The Mysteries of Apps: Flappy Bird Shows That Dumb Luck Matters

Flappy Bird Courtesy Dong Nguyen via iTunes Store

There’s no reason that Flappy Bird should have become such a sensation. The app, in which a player controls a bird flying awkwardly through a series of tubes, has crude controls and pixelated graphics that look like something out of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. era. It was made by an independent developer in Vietnam without powerful backing or evident business strategy. Yet the game is currently the most popular free app in more than 110 countries.

The defining feature of Flappy Bird is that it’s nearly impossible. Being able to steer that bird through those tubes is almost as unlikely as the success that the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, has enjoyed and, more recently, become exasperated with. But not quite. Many others would love to trade places with him. A wave of rip-offs has hit app stores since Flappy Bird’s emergence from nowhere last month, and some of the newcomers have been pretty successful.

At the same time, people are looking to deconstruct the game to unearth previously undiscovered rules for viral mobile gaming success. Simplicity, difficulty, gravity, and some sort of mysterious fraud have all been held up as the secret to the game’s conquest of the app store.

But studying an anomaly like Flappy Bird for clues is like looking for insights in a list of bodegas that have sold winning lottery tickets. Many game industry experts acknowledge that what appeals to people is basically a mystery, and the search for patterns is an exercise in futility. The main insight, from a design perspective, seems to be that people are unpredictable.

It has become much harder for any game to rise on its own merits as the size of the app industry has grown. People spent $10 billion in Apple’s app store last year, but almost all of that money is heading to a tiny number of mega-hits. The cost per install, a measure of how much a developer has to spend on marketing, has grown almost 300 percent in the mobile gaming industry over the past two years, according to analytics firm SuperData. The amount that people spend on games per month is up 38 percent over the same period.

Joost van Dreunen, chief executive of SuperData, sees Flappy Bird as the exception that proves the rule. Studying marketing plans or cribbing programming tactics can prove useful, but there’s very little to take away from random good fortune. “You can still get lucky—that’s the big lesson,” he says. “The myth of the mobile millionaire still exists.”

Except maybe for the millionaire part. Riches have not followed users, and the game hasn’t cracked the list of the 100 top-grossing apps in the U.S. This is primarily because it has eschewed the main way that mobile games make money: creating free games that require people to pay for certain features. This model has become controversial, and has even been accused of destroying the game industry. But it seems to be the only way to turn viral success into a sustainable business.

This doesn’t appear to concern Nguyen, who has recoiled from attention from the press and investors. By his own account, he is a developer who got very lucky—and he’s “no businessman.”

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