It’s better to burn out than to fade away, right? Yesterday Flappy Bird’s creator committed an act of App Store euthanasia on his most famous – and notorious – creation. Developer Dong Nguyen administered the lethal injection, but it’s the power of internet anger that has apparently compelled him to do it. “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down,” he tweeted on Saturday. “I cannot take this anymore.”
It carries the echo of Phil Fish’s escape from the heat of the hate mob last summer, but with one vital difference: where Fish often courted controversy, the Flappy Bird phenomenon seems to have been almost entirely accidental.
And the most compelling part of this brief, spectacular story is its inherent mystery. No-one seems to have landed upon a real reason why, among so many tens of thousands of other simple, throwaway games, Flappy Bird was the game chosen by the App Store gods to become the next mobile game sensation. And though many have tried nobody seems truly capable of explaining its appeal to millions of players usually happy to prod away at some match three game to fill idle moments, either.
Briefly, it has ascended from mere videogame to become a pop culture phenomenon. The inevitable Flappy Bird Buzzfeed listicle arrived last week, and as the app was taken down last night, The Mirror ran a reaction liveblog. All this, and it is entirely unremarkable as a videogame.
Out of that mystery – of why and how it has achieved what it has – comes rumour and innuendo. The suggestion that Nguyen gamed the App Store by using bots to artificially boost its chart position seem to have sprung from nowhere, and remains entirely unsubstantiated. Rumours of legal threats from Nintendo are similarly unfounded, another product of a need to try and understand this odd phenomenon.
So in the complete lack of any evidence to the contrary, let’s assume that Nguyen’s breakout success is entirely organic and his intentions pure in removing it from sale. That presents industry commentators and App Store analysts with another mystery: what it is about this simplistic game that has proven so conducive to viral success?
Here’s a thought: anger is currency online. It propels the headline writers and picture editors of, for example, the Daily Mail to knowingly and regularly instigate regular outrages. Every website editor knows that controversy is a lightning rod for traffic, and Flappy Bird neatly fits into a one-two punch of contemporary internet fury: the sadly ubiquitous trend of personal abuse on social media and a wider, increasingly poisonous view of mobile games. It didn’t help that Flappy Bird coverage appeared alongside the outpouring of emotion surrounding EA’s free-to-play Dungeon Keeper reboot last week.
The kind of abuse levelled at Flappy Birds’ creator is at once bewildering, breathtaking and disheartening. For a taste of it, peer carefully into the shocking custom Twitter timeline that was doing the rounds on social media last night. One broadly representative example reads: “YOURE A FUCKING PUSSY!!! And this game sucks anyway. But you’re still a pussy. Kill yourself.”
With abuse flying in for the game’s mere existence, and intensifying once it was removed, it’s no wonder its creator is retreating from internet infamy. “I can call ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine,” Nguyen tweeted before he announced he’d be removing the game from sale. “But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”
And so to that increasing cynicism toward mobile games, and how they operate. It has coloured a lot of reporting around the game, and there’s no doubt that it gives a little extra bite to a story if you encourage the view that mobile game developers are little more than moustache-twirling villains only interested in profiteering, cloning other people’s work, or cheating the system. The mobile games market certainly has its problems, but it is also one which, in the same week that brought us the twin controversies of Flappy Bird and Dungeon Keeper, gave us excellent and mostly overlooked games like Threes and Eliss Infinity.
So is this the first game to have been bullied out of existence? Faced with a flood of abuse on social media and a great deal of cynicism from blogs and professional media outlets, it appears so.
And yet in its removal, the intense glare of the internet has sharpened its focus further still – another apparently unintentional PR masterstroke. In its stead, a flood of clones have arrived – more reason for many to despair at the state of the mobile games charts. It’s worth remembering that this kind of cynicism isn’t exclusive to mobile storefronts, however. And let’s remember that sales charts are rarely a true reflection of an artform’s current state.
Now, Flappy Bird sits on millions of smartphones and tablets in a strange kind of limbo, awaiting permadeath with a tap of a touchscreen. Delete it, and you’ll never be able to play it again, unless its creator changes his mind or you’re one of the lunatics bidding incomprehensible sums of money on auction sites for devices with the game preinstalled.
Soon, it’ll be lost to the world forever, fading from memory as one of the briefest and most disheartening internet sensations in recent memory. You killed Flappy Bird, internet. Never forget.