Flappy Bird may have seemed like an overnight hit that flew atop the pop-culture zeitgeist before the app's creator developed stage fright and pulled it offline. In reality, the comically frustrating game debuted a year ago in total obscurity, and not even Dong Nguyen, the Hanoi native behind the phenomenon, has been able to explain its meteoric rise.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of Flappy Bird's release on the App Store. It took about seven months for practically anyone to find it. In December, Flappy Bird cracked the top 1,500 free games in the U.S. for the first time, according to researcher App Annie. Over the next month or so, the game shot up the U.S. ranks before the rest of the world — led by Canada, Australia and Japan — caught on.
The data give a view into how apps that are a hit in one region can rapidly spread to the rest of the world. In this case, the U.S. was the early adopter, and once the game reached a certain inescapable popularity, the globalization of Flappy Bird came at warp speed. Blogs, social networks and word-of-mouth — mostly from people complaining about how hard the game was — combined with its high visibility on every app store ranking helped it go viral. To get a sense of just how quickly the world flocked to Flappy Bird, check out the interactive visualization from Bloomberg's Keith Collins.
At a tech event in San Francisco during Nguyen's first trip to the U.S., the game developer declined a request to be interviewed. When I identified myself as a journalist, Nguyen said, "Oh yeah? You write something bad about me?"
At Flappy Bird's peak, Nguyen earned as much as $50,000 a day from ads in the game. He released an Android version on Jan. 22, and within a couple days, it hit No. 1. It stayed there until Feb. 10, when Nguyen pulled a Dave Chappelle and walked off at the height of his celebrity. The game, Nguyen said in a tweet announcing its closure, "ruins my simple life."
The success of Flappy Bird put Nguyen's small company, called .Gears Studios, on the map. As people became hopelessly addicted to tapping their smartphone screens to navigate a pixelated bird through pipes, they sniffed around .Gears's library of obscure games for their next fix. Super Ball Juggling and Shuriken Block each got bumps into the top 10 as a result. This month, Nguyen tweeted, "I am making a new game. So people can forget about Flappy Bird for a while." The rise of Nguyen's style of dead-simple, quick-fix hits reverberated throughout the video-game world, causing some in the industry to rethink their obsession with multimillion-dollar franchises like Call of Duty.
Dozens of clones have ridden the waves left by Flappy Bird to similarly huge success. More than three months after Nguyen pulled the plug on his game, clones still populate the top-download rankings. Epic Games, creator of the Gears of War and Infinity Blade series, put out its own knockoff this week called Tappy Chicken. The stunt was meant to show how easy it is to build anything in its next-generation game engine.
For fans of the original, there is hope. Nguyen has said he plans to release a revised version in August that includes a multiplayer mode, according to CNBC. The new Flappy Bird, sporting more modern graphics and additional characters, will also be less addictive thanks to "a cooling down system" that will make users take a break between games, Nguyen told Rolling Stone in an e-mail.