Mobile Mavens

How can developers deliver the next Flappy Bird? (And should they even try?)

How can developers deliver the next Flappy Bird? (And should they even try?)

It's little wonder the developer behind Flappy Bird has found life at the top a little hard. Every since the game shot to the top of the download charts, accusations of foul play – bot farms and the like – have been rife.

But what if the game's success has been genuine? What if it's a bona fide, organically generated hit?

The general consensus had been that the days when a simple game could blow up overnight were long behind us.

However, if Flappy Bird is evidence that it's still possible for an unknown developer to become a household name in a matter of moments, is it an encouraging development, or does it just prove we know still ultimately nothing about mobile?

So, quite succinctly, we asked the Mavens:

What do you think the rise of Flappy Bird says about mobile in 2014?

Harry Holmwood European CEO Marvelous

A 20-year veteran of video games and online space, Harry is European CEO of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of social, mobile and console games, known for console games like No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, but now highly successful in the free-to-play mobile and web space in Japan and Asia.

A games programmer before joining Sony’s early PlayStation team in 1994, he then founded developer Pure Entertainment, which IPO’d and launched a free-to-play online gaming service way back in 1999.

He was also a director of pioneering motion gaming startup In2Games, which was sold to a US group in 2008.

Along the way, he’s been a corporate VP, troubleshooter, and non-exec to a variety of companies and investors in and around the games sector.

I think it's a great thing. I'm inclined to believe that it is entirely organic, simply because of the way it spread by word of mouth so quickly among people I knew.

People love it, and are still playing it. Also, if you'd come up with some brilliant way to fire an app up the charts like that, you'd probably also do a better job of the monetisation/ad support than Flappy Bird does!

It's very easy to dismiss it as a game that 'anyone could write in an afternoon' - which it is - but it's one of those games that, probably quite by accident, has gripped the public interest and gone viral overnight - the Gangnam Style of mobile gaming. It may disappear as quickly, or maybe it'll become a franchise for years to come. Who knows?

It's heartening because it shows that you don't necessarily have to follow all the rules, spend millions a month on overpriced ads, get a feature or join the 3D graphics arms race to make a game everyone wants.

All our lives are much more ruled by luck than we like to think. Most of us are where we are due, in no small part, to good (or bad) fortune. Let's celebrate Nguyen Ha Dong's luck, and hope for some of the same for us, too!

Vladimir Funtikov Co-Founder Creative Mobile

I believe that this is actually quite normal. Viral videos are often simple and/or stupid, but people start sharing their excitement and these videos get millions of views very quickly.

I don't see why a simple/stupid game that evokes emotions and encourages sharing can't work the same way. Hill Climb Racing is, in my opinion, a similar story, and it's not too old - late 2012, if I recall correctly. There must be many more.

I wouldn't blame the App Store for being unpredictable, I'd blame myself for forgetting that people who play these games and don't care what business models are discussed at a PG Mixer. They want another way to have fun and to share excitement, whether it's 2007 or 2014.

John Griffin CMO GameSparks

Couldn't have happened at a better time.

I think we all came into 2014 worried about the self publishing movement on the basis that it was getting increasingly impossible to break into the top charts without spending $2 plus per download and therefore requiring large wedges of cash to be successful.

Indies drive innovation in games and we need stories like Flappy Bird to keep the dream alive of setting up a small studio and making a blockbuster hit. This is good for all of us and good for games in general.

Right .. now off to phone Dong and see if he wants to run his next game on Game Sparks!

Scott Foe Entrepreneur In Residence

I think that what the (assuming "genuine") success of Flappy Bird says is that luck is still a huge factor when it comes to any product or service launch in any market.

Instead of keying in on the tall-head success on the App Store, let's ask how many decided independent failures will be still-born into the world in 2014: My bet, more than any year previous and still less than next year.

I would like to add that dismissing Flappy Bird as "anybody could do it" is both churlish and naive.

