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What is Flappy Bird, and how did it get to be #1?
by Brian Peterson on 01/31/14 12:07:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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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Mark Nelson
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Downloaded after reviewing this article.

First game, I made it past 8 pipes. Next 10 games I didn't even make it past three...

Immediately had to delete.

If I want this level of frustration, I can just put a grain of sand in my eye!

(...will be reinstalling tomorrow, probably...)

John Flush
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Learned about it from iFunny. What is hilarious about the talk is it comes off about like Mark was describing - frustration abounds and there are bragging rights for even getting a reasonable score. Me personally, I can't take another endless runner, especially one that is full of major frustration. But I can clearly see that it is spreading everywhere. It is free, frustrating and shallow. Perfect for Mobile - of course everyone will eat it up.

SD Marlow
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6 of the first 11 posts son modojo are about this game. I know it's common for news about a new or popular (of fail or face palm) game will make the rounds of different sites at about the same time, but this just feels... well kind of fake. I guess it's like, no one wrote anything about it, and now it's a bandwagon effect where everyone will write about it because it's the thing to do, not because they ever heard of or tried the game until now. But then, how did it climb back to the top of the charts without being known, promoted, "on sale," or otherwise talked about?

It might just be a new kind of thing (hate to use the word phenomenon) in the digital age, like vertigo or deja vu. It's disjointed, like a broken cause/effect sequence.

Phil Maxey
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I think this played a big part in it's success

Everything that was said above about the game is true, it's addictive to a point, it allows easy social sharing etc, the only problem with all of that, is there are lots of similar games already on the App store, none of which have had the success this has had, which is why I think it's success is more down to certain key influencers mentioning it rather than the game itself.

Brian Peterson
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I agree - key influencers can play a huge role in a game getting discovered.

This is part of what interested me in this game: I wasn't able to find any evidence of key influencers talking about it during the game's rise up the charts in November and December. PewDiePie didn't post this video until last week, once it was already #1. I'm sure it will help keep Flappy Bird in the #1 spot for the next week or so, but it doesn't explain the game's sudden popularity at the end of 2013.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Phil Maxey
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That's a good point, it could've been completely organic of course, a build up of tweets that reached a critical mass and then the media became aware of it, that is possible it's just there are and have been 100s of similar games, so it's a bit weird that it was this particular game that it happened too.

Prafulla Oimbe
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I think this game is best example to study for all aspiring Game Maker. It gives us a challenge to better our scores next time and frustrates us at the same time - like how could I tap early or late, its so stupid of me not to clear one more pipe.

Tony Yotes
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I like seeing new things top the charts. It's inspirational and makes the top 25 list seem less permanent.
My only frustrations come from family and friends acting like I should make a game like that, thinking I can spit out a million dollars with just a few clicks on a keyboard. A lot of work goes into making a game and success like this is very luck based.

sharan sarvanan
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Nice game!! Really impressed with the game mechanics and simplicity. Congrats!!!
And I really have a quick question here, Why they have not implemented a retry button in the game over screen rather going back to main page to try again. In my opinion (I may be wrong) this may further increase engagement and reduce drop off before the user retry. Or is there any reason for not implementing a retry button there.???

Bram Stolk
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People post a 2 pt score not because it is funny, but because it is freaking hard to get 2 pts. My first 20 games or so were zero points.

Dave Hoskins
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It gets to be #1 through articles like this one... .. .

Brian Peterson
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...but there were no articles like this one until it was already #1!

Dave Hoskins
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I didn't mean exactly like this! :) There's a ton of discussions on it though.

Brian Peterson
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Haha, of course :) The weird thing is that I could not find any articles about this game in November or December that could have caused it to get popular. All the current articles, my own included, are late reactions to it being #1 for 2 weeks straight. Current discussions will help it keep the #1 spot, but they don't explain how it got there.