Tiny Wings – Huge Success

Posted on 26 Februar, 2011


With all these AAA titles coming out for the iOS platform (and elsewhere) there are still some games who pop out of nowhere and climb the charts in no time as if there is nothing easier in the world to accomplish. I have a theory about what makes these games special and I want to share it with you in this week’s post.

The Problem

It is my firm belief that games (or gaming) are an integral part of our human nature. Sadly, this part is largely overlooked by adults with mostly the young instinctively holding on to it. As Raph Koster puts it in his book A theory of Fun for Game Design, gaming is a form of learning (or training skills) in a risk free environment with the ultimate goal to improve our chances of survival thus rewarded with a powerful incentive – fun.
The problem is that it sucks to be young these days. When I look back at my childhood it makes me glad that the internet wasn’t mainstream, that computer games were still in the 16 bit era and that I spent most of my free time outside.
Fast forward 20 years and we have an oversupply of games. If I were a kid these days I’d be more than tempted to loose my soul on World of Warcraft and the likes.
Since I am not the only one to realize that gaming is such a powerful concept, the multimedia industry focuses on computer and console games turning it into a huge business. But something happened along the way. It seems to me that the crazy high public expectations and the fierce competition forced publishers and developers to take the safe route and produce games that are known to appeal to the masses. Suddenly most games are no more sparking with creativity but are rather high spec tech demos boasting of sophisticated graphics and dumbed down to “go there, do exactly that” affairs.
An example. I have played through the blockbuster title “Call of Duty Black Ops” a few weeks ago. Right now I can’t even remember the name of the main character anymore. Yet with Minecraft – a formerly small indie game started only by one guy alone – I can remember nearly every time a Creeper blasted my ass off while I was mining underground…
If you prefer a more graphical presentation of this idea, check out Ben Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation series. While brutally honest and really hilarious Ben points out exactly what’s wrong with today’s games – one fuc**** game at a time.

I think the reason so many big titles turn into hollow shells is because the mainstream focus slowly shifts away from a passive art of entertainment to a more interactive form. Through the unhomogenous demographics that denominates the broad target group for games, these titles have to settle on the lowest common denominator in terms of mass apeal.

It’s All about Limitations

And then there are games like Andreas Illiger’s Tiny Wings.

This game was released on February 18 and a few days later it ranks #1 in the US App Store. Why? How? I asked Andreas if he had any form of marketing in place or did other preparations. He didn’t do anything! Crazy isn’t it?
Not at all. Because based on my theory he used artificial constrains to greatly amplify creativity while keeping it simple. And simplicity is what I think most people crave these days. Given the multimedia overload that surrounds us each day, we still look for ways to be entertained. And when a game strikes the right balance between creativity and simplicity like Tiny Wings did, it appeals to many people. Like Angry Birds did – or Doodle Jump or Fruit Ninja.
It is important (at least for me) to identify “limitation” as a main stimulus for creativity. Because that’s a winning formula for us small indie developers. We have everything in place to create great games whithout big investments. All it takes is creativity and the right balance between simplicity and depth. Add to it some deliberately chosen constraints and it could lead to huge success (yes, the game Portal 2 is coming soon and I am using its lingo because I have played Portal 1 a few days ago and I am listening to its song Still Alive ALL_THE_TIME).
The game machanic of Tiny Wings is by no means shallow. It may appear simple but it is damn hard to master. I am playing this game for days now and I still can’t reach the friggin island 7 (which by now every 12 year old would master after a few hours….)!
So what do I base my theory on? If you want proof for my idea – take a look around you.

  • Twitter – 140 character limitation and it became one of the most popular platforms ever.
  • Apple – with its religious “keep it simple” mantra that made MP3 players dead simple and has a proven record for really easy to use interfaces.
  • Google – with its minimalistic interface and “no frills” approach to searching content.
    I have intentionally chosen big names here because I still find it fascinating that the idea of simplicity is still at the core of such big businesses.

Getting back to games, this doesn’t mean that only indie titles are a guarantee for great gameplay and mass appeal. There are many big titles that did it right. I guess that can be attributed to some bright minds who were involved. As usual – the right mix of people under the right circumstances.
I have played a lot of games in my life. Screw Valve for making it so damn simple to buy them (through Steam). Here is a list of my all time favourite games – big and small:
Click to expand


It’s pretty obvious this time. Limitations are great. Creativity is great. Combine them, amplify them and run with it.

See you next time around.


Oh, and one last thing. For all those whiners (including me) who cry “cruel world” when they have created some really ingenious iOS apps and complain that visibility is the problem for their missing success. Andreas landed with Tiny Birds at #1 with NO visibility when he launched the game. So much for the witty iOS marketers who all chew on the same old cow “visibility is everything”…

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