Musings On The Flappy Bird Craze: An Octalysis Perspective

Who amongst you has not heard of Nyan (Pop Tart) Cat, Grumpy Cat, or Angry Birds? It seems almost inconceivable to think that anyone would raise their hand. Names such as these are ubiquitous in our culture. Despite their wide-reaching influence, they are not the product of some creative genius but are rather characterized by ridiculous simplicity. And because of that, they have people hooked.

Arguably, Flappy Bird is the latest sensation to attain massive viral phenomena. According to its creator, Dong Nguyen, “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.”

Earlier this month, the game surpassed 50 million downloads and generated over 47,000 reviews within the App Store. Although it is free, the app generates over $50,000 a day from ad revenue.

But ironically, the overwhelming popularity of Flappy Bird resulted in its demise.

The app’s creator had had enough. Nguyen, tweeted,  “I can call Flappy Bird a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it,” Nguyen also wrote, “I am sorry Flappy Bird users, 22 hours from now, I will take Flappy Bird down. I cannot take this anymore.” The app was taken down on February 9th.

This did not sit well.

One distraught Flappy Bird fan, anonymously named DS, even petitioned the White House to bring the game back. The person wrote, “Every time I lose, my eyes burn like a thousand suns but I’m happy that I can feel such tremendous emotion. I want everyone to be able to experience such emotional magnitude. Bring the power back to the people.”

One ambitious fan tried selling their iPhone with the original Flappy Bird app on Ebay for $99,900 (the auction was taken down since Ebay doesn’t allow the sale of smart phones with the original owner’s apps still on them).

Why Is Flappy Bird So Addicting?

What is Flappy Bird? from Preston Hartley on Vimeo.

Many game designers put a lot of aesthetic considerations into the look and feel of the experience they are creating. This is obviously not the case with Flappy Bird.

Its appeal is tied to other factors.

The game play is very simple. Flappy Bird is a heavy animal with small wings that struggles to fly through a series of vertical pipes. The player must use touch screen taps to keep him flying.

You have to navigate the little bird through gaps between the pipes. Flappy Bird must successfully fly through each gap without hitting any part of the structures. The player earns a point each time they pass an obstruction.

Here is why such a simple game design has people absolutely hooked: Visually, the gaps appear quite large. Therefore, it is easy to be deceived into thinking that passing through them should be easy enough. But the reality is quite different.

Flappy Bird is not very agile and often hits his head against the top part of each opening. Every time he falls and dies, players can’t help but feel frustrated at having been defeated by what seems like such an easy game. They keep trying over and over and over again to beat their previous scores.

This quote from a reviewer sums up the experience: “this game really pisses me off, but I have to keep playing it.”

Enough said.

The Octalysis Core Drives of Flappy Bird

The mechanisms that keep people playing can be more precisely explained through identifying the core drives that are triggered during the game.

As with any game, there is an Onboarding phase. Players start by becoming familiar with that game’s physics by navigating Flappy bird through tapping their screen. Players immediately understand that the objective is to get through the openings in the pipes but when they actually attempt to pass, more likely than not, they will fail, and fail hard.

Right away, the Onboarding phase of Flappy Bird teaches players that the game is fueled by frustration. This is a very unique form of Onboarding, which is normally supposed to teach players the purpose and basic mechanics of the game as easily and painlessly as possible so that they can feel encouraged to keep playing.

If the Flappy Bird developer made it easy to pass through the pipes, the game would be quite boring. Players would probably assume that they indeed are playing a game meant for five year olds and quit to look for something else to play.

But instead they are shocked that they can’t make it through the large gap in the pipes. And so they keep on playing until they actually experience more wins to beat what they feel are embarrassingly low scores. Talk about Black Hat Gamification!

Scarcity and Impatience

Flappy Bird is fueled almost exclusively by Core Drive 6 (Scarcity and Impatience). Points are tantalizingly hard to come by. In fact there are players who are proud that they got as high as six points.

Development and Accomplishment

The impatience and frustration that people feel when they lose leads them to keep striving for actual wins. They are compelled by Core Drive 2 (Development and Accomplishment). As they develop finesse with the mechanics and get better at navigating the bird, they start to feel a stronger sense of accomplishment in realizing the attainment of higher scores.

Feeling this sense of accomplishment, players are driven to share their scores on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Social Influence and Relatedness

Those who have kept playing and managed to get better may boast scores within the range of a few hundred. One person even tweeted an image documenting a legendary milestone of 12,201 points! But this of course, is a very extreme case (see the youtube video above if you don’t believe me).

Whether the sharing occurs on Twitter, online comment fields or in private (offline) discussions amongst friends, it is actually quite natural for individuals to want to talk about their frustrations as well as their scores.

Core Drive 5 (Social influence and Relatedness) socially reinforces the desire to strive for a higher number of points. When people play alone, they only have themselves to compete with but because the Onboarding process is very simple and short, players can compete with many others in their friend network. Who doesn’t want to compete when the barrier to entry is so low yet the points are so hard to obtain?

Although the original Flappy Bird has been taken down, there is no shortage of copy cat games for the thrill to live on.

Do any of you feel driven to beat 12,201?

As always, please share your feedback and comments below.

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