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What Flappy Bird’s success can teach the game industry

An employee plays "Flappy Bird" at a smartphone store in Hanoi on Feb. 10. The Vietnamese developer behind the smash-hit free game has pulled his creation from online stores after announcing that its runaway success has ruined his "simple life." (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)
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A funny thing happened in the mobile gaming world this month. As the industry has been working to craft sophisticated mobile games and promotion campaigns to serve a growing number of mobile gamers, the app that got the most attention was one that seriously bucked the trend: It had one mechanic, no story, no progression and became a hit with nearly no organized promotion.

It's probably enough to make some developers tear their hair out.  But while we may never be able to fully dissect "Flappy Bird's" path to success, it does offer some lessons for developers as they move on to a new platform.

For one, its uncomplicated design has been cited as a reason by many — including the developer himself — as a contributing factor to the game's rise. That simplicity is by design. "Flappy Bird" developer Dong Nguyen said he likes to make games that harken back, mechanically and visually, to the early days of the industry.

“I like pixel art, and it makes a game feel more a game to me than modern vector art," he said.

He's not alone in thinking that. In the 2009 book "A Casual Revolution," video game researcher and author Jesper Juul wrote that casual games are particularly good at attracting  players who, for one reason or another, stopped playing because games got so complex. Billion-dollar games that require pricey equipment, hours of play time, emotional investment and excellent coordination just aren't for everyone.

Sometimes people want their games to be some combination of easy, quick and fun. Games such as Bejeweled, Candy Crush or Dots require very little time commitment. Even if people spend hours playing them, they provide more or less the same experience whether you play two games in a row or 200 — giving them the opportunity to pick up people who like to play games but don't want to commit to a night on the couch.

Making short games is only half the battle. Part of Flappy Bird's brilliance was that it was also such a  challenge that it gave players a feeling of accomplishment whenever they managed to clear an in-game obstacle.

In a blog post about the game Wednesday, Juul took a closer look at "Flappy Bird's" appeal and added that while the game wasn't easy — quite the opposite, in fact — it was smart in the way that it got players quickly back into playing after failure. And it provided a clear path to getting better: part of its appeal, in fact, is that players know exactly how they can improve their scores, by just managing to go back and stop that errant tap.

"[People] play Flappy Bird because it flies in the face of what every game designer knows at this point," Juul wrote.

So should developers keep pushing the boundaries of what mobile games can be? Of course they should; it's an evolving platform and it's good for the industry to stretch its boundaries. But as they feverishly work on designs for a tap-tap combat system that's just as good as a dual-joystick shootout, they should also remember to keep it simple.