Flapping around on the App Store

Flappy_Bird_logo“I just doubled my high score.”

“What did you get? 2?”


That is a typical conversation one might have with others regarding Flappy Bird, the hottest mobile game right now. Here is the words that emanate when you play it:


Start Again.

Tap tap tap


Suffice it to say, don’t play this game around young children.

The idea of frustrating yet addictive games is not new. What is incredible about Flappy Bird is that it really is a “weekend app.” Weekend apps were a concept from 5 years ago where a teenager could make an app over a weekend and make a reasonable amount of money. The evidence was pretty clear that those days were behind us. To make a top performing app these days required months and maybe more of work and lots of cost. Even Candy Crush Saga, the previous poster-child of addictive games, took 10 years of development before a sweet spot was hit.

But Flappy Bird is a terrible game. Its graphics are poor. It lacks refinement as a game (“I wasn’t even close to that pipe!”). There is nothing interesting about it. There’s no narrative (“Why does the bird have to keep flying towards those pipes?” and “Why is it so damn fragile?”). And there’s no neat soundtrack or sounds. It is as bad an app as there is. It isn’t even good because its bad!

Any idiot could have made Flappy Bird. I think I could have done it myself although it would have taken a week. My children could have done it in a few hours and, indeed, have made similar quality games which I have chided them for not trying hard enough. Basically, the set of people who could have done this innovation was larger than the number of current app developers.

Yet one person did it: Doug Nguyen. He is making $50,000 per day in ad revenue and even he is completely surprised by it. His previous games were all flops and deservedly so.

We can analyse Flappy Bird until we are blue (or red) in the face. But, in reality, it was an experiment, as most apps are; a shot in the dark. Do this enough times and something is going to stick. It probably tells us something about addiction but it is beside the point. At least people aren’t wasting money on it the way Candy Crush Saga seems to infiltrate people’s souls. Flappy Bird’s time in the sun will pass pretty soon.

But it will spring another fruit: entrepreneurial hope. I can imagine developers are dusting off old projects that they didn’t finish just because they thought it wasn’t good enough. We will see a flood more games into the app store. You might thing of that as a benefit. But think harder. It is a cost. Those people will be throwing dice and essentially gambling when their time could be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, we don’t know one critical piece of the puzzle: how did Flappy Bird, released in May 2013, suddenly take off in January 2014? Was it China? Was it foul play (although that seems unlikely)? Or was it an App Store search glitch? I have no idea. But until we do, there’ll be no science to how to generate another million dollar app like Flappy Bird.

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