Walking into a museum, seeing Jackson Pollok hanging on the wall with thoughts of, "this art is garbage. I could have done that," completely misses the very crucial point that you did not do that and Jackson Pollok did.

Dan Gray Executive Producer ustwo

Assuming it is genuine, I'm quaking in my boots thinking about the amount of independent developers who're watching the success of Flappy Bird and taking it as inspiration for making a sub par game and hoping on "luck" to return their investment.

It's false inspiration, in my opinion, and a lot of people are going to be unhappy chasing that dream this year.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

Flappy Bird is actually a pretty cool game. Yes it is "heavily inspired" by Mario, but the mechanic is unique and very addicting. Also, unlike the current thinking in the mobile industry, the difficulty is the main appeal rather than being overly easy in order to provide a mass market experience.

I take offense to calling it a sub-par game. We can all congratulate ourselves on what great designers we are but at the end of the day, we are all just trying to be successful. Does it really matter if someone succeeds with a game that doesn't meet our criteria for a "well designed" game?

To put the Flappy Bird success in context, the developer had the #1, #2, and a top 5 game in the free chart at the same time. For a sub-par game, I don't think that has ever been done before.

The thing I find interesting about Flappy Bird is how all these game developers get their panties in a bunch over its success. It's like Flappy Bird invalidates the workmanship and effort that we all put into our games. You know what though, it does sort of invalidate the amount of effort many of us put into our games. We try too hard.

I'm not saying we should all start throwing out a quick games that only take us a couple days to make. That would be like trying to win the lottery. I'm also not saying we should make shoddy games.

However I do think we put way too much effort into things that get us diminishing returns. Does it really need a bunch of Facebook malarkey? Does it really need a bunch of video and long cut scenes in between levels? Does it really need to have so much polish that only our industry peers will notice? We need to work smarter and not harder.

We need to recognise when an design can be implemented in only a month or two rather than building it into a 6 month beast just to justify our existence.

We need to recognise that the typical player is not savvy and many of them enjoy games that we would cringe at. I think we need to do a better job at figuring out what is meaningful to people and put our effort there.

Oscar Clark Evangelist Applifier

As Evangelist for Applifier’s Everyplay platform, Oscar spreads the word on the game discovery benefits of gameplay recording & sharing, how opt-in video advertising can help convert non-paying users, as well as bring in direct revenue.

He has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also currently working on his first book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games, expected in March 2014.

This is the conundrum with games like this - simplicity is extremely hard to create (and as Scott says too easy to underestimate). However, the harder part still is making the model sustainable.

As I said I'm not the target audience so I will play a few times and probably never again. Others (because they respond well to the challenge) will continue playing for a much longer time. However, this is still largely a one-off product rather than a service.

Nothing wrong with that - and as I said I totally appreciate its value - but it does means it is harder to create a sustainable business. I would like to think this will last, but it might (sadly) be a short term hit.

That being said its got a very repeatable mechanic and if they were to continue to build on the game over time perhaps they could pull off longer term engagement.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

Applifier has a sustainable business model because it makes money on infrastructure.

But like I said, the typical game, whether it was designed as a service or not (and only if it receives apple promotion and some healthy buzz) sticks around in top 200 grossing for about a week and then falls off. That is not a sustainable business model.

Flappy Bird has already beaten the odds by being #1 for close to three weeks now.

The only problem is that it's monetisation is really bad. It's very hard to make meaningful money off of banners.

If Flappy Bird had good monetisation, and was able to stick around in top 200 grossing for three weeks, it would be a hugely profitable game. If you could repeat that (his other two games are doing extremely well too), it would definitely be sustainable.

Dan Gray Executive Producer ustwo

I'd have to disagree with it being a unique mechanic as there's a ton of games available with similar principles. I also think it's a great success story that one guy who spent a small amount of time developing something has found huge success, we all love an underdog.

In my opinion, however, its success is more down to hitting a viral social media lottery than it is being a great game. It's been fortunate enough to be noticed by a few celebrities and YouTube behemoths in late December early January and has kicked on from there.

