How Flappy Bird made app developer $50,000 a day

The game propelled the unknown Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen to rock-star status.

An employee plays the game Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi. Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP
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Call of Duty creator Vince Zampella has used guns, rockets and robots fuelled with intense graphics to keep millions of people playing his video games. Dong Nguyen needed only one crudely drawn bird.

The retro-style mobile game Flappy Bird, which Mr Nguyen has said took just a few days to make and brought in as much as $50,000 a day, propelled the unknown Vietnamese developer to rock-star status. The game, which Mr Nguyen has since removed from app stores, put a spotlight on the power of simplicity. As players of the bare-bones app will attest, trying to fly a pixelated bird through a network of pipes can be as addictive as the sensory overload of a first-person shooter.

Video games are often measured by their deep storylines and eye-popping action, but smartphones are changing the game. Now, publishers are tailoring titles to a much wider audience that isn’t tethered to a sofa and is often on the go. And that has broadened what constitutes innovation in game design.

“The mobile audience is humongous, and there are so many developers out there that now you begin to see a lot of experimentation,” says David Helgason, the chief executive of Unity Technologies, which licenses tools for game developers. “Some games like Flappy Bird can be over in 10 seconds, while other games you see are much deeper.”

Mobile developers have been early adopters in data analysis, giving them another leg up on the console competition. Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds might look unsophisticated, but don’t be fooled. Behind the simplicity are special game mechanics or back-end analytics that prompt users to purchase add-on items to help them advance in a game at just the right time. Add in metrics to determine what aspects of the game aren’t resonating with players, along with the ability for developers to quickly make changes, and you have software that can be improved over time.

Mr Nguyen did not respond to an email request seeking comment. He has said Flappy Bird could return with changes based on user feedback.

“Analytics are now an essential part of the culture,” says Bertrand Schmitt, chief executive of mobile marketing company App Annie. “Optimisation is now deeply integrated into any game, letting developers know how many minutes someone plays, where they get stuck, what levels they like to play over.”

With Flappy Bird, getting stuck is kind of the point. The innocent-looking game is notoriously difficult to play – and that has hooked millions. Earlier this year, Flappy Bird rocketed to the top of the charts on Apple and Google’s app stores.

Most game critics don’t consider Flappy Bird innovative. However, if innovation is measured by the amount of disruption it causes, Flappy Bird scored high. Few games in recent memory have garnered as much fascination, suspicion, love and hate, including death threats tweeted at Nguyen. When he announced the game’s removal on Twitter, Nguyen said the attention “ruins my simple life.”

q&a the game anyone can play

Tell me more about Flappy Bird?

The game has inspired hundreds of clones. Nguyen went to great pains to distil what was so accessible yet irresistible about the games he loved as a kid, particularly those from Nintendo. He envisioned a diversion that anyone could play but few could master during the daily commute, with “one hand holding the train strap,” according to an interview in Rolling Stone.

So is there still innovation in gaming?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is excited by the promise of virtual reality headsets, as his $2 billion deal for Oculus VR illustrates. And the popular shooter game Titanfall, developed by Call of Duty creator Zampella, has been lauded for its frenetic game play, which lets users don jetpacks and hop into robots in an ever-shifting melee.

What is the outlook for new games today?

Pachter said Titanfall will probably sell less than King Digital Entertainment’s mobile puzzle game, which logged about $1.48bn in sales last year. Nintendo has said it’s considering a new business plan after seeing poor sales of its Wii U console. Zynga’s FarmVille game ruled Facebook for a time but has struggled as gamers shift to mobile.

What’s the secret to survival then?

Zynga chief executive Don Mattrick has his 2,000-person company focused on what’s called “the Starbucks test.” All of their games should be quick enough for people to play while standing in line for coffee, yet have enough depth to occupy hours of their time on a couch at home, he said.

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