Christain and I struggled making a good looking pixelated buffalo so we let my 10 year old brother Zach give it a shot. He came up with this in 10 minutes!
I’m pleased to report that Apple has approved Buffalo Wings, our Flappy Bird replacement, and it is now available to download.
While most people I’ve talked to have thought of Buffalo Wings as we do — a fun little family experiment — I know not everyone sees it that way so I thought I would talk a little bit about why we made a replacement for Flappy Bird.
First, let’s get something straight:
I hate clones
I think taking something that is super popular and confusing people into thinking that yours is the same or related is wrong. You are confusing people and taking downloads away from the legitimate original.
I definitely wouldn’t be happy if someone came out with a clone of Grades that looks very similar and does almost exactly the same thing.
I’m okay with replacements
Say, for some crazy reason, I had to take Grades off the store. That would create a gap in the marketplace and I would get tons of emails asking me to either 1) bring Grades back (which, let’s assume, is impossible) or 2) tell them about an app that does the same thing.
This would be hugely stressful for me. In this case, I would welcome somebody coming along, replicating the Grades functionality, and coming out with a quality replacement. I would not only support it, I would tell people, “Go get that app!”
To even think of creating something with similar gameplay to Flappy Bird while Flappy Bird existed would be wrong, and disrespectful to Dong Nguyen, the genius behind the original.
To create a great replacement after Flappy Bird is clearly gone and never coming back — I don’t think that is wrong and I would hope that it would contribute to removing some of the pressure that Dong is facing for taking his famous app off the store.
Why we did it
I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. I downloaded Flappy Bird a day or two before Dong took it off the store because I was so curious about why this game was so popular and addicting. I was intrigued because I think game design has so much to do with app design — it is all about engagement and delight to keep users coming back. But Flappy Bird was such a fascinating study because it was so addicting, yet at the same time, so frustrating and the two fed each other. I wanted to understand that.
So when I heard that Dong had taken Flappy Bird off the store, I thought: what an opportunity to take a break from our daily routine and do a fun experiment! Then, one after another, the following points occurred to me:
- Fill a gap: There were no great Flappy Bird replacements at the time, so why not make a really great one to fill the gap in the market. (Since then, hundreds of Flappy Bird clones have come out but I’ve only tried a couple that I like, and I do enjoy playing Buffalo Wings the best.)
- Innovate on a proven concept: Flappy Bird was great, but who is going to take that basic gameplay forward to make it better and better? (We have tested the gameplay with a bunch of people to try to hone in on that fine balance between hard and too hard, and some people who have played both have told us they enjoy our balance more, so hopefully it is already an improvement on the original).
- Finally learn how to build games: I could finally force myself to learn Sprite Kit, which is something that had been on my bucket list for a while.
- Teach my bro: I could teach my 10 year old brother Zach how to code. It was hard to get him to learn Objective-C using a utility app but he loves building games in Scratch so this seemed like a perfect fit. Watch Zach explain how he did some of the physics in the game in the video below:
Tappy Bird Update from Tapity on Vimeo.
- Family experiment: Speaking of Zach, why not just make this a fun project I can do with my whole family? My dad ended up doing the audio, my high school senior sister Susanna did the funny buffalo facts (turns out she happens to be a buffalo nut), my other three sisters tested the app and helped me hone the variables to make it a balance of being hard but not too hard, and my brother Zach worked on programming some of the physics in the game, as well as designing the pixelated buffalo (turns out he is a better pixel art designer than either myself or Christain).
- Understand and share: The whole Flappy Bird phenomenon was such an interesting study and I wanted to understand it from the inside and share my learnings with the community. Not only did I want to learn what made the game so popular (see below), but I wanted to learn about the dynamics of the replacement market… how does one clone do better than another and why? Is popularity based mainly on developers sneaking in Flappy Bird keywords? Is it based more on quality? I’ll share what I find out once Buffalo Wings has been in the wild for a bit.