My original point was that It would be unfortunate for developers to believe this to be any "model" at all and attempt to follow it. It's a once in a million success story and imo won't happen again for a while.

Oscar Clark Evangelist Applifier

As Evangelist for Applifier’s Everyplay platform, Oscar spreads the word on the game discovery benefits of gameplay recording & sharing, how opt-in video advertising can help convert non-paying users, as well as bring in direct revenue.

He has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also currently working on his first book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games, expected in March 2014.

The thing I like about this discussion is we are delighting in a game which has succeeded by being disruptive - breaking traditional rules but being simply good fun.

Three weeks at the top is amazing in this era, especially for a game like this, but to Dan's point repeating the success of this game is like bottling lightning - its happens to have won the social lottery.

If there is anything to learn I'd like to think its about delivering delight and being disruptive; and don't ignore the power of sharing!

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

My main argument is about profitability - not just cash flow positive but total recoup of all development expenses.

It's really easy to look at App Annie and check out any game's run in the grossing charts. In order to have meaningful income you need to be in top grossing for a decent amount of time. While there are games that stick around there for a long time, they are all usually games that are aggressive in their user acquisition strategy.

Device 7 and Ridiculous Fishing are both great examples of non-service games that are probably profitable. They are not quite evergreen but they both had an extended run in top grossing.

The exercise I did last month was really eye opening and I suggest it to anyone in the industry.

Look at other games that are in your genre and have the same type of buzz and outreach that you would expect for your game. Look them all up in App Annie and see exactly how long they were able to maintain their ranking. I think you would be surprised at the games that "seem" successful and their actual performance.

Jared Steffes President / Founder Furywing

It's a mastery of difficult, simple, and nostalgic game design. Remember Top Gun for NES? I have only met one person that was ever able to land on the aircraft carrier after a mission, yet I kept playing it and talking about it.

Flappy is difficult and people love sharing difficult things. People love to bitch and moan. If you multiply the the amount of people bitching and moaning about Flappy Bird times the number of social and real world interactions people have each day, you have a recipe for a decent viral word of mouth co-efficienty.

Then when we out-do another person it becomes brag time, which is inherently fun for all ages.

Paul Farley CEO / Founder Tag Games

Since founding Tag Games in 2006 Paul has built the studio from humble beginnings to become one of the most respected and successful mobile and handheld developers in Europe.

He began a long, and some might say, distinguished, games industry career at legendary developer DMA Design, playing a key role in the development of the GTA series

I love conspiracy theories and in this case the success of Flappy Bird just doesn't add up.

On the store for over a year and suddenly rises from nowhere to top the charts without any major marketing? Sure it's a nice little game, but there are hundreds, or even thousands, similar to it. Why this one? Why now?

My question is who benefits most from the Flappy Bird sensation? (You can tell I've been watching too much CSI!)

Consider the fact that developers becoming ever more frustrated by mobile and being tempted away by a plethora of new platforms promising a better chance of return on interesting. Consider a static set of charts through 2013 and the visible variety of content available to the consumer in desperate need of freshening up. Consider there's major new hardware releases coming up.

To maintain the delivery of so many apps into the stores the distribution channels need to sell the dream that "it could happen to me", otherwise the developers dry up and the content ends up on other channels.

Fact is, for the status quo to be maintained the industry needs a Flappy Bird, Angry Birds, iShoot, Flight Control every year. If the free market doesn't deliver it maybe sometimes it needs a little helping hand?

Wilhelm Taht Tribe Lead, External Products Rovio Entertainment

Just who would help Flappy Bird hit the top, Paul? It's out on iOS and Android already and coming out on Windows Phone in a few weeks. Would Apple put in the effort and then execute on the other platforms also to cover up? I doubt it. Too far fetched.

And if the growth of new apps slows down, from 200 to 100 new iOS games per day, it won't have that large effect on hardware sales, I think.

