Call of Duty creator Vince Zampella has used guns, rockets and robots fueled with intense graphics to keep millions of people playing his video games. Dong Nguyen needed only one crudely drawn bird.
The retro-style mobile game Flappy Bird, which Nguyen has said took just a few days to make and brought in as much as $50,000 a day, propelled the unknown Vietnamese developer to rock-star status. The game, which Nguyen has since removed from app stores, put a spotlight on the power of simplicity. As players of the bare-bones app will attest, trying to fly a pixelated bird through a network of pipes can be as addictive as the sensory overload of a first-person shooter.
Video games are often measured by their deep storylines and eye-popping action, both of which are optimized for the latest consoles or souped-up computers with high-end graphics cards. But smartphones are changing the game. Now, publishers are tailoring titles to a much wider audience that isn't tethered to a sofa and is often on the go. And that has broadened what constitutes innovation in game design.
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Mobile games this year will account for 28 percent of all video-game industry revenue, up from 11 percent in 2009, according to researcher Strategy Analytics. Packaged titles like Call of Duty and Titanfall will account for 41 percent of revenue, down from 68 percent in 2009, the researcher forecasts.
"The mobile audience is humongous, and there are so many developers out there that now you begin to see a lot of experimentation," said David Helgason, chief executive officer of Unity Technologies, which licenses tools for game developers. "Some games like Flappy Bird can be over in 10 seconds, while other games you see are much deeper. It's that kind of risk-taking that makes it an exciting space to be in."
Mobile developers have been early adopters in data analysis, giving them another leg up on the console competition. On the face of it, Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds might look unsophisticated, but don't be fooled. Behind the simplicity are special game mechanics or back-end analytics that prompt users to purchase add-on items to help them advance in a game at just the right time. Add in metrics to determine what aspects of the game aren't resonating with players, along with the ability for developers to quickly make changes, and you have software that can be improved over time.
Nguyen did not respond to an e-mail request seeking comment. He has said Flappy Bird could return with changes based on user feedback.
Mobile developers routinely test their products by releasing an almost-finished game in a few countries and taking user feedback to polish the title, said Bertrand Schmitt, CEO of mobile marketing company App Annie. With more smartphones and tablets on the market than consoles, the feedback can be more detailed and useful.
"Analytics are now an essential part of the culture," Schmitt said. "Optimization is now deeply integrated into any game, letting developers know how many minutes someone plays, where they get stuck, what levels they like to play over."
With Flappy Bird, getting stuck is kind of the point. The innocent-looking game is notoriously difficult to play -- and that has hooked millions of people. Earlier this year, Flappy Bird rocketed to the top of the charts on Apple and Google's app stores.
Most game critics don't consider Flappy Bird innovative by conventional standards. In fact, it's been called the exact opposite: unoriginal, and worse. Flappy Bird's success could reinforce bad habits forming among game makers, according to Owen Mahoney, chief executive officer of Nexon, the Japanese maker of online games. "Our industry has insisted on making clones instead of focusing on making good games that stand on their own," he said.
But given Flappy Bird's popularity, innovation in mobile games might require a different definition, according to Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles. If innovation is measured by the amount of disruption it causes, Flappy Bird scored high. Few games in recent memory have garnered as much fascination, suspicion, love and hate, including death threats tweeted at Nguyen. When he announced the game's removal on Twitter, Nguyen said the attention "ruins my simple life."
The game also has inspired hundreds of clones. It's a lot harder to copy the bustling cityscape and Hollywood-style production value of Grand Theft Auto.
Nguyen went to great pains to distill what was so accessible yet irresistible about the games he loved as a kid, particularly those from Nintendo. He envisioned a diversion that anyone could play but few could master during the daily commute, with "one hand holding the train strap," according to an interview in Rolling Stone.
Nguyen "didn't invent anything," Pachter said. "The innovation [in] Flappy Bird is it's the first free-to-play game that's very hard, and it did well because of that."
Even with all the attention on mobile, innovation is still happening elsewhere in gaming. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is excited by the promise of virtual reality headsets, as his $2 billion deal for Oculus VR illustrates. And the popular shooter game Titanfall, developed by Call of Duty creator Zampella, has been lauded for its frenetic game play, which lets users don jetpacks and hop into robots in an ever-shifting melee. During its development, Zampella was more concerned with topping his former glory on consoles rather than what the mobile upstarts were working on.
"How do you do something brand new, with a small team, that competes with one of the best-selling games of all time?" Zampella said, recalling a brainstorm session with his colleagues. "It's not necessarily that we have to prove ourselves, but it's there deep down, and terrifying."
Perhaps they should have been thinking more about Candy Crush Saga. Pachter said Titanfall will probably sell less than King Digital Entertainment's mobile puzzle game, which logged about $1.48 billion in sales last year. These shifts in player preferences forced publisher THQ into bankruptcy and cost Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello his job last year. Nintendo has said it's considering a new business plan after seeing poor sales of its Wii U console. Zynga's FarmVille game ruled Facebook for a time but has struggled as gamers shift their attention to mobile. The company hasn't posted a profit and its shares are down 58 percent since its December 2011 initial public offering.
To survive amid endless competition in mobile, Zynga CEO Don Mattrick has his 2,000-person company focused on what's called "the Starbucks test." All of their games should be quick enough for people to play while standing in line for coffee, yet have enough depth to occupy hours of their time on a couch at home, he said.
Or as Nguyen recently tweeted: "Fun games do not need to be complex."