If you check in on the the app store charts from time to time, you may have noticed an unlikely app dominating the rankings for the past few weeks – a little game called Flappy Bird.
At first glance, Flappy Bird is a just simple (if not entirely unremarkable) game. There aren’t any dazzling 3D graphics or spectacular 2d visual treats to be found within, just a pixelized bird flapping along a backdrop of an 8-bit city with some pipes lifted straight out of a copy of Super Mario Bros to serve as obstacles. No mind-exploding innovative controls that open a whole new realm of experience for users, just a 1-button control scheme that has been featured in several other app games in recent years. To top it all off, the game is about as frustrating of a gaming experience that you will find this side of Battletoads’ Stage 3. So what gives? How did this seemingly run-of-the-mill game with no marketing plan come to dominate the app store, conquering many a million dollar budget along the way?
The Rise of Flappy Bird
Flappy Bird was first released on May 24, 2013. It languished in relative obscurity for several months before rising from the ashes of forgotten apps to take the app store by storm. If you take a look at the chart below from App Annie, you will see that Flappy Bird begins to fly up the charts in the US in November, 2013, peaking in January, 2014 with #1 rankings in the Free Apps section of the app store. (FYI, App Annie is my go-to place for accessing historical app ranking data and a ton of other app store metrics for apps and mobile games. Highly recommended for any app developer or entrepreneur) So what accounts for the sudden rise up the charts in December and January? Surely there must have been some strong advertising push around the holidays, right? WRONG. In a recent interview with Chocolate Lab Apps, the developer of Flappy Bird, Don Nguyen, said:
I didn’t use any promotion methods. All accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram about Flappy Bird are not mine. The popularity could be my luck.
So there you have it. No massive advertising campaign. No crazy app store optimization or marketing wizardry. In fact, the app isn’t even well optimized for ASO with the keyword selection leaving much to be desired. The developer essentially chalks up the success of the app to dumb luck. But was his luck really all that dumb? As they say:
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. – Seneca
Preparation? Nguyen said in the interview with Chocolate Lab Apps that the development of the game took a total of 3 days to complete. He created the entire game all by himself. No outsourced art work. No copied code. Just good old-fashioned elbow grease. Nguyen knew what he wanted to accomplish with the game. He wanted to create a simple, yet challenging game that anyone could pick up and play. In the interview, he went on to say:
I myself think western-made mobile games are a little unnecessary complex for massive of players. So please try to make more simple games, learning how players react should help.
As for luck, it appears that Flappy Bird got an unexpected assist from another avian-themed software product – a little birdie known as Twitter. Chocolate Lab Apps has a look at some interesting Twitter activity that may have helped propel the game up the charts. I will further break down the social aspects of the app’s viral success shortly, but first a little look into the game mechanisms that made it all possible.
The Design Decisions Behind Flappy Bird’s Success
We can learn a lot from Nguyen’s approach. Many times, we get caught up in extravagant ideas for our apps and kind of lose ourselves along the way. Flappy Bird should be a reminder that sometimes the most compelling experiences, especially in the world of apps, are the most simple ones. When Nguyen first released this game, I can almost guarantee that he had no idea that it would achieve this level of success. Fortunately, he made some game design choices that would make this all possible. Using the approach espoused by noted game designer Jesse Schell (outlined in this post about the Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses), we can begin to analyze some of the mechanisms in Flappy Bird that led to its explosive popularity. Schell developed a series of “lenses” through which a designer could analyze their game to find areas to improve their game for maximum usability, fun and challenge. Flappy Bird delivers on some of the most important elements outlined by Schell, including:
- Lens 31: Challenge
- Lens 32: Meaningful Choice
- Lens 36: Competition
- Lens 42: Simplicity/Complexity
This is how Flappy Bird excels in each area:
According to Schell, challenge is at the core of almost all gameplay and that games are defined by their goals and challenges. In Flappy Bird, the challenge is readily apparent from the moment you first tap the bird, slam into a pipe and plummet to your doom, in shame. There are no power ups to save you, no saved progress, just a bird, some pipes and your reflexes. You think to yourself, it’s a simple game! I should be able to do this no problem! And that is where it hooks you. After failure upon failure, this simple game becomes your very own Moby Dick. Henceforth, you are on a journey to prove to yourself (and others) that you aren’t an utter failure that can only muster a mere 7 points after repeated tries…
— Shane LK (@ShaneLK7) February 2, 2014
So why does this frustrating and maddening level of challenge work? That leads us to the next lens…
This game uses a simple system to create meaningful complexity. The control scheme is dead simple – tap the screen to have the bird fly up. That’s it. The bird moves along like in any endless runner type game and the only control that the user has over the character or the game is to move the bird up. From this simple mechanic, a level of complexity arises due to the series of pipes with randomly arranged gaps through which the bird can fly through. Which leads us to…
Due to the random allocation of paths, the user is forced to make snap decisions at every step along the path. Each play through is also unique. Since there is a dire consequence for mis-timing a tap or a gap in the pipes, (i.e., SURE DEATH) the player feels that every action or inaction they take is truly meaningful. The further along a player gets, the more tension builds, and the more accomplished a player feels for their string of perfect decision making.
