Atari founder: Simple sells, but Flappy Bird’s creator will struggle to do it twice

atari founder flappy bird creator unlikely repeat success nolan bushnell

Image courtesy of Campus Party Brasil/Flickr

The man who founded Atari – and who, in many respects, is regarded as the father of the video game industry – has a simple rule when it comes to game-making. Indeed, he calls it “Nolan’s Number 1 rule.” Games, he says, should be easy to play and impossible to master.

In that respect, Flappy Bird developer Dong Nguyen is a Bushnell acolyte of the highest order. His games are Atari-like in their graphical simplicity and in their no-frills style of gameplay. Which is not to say they’re a walk in the park when it comes to their degree of difficulty. Nguyen’s newly launched Swing Copters is a maddening challenge of a game that takes his previous hit – Flappy Bird – and ups the difficulty considerably.

Nolan’s Number 1 rule: Games, he says, should be easy to play and impossible to master.

Bushnell – who can be seen seated beside Nguyen in the Vietnam-based developer’s Twitter header image – has plenty of thoughts on why a game like Flappy Birds or Swing Copters takes flight while others collect dust at the bottom of app store rankings. Bushnell spoke with Digital Trends, and told us that the mobile gaming space is so packed with competition that even a hit-maker like Nguyen is unlikely to repeat his success to the same degree.

“A lot of the success stories right now – like Flappy Birds – I feel they have more of the characteristics of winning the lottery than a plan,” Bushnell told Digital Trends. “Everybody wants to look at it and say, how can I do that? Anything that takes any kind of instruction or time really doesn’t work. You have to engage the player immediately. You can have some subtle objectives you acquire over time, but the real answer is you want the game to increase in complexity and difficulty as you master the skills. If you look at games like Candy Crush, it’s all variants on Bejeweled Blitz. As you progress, they get to be really hard.”

For anyone who hasn’t visited the iOS app store or Google Play Store to try their hand at Swing Copters, the game plays a lot like Flappy Bird, but instead of tapping to keep a bird aloft along a horizontal path, the tapping keeps the main character flying upward – with a few added twists.

The upward trajectory is not a straight line. Each tap sends the character veering from side to side. The trick is to not swing too far the wrong way and hit the swinging hammers that Nguyen has added throughout the game to serve as obstacles. Flappy Bird’s obstacles were Super Mario Bros.-style green pipes.

If that’s not enough, a new version of Flappy Bird is already available on Amazon Fire TV and coming soon to iOS and Android devices.

At times, it appears Nguyen enjoys the ribbing from fans because of the challenge his games present. Nguyen liked one review of Swing Copters enough to tweet it to his followers. It read: “This game will end you. There is no return. Take it from me. You will never, ever, return from the depths of Tartarus once you download this game.”

A lot of the success stories right now – like Flappy Birds – I feel they have more of the characteristics of winning the lottery than a plan.

Games like Nguyen’s fall in the sweet spot of the mobile gaming category’s strengths, according to Bushnell. It’s one reason Bushnell is not in the “death of the console” camp. Because of the limitations of mobile gaming, he argues, dedicated gaming consoles won’t ever disappear completely.

Mobile games “are good at scalars and bad at vectors, where you want a precise mechanism for more than one dimension,” Bushnell says. “Your way into the world (via a mobile game) is actually kind of static, and you don’t have near as much control on mobile as you do on coin-op or a PC. As a result, you’re always playing mobile a little handicapped. You don’t have as much freedom. Mobile is sucky at a whole bunch of game constructs, first-person shooters probably being first on the list.”

One thing he thinks mobile games have eclipsed are handled gaming devices like the Nintendo 3DS – “that’s gone,” he argues.

About the Flappy Bird creator, Bushnell – who was part of a speaking session with Nguyen at the 2014 Wired Business Conference earlier this year – says he’ll be surprised if Swing Copters is as big a hit as Flappy Bird, because of the degree to which chance tends to be involved in determining which games rise or fall.

“But I wish him luck,” Bushnell said. “We always need more interesting games out there.”