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What made Flappy Bird so popular?

The phenomenon known as Flappy Bird seems to be coming to an end as the developer pulled support earlier today. So what made it so popular to begin with?

Published onFebruary 11, 2014

Flappy Bird

The phenomenon known as Flappy Bird seems to be coming to an end. After a few weeks of improbable success, developer Dong Nguyen has decided to call it quits. While there was some speculation as to why, the official reason according to Nguyen is the game was making his life too complicated. There is even more speculation as to how the game became popular to begin with.

Before we talk about it further, let’s look at some quick stats regarding Flappy Bird.

  • At the height of its success, it was reportedly making $50,000 per day in advertising revenue.
  • Despite being overwhelmingly popular, the game actually spent most of its life in obscurity. It was released mid 2013 and was only popular for about 3 weeks before it was taken down.
  • Dong Nguyen, the developer, accumulated over 80,000 Twitter followers (up from 350) and was the sole developer of Flappy Bird.
  • This happened.
  • It spawned dozens upon dozens of copycats. The most notable of which is called Clumsy Bird which has replaced Flappy Bird at the top of the new free apps list on Google Play.
  • For every copycat app, there were 90 Buzzfeed articles.
  • Lives were ruined and devices were destroyed.

So what happened here? It may be more complicated than one imagines. A cursory Google Search brings up a veritable library of lists and articles that tell you how to make your app go viral. You can find multi-page articles, lists, diagrams, and even a mathematical algorithms to help app developers figure out how to get their apps in the hands of a million people in only a few days.

Anatomy of a viral game

This is a very short list of items that the app must have if you want a short-lived, viral success story:

  • The game has to actually work properly.
  • It must be short, simple, and quick. Games like Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Fruit Ninja, etc are more likely to become viral than longer, more time consuming games like Final Fantasy, Dead Trigger 2, or Clash of Clans. The faster someone can get in and play, the better.
  • It pretty much has to be free. People don’t buy things on a massive scale unless it’s spectacular or hilariously terrible. They will download free things (good, bad, or mediocre) on a massive scale.
  • It has to be easy to share. With Flappy Birds, people shared high scores. Apps like Timely used promo codes to unlock paid content. If you give people something to share, they’ll share it and other people will see it.

There is another variable that these lists don’t mention and that variable is luck. There comes a point where developers can only go so far. Once the proper pieces are in place, it’s up to some bored blogger or Reddit/Twitter/Google+ user finding the app, trying it out, and sharing it to a massive amount of people. In the case of Flappy Bird, it was a well timed article by notable chronicler of fads, Buzzfeed.

Kind of like the Big Bang, but for applications.
While high school kids sharing it with their fellow students or office workers showing it to coworkers around the water cooler is an important part of the viral process, these things mostly spawn from a sudden outburst of social media attention rather than a steady build up. Kind of like the Big Bang, but for applications.

Even though there are articles, papers, lists, and even mathematical algorithms written to help explain the viral attitude, the bottom line is that there is no specific thing or set of things that can make something go viral. It’s all about being in the right place in the right time with the right product. For Dong Nguyen and Flappy Bird, that right time was 3 weeks ago and that right place was Buzzfeed. If you’re an aspiring app dev, the only advice we can give you is to follow the list above, make sure you know what you’re getting into, and pray to whatever deity you happen to worship.

Android apps
The question isn’t whether or not Flappy Bird was a unique situation because it absolutely was. The question is how much longer do we have to wait until the next super simple, borderline terrible app tops the charts and engrosses people worldwide. The answer is not long. In fact, over on iOS there is a really terrible game called Red Bouncing Ball Spikes that has topped the paid chart on iOS in less than 24 hours. It has a lot in common with Flappy Bird. It’s stupid simple, the game itself was not difficult to make (indeed, it is a template game), and the app was in obscurity for over a year before it became suddenly popular. The point is that when one falls, it opens the door for another to rise and throughout the history of mobile apps

Some hits stayed at the top for a long time, such as Angry Birds or Temple Run. Others experienced high short term success and moderate ongoing success like Fruit Ninja and Bejeweled Blitz. Even Flappy Bird exploded in the space of the Candy Crush Saga fad that dominated a good portion of 2013. It’s never a matter of if or when, but which app developer gets lucky this time around.

Another odd point that has been brought up is how many of these applications — particularly the ones like Flappy Bird and Red Bouncing Ball Spikes — are developed by single developers instead of teams or companies. Fortunately, we actually have statistics available to explain this phenomenon. A study called The State of Apps by Millennial Media (source link below) shows that 60% of applications are developed by groups that consist of only one person. In a data set that includes all apps, that means there is a 60% chance that the next viral fad is developed by just one person.

A curse and a blessing

This is both good and bad. If you’re a fan of indie development and are all about giving more power to the little guy, it’s good to see that most apps on mobile are developed by a single person. Of course, the other side of that issue is that because one person has limited manpower, resources, and time, the apps they generate tend to be of lower quality. Case and point, Angry Birds, while a simple game, is of much higher quality than Flappy Bird. That’s not because Dong Nguyen isn’t talented, but because Rovio has far more resources and manpower to create a more polished game.

The other sad truth to this statistic is that it is more likely that any given viral app will be of lower quality, simply because there are more of them. That’a assuming “virality” is not correlated to a game’s quality or to the developer’s marketing skills. This isn’t always a good thing, as great games like Dead Trigger 2, Final Fantasy, Clash of Clans, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and plenty of others that strive to take the mobile gaming platform upward and forward are being overshadowed by games that hold the platform back. In other words, because there are more lower quality games developed by single people, it interferes with the advancement of gaming as a whole because the better games are hidden behind the fads.


There is some good news. In the same study sourced above, it shows that developers are projected to be less independent in 2014. According to the study, application developer groups should be on the rise while individual efforts should be scaling down. As you can see from the charts above, the number of single developers is slated to go down. This means developers will be teaming up with each other on a more consistent basis. This means there will actually be fewer Flappy Bird titles and more collaborative efforts which result in higher quality applications thanks to the increase in manpower that comes with a cooperative effort.

In the short term, we’re sure to see more apps like Flappy Bird become popular. It’s practically a time-honored tradition at this point that the top charts on Google Play and the Apple App Store will be host to at least one borderline terrible game that people find fun for some unexplained reason. The silver lining is that these applications should become less frequent in the next few years as application developers come together, form

It's practically a time-honored tradition at this point
companies and game studios, and work on providing mobile phone owners with higher quality software. Will it kill the one-off fads? The answer is probably no. However, bad app devs today have the potential to become great app devs tomorrow which means there is always hope that the next fad game will be much better. As always, we’d like to hear your opinion. Will there always be Flappy Bird games or do you think the app market will evolve and change to a point where those games won’t be worth anything anymore? Sound off in the comments!

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