8 Key Insights From The Unlikely Rise & Demise Of Flappy Bird For Mobile Game Developers In Africa

One of my epic high scores on Flappy Bird. I did at some point get past 6 barriers but forgot to do a screen grab!

Flappy Bird is now the stuff of mobile app legend almost three weeks since it was unceremoniously yanked from all mobile app stores globally for no other reason than its creator believing he created a monster that he had to kill. It has become the unlikely hero of independent (indie) mobile game developers globally since it showed for possibly(?) the very first time ever that a truly bootstrapped one man outfit could rule the mobile app world with zero marketing spend. In a nutshell, Flappy Bird broke all the mobile app rules and chances are it would still be the number one mobile app globally given that numerous clones have risen to take its place since it was pulled down.

The story of Flappy Bird really resonates with me for the reason that when one looks at how hard it is for African mobile developers to make a break in a sea of hundreds of thousands of mobile apps its astounding! However, having analysed the Flappy Bird story for the last few weeks I have found that there is actually method to its madness, so to speak. In addition, the fact that its single developer, Dong Nguyen of .GEARS Studios from Vietnam managed to pull off the improbable but possible(?) is an inspiring David versus Goliath tale of truly epic mobile proportions. The guy made the game in roughly 3 days ‘solo’ just under a year ago and through viral mechanics it rose to dominate several mobile app stores globally over the last couple of months or so. Its quite simply, inspiring!

So. I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure what the reasons are for Flappy Bird being so successful and managed to come up with what I think are some of the key insights behind its unlikely success. In particular the thinking here is that possibly any independent mobile app developer in Africa could use some or all of these insights to try and replicate the success of Flappy Bird. Here. We. Go:

