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Let’s face it – we don’t get it

Can we learn *anything* from Flappy Bird as an industry?

The recent success (and sudden demise) of the highly popular indie-game ‘Flappy Bird’ started yet a new gaming phenomena – ‘people that talk about flappy bird’. Not even a single day passed during the following weeks of his iOS chart dominance where I haven’t heard people talking about the game. Co-workers were saying things such as ‘we should learn from this game’; friends asked me why haven’t I created such a game myself. Suddenly Flappy Bird was perceived as the next Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga, but unlike those - it was the work of a one man - Dong Nguyen, a 29 years old Vietnamese game developer.

The game rapid success spawned many articles about it - the web is filled with articles such as:

And many, many more. In fact, if you Google the term ‘flappy birds can learn’ you’ll even find a blog-post named “What the Church can learn from CVS and Flappy Bird”. While it’s safe to assume most of the articles, notably those that were written just after the game topped the charts, were at least somewhat influenced by the SEO/SMO value of writing about a popular news item – I think most can agree that the overnight success of the game is puzzling. Everyone is asking - How?

Don’t get me wrong – ‘how?’ is a legitimate question. It’s always advisable to learn from success stories. However – is this what we’re seeing here? It seems to me that the ‘how?’ here is a bit more pronounced, and comes not necessarily from a wish to learn, but more as an accusation. When an unknown Vietnamese developer manages to get to the top iOS charts, without a marketing budget - something just doesn’t seem right. As the actual gameplay is unoriginal, the graphics and sounds seems to be heavily influenced by Mario, and the game doesn’t deviate from the ‘endless runner’ formulas we’ve seen so far - things seems even weirder. The opinions regarding FB success varies, and, in my view - doesn’t really hold water:

  • it (FB) flies in the face of what every game designer knows at this point.
    But is it really that unique? While I agree it would be a surprise to see a game without upgrades, achievements or an intelligent progression curve - created by a large gaming studio – this is not the case. The indie space is filled with games with simple gameplay, zero care for monetization and user retention - just plain fun. Attributing the game success to qualities that are found in just about every hackathon-produced game doesn’t seem too convincing.
  • It has attributes that are shared with ‘mega-hits’: it’s polished (although, within its very small scope and simple graphics), friendly (the graphics are ‘fun’, bright) and its creator has experience with previous, less successful titles - FB is based on accumulated knowledge from previous games. All of this is true, but far from being unique to mega-hits.
  • It has cheated his way to the top - the fact that the game was released half a year ago, and started gaining major traffic only by January does make one wonder. Too bad that this type of arguments goes both ways - If Dong Nguyen used bots, why only now? And if all he wanted was fame, money and glory, he had absolutely no reason to remove the game while it peaks.
  • It’s a viral breakthrough, once it reached critical mass - it became a hit. No doubt about that - but how did it reach critical mass without massive marketing campaign? This is the secret, isn’t it?

These arguments could have worked great when ‘Piou Piou vs. Cactus’ was released in 2011. Flappy Bird seens like an almost exact copy of that game (even if it wasn’t intended to be one) . Piou Piou ‘files in the face of what every game designer knows’, just as well, and it did it years ago. Can anyone explain why Flappy Bird didn’t work back then?

So can we learn anything, as an industry, from the Flappy Bird phenomena? Probably, if we stop focusing on the game itself, and start focusing on the fact that we are so fixated with it.

Maybe the lesson here is that there is no perfect game, and that that the copy-iteration culture that spawned so many Farmville and Candy Crush Saga clones (and now FB clones as well) won’t necessarily create the next Zynga, King, or even the next Dong Nguyen for that sake. The road to the next mega-hit, at the individual level, is trying and trying again. At the studio level - it’s creating the best team possible and gain experience. This is as close to a hit-producing formula as one can get, the rest is luck.

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