- Honor the source: We wanted to build a replacement that paid homage to its inspiration. In the app description and in the app itself, we do that. We also wanted to honor the main reason Dong said he took Flappy Bird off the store: people were playing it too much. How? By giving the game at least a little redeeming value so that, while you certainly will waste time playing the game, you at least will get some funny (but true) buffalo facts when you get a high score, so education is the reward. We want to find ways to insert more and more redeeming value into the app.
- Maybe even make some money: Buffalo Wings is a free app but we have subtle ads on the Game Over screen (most clones have ads everywhere). If this thing goes crazy and we make some actual revenue, that would be awesome but we are not in this to get rich. We are here to make great productivity and educational products and revenue from Buffalo Wings would serve as a means to that end. It would help us do things like work on Really Reading, our ambitious app that we hope will revolutionize the learning and teaching of reading and help solve America’s huge illiteracy problem. Right now, consulting distracts us from that kind of thing and revenue from Buffalo Wings could really help us focus on the kinds of projects that aren’t necessarily as lucrative but that could really change the world.
What was Flappy Bird’s secret sauce?
This was one of the things I wanted to discover from the process of building a Flappy Bird replacement. Why on earth did this app get so popular? After quite a bit of study, I really think it boils down to the basic gameplay. While other factors, like the Nintendo inspired graphics or the so-often duplicated simple instructions may have played a roll, you can change all those things and still have an amazing game. What you can’t change is the core gameplay genius, which I think goes something like this:
- The game is very difficult from the beginning: it is completely counter intuitive. It takes some people half an hour just to get through that first set of pipes! You would think that you need to start easy, and gradually increase the difficulty over time. We actually tried doing this in early versions of Buffalo Wings but we found that the initial difficulty is part of the secret sauce. How does Flappy Bird get away with this basic gaming no no?
- The game is extremely simple: The simplicity of the game gives people the illusion that it should be easy. Thus, when they struggle getting through that first set of pipes, they instantly determine that they should be able to get through at least one! This initial goal keeps them engaged for the 15 minutes it takes to accomplish that feat.
- One point means so much: because each point is so hard to get, getting past that first pipe feels so good. It makes you feel so accomplished. It gives you the confidence you could probably get two points too, then three, then four… and it goes on until all your mental and emotional resources are completely focused on that one simple task. Your mortgage doesn’t exist, your job doesn’t exist… all that exists is this simple task that requires your full cooperation to accomplish.
- Flow: The result is a game that puts you quickly into a euphoric state of flow.
- You can play anywhere, in almost any situation: how many iPhone games only play in portrait, don’t have music, and can be played for either 10 seconds or 10 hours? This is by design. You can literally play this game in almost any situation because it is so unobtrusive.
- More…: There is more but I think those are the biggies. I would love to hear from anyone else on this because I think it is a fascinating discussion.
It is kind of ironic because Buffalo Wings is certainly our most unoriginal creation but the only possible way it is going to succeed is its originality. There are already hundreds of Flappy Bird replacements out there and Buffalo Wings has no keywords whatsoever that would generate downloads from people searching “Flappy Bird”. We also really haven’t been too active in pitching this to the press like we have done for our other apps.
So how on earth would our little buffalo get any traction? The only possible answer is word of mouth. Since there are so many other alternatives, the only possible way we will get word of mouth is if our little game somehow stands out, if it manages to be somewhat original. Sure, the gameplay is very similar to Flappy Bird, but did we manage to find an even better balance between hard but not too hard, a better balance of physics, a more interesting character, better sounds, and other unique twists that just make it a better game than everything else out there. That would be the only way I could imagine it getting any traction.
As an Apple Design Award winning company, I guess building a clone may have put our reputation on the line a bit, but I thought it was a fun family experiment and we have learned a lot from it already. We think Dong Nguyen made a genius game and we hope our replacement is a credit to his work.