Competition is the driving force behind Flappy Bird’s viral growth. The game taps into the psychological need for people to show their accomplishments to others, and top the accomplishments of others, and oneself. Leaderboards are the tried and true method of tapping into this human trait. By displaying a simple, no frills leaderboard at the end of each session, the user is constantly reminded of their highest score in the game. The developer made a wise choice to keep the scoring system dead simple – 1 point for each pipe passed. This makes the high scores seem more attainable without complicating things with bloated scores from multipliers and bonuses. So when you see that your buddy posted a high score of 23 on Twitter or Facebook, your first reaction may be “Oooh I can top that!” and gets you moving on trying to top their score. The developer also provided some mechanisms to help users share their accomplishments and incite competition among friends by adding the ability for players to share a snapshot of their high score to their Twitter/Facebook followers. When you come across something this, how can you not help but feel impressed, and determined to show them up?
— Michael Schneck (@mikeschneck) February 1, 2014
So how did all these elements come together to infect the app store and twittersphere with a hyper-infectious version of the Flappy Bird flu? Hashtags. Hashtags allowed the virus to spread.
How Flappy Bird Achieved Success With No Marketing
Flappy Bird lay latent for many months before spreading quickly across the social sphere, and thus, up the app store charts. It will be impossible to pinpoint the exact set of people that first began this viral spread, but it seems to have in early December when the app first broke into the Top 20 of the US Family charts. If you take a look at the trends for #flappybird and #flappybirdhighscore it seems to match the date range of the app store tipping point. The chart below from hashtagify.me shows the trends for both hashtags in the 2 months prior to February 1, 2014.
The hashtag #flappybird made its initial ascent in popularity across the twittersphere around the same time the app began to break into the top 25 of the US Family section. Shortly thereafter, the hashtag #flappybirdhighscore began to trend rapidly to mirror the popularity of #flappybird. It is no coincidence that when both of these hashtags hit their peak, the app became firmly entrenched at the #1 overall position on the free apps chart.
At some point, Reddit, the kingmaker of the internet, got a hold of this quirky gem. When you get your own subreddit, you know you’ve made it. It is hard to tell if Reddit begat the twitter trend, or vice versa, but either way it is clear that this phenomenon gained life in a way ripped right out of the pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.
As we unravel the mystery of the unlikely ascent of Flappy Bird, all signs point to a few trendsetters stumbling across the offbeat, simple, yet insanely challenging app and spreading it to their followers and so forth until it was propelled to the top of the charts, whereupon it got caught up in a self-sustaining feedback loop due to high app store visibility.
Yet, I can’t help but think that a game like this never would have received such attention if not for the fact that it was a free app. The fact that there was no barrier to entry for users helped the viral growth spread. Even though Flappy Bird had all the right elements to get the ball rolling, it required a free price point to really take off, as users across the social sphere were able to jump onboard the bandwagon without any financial investment.
So in the end, can this kind of success be replicated? Or was it really all just “dumb luck” as the app’s developer hinted at? I’d say it is mixture of both. It was most assuredly the result of being in the right place at the right time. If the right people hadn’t stumbled upon this app and found it interesting enough to share, it would have stayed among the millions of buried apps in the app graveyard. On the other hand, if the developer hadn’t made design choices that made it ripe for viral potential, the app wouldn’t have had any hope for achieving this level of success.
Flappy Bird is a ray of hope for indie developers out there. It shows us that even in today’s saturated app marketplace, a little app with no marketing budget can still make its way into the hearts and minds of the world. It also reminds us that it all starts with understanding human psychology and how challenge and competition drives behavior. There is hope that with the right mix of design elements and a little push, your app too could one day fly to the top of the charts. Just keep flapping!