Three Lessons I Learned From Flappy Bird

Maurice Saatchi has this to write to the employees of M&C Saatchi – and the rest of the advertising world – about what he termed “The Brutal Simplicity of Thought:”

Simplicity is more than a discipline: it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong.

Saatchi is known in advertising circles as the brains behind some of the world’s most successful ad campaigns. Things like “Labour Isn’t Working,” “Let’s Get Behind Scotland,” and the “Face” ad for British Airways. Then again, a developer named Dong Nguyen released a game called “Flappy Bird,” and is now a cause for celebration (perhaps even revulsion) among many mobile gaming fans.

Mostly because the game is hard. Damn hard. On my best day of playing the game, I got a score of 10.

I’m not a fan of writing “marketing thought leader” -ish pieces on my blog – for one I’m not, and for two most of these Mashable-y pieces are exercises in common sense – but “Flappy Bird” got me thinking about the lessons we can learn from the game. It can lend some order and perspective (read: sanity) into a world filled with “Let’s make a mobile app,” or “mobile should be a pillar for awareness.” Because sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t; most of the time, though, some things demonstrate the things we believe in most simply by doing.

So without further ado, here are three lessons I’ve learned playing “Flappy Bird.”

Steal liberally, innovate relentlessly.

“Flappy Bird” is obviously (maybe even shamelessly) inspired by a lot of mobile games: “NinJump,” “Canabalt,” and almost anything that has the simple mechanic of tapping your screen once to do anything. Whether or not it infringes on anything is something for lawyers to chew on, but there’s no denying the game’s success despite (or even because of) the “sources of inspiration.”

In an industry full of “derivatives” and accusations of plagiarism, innovation isn’t highlighted as much. What “Flappy Bird” does is to take its cues from good old games, and puts its own spin on it. I think the lesson that we can learn from that is that originality is not always found in the new and unseen, but in taking the best of things and putting them together to form your own.

Which is why we’ll probably see a rise in “Flappy Bird” clones.

Brutal simplicity wins the game.

All mobile games should be, on principle, simple. “Flappy Bird” takes that simplicity, and puts it in a game that’s difficult to win. It’s simple, but in the same way you can’t fault anyone who calls it “brutal.” I’ve seen people throw their phones down out of sheer frustration.

To me, that’s what makes “Flappy Bird” awesome. It has the two key elements of a quality game. One, it’s simply designed and not too hard on your hardware (unlike, say, “Injustice” or “Asphalt 8” or “Infinity Blade III”). Two, it’s brutal: it keeps you immersed, unlike a guess-the-picture game or something intricately (and sometimes forcibly) designed to be “social.”

Which brings me to the next point:

Shareability is offline.

I think that one thing we tend to forget whenever we talk about “social sharing” and “shareability” is the conversation outside Facebook or Twitter. By that I’m talking about real-life discussions, the kind of social “net effect” that happens in real life. The best “social feature” of “Flappy Bird,” to me, is in people talking about the game in real face-to-face conversations, and not just Facebook likes or Tweets of high scores.

I think it probably comes from the difficulty of the game, but I’m also wont to think that this is the kind of game meant to be shared by word of mouth. You want to talk about “Flappy Bird” because you keep dying after going through four pipes and not clearing that one ill-placed gap. You want to talk about “Flappy Bird” not because there’s a big “Like Us!” button in there, but because the game keeps you immersed in the game long enough to be frustrated with it. And very few apps are able to achieve that.

I think that’s something we should ask ourselves every now and then when we talk about apps in the brainstorming session: “How do we make them talk about this thing in real life?” An intangible necessity like that should be something we can think about when creating things like Web products or apps.

*     *     *

Saatchi (somehow) ends his preface to “Brutal Simplicity of Thought” with this passage:

[Simplicity] allows you to have a romantic belief in your ability to change the world by an act of breathtakingly brutal simplicity. It is a license to reject the status quo. It leads to a determined conviction that you, acting alone or almost single-handedly, can make what seems highly improbable, in fact happen. So that even the meekest can meet life with the possibility of mastering its difficulties.

In a somehow “awesome-quote-turned-into-a-cheesy-statement-about-something” way (because hey, let’s face it, things usually sound better when you quote an awesome guy in the beginning and the end, not always, often it fails, but still), I think that’s a good way to sum up “Flappy Bird.” Hey, we learn something new everyday.

Brutal simplicity works, even in its most extreme meaning. That’s a good thing.

(Postscript: Mild sarcasm as always. Plus points to whoever sees the SNL references.)

Share Your Thought