Flappy Bird: What Happened?

One of the most intriguing stories to come across the news feeds recently is that of Dong Nguyen, the developer behind the runaway hit Flappy Bird. This immensely popular game, which was the number one downloaded free app in both the Apple App Store and Google Play for nearly a month, reportedly generated up to $50,000 a day in revenue from in-app advertising. Not too bad of a payday for an indie developer who apparently made the game in less than a week in his spare time.

However, this fairy tale story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the game – and the resulting spotlight that was trained on Mr. Nguyen – the developer ended up actually pulling his game from all app stores on February 9.

In another tweet, Mr. Nguyen requested that the media and users give him some breathing room (“Please give me peace”), giving rise to speculation that the incredible attention that his game was suddenly receiving was too much for the Vietnam-based developer. True to his word, Flappy Bird was duly removed from all the app stores; it no longer shows up on any lists, and Mr. Nguyen’s game development studio, DotGears.com, is no longer displaying the game as part of its’ offerings.

Too much spotlight

There is an amazing amount of speculation on what really happened with this story. The majority of commentators are scratching their heads wondering how anyone – especially a game developer who had never attained this level of success before – could walk away from that much money on the table. Viral success of anything, whether that is a game, video, meme, etc., is rarely explainable; it’s an odd combination of luck and sheer numbers paired with the crushing force of social media amplification.  Here’s an interesting timeline of Flappy Bird’s meteoric rise from Mashable:

  • The game started out in obscurity, just like any other game. It initially got 13 reviews, and then rose to 20 reviews a day.
  • Flappy Bird download levels swelled on Jan. 13, increasing 136% day-over-day.
  • On Jan. 17, the app became the number-one free app in the U.S. App Store, according to app-analytics company Distimo.
  • By Jan. 24, the media was finally starting to take notice of Flappy Bird.
  • Tweets with the phrase "Flappy Bird" passed the 500,000 a day mark as of Jan. 25, according to Topsy.
  • By Feb. 1, Flappy Bird was the number-one free game in 53 countries in the App Store.
  • Then, at around 2:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 8, Nguyen made a stunning announcement: Flappy Bird was going to go away.
  •  By Feb. 9, Flappy Bird was removed from the App Store and Google Play.
  • It's now been 28 days since Flappy Bird hit the App Store's top 10. The game has had at least 50 million downloads, and amassed nearly 16 million tweets.

If you think about what happened from Mr. Nguyen’s point of view, the story becomes more understandable. He went from being a simple game programmer with a few apps under his belt to having his phone ringing off the hook, his email inbox jammed with reporters eager to get his side of the story, ad network executives rushing to get him to add their products to his banner ads rotation, and most likely a whole host of other people eager to catch a ride on the comet.

Bold move or genius advertising?

There is a current of thought in the wide variety of opinions published regarding this story that Mr. Nguyen was not in fact overwhelmed by the attention that his game was receiving; in fact, he did what would immediately cause the most demand for his game (along with the other games in his development line-up and any future games he might come up with); which is create a false scarcity. Remember when Disney would advertise “Disney Vault” movies, telling consumers that this was their “last chance” to purchase something? It created a huge amount of sales simply because consumers believed that their favorite Disney movie was about to be gone forever; which was simply not true.

Many people believe that removing Flappy Birds was a marketing move of sheer genius, since not only does the developer continue to rake in money from millions of installs already out there, but he’s paving the way for future games to make a similar splash. I guess the only way to find out for certain is to watch what’s released next.

Similarities to other games?

There’s also some speculation that the game borrowed heavily from old-school Nintendo animation. In fact, the pipes in the game are pretty much textbook Mario-style; which begs the question of possible legal issues (or the potential of legal issues) being the true reason behind the Flappy Birds takedown.

In one tweet, Mr. Nguyen pointed out that the removal of Flappy Bird was not because of any legal threats and that the design, while “unoriginal”, was definitely from him. He’s also made it clear that he does not intend to sell the game to another company and that he is continuing to work on other games. It remains to be seen if Flappy Birds will attract legal attention, but the possibility is definitely there.

Cultural impact

Reading Mr. Nguyen’s Twitter stream – which, admittedly, doesn’t give us much of an insight into his motivations – it’s easy to get the impression that he is a very private person and was simply overwhelmed by the crushing success of this app. Think of it this way – most of us have at times imagined winning the lottery; all the houses, vacation, and Scrooge McDuck-style adventures we would have. But the reality for lottery winners is usually quite different. Friends and family come out of the woodwork asking for favors. Your status in the eyes of your community drastically changes. The way you live your life, day to day, can also change, and not for the better. Many lottery winners are completely overwhelmed by the changes that this amount of winnings brings to their daily lives, and find themselves right where they started (and in many situations, worse off) in a matter of months. This tweet from the developer really says it all:

“I can call ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”

It’s also important to look at the cultural implications in this story. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Nguyen lives with his parents in Hanoi, and “finds it difficult to walk down the street without being pestered”. Pressure to produce something “useful” is strong in Asian culture, and a game – even a wildly successful one – might not necessarily be seen as reaching that standard. Another quote from the Flappy Bird developer gives us more insight into his motivation:

“It was just too addictive," Mr. Dong said. He said he didn't intend for people to play the game for hours at a time, as many gamers appear to have done. "That was the main negative. So I decided to take it down," he said.

We might never know the true reasoning behind the removal of such a popular game, but putting together a few clues from what the Flappy Bird developer has said to various media outlets along with his own Twitter stream, the picture starts to make sense from a cultural perspective.

What we can learn from Flappy Bird

While speculation on Flappy Bird and its’ removal is certainly interesting (and probably won’t die down anytime soon), it’s smart to look at a few takeaways from this whole situation.

  • Design: The success of Flappy Bird is due a lot to the gameplay, graphics, and “feel” of the game. Sure, luck had a lot to do with his unmitigated success, but there’s a lot of good coding here as well: intuitive controls, no need for complicated instructions or tutorials.
  • One more time: This game was horribly hard – which made it that much more addictive. The ability to compare scores with other people and beat your own was compelling; plus, each gameplay session was short, making this the perfect app for standing in line, killing time, etc.
  • Not complicated: People who wouldn’t normally play games got into this little app, simply because it’s free, it’s fast, and you can ramp up immediately. There’s no barrier to entry.
  • Luck: Let’s not kid ourselves; the possibility that a game will meet this kind of viral success is one in a million. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. However, making a good game is really half the battle.

It will be interesting to watch this story unfold. What are your thoughts on why Flappy Bird was removed? What would you do if you were in Dong Nguyen’s shoes? Let us know in the comments below.






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