Paul Virapen MD Big Pixel Studios

Paul's conspiracy theory seems a bit far-fetched, but I do agree with some of his points.

The game was released at the end of May 2013 and didn't chart in the top 1500 of any games sub-category until the end of October. During this period it was likely getting less than 50 downloads per day worldwide, so not exactly building a user base.

Then suddenly it started to climb the charts during November, and reached the top 100 games in December. There must be some event which caused it to start climbing the charts so late after launch.

Was it a popular Let's Play on YouTube? Or someone with a lot of followers on social media mentioned it?

Anyone who believes that this is quite normal, please point out another game which has managed to do nothing at launch, and then out of nowhere began climbing the charts several months later.

Wilhelm Taht Tribe Lead, External Products Rovio Entertainment

The original Angry Birds - although it's known what happened in that case.

With Flappy Bird, it's unknown what the reason is. Although, I do understand why people scream out loud on Twitter, and as that screaming starts building up, you could argue that it can take off virally.

Re: the alleged usage of bots struck me. Doesn't Apple's new update chart update rhythm (every three hours) basically remove the possibility to use bots? Apple now pick out games from the charts that show unusual patterns since it has the three hour time to do that.

Usually bots "inject" downloads in a very quick pace, like thousands within a few minutes. At least that's how I understand it works.

Paul Virapen MD Big Pixel Studios

Angry Birds was a very different scenario, and if I remember correctly it was selling copies after launch, it just wasn't in the top 10.

I'm going to answer my own question, and point out another game which seems to have come from nowhere. Red Bouncing Ball Spikes is currently number 1 in the US paid games chart. Released in late 2012, it did virtually nothing until January 30th 2014 when it suddenly appeared in the top 10. Has anyone got a clue what is going on?

Thomas Nielsen Osao Games

Flappy Bird makes me never want to work on another mobile game. Clearly my understanding of what's good, fun and cool, is pretty far from what the audience wants.

Alright, maybe that's not entirely true but, to be honest, this in particular is not something that at all makes me excited about the viral possibilities of our media, because it's a completely unpredictable fluke.

More than anything, it reminds me of fart apps - Viral "hits" that come out of nowhere with short lifespan and little to learn from.

Congrats to the developer.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Ideas Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

Maybe this is all some kind of warning about the end of complex, 3D-based mobile gaming as we know it? Could it be the first sign of an impending zombie apocalypse?

Actually, Thomas' comment just now nailed it for me. While it's nice to see a bit of disruption and chaos every now and again, let's not get into a big panic about this being the future of mobile games - it's not.

If this game appeared on PC or console it would be derided; it's one of the good things about mobile that it still allows for randomness and luck; and I do think that this is what has made Flappy Bird a big hit - a massive, enormous dollop of luck.

When I saw it, it was like being in a time warp back to some of the less impressive Java games of 10 years ago - simple, one-button controls, basic graphics, a clever name, a nice icon and that's about it.

The fact that we still seem to find some kind of nostalgia for barely-working games says more to me about the human condition than it does about the state of the games industry.

Oh - and if we are going to talk about how games that kill you after four seconds are not fun, let me know when we are going to move onto Super Hexagon…



Christopher Kassulke, HandyGames

Flappy Bird's success is just all pure luck for sure. Ahem. Let's see how Apple reacts soon.

Harry Holmwood European CEO Marvelous

A 20-year veteran of video games and online space, Harry is European CEO of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of social, mobile and console games, known for console games like No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, but now highly successful in the free-to-play mobile and web space in Japan and Asia.

A games programmer before joining Sony’s early PlayStation team in 1994, he then founded developer Pure Entertainment, which IPO’d and launched a free-to-play online gaming service way back in 1999.

He was also a director of pioneering motion gaming startup In2Games, which was sold to a US group in 2008.

Along the way, he’s been a corporate VP, troubleshooter, and non-exec to a variety of companies and investors in and around the games sector.

I'm still playing it, which gives it better seven-day retention in my sample of 1 than any other game I've played in the last couple of months!

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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