It’s been a while since my last post, dwelling as I currently am in the depths of thesis-writing purgatory. However, on a recent excursion to the surface to obtain coffee and sunlight, I had the pleasure of observing the Flappy Bird saga (no, King. No.) and considering how well it epitomises one of the most consistent issues within the games industry. I’m going to focus in particular in this article on the mobile app marketplace, but this applies to console titles too, although possibly in a slightly different way.
In 1998 Greg Costikyan described what he referred to as a ‘conservatism’ within the industry - an avoidance of true innovation in favour of what Chris Crawford (2003, p.115) refers to as incremental 'accretive’ improvement and tweaking of existing ideas. J.C. Herz also lamented this problem in a further 1998 article which has recently been republished with its continuing relevance 15 years later specifically highlighted.
More recently, Mikolaj Dymek (2010, 2012) narrowed the problem down to what he refers to as 'creative conservatism’. There is a void between the fast pace of technological innovation, with hardware and software constantly pushing at the limits of what games can do, whilst the speed of artistic or design innovation struggles along behind, puffing and wheezing, attempting to show what games are able to be but with only a few people listening.
Games research is providing a number of interesting avenues for consideration that may offer ways out of this creative rut, my own research included. The problem is that, of course, from a business perspective, if it sells then we need to obviously make more of the same.
This is an argument I entirely agree with, to an extent. In fact, Bateman and Boon (2006) provide an excellent argument for why such an approach is, in part, vital for a sustainable industry. The 'conservative games’ sustain interest and provide a basis from which innovation can sprout. The problem is though, the balance appears to have been distorted in favour of conservative design a little too far.
The responses to Flappy Bird from both players and also from other developers has been, at best, disappointing and at worst, downright disgusting. This is not to suggest that Flappy Bird itself should be let off the hook of course. Clearly, the game bears striking similarities both to Piou Piou and to Mario.
The game is by no means innocent. However, after such a backlash leading to the game being removed from sale (for whatever reason - I’m in no position to postulate as to why), the explosion of shameless copies appearing just on the Google Play store is incredible. Destructoid sum this up nicely with the below graphic representation…
The simple presence of such copies is not surprising in itself of course. This will always happen when anything successful emerges. The Million Dollar Homepage by Alex Tew sticks in my mind as a particularly good example. The lure of possible easy money is seemingly difficult for even the most ethical to resist.
Some of these copies aren’t really doing anything too abhorrent. The original game is unavilable after all and many copies are free or ad-supported, likely serving as practice apps for budding developers. Are they really hurting anybody? Well here lies one of the issues which links back to the main theme of creative conservatism. If the first apps that upcoming designers and developers are making are copies of others, how will they ever learn to be independent thinkers, innovative designers - truly creative? In the short-term, no they probably aren’t hurting anybody, but longer-term, they will at some point need to think for themselves - so why not start early. Do you want to have that Flappy Bird clone as your first venture into the industry? Really?
This Kickstarter project only serves to further highlight this. Not content with having a cloned (and, possibly incrementally 'accreted’) version of the game, this group of students have made themselves visible to the entire world, asking for money from backers to release yet another identical game into the market. This serves only to highlight a complete lack of understanding (of legality, of ethics, of design practice, of just about everything that those wanting to work in the games industry require) and to immediately destroy credibility, leading to the type of responses that may be expected…
As Matthew Handrahan (2014) reports, Apple and Google are now taking (admittedly simplistic) steps to prevent obvious clones appearing on their storefronts. However this only appears to be surface level blocking of apps with 'Flappy’ in their names. As discussed by Ken Carpenter of Mind Juice Media, changing the name of their app from Flappy Dragon to Derpy Dragon successfully circumvented the blocking, despite the gameplay being identical to Flappy Bird. The initial argument to the blocking of Flappy Dragon feigned innocence, suggesting that it can’t be identical to Flappy Bird as the app no longer existed on the store. An argument that, via reductio ad absurdum can be followed through to it being acceptable to make shameless copies of anything that once existed but is no longer 'available’ in its original form. If a book goes out of print, another author cannot change a few words of the original manuscript and release it again with a slightly altered title.
Previous stories surrounding the likes of Zynga and more recently, King.com demonstrate that it isn’t just the little guys causing the problem. The big boys are equally adept at lacking creative drive. With behemoths setting the precedent at one end of the market, and the likes of Flappy Bird clones by the pipe-full at the other, the small percentage of genuinely innovative games are swamped by a deluge of identikits until they eventually fall off the radar entirely.
This in turn makes it much less likely that developers will risk making something different, or making something that they feel passionate about because the odds are that they won’t make enough of a return on their work. Thus, a choice is presented. Do what you love (make games), but do so knowing that your creative juices will have to be stifled somewhat if you want to make a reasonable income. Or, do what you love (make games) and accept that you will have to have another source of income to support yourself whilst making the innovative experiences you want to make.
Creative conservatism, in all its guises and through all of its commercial and artistic causes has the same impact - it breeds further, more greatly entrenched conservatism. If games are ever going to evolve beyond the plateau they’re currently sitting on, this needs to be addressed. The low cost of app development (compared to console development) provides a perfect opportunity for innovation and slightly more wacky, risky concepts to be tried out. It is a perfect foundation on which to build things that demonstrate what games have the potential to be. Unfortunately, it isn’t being used to anywhere near its full potential.
Aziz, H.(2014). There are at least 13 Flappy Bird clones already.
Bateman, C. & Boon, R. (2006). The Evolution of Games: Originality and Chreodes. 21st Century Game Design. Hingham, Massachusetts: Charles River Media.
Costikyan, G. (1998). Don’t Be a Vidiot: What Computer Game Designers Can Learn From Non-Electronic Games [Online]. Available: http://www.costik.com/vidiot.html
Crawford, C. (2003). Chris Crawford on Game Design. Indianapolis, Indiana: New Riders.
Dymek, M. (2012). Video Games: A Subcultural Industry. In: Zackariasson, P. & Wilson, T. L. (eds.) The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, Future. 34-56. New York: Routledge.
Dymek, M. (2010). Industrial Phantasmagoria: Subcultural Interactive Cinema Meets Mass-Cultural Media of Simulation. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis, Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm.
Handrahan, M. (2014). Apple and Google reject titles similar to Flappy Bird.
Herz, J.C. (2013). A 15-Year-Old Critique of the Games Industry That’s Still Relevant Today [Online].
Herz, J.C. (1998). High Concept Disease. Game Developer Magazine. San Francisco, California: Miller Freeman.
Retro Gaming (2014). Flappy Birds 2 by Retro Gaming.
Tew, A. (2005). The Million Dollar Homepage. Available: http://www.milliondollarhomepage.com/
About the Author
I am a Senior Lecturer in Games Design at the University of Portsmouth, where I also lead the Advanced Games Research Group. I also design, develop, and write about games, some of which finds its way onto this blog!
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