  1. Make Your Mobile Game Super Hard! – Probably the one thing that Flappy Bird had in its corner from the very beginning is just how incredibly hard the damn game was. I mean, I tried and tried repeatedly to find a way of beating my last high score and honestly could never pass more than a few barriers before crashing again and again in a rather frustrating and repeating cycle. It is so freaking hard to play! Just how hard Flappy Bird was unlocked viral mentions where people would vent their frustration on the mobile app store reviews sections and social media. This led other people to download the game to see what the fuss was all about. The sheer difficulty of playing Flappy Bird was at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The moral of the story is therefore if your game is hard people will be challenged to beat it – its a human thing – tough stuff draws us in.
  2. Make It Pointless – Endings Are Boring! – The second insight about Flappy Bird is that it has no ending. As in, assuming you can keep getting through the barriers it literally has no ending. People are therefore motivated to just keep going and going almost endlessly, with literally no end in sight. Could you call that an addiction of sorts? Me Thinks So! Perhaps a game that never ends and only keeps rewarding you with coins is the wave of the future? Who knows but it seemed to work for Flappy Bird and people are still sharing their high scores online to-date even though the game can no longer be downloaded.
  3. Don’t Reinvent, Reuse! Or Better Yet, STEAL! – The first time I played Flappy Bird I could not help but notice that the graphics looked really familiar. I mean, I had never played the game before and yet it felt like I had been there before – honest. It was a blog post that I stumbled on that pointed out the obvious and blatant similarities that the graphics used in the game had with those of the original Super Mario Brothers of Nintendo 8-bit fame. The nostalgia was obvious. The developer had used something so familiar in more or less an unchanged format. It made the game friendly, unassuming, and not intimidating in any way. Very clever of Dong Nguyen! He did not bother reinventing the wheel – he simply carbon copied an existing one onto his game, so to speak. Chances are if the game was still on the mobile app stores he could have been sued for copyright infringement by now. However, the learning is obvious – don’t stray too far from tried and proven ‘things’ if you want to succeed in developing a globally successful mobile game.
  4. Keep It Super Simple, Stupid! (KISSS) – The gaming controls for Flappy Bird are remarkably simple. As in, all you need to do is tap with your thumb to keep the bird flying. Its a complete no-brainer when compared to even more complicated yet relatively simple mobile games like Angry Birds. Flappy Bird has a single control that is ‘tap tap’ your thumb to keep the gaming. There are no language barriers or cultural issues or age constraints to understanding how this game works – just ask my 4 year old son. You just ‘tap tap’. I am almost certain that the the late Steve Jobs of Apple would have approved of this game for its now famous simplicity of execution. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, ‘perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’
  5. You CAN Make Serious Money Even When Your Game Is FREE – One of the key highlights around its surprising success and eventual demise is how much money it was making as an ad-supported mobile app. At its peak in terms of downloads and usage, the game was earning Dong Nguyen an estimated US$ 50,000.00 per day! This is simply remarkable since not only was the game a free download but it was coded in a matter of days almost a year ago. This goes to show that in theory Dong Nguyen could have eventually become a millionaire on the back of his game had it still been on the mobile app stores. Its the very reason why so many Flappy Bird clones are now being published by numerous indie developers since they do stand to make bank even if its less money than Flappy Brid did. A game that is free to download and monetized through mobile apps has a zero barrier to entry for users to download. If it succeeds, you will get paid. Nuff said.
  6. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again, And Again, And…You Get The Picture – What many people don’t know is that it before Angry Birds became a huge mobile gaming hit and eventually a cultural icon, its developers (Rovio) had made 57 games that were all either failures or modest successes. The moral of the story therefore is that its really really hard to make a mobile game that becomes a massive global success if you don’t keep trying and doing it time and again. Therefore, the mantra for the would be Flappy Bird heir is to iterate, fail, learn, and repeat. The same applied to Dong Nguyen who had published dozens of games on the mobile app stores before Flappy Bird, for various inexplicable reasons, simply rose to the top. Even he does not know how it happened exactly but what he does say is that he had been building games for quite awhile. In a nutshell, the dude did his 10,000 hours so it really was no overnight success story.
  7. You Don’t Need Loads Of Money To Build A World Beating Mobile Game – Dong Nguyen is a one man show. A bootstrapped mobile game developer who used his ingenuity and creativity to trump much bigger players to the top of the world’s leading mobile app stores. He did not have massive resources like Rovio or SuperCell do. So, yes, he did get seriously lucky but one thing is certain – good things always rise to the top. This insight may be the most important one for mobile game developers in Africa in that we have truly limited resources to do this kind of work but Flappy Bird and Dong Nguyen prove that its not a good enough excuse to say it can’t be done unless there is money. Hard work and learning from many iterations of your efforts could be the secret sauce to make your gravy train run straight to the mobile app bank 🙂
  8. Be Careful What You Wish For – Success Can Be Too Hot To Handle – The last key insight from Flappy Bird’s success is success itself. The reason that Dong Nguyen pulled down his game is that he felt it had become an addiction for many people and the comments he kept getting on how hard the game was proved to be stressful. Basically, Dong became a victim of his own success – everyone wanted a piece of him and not in a good way. People who had struggled to progress in the game even sent him death threats. All over sudden he became the world’s most wanted mobile game developer and he could not handle it. Clearly it wasn’t for the money alone – he wanted his old life of anonymity back. Too late. Its done and over. Success happened. Be careful what you wish for as you may not be able to handle it.


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  1. Franklin Nnebe
    February 28, 2014 at 5:36 am — Reply

    Hey Moses, long time. I dont think there is a science to creating a great computer or mobile game other than user engagement. For example how do you explain the greatest game of all time Pacman ?

    • March 3, 2014 at 4:43 pm — Reply

      Hi Franklin. Thanks for commenting. It has been ages and do I miss Lagos! I couldn’t agree more that user engagement is a key driver. I like your example of pacman since this is also a relatively simple game for the average user to play but can also be as challenging as flappy bird as you progress through the levels. Ultimately its a mix of luck and great gaming mechanics that make all the difference it seems?

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