more than how it did it.

According to pattern-thinking, 2014 is supposed to be a very dark year for mobile gaming. There are endless comparisons at conferences and events about what happened on Facebook when the hydrogen of novelty-users ran out and the market started to fall in on itself. There’s a sentiment that mobile is dead for the little guy, that now you need big budgets or publishing partners or fancy PR firms to succeed.

And indeed that Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird probably just got lucky. Our confirmation bias tends to do that. It over-ascribes scientific technique to some games (particularly games with free to play economies because who doesn’t enjoy analyzing money) while sidelining all other forms of success as lucky. Four and half years and 20+million copies later you can still throw a stone while blindfolded and hit a pundit who’ll tell you that Minecraft just got lucky. Like all popular paradigms, we have an answer for everything even if we’re dead wrong.

Patterns of Failure

Personally I think the big lesson that should be learned from Flappy Bird and similar successes is that patterns are informative, but should not dictate what we develop.

During the good times patterns tend to slow us down. When Mark Pincus, Shervin Pishevar and Kristian Segerstrale were all raising big money for “social games” off the back of some very early numbers they were largely doing so without patterns. None of them could really tell you how big that market was likely to be, or what players liked, so they just went for it. Developers in their studios had no roadmap for success and so they just tried a bunch of things, some of which worked.

The following year you could not move for consultants who extrapolated these early successes into formulas for making social games. Of the thousand other competitors who dived into the market, the vast majority were largely lifting success-lessons from studying others’ games (as were some of the already-successful competitors) as though they were commandments. Many second-wave startup founders like myself found ourselves trying to raise financing to do something different against a tide of patternist financiers who could only acknowledge Poker and Mafia (and later farming) games, and talk up their science-y aspects. 

During the bad times patterns turn fatalist. It’s comforting to think, when looking at other successes, that game design is just a question of mixing the right ingredients in a bowl, but when that doesn’t work the thinking that led to it becomes a trap. We mandate too many constraints on what mould a game should fit into, too many fixed-point targets that are derived from prior efforts and a recipe for self-destruction results. We get stuck in logic loops whose only possible outcome is failure.

That’s largely what’s happening in the mobile market, and is why 2014 is looking so gloomy. Because many of us have rationalized themselves into a corner, our games are held back by thinking that says success has to fit certain criteria before we’ll try to make something. And when those criteria no longer work? Rather than accept that the problem is how we think, we usually just try and do the same thing over and over until the money runs out. It’s rare that we take off our mental shackles and genuinely pivot.

Six months from now some of us will remember that weekend where Flappy Bird infuriated us. Perhaps Nguyen will be invited to speak at GDC where he’ll say that it organically grew (he’s said as much already). Many of us will sit in that audience, attentively listening and taking notes as he says that he used this channel to get revenue in Vietnam or had a nice chat with that Apple representative who featured the game on a Sunday. And we’ll think that success in games involves being featured in Vietnam on a Sunday using an endless tapper based on retro birds, and urge therefore that our company devotes more efforts to making that kind of game.

And we’ll fail.

Thinking Contextually

The challenging part of working in games, particularly in financing, publishing or platforms, is accepting that it’s a contextual market where the most important factors are novelty, marketing stories and a degree of amnesia. All three involve thinking ahead, of looking not just at what other game makers have already done, but what they might do. All three involve letting go of constraints in the service of trying to build a game with better internal consistency and relying more on gut feel.

Patterns are attractive but their overall success rate is pretty poor. When you don’t have piles of cash at your disposal to prime the pump, the road to success usually looks a lot like luck but actually has more to do with good timing. If a lone developer from Vietnam is able to upend the market with a game about a small flapping bird then anything is possible. The question for all of us is are we able to let ourselves think freely? Or are we trapped endlessly trying to see patterns where there are none?