One week after developer Dong Nguyen removed viral hit game Flappy Bird from the iOS and Android stores, what lessons can other developers take from the birth, life, and death, of the side-scrolling game that has gripped gamers and commentators alike?
Unfortunately the lessons are not happy ones. The story of Flappy Bird highlights a rather bleak picture for the indie developer or small team.
It’s incredibly unlikely that your app is going to be one that can cover your monthly rent, let alone allow you to draw a living wage. Having a good game is no longer enough to get noticed. If you do someone get your head above water with a little bit of recognition, be ready for everyone to question the legitimacy of that appearance. Then there’s the matter of a thunderstorm of clones polluting the app stores trying to take away the user base searching for your game.
Let’s start with the disparity over revenue. While Flappy Bird’s reported $50,000 dollars per day of advertising income is a significant number for a single developer, or even a small development team, it’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the likes of Supercell’s Clash of Clans. With annual revenue of $892 million, that’s a daily run of $2.27 million.
The disparity between the games at the top of the charts, be they freemium-fuelled (such as Clash of Clans) or ad-supported, is two orders of magnitude. When you consider just how few games reach even the success of Flappy Bird, the chances of ‘striking it rich’ in an App Store are not high.
You cannot rely on having stand-out game design. Flappy Bird may have been pitched as a ‘hard’ game but there is little argument that the mechanics of the game, from the almost immediate nature of playing a second game, the need to have one more game, or the perfect balance of the physics as you flapped into the sky, Flappy Bird pitched the mechanics just right.
Yet it lay relatively dormant in the app stores after its release in May 2013, waiting seven months before it started to climb up the charts to become the cultural phenomenon of Q1 2014. Whether this was through the use of bots, paid boosting, or some well placed recommendations, Flappy Bird required external help to make it out of the digital slush pile (Forbes contributor Jason DeMers has more on this issue).
Even if users engage with your game, even if your app gains your recognition, and even if you manage to get the momentum behind your app, you then have to contend with the clones. Countless developers releasing games that look the same, have similar names (in some cases identical names), all nibbling away at your potential user base.
Flappy Bird has highlighted an issue with the app testing systems of the Apple Store, Google Play, and Windows Phone Store. They may check code against API constraints, but there is no immediate check for ‘apps that look like another app’. Only a week after the removal of Flappy Bird are the app stores confirming that checks are now in place, and even then it is purely on the name of the game, and these rules only seem to be in place for new submissions to the store.
Of course the app stores know that with the volume of downloads they ultimately have a huge economy of scale, so it is in their interest to promote as many downloads as possible. More apps means more ad inventory, more in-app purchases, and more chargeable downloads.
But more apps mean fewer opportunities for a release to generate a notable amount of revenue, fewer opportunities to stand out and be noticed by the gaming blogs and reviewers, and a sluggish response by the app stores to protect the IP of a news release. It’s going to be a hard life for the lone mobile developer in 2014.