Feathers in the Wind: 6 life lessons we can all learn from the rise and fall of Flappy Bird

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Written By Will Skis

A few months after an inconspicuous entry into the Android and Apple app stores, the simple 2D platform game Flappy Bird became an international success, storming its way onto smartphones across the globe at the rate of millions of downloads a day.
Abruptly, however, the game disappeared from the digital marketplace, with creator Dong Nguyen announcing that the game’s success had become too overwhelming.

I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.
— Dong Nguyen (@dongatory) February 8, 2014

This left users such as myself (who had jumped on the flappy bandwagon during the height of its popularity) to be part of an exclusive club of those with a copy of the game on their devices. Moments after the game was pulled, smartphone owners flocked to eBay and other online auctioning sites in droves to sell their now ‘collector’s edition’ devices containing Flappy Bird.
This story is not particularly new or exclusive (the hubbub all happened over a month ago), or even that interesting (unless you are so addicted to this insane game that you crave anything with the word ‘flappy’ in it). However, to those who saw this brave little bird flap upwards into our collective consciousness, only to hit the inevitable green pipe of reality and come crashing down, I put this to you: there is definitely something worthwhile to be learned from this whole ordeal.
As such, here are six life lessons that I thought were worth taking from Flappy Bird, in no particular order. Enjoy, and flap on, my friends. Flap on.

1. Simple is better

You touch the screen to flap up, you don’t touch the screen and gravity sends you soaring back down. It’s that easy, and that difficult. The beauty of Flappy Bird lies within its simplicity, and it’s this simplicity that has made gamers red with rage and indie developers green with envy. The lesson is simple: Simple is better. We live in a world of noise and clutter, and the newly unlocked digital marketplaces and app stores are no exception. Flappy Bird was a rare minimalistic jewel in this world of $2.99 micro-transactions and inconveniently placed pop-up advertisements.

Hell, even the name ‘Flappy Bird’ is so insanely simple it permeates your brain almost instantly. Go ahead, say ‘flappy bird’ aloud right now. I bet you feel happy. ‘Flappy’ even rhymes with happy! It’s a fun word to say. And really, there’s no other name this game could ever have or need. It’s a flappy… bird. Flappy Bird. Simple!

2. Don’t be afraid to borrow what works

Ok, let’s talk about the pipes. Whether intentionally or not, creator Dong Nguyen’s green pipes look a hell of a lot like another, side scrolling, globally beloved, plumber-saves-princess kind of game. These pipes, plus our hero Flappy, are pretty much all this game features (see point 1). Flap up, flap down, and don’t hit the pipes. Though they don’t contain secret dungeons filled with coins or Venus fly-traps, they are this game’s villain.

Outraged cries of plagiarism flooded the internet as this game became popular, but whether Dong wanted to borrow such a recognisable video game icon for his tiny little indie app or whether all pipes kind of look the same is a moot point. Seeing these pipes activated the working memory in our brains from the moment we all started flapping, and brought a sense of calming nostalgia which would ease the pain of playing the damn app all day and not making it past level 20. Call it an homage, call it a pastiche, a mockery, a travesty. Call it what you will; it works. And borrowing a little bit of what works from others you admire is what all of the greatest artists do anyway.This, of course, leads us directly to the next piece of sage wisdom from the Flappy Bird saga, namely:

3. Success isn’t always what you thought it would be

I could try to go into the detail of Flappy Bird’s ultimate demise, but YouTube comedian ‘chonnyday’ sums up the story quite nicely (and hilariously) in this video. (Warning: NSFW language.)

Watching the success of Flappy Bird piled upon this humble Vietnamese game developer, it is always wise to remember to plan an end goal for your creations. What was once a hobby and a dream career path quickly turned into a nightmare for Nguyen as he suffocated under the constant bombardment of media attention, greedy advertisers, indie developers looking to him like a guru, and of course, enraged fans who were feeling frustrated with their own motor skills.

Life constantly pressures us, to force us to want to be successful. However, if there’s anything to learn from Dong’s downfall, it’s that you have to be careful not to get overwhelmed when all that success comes in one fell swoop, much like an uncoordinated, pixelated bird would. This leads us to…

4. People will always want more even when you do a good job

People are perpetually unsatisfied. Couple this indisputable fact with the rise in wireless Internet, and the term ‘customer complaint’ has been well and truly taken to a whole new level. The opinions and rage, which were once relegated to a person’s co-workers or immediate family, can now be forcibly expelled into the great big world of social media in the forms of angry Tweets or YouTube comments, over private messages or public channels.

Another lesson poor Dong learned the hard way (and you, my dear reader, are learning the easy way – by reading this blog) was that people complain more than they praise. Way more. And even when they like what you put out there, they rarely voice their satisfaction in a healthy way (i.e. “Love your game, Dong! Do you think there could be a Flappy Bird mode where the pipes were further apart?”). It really is a terrible flaw in human behaviour. People usually only dream that a single person could make as much money, in as much time, with so simple a product, as Nguyen did with Flappy Bird. I have a superstition where I believe my bird flaps particularly well only when he is red in colour (it changes every game in a nice little visual touch.) I love this game, but I want to be able to pick Red Flappy on demand. And then I realise: “Who the hell am I to think I have any say with this app?”
When someone does succeed in this spectacularly individualistic, sky-rocketing manner, naturally our next question to them is: “What else you got?” (After a few hundred failed attempts at cracking our top score, of course). This immense pressure broke down Dong, but we can learn from it. Don’t let the fickle nature of humans, particularly 21st century consumer humans, get you down on your quest for the best.
Some good news, however, is that you as a content creator can use the next lesson against those same fickle, consumer robots.

5. People want what they can’t have

The ridiculous eBay prices of devices with Flappy Bird installed and the shocking rate of clone ‘flappy’ apps appearing to fill a perceived gap in the market (a Flappy-App-Gap, perhaps?) makes very clear a life lesson I learned a long time ago from an episode of South Park, entitled ‘Cartmanland’.

In this episode, Cartman, the show’s sociopathic anti-hero, inherits $1 million and uses it to buy a financially struggling theme park, which he names after himself, boards up, and declares to everyone that no one is allowed in.

In turn, he unwittingly creates an insatiable demand for the theme park, for people now want to get in simply because they aren’t allowed to. This phenomenon is currently working in Dong’s favour, and has been working for the diamond industry for years. Use it cleverly, and it could be the most important life lesson on this list in terms of generating demand for your product, artwork, or service. People have accused Dong of restricting his app for this very reason, and, you know, they may be right…

6. Invent at the right moment

The final life lesson which I found poignant in the Flappy Birdsaga is both uplifting and depressing at the same time (again, like Flappy Bird. What a timeless metaphor this little guy will be). Despite his simplicity, his borrowed icons, and his flawlessly frustrating gameplay, Dong’s real success came from his timing. Such an unlikely hero was the little bird, who probably never dreamed of living up to, let alone surpassing, the success of his cousin, the Angry Bird. But, like a feather in the wind, he was carried on a wave of hype straight into smart-phone superstardom. Timing, context, and luck are three variables which will make or break whatever you are trying to achieve in life, and unfortunately, you can rarely control them. Concocting something as viral and culturally permeating as Flappy Bird can only be a rare occurrence in our modern world, but it’s not unheard of. Take note of what others are creating, work on your own creations, and try your best to get the timing right when you want to show them to the world. You might just have a hit on your hands.