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Stateside: Lessons from Flappy Bird

A morality tale for the app dev generation
Stateside: Lessons from Flappy Bird
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Flappy Bird has been one of the weirdest sagas in the App Store era of mobile gaming.

Unknown Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen tops the charts with a silly little arcade game that becomes suddenly popular, and then at the peak of its popularity, he pulls the game from sale because he can't handle the effects of the game's popularity on himself and his players.

While Dong Nguyen has definitely taken a unique road through his development career, and one I wouldn't recommend that anyone else duplicate, I think there are a few helpful things that developers should take from Dong Nguyen and this whole oddball saga.

Don't overthink your game

Regardless of how Flappy Bird got that spark to become popular, it becoming a mega-hit makes a lot of sense. It's a simple game that anyone can pick up on, and while it's challenging, it "feels" like its players should be able to do a lot better than they actually are doing, which encourages going back again and again.

It features easy access to leaderboards. Until the update shortly before the game was pulled, it featured very easy sharing of high scores, which helped the game's virality. It loads almost instantly.

And it features flightless birds. Have we forgotten the lessons of Angry Birds and Tiny Wings so soon?


What I see now are plenty of developers trying to mimic the success of Flappy Bird by making their own version of it. That's what others are doing - from Ironpants' various blatant SEO copycats - and no one's going to top those with unscrupulous business tactics or with the backbone to make Happy Poo Flap.

But the game, 'stupid' though it may be, offers plenty of lessons for those making mobile games. Perhaps it was accidental, but Flappy Bird nailed "easy to play, difficult to master" in a way that few other games did. That game did what it did well. More mobile games could focus on just doing that without needing additional frills.

And, it also shows that free games don't necessarily have to be overly-complex affairs or even need to be 'optimized' to monetize well. Sometimes, a game that just sells ads can drive enough revenue to keep a studio afloat. I've argued before for smaller projects and Flappy Bird is proof that such a strategy can succeed.

Of course, cash is still king on the App Store, and I fully expect King or some other big free-to-play publisher to make a Flappy Bird game that monetizes like a beast because such is how mobile gaming seems to work now.

Be prepared for success

This very much seems like Dong Nguyen's downfall - he did not expect for the game to be the smash hit that it was. And why should he? Flappy Bird went virtually ignored for months until it took off. Thus, when the pressure of the money and fame came upon him, he was unable to handle it.

What developers need to take from this? Being prepared for success at all times. It needs to be thought out from the early days of a game's inception, if you ever go big, then what's the plan?

What is the plan to deal with the deluge of tweets and emails, not only from customers, but from businesses looking to get a slice of the pie? Press that will want material for stories? Even possibly family members wanting some of your money? Biggie was right when he said "Mo' money, mo' problems." Be prepared to deal with them.

Billy Goats Gruff

And most importantly: how are you going to deal with the trolls?

There are plenty of unempathetic people whose response to developers who don't do exactly what they want is to threaten to kill them. These people unfortunately exist - it's currently a sad circumstance of being able to sell to the general public that has open platforms for airing their grievances.

Answer for yourself: how am I going to deal with this? Find a way to get that peace back. And remember: you can turn off Twitter notifications. You can not check your email. You can unplug the internet. You can isolate yourself from the torrent of frustration in many ways. It's a shame that they exist, but you need to be prepared to survive them.

Sage advice

What does Ian Marsh of NimbleBit recommend? He says "After dealing with a lot of negative attention after Tiny Tower blew up I think the best advice I can offer is to try and keep yourself from focusing on the negative.

In the beginning I would agonize over every moral debate of F2P and all the arguments against Tiny Tower being a "game" at all. The vocal negative minority somehow caused me to overlook the huge amount of players who LOVED Tiny Tower, were giving us heartwarming reviews, were begging us for more, and were creating amazing fan art.

I've come to realize anything on the internet is going to draw *some* amount of complaint or hatred, and that you really need to measure yourself by the amount of positive feedback you generate."

Principles are important but only to a fault

Dong Nguyen is clearly a principled man - he made games that he wanted to make, and has shown that he necessarily doesn't care too much about the money. It can be easy to criticize him for pulling a game that was making $50,000 per day, but realize that the average monthly salary in Vietnam is circa $200/month.

Dong Nguyen was winning the lottery on a daily basis. He's got Scrooge McDuck money.

But he doesn't want to be Scrooge McDuck. He wants to be a simple indie game developer, and Flappy Bird was ruining that. He also had some issues with the addictive nature of the game.

So, he decided to stick to his principles and he took down the game. Is it perhaps the smartest thing to do? Not necessarily. He could have removed the ads if the money was a problem.

He could have stopped checking Twitter and email for now if the pressure of the public got to be too much. But he did what he did - and while it's easy for others to say what he should have done, we're not him. And it's something others need to keep in mind: perhaps the greatest satisfaction is being true to yourself.

Be strong

But a healthy self-image is important too. Not getting a PR firm in the name of staying 'indie'? Idealism can be misguided. Know the limits of what you believe. Maybe more people could be able to enjoy Flappy Bird, and Dong Nguyen able to enjoy some peace, if he was willing to get outside help.

But ultimately, even though I think Dong Nguyen should not be treated as a hero - he struck the lottery by utilizing common themes and ideas and just got lucky more than anything else - there are lessons that developers can glean from this strange saga of Flappy Bird and of its creator.

And most importantly, to persevere in one's own way even through the challenges:

"And I still make games."

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.