Mere weeks after Flappy Bird was taken off the shelves of the App Store, we’re still scratching our heads. How in the world did Flappy bird bring down the house with millions of downloads, untold hours of wasted time, and a PR explosion of epic proportions? What is it about a dinky bird game that captures the attention of every major news outlet, world leaders, and apoplectic Twitter fans?
How did Flappy Bird become so insanely popular?
Part of it is sheer luck. But part of it is raw genius.
What we need to do is peel apart urban legend, paparazzi hysteria, conspiracy theories, and deluded fan gossip, from the simple facts of the whole event.
The question we need to ask is, “How in the world did Flappy Bird become so popular?” and the obvious follow up question, “Can I do it, too?”
What in the world is Flappy Bird?
Just in case you’ve spent the last few months residing in a subterranean dwelling, eating small animals, larvae, and herbs, allow me to explain Flappy Bird to you.
Thankfully, it’s a simple game, so this shouldn’t take too long.
It is a game, where you tap on the screen to make a little flappy fly up. Gravity pulls him to his death if you don’t tap. You’ve got to constantly keep tapping.
In the flight path of the bird are a bunch of pipes that the bird must avoid. (Holy Cow, this looks like Super Mario Brothers!) If birdy touches the pipes, he dies.
Sounds pretty stupid, huh?
Actually, it’s infuriatingly, mind-numbingly, atrociously, infuriatingly, vein-throbbingly and abominably addictive. (Didja like that list of adverbs?)
It consumes people with rage, crushing grief, and even suicidal thoughts.
Says one TechCrunch interviewee about the game: “My life is over. Your life is over. The world is over.”
The Life and Death of Flappy Bird
Let’s take a look at the life cycle of Flappy Bird. It began without fanfare, became a global sensation, and then ended abruptly. Here’s how it went down:
- Late may, 2013: Dong Nguyen spends two or three days making Flappy Bird.
- May 24: Flappy Bird is released. Yay.
- May-November 2013: Flappy Bird languishes in obscurity for several months. Just another free game app. No biggie.
- October: Someone besides Nguyen tweets about Flappy Bird: “F— Flappy Bird.”
- November 2013-January 2014: Flappy Bird Volcano erupts. Millions of downloads.
- January 17, 2014: Flappy Bird becomes the most popular free app in the world.
- January 2013: Dong Nguyen is rumored to make around $50k a day from Flappy Bird ad revenue.
- January and February: Dong Nguyen tweets a stream of worry about Flappy Bird. His anxiety grows.
- February 9: Dong Nguyen removes the app.
Here’s what the Flappy Bird charts looked like as the app flew to success:
I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users, 22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore.
— Dong Nguyen (@dongatory) February 8, 2014
Besides the fact that the world is gasping “WHY?!” at Nguyen’s decision, we need to understand how the addictive little app became a global sensation.
Flappy Bird Reaches The Tipping Point
The first tweet about the game, other than Nguyen’s own, was raw and explicit: “F— Flappy Bird.”
That was October. In November, people started noticing. December, it started rollicking. By January, the world would never be the same. Lives were permanently scarred:
According to one review: “I’m sitting in the bathtub writing this review, warning you NOT to download it. My family doesn’t dare enter. My brother hasn’t taken a shower in a month.”
But that’s what a tipping point will do to you.
A tipping point is that critical moment when so many people are doing something, that the only result is that even more people do it. In Malcom Gladwell’s famous definition, “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”
Which brings us back around to our original question: ““How in the world did Flappy Bird become so popular?” and: “Can I do it, too?”
How to Make the Next Flappy Bird
Here are the six laws of making the next Flappy Bird.
1. Win the lottery.
More likely than not, recreating Flappy Bird’s success is a bit like winning the lottery.
According to 148apps.biz, there are 1.1 million App Store apps as of January 2014. In other words, you have less than a one in a million chance to make the next Flappy Bird. The odds of winning the lottery are about 1 in 12 million, so you actually have a twelve times better chance of scoring it big in the App Store than winning the lottery.
Rumors notwithstanding, Flappy Bird’s viral explosion is not just a conspiratorial jackup. It’s a remarkable occasion of organic growth and a few smart moves.
I state this point first, because I think we all need to realize how miniscule each additional app is. Thousands of new apps are created each month. With a sigh of defeat, we’ve got to admit that we’re probably not going to make the next Flappy Bird. Some people get lucky. Some games get huge. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes.
So, aside from the lotteryesque elements of making it big, there are a few solid points that you can still learn from the game’s success.
2. Make it simple.
Flappy Bird lacks complexity to the core. The bird goes on and on and on and on. This game didn’t require an army of developers, designers, wizards, and project managers. All it needed was Dong Nguyen — smart, yes, but not trying to create ubercomplicated stuff.
People like simplicity. Maybe it’s because, deep down, we’re all craving peace. Simplicity, peace — we like it.
We enjoy apps when they are straightforward, uncomplicated, and obvious. The bird can do one thing — go up or fall down.
Flappy Bird was popular, in part, because it was so simple.
3. Make it challenging.
Perhaps the word most used to describe Flappy Birds is “addicting.” Why is it addicting?
Because it’s so impossibly hard! We as humans are wired to love a challenge. If we know that the next time we can do better, pass one more pipe, get just a bit higher score, then we’re more likely to keep going. Something cute becomes something interesting, which becomes addicting, which becomes consuming, which becomes a monster.
If Flappy Bird weren’t so challenging, it would still be crawling along the bottom of the charts, and no one would have heard of Dong Nguyen.
4. Grow thick skin.
If you think that making popular apps is as simple as holing up in your apartment and blissfully coding, think again. Not only was Nguyen persecuted by the popularity, but he was threatened for pulling the app!
As reported on BGR.com, here are some of the kind words of approval:
- “YOU BEST NOT BE DELETING FLAPPY BIRD BECAUSE I WILL MURDER YOU IF U DO.”
- “If you delete flappy bird I will literally kill myself. It’s my drug and I am so addicted!! PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS TO MEEE PLEASEE.”
- “I’ll find you and i’ll kill you.”
- “NO ONLY 1 HOUR I WILL KILL YOU IF U TAKE IT DOWN.”
- “I will kill you mother f**ker.”
Nice folks. Nice. You better be prepared to face the music when your app goes viral.
5. Just keep doing what you do best.
Dong is still making games. He loves doing it. And he’ll probably be doing it for a while.
And I still make games.
— Dong Nguyen (@dongatory) February 8, 2014
What do you love doing? Do you make apps? Then keep at it. Be content with the fact that you may not end up with an income of $50k/day, you may not receive death threats, and you may not be creating a Flappy Bird redux anytime soon.
But you can keep doing what you do best.
6. Create an app that makes the world a better place.
I also think that Dong Nguyen wants to make the world a better place. He pulled the app because the resulting hysteria violated his conscious. He doesn’t want people to while away hours on an addicting little pipe-dodging bird game.
Dong is above that. He insists on maintaining his integrity, despite the rage of the fans, criticism of the pundits, and disapproval of the world. Dong is holding fast.
Here’s what he told Forbes in his one and only interview to date: “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.
In his mind, Flappy Bird had become a problem. So the bird died. That’s all. You don’t have to believe him, but you probably should respect him.
The game is over.
When you create your amazing app — just don’t use the word “flappy” — you can say with Dong, “Thank you very much for playing my game.”