The lesson of Flappy Bird for games developers, and it’s not what you think

Ever since Flappy Bird became the #1 free game on the App Store and Google Play, developers have been wrestling with one question:  How in the world did this happen? The answer should be both encouraging and discouraging for the games industry. The good news is that the dream is still alive for the indie developer. The bad news is that the entire foundation on which the multi-billion mobile games industry has been built on just maybe complete nonsense.   news   I just got back from two mobile game conferences in the UK where experts from all over the world talked about the keys to success to creating a hit mobile game.  The experts and topics were the exact same that I have seen at the mobile game conferences that occur just about every other week here in San Francisco.

  • You need to spend years developing a game, and then years building upon it (it’s “games as a service,” after all)
  • You need to spend millions of dollars to market your game if you want to have a chance of getting it in the top charts of the App Store and Google Play.  That is, millions of dollars to even launch.
  • Even if you do steps 1 and 2, you will probably fail, so don’t even try.

Developing mobile games today is both an art and a science, with the emphasis on science.  Core loops.  Viral coefficients.  Hooks.  Sinks.  Whales.  There is an entire cottage industry of analytics firms and mobile ad optimization companies (who essentially target and buy ads off each other since no one owns the inventory) that has sprouted to convince developers that they can game the system. And then comes along Flappy Bird, and in as little time as it takes for me to hit a pipe and die (5 seconds, I suck), it blows this whole charade away. Because behind every winner and loser in the App Store, the most powerful force, whether you are Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans or Flappy Bird, the number one key to success is dumb, blind, luck. At least Nguyen Ha Dong, developer of Flappy Bird, seems to think so. When asked in an interview with Chocolate Lab Apps, Dong said “I didn’t use any promotion methods… The popularity could be my luck.” Flappy Bird proves what we’ve all known but been silent about for years.  There is as much chance to hitting the number one spot of the App Store or Google Play as getting hit by lightning. Zynga just paid $527 million for Natural Motion, has 2000 employees, has over $1 billion in cash reserves, and still can’t pull off the amount of mobile game success that one lone developer from Vietnam pulled off with a few weeks of work.

Flappy Bird was featured on PewPewDie    Once you reach the top spot, you can stay there by smartly spending money and adding clever gameplay additions (for this reason, the top grossing rankings will never change for the foreseeable future.) But to get to number one…  good luck! Having said that, there is a little more to the success of Flappy Bird than just luck.  Here are the best theories we’ve seen floating around out there:

  • The game was released on the iOS App Store on May 2013, and then miraculously shot up in the ranking January 2014.  This coincided with a video on the popular YouTube channel Pewdiepie and an insane barrage of Twitter reviews, where people competed to see who could write the funniest review of the game with accompanying screenshots.  At the same time, the game was released Google Play, hitting 80% of the world’s mobile handsets.  The combination of grassroots social media and Android launch (so that every kid in the world could play, not just iPhone owners) may have built the momentum to catapult the game to the top.
  • Others have suggested that the developer paid for bots to drive downloads.  There is no proof this happened, though Carter Thomas makes a compelling case on his blog.   It is strange that three of Nguyen Ha Dong’s games reached the top 10 free game rankings.  If bots were used, it only explains the game’s rise, not its staying power on top.  And let the record show that almost every smart mobile game marketer had used black hat tactics to get downloads (as an aside, when it’ an Asian company accused, it’s called cheating, but when a white developer does it, it’s growth hacking).
  • Finally, there is the free factor that can be at play.  Though not perfect, the game is actually fun and addictive for a brief moment in time.  The best way to make money in mobile games is through free-to-play in-app-purchases. But maybe what game players really want is a game that is fun and free, with no strings attached.

When the iPhone was first released, games were designed to be fun bite-sized diversions; not carefully orchestrated cash grabs to suck players in until they paid for virtual currency. Maybe the lesson of Flappy Bird is to remind us of what made the iPhone such a great gaming device in the first place.

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