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'Flappy Bird' flaps away

Photo: A bird flies in Delhi, India. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Sometimes, if you build up your courage and spread your wings.... you find out that your wings are stubby and don’t work very well and you fall, crashing, to the ground. 

That is the experience of many players of mobile mini-game Flappy Bird, like the one who left this review:

Whoever made this game is an evil mastermind.  Once this game is on your device all hope is lost you will never have your life back.

It was also the case for the game’s creator, Vietnam based Dong Nguyen.  Even though he claimed he was making 50 grand a day in ad revenue since the game mysteriously went viral after nearly a year of anonymity, Nguyen called it quits after hate mail started pouring in. He yanked the game from Google and iTunes.

If you’ve never heard of Flappy Bird, you might count yourself lucky.  The incredibly simple mobile game – it involves guiding a little bird in between pipes – is incredibly hard but incredibly addictive.  It’s been downloaded 50 million times.  But no longer.

Koopee Hiltunen, director of Finnish game industry group Neogames, sams Nguyen was a victim of his own success.  “He was this small indie developer and he wasn’t ready to handle the situation,” both from a business perspective and a personal one, says Hiltunen.  “He received a lot of hate mail” from frustrated users,  including death threats and professional criticism over the game, “and he took it quite personally.”

In many ways, Flappy Bird is a blast from the past, when indie developers could cook up a cheap game, go viral, and make money. That’s really hard to do – and to manage – today.  Ben Cousins, manager of mobile game studio Scattered Entertainment, says the game has been upped.    “That’s certainly not a business strategy anyone should replicate, you’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle really,” says Cousins.  “Chances of success are remote – this kind of success I would equate with winning the lottery.”

To become a top 20 mobile game, you need a strategy for retaining users for the long term.

Scaling success in a mini game is hard.  “Most successful developers create lots and lots of games, on a small investment level, and they’ll send those games out into a test market” to see how they fare, says Cousins.  If one does well  -- “likely by accident,” then you launch world wide, you develop in-app purchases, and invest in advertising to generate as many users as possible.  Some app developers have even turned to TV ads. 

That kind of scaling requires investors, who are reluctant to put money on a mini-game.  Simple, unsophisticated games “are very easy to copy,” says Cousins, pointing out that there are already 6 knockoffs of Flappy Bird on different platforms. 

With an unsophisticated game like Flappy Birds, it’s not clear if it will be able to retain users over the long term.

Basically, in today’s gaming app market, there’s not a lot of room for the little guy to fly.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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