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A flappy case of a Flappy Bird

How is it possible for a Flappy Bird to have more than 50 million downloads and to make more than $50k a day in average? An analysis of Flappy Bird's design and success, by breaking it down to pieces.

By now, all of you reading this probably know what a Flappy Bird is. It's an extremely simple game about a bird that flies through obstacles and for each obstacle that it passes, it's awarded a +1 point. That's all there is to it.

The interesting part is, the game has been downloaded over 50 million times, it's on the top of iTunes and Google Play charts for a while now, and has a whole ton of reviews and good ratings. The game is free and uses ads for monetization, reportedly generating a $50,000 per day in ad revenue.

The question is – how? Let's break the game down in parts and see if we can come up with some explanation.

Art

Flappy Bird is an extremely simple game in all of the aspects, including art. It features a cute 8-bit art of which certain parts randomly change each time you play, which is kind of neat and cool to see. To be precise, bird changes colors, and sky changes from day to night. All in all it is aesthetically pleasing.

Art randomly changes

The choice of the main character kind of makes me wonder - is this starting of a trend of  birds being the next most popular casual game characters?

The obstacles in the game are green pipes, which look like they have been taken out of the Super Mario franchise. Everything else looks very similar to Super Mario art too. Don't know how smart of a move was that, but it obviously worked in Flappy Bird's favor.

What bugs me the most about the game's art is the background. It is completely static and it doesn't feature a parallax scrolling effect. Maybe that is not something that people would normally notice, but as a game developer I can't stand it.

The game's icon is nothing special, but it looks alright - just a bird in a badge-like green circle.

Sound

There is no music in the game, only a flap sound, collect sound, die sound and a popup swish sound. They fit nicely, but are slightly irritating. If not to the players, then to all of the people around them. Proven fact.

Game Design

When it comes to the game design, Flappy Bird is one of the classics. It uses an extremely simple, proven and strong core mechanics. It's a helicopter game. When you tap, the object of control goes up, when you don't do anything – it falls to the ground due to the gravity. 

However, Flappy Bird features a little twist – you can't hold down the finger, you must always re-tap in order for it to fly up, and it does so in predefined leaps, so you must time it very precisely, and with that little change the game becomes very, very hard.

In fact, this game is so hard, that most of the people won't pass the first pipes. Even a score of 5 is a huge success for a beginner in this game. 

How people managed to get passed the fact that the game is so hard that you can't even get a score of 1 the first time you play? It's weird, but it's possible.

The general rule of thumb for most of the games is - "easy to learn, hard to master". There are games that break this rule, and are sucessful, but none, or close to none in the casual gaming space, which is only natural, considering the audience that plays casual games.

When it comes to Flappy Bird, it is very easy to learn the controls. It's a single tap type of game, so learning how to control the bird is easy and takes a second or two. The hard part is learning how to time the tap precisely, and how physics of the game works. So does it break the rule? At least partially – yes.

On the other hand, game is so simple that I personally can play it while talking to someone else and listening to them, I don't have to concentrate because I know exactly what will happen next. There are no surprises, no changes in scenery, no harder or easier obstacles. 

The only variation in the whole game is the timing of the tap, due to to variable height of the "hole" in the pipes, through which you must pass. 

The game stays completely the same the whole time, where usually, the games should change with time, to become more interesting and give that feeling of progression to the player.

Marketing

As far as I could deduct from info around the web, the game had virtually no marketing. It's developer, Dong Nguyen doesn't like the attention of the press very much, so there is not a lot of data about the making and promotion of the game. Apparently, he made the game in three days, as a part time project after school.

There are some speculations that Dong used so-called download bots to spike the popularity at the start, but to be honest I don't know much about how that is done, so I better leave that be.

Monetization

So, the game earns around $50k a day. It's only monetization method is the ads, which are shown on a game over screen, on the top of the screen.

What I think would drastically improve monetization is to put the ads on the bottom of the screen with a slight delay so users don't click on it accidentally. On my Samsung S4, the top is so far away that I am really lazy to click on ads even if I wanted to.

Ads are placed on the top of the screen

Although unintrusive, the ads have their bad side too. When game over happens, the game over screen pops up with various tweens happening, and in the end the restart button appears. That leaves a second or so delay between the actual failure and the restart. 

That might not seem like much, but after 10 plays it becomes so super irritating that a person would wonder why didn't just make restart button appear first. The only logical explanation for me is – for people to be able to see the ads. It might have been an accident though.

I would really be willing to trade off keeping ads on the top all the time, if being able to restart instantly.

Conclusion

The game is a bit of a mistery. It's so simple and so hard that it breaks most of the rules of making a sucessful game for a mobile, or any, market. It's a game that most good developers can make in 1 day, and it's a little more than a prototype.

It has a very strong and simple core game mechanics which is, I believe, the main thing that influenced it's sucess. The game is very suitable for a touch screen too, and simple to control. That packed in a nice, aestetically pleasing shell, and you got yourself a good game. Good game, yes, but a hit of this magnitude? Still very puzzling.

Obviously, there was a lot of luck involved in the sudden boom that this game made. But luck can only last for a while, and if the game wasn't good it wouldn't stay on top of the charts for so long. What luck got it is a chance, and the game took that chance and became a world wide phenomenon.

Whatever was the main factor in the game's success, it gives us a hope that there still is a place on the today's market for simple, small and cute games that anyone can make. 

 

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