Many of you may well recall the surprise hit of 2013, that bastion of cinematic genius known as Sharknado. It featured the genius combination of sharks, a tornado and the Jordan/Pippen duo of the C-List acting world, Ian Ziering and Tara Reid. A low budget schlock-horror disaster film that cost only only $2 million to make and raked in over $100 million at the box office, nobody could say they predicted its meteoric rise.
Fast forward one year to 2014 and a similar phenomenon rose to fame, yet this time its arena was the mobile games market. The unassuming titan was called Flappy Bird, a game made in three days by Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen. After languishing in obscurity for a few months, it suddenly rose, and rose, and rose, and went on to make $50,000 a day in advertising revenue. It was featured everywhere and gained so much exposure the developer himself pulled it from the App Store, citing the overwhelming and unwanted attention and tactfully leaving out its possible exploiting of the app store charts and pilfered artwork. At any rate, the genie was out of the bottle and Dong had a mega-hit on his hands.
What do Sharknado and Flappy Bird have in common, you may well ask? Both were low budget, massive hits that defied all prediction. Both received huge coverage and made buckets of money. And well, both kind of sucked. Here’s where the facts end and my opinion begins, and your own may differ, but I have a theory. Both Sharknado and Flappy Birds were ignored when they launched. Flappy Bird had next to no downloads for its first few months, and Sharknado took less than $200k in it’s opening weekend. Did I mentioned it starred Ian Ziering?
Now, suppose that had been the end of it. Would Empire Magazine have run a feature and said “That’s a great film!”, or would IGN have written an article such as “You Must Play This Obscure Game!” . Highly unlikely – because as I mentioned before, both of them are mediocre products. Sharknado features acting that makes the Star Wars prequels seem like Good Will Hunting and Flappy Bird’s crude hit detection and stolen sprites would cause most game journalists to dismiss it instantly – had they been unknown titles. However, they beat the odds, and as each juggernaut gathered momentum. People found Sharknado amusing, “It’s so bad it’s actually good”, was a common refrain. Flappy Bird’s infuriating difficulty tapped into people’s competitive nature – this itself was a little bit of ( perhaps unintentional ) genius. The word spread around, and spread around, until both shark and bird had become part of the mainstream.
It kind of reminds me of the old conundrum, “This job requires experience.” “But how do I get experience?” “You’ll need a job.” , in that both became popular because they were being featured on breakfast television and the Wall Street Journal, and the Wall Street Journal was featuring them because they were popular.
More reviews followed. The media love click-bait, and these two were the perfect foil. Popularity invites popularity once you’ve reached a certain tipping point. Soon, the reviews were lauding each title as . Sharknado is currently sitting on Rotten Tomatoes at 82%, beating classic movies such as Inception, The Lion King and Ben Hur. Flappy Bird fared less well, with many reviewers showing refreshing honesty , but such publicity only served to stir the flames and increase the downloads of the game to unbelievable heights.
It’s the game/film equivalent of your average Joe looking at an abstract piece of art, dismissing it as crap, finding out it’s worth $4 million, and retroactively changing his mind and finding the ‘hidden meaning in it’.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the success of these two. They punched well above their weight and there’s obviously a huge section of the community that got some enjoyment out of them. Critics and the public are often in disagreement on what the public should be enjoying – just look at the popularity of “country by numbers” robot Taylor Swift versus the amazing but largely unknown folk singer songwriter Josh Ritter. There’s a place for Sharknado, and a place for Ben Hur, just as there’s a place for Flappy Bird and there’s a place for Limbo.
Having said that, Sharknado and Flappy Bird opened a Pandora’s Box that is far less welcome. Sharknado has two sequels in the works and Flappy Bird has been cloned on the App Store thousands of times. The problem here is that in an already saturated market all they do is pollute the waters further. I don’t know too much about the film industry but I know that clones are killing the mobile game industry.
Some of you may remember my experiment cloning the popular game Timbermania a few months back. I took some criticism about this, and probably rightly so, because I was adding to the problem. The game took me a day to build and had about a thousand downloads all up. Tiny numbers in the scheme of things. It was a rubbish game, and I felt rotten doing it, but I had to experience the process for myself. I had to know whether building a rubbish clone of an existing hit would be more successful than lovingly crafting my own game over many months. Jury is out, but so far there’s enough evidence to be certain there’s no quality control on the App Stores and all this lack of quality control is doing is cheapening the art and craft of game design and driving indie game developers out of the industry because they can’t even sell their game for a dollar.
I vowed never to clone a game again and have focused all my efforts on designing a totally new and original game, Everyone Gets Treasure. There’s every chance EGT may fail to have an impact with the public, but it is a labour of love and I am proud of it so far.
This game will take me roughly 4 months and thousands of dollars to build and market. I’m a sole developer, working on a revenue share basis with an artist and a musician. We’re all investing many hours of our time in this project and we hope and believe it will be a hit. Consider then, the ripple effect of 60 Flappy Bird clones hitting the store every day. There’s never been more garbage for the end user to sift through, and both Google and Apple’s searchability for games are beyond a joke. They’re flat out broken unless you’ve got very deep pockets. I certainly could use a New York Times review of my game. Making a game for the App Store lottery these days is like heading out to the Old West, in 2014, hoping to strike it rich in the goldfields.
This week, Dong Nguyen released the highly anticipated follow up to Flappy Bird known as Swing Copter. Rolling Stone, no less, wrote an article about it. Think about that for a second. Rolling Stone magazine, writing an article in anticipation of a follow up to a crude indie game made in 3 days. Two days before Swing Copter was due for release, there were already dozens of clones of it available on the app store. The game was, to few people’s surprise, itself a poorly made variation on Flappy Bird, with controls even more unforgiving and crude. However that itself is beside the issue. The issue is the abundance of shovelware crap and the lack of publicity for unique and worthy titles. Apple trumpets having over a billion apps in the App Store like it’s a good thing. Give me 50,000 quality apps any day. It’s killing the mobile game industry, it really is.
I think this Polygon article sums it up better than I can. To quote from it,
“There’s no easy solution, and fighting back is impossible without Apple, Google or Microsoft onboard. But games are being strangled, customers are losing money and no one is happy. Something has to give.”
Sharknado, Flappy Bird, Sharknado 2, Swing Copters. There’s a place for them – it’s just a shame this place at the expense of other, more well deserving titles. Perhaps I might come across as a jealous, disgruntled game developer – I realise I must sound like that. I just wanted to put forward the idea that maybe we should try and share the spotlight around – highlight the unknown yet promising new film maker, game studio or musician. Idealistic, for sure, but the world doesn’t really need the Wall Street Journal reviewing Flappy Bird any more than it needs Kotaku giving share tips.
Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on the App Stores and their billions of clones ( including my own ) , flush them deep into the ocean and start fresh. If you have any solutions, I’m all ears.
Cheers, happy journeys.
Oliver Joyce, Whiskeybarrel Studios.