Asia 2014 Debrief: What the Hell Happened with Flappy Bird?

I’m just back from my annual pilgrimage to Hong Kong, with a bonus side trip to Kuala Lumpur. As I slowly become reacquainted with life in the Eastern Time Zone I thought I’d share a few mobile insights from what I saw overseas.

Today it’s the enigma of Flappy Bird. I caught wind of the game via a story in my RSS reader, but only bits and pieces of the ensuing drama as it unfolded thereafter.

Flappy Bird High Score

As my current high score will attest, I suck at it. And you know what? I don’t care one bit; when you get right down to it Flappy Bird is a simple, challenging and addictive game. It may not be your cup of tea but there are clearly lots of people out there who are quite taken with it, myself included.

A Star Is Born

I believe this Tech in Asia piece from February 5th is what spurred me to download the game. At the start of the year I wrote about my seething hatred of in-app purchases, so this bit of text jumped out at me straightaway:

Making multiple levels, adding a three-point star system, allowing users to share, buying packages of more levels, and turning it into a full-blown franchise with Star Wars versions. Rovio successfully defined and packaged the principles of mobile gaming success. The same can be said of Clash Of Clans from Supercell and Candy Crush from King.

Flappy Bird does none of this. And that’s one key reason why people across the world are taking to it. They’re sick of the bullshit of in-app purchases and levels that go on and on with increasing difficulty. People want something new, and Flappy Bird does just that.

Of course the developer, Dong Nguyen, is far from a one-hit wonder — he’s responsible for some other top titles in the iOS App Store, including Shuriken Block and Super Ball Juggling. Flappy Bird itself wasn’t even an instant hit, but all of a sudden everyone was talking about it,  and Nguyen was getting an estimated $50,000 USD per day in ad revenue from his creation.

Bring On The Hate

They say that success breeds contempt, and sure enough, hot on the heels of Flappy Bird’s sudden propulsion into the Zeitgeist was some rather harsh criticism. The most bizarre attack that I read came from, of all places, The Atlantic:

Flappy Bird is a game that accepts that it is stupid to be a game. It offers us an example of what it might feel like to conclude that this is enough. That it’s enough for games just to be crap in the universe, detritus that we encounter from time to time and that we might encounter as detritus rather than as meaning. That we might stop to manipulate them without motive or reason, like we might turn a smooth rock in our palms before tossing it back into the big ocean, which devours it. For no matter how stupid it is to be a game, it is no less stupid to be a man who plays one.


And It’s Gone

February 8th saw this rather cryptic tweet from Nguyen:

I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.

On February 11th Forbes tracked down Nguyen in Hanoi for an exclusive interview, in which he elaborated on his decision (a bit):

“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.”

He went a bit further and dispelled rumours of legal threats from Nintendo —those green pipes look a bit familiar, after all — but his statements did nothing to quell all sorts of conjecture about the real reason the game was pulled, including wild theories about organized crime and even the Vietnamese government!


As a testament to Flappy Bird’s success, a plague of copycat games infected the app stores for Android and iOS in short order — so many of them, in fact, that both Apple and Google are now actively rejecting me-too titles to stem the tide.

But the madness didn’t stop there… Phones with Flappy Bird installed were at one point listing for thousands of dollars on eBay.

Lessons Learned

Marketing types will probably spend endless hours trying to extract some meaning from the hysteria surrounding Flappy Bird. Me, I’m content that it shows a demand for games without IAPs.

What do you think?