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What is Flappy Bird, and how did it get to be #1?

Why is everyone talking about this game, and how did it appear at the top of the app charts without any obvious marketing efforts? Word-of-mouth marketing seems to be the answer.

Released for iOS on May 24, 2013, Flappy Bird dropped off of the US app charts 3 days after its launch.

Since January 17, it’s been the #1 game and #1 overall app on the US iOS charts.

After seeing its lofty place on the charts, I had so many questions: Was this the result of a big advertising campaign? Did PR efforts result in celebrity endorsements and reviews on top app sites? Was it a well-timed featured promotion from Apple? How did this simple game come out of nowhere and take over the app store charts? I decided to look into the game more and find out what made it so engaging.

Word of Mouth

Flappy Bird is a very simple and very difficult endless runner game. There are no in-app purchases – just some banner ads. There’s only one thing you can do in the game: tap to flap. Everyone can understand it, and the time investment needed for a single game is minimal. This simplicity makes it very easy to recommend, and it lowers the time-investment required to try the game for the first time.

There’s a “rate this app” button on the main menu. Flappy Bird currently has a 4.0 rating, with 240,544 total ratings. This is around half the number of ratings that Candy Crush Saga has. This is amazing, considering almost all of these reviews came in the past 2 months. The high number of reviews in such a short time suggests that people really love talking about this game. The volume of tweets talking about the game confirms this: in a single minute this week, I counted 361 tweets containing the phrase “Flappy Bird”. In comparison, “Candy Crush” had 12, and “Clash of Clans” had 3. Many players are writing comical reviews for the game and sharing them on Twitter, generating even more reviews and more tweets about the game.

Social Sharing

On Flappy Bird’s Game Over screen, you can click “Share” to post your score in the following format:
“OMG! I scored 5 pts in #flapflap!!! ->

The share prompt isn’t in a separate window; it’s just a small button next to the replay button. You can easily ignore it until you beat your all-time high score, at which point this button becomes the most important thing in the entire world. People are sharing high scores of 2 because it’s funny, while others share high scores of 20 because it took them hours, both because they’re proud and because they think it’s funny to admit that publicly.

The focus and frustration caused by the game create personal stories that are shared by its players:

“I'm screaming at the game”

“It's so hard to play flappy bird to songs with good beats omg”

“The amount of people I've ran into or almost ran into because flappy bird is ridiculous haha”

Most of the tweets about this game share the frustration of the game’s frequent Game Overs, and are usually accompanied by a lot of profanity. Sharing emotional experiences in this way creates a strong community, even though the game lacks any official community efforts, like an official website, Facebook, or Twitter account.

What can be learned from this game? More importantly, can we learn from this game?

There’s a lot of luck involved in Flappy Bird’s rise to the top of the charts. The game hovered around the bottom of the Australian charts since July before exploding in popularity worldwide in December. I couldn’t pinpoint any specific tweet or article that could be credited for its success, and the game was not featured in the app store until yesterday. The game did not immediately shoot up the charts, which most likely rules out a big advertising push. This is why I credit word-of-mouth advertising with its success.

We can only exert so much control over our players’ actions outside of our games, but here are a few ideas to keep in mind for encouraging players to talk about your games:

Immediate Simplicity

Being playable in mere seconds makes it very easy for someone to hand their phone to a friend to try a new game. Nobody wants to make their friend play a tutorial. The game’s simplicity also proves that players on mobile do not necessarily require a ton of content - just engaging gameplay.

Meaningful Sharing

Overusing “share” prompts for accomplishments that are not meaningful can train players to ignore these prompts in the future. Players should also have a reason to talk about the game, whether it’s their first day playing or their fifth.

Clear, Immediate, and Fair Challenge

Within the first few seconds of playing Flappy Bird, every new player will fail and get a Game Over. They choose to continue playing because they have a clear idea of why they failed and what they need to do to succeed. This clarity is so addictive because success seems very attainable, even though the skill needed to succeed requires practice.

If you have any additional insight into Flappy Bird’s success, post a reply in the comments below!


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