Why was Flappy Bird so popular?

An employee plays the game Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi.
An employee plays the game Flappy Bird at a smartphone store in Hanoi.
Credit: Getty Images

Apparently, we’re all Flappy Bird addicts: When Dong Nguyen, the Vietnamese creator of the popular mobile game, announced that he’s removing it from online stores, it became big news.

What makes the simple app so popular when other, flashier games are not? Metro spoke with Vili Lehdonvirta, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Oxford Internet Institute.

What’s the secret behind Flappy Bird’s success?

If you look at what’s inside the game, the retro visual style borrows from classic games like Super Mario, which invokes nostalgia in the user. The other important aspect is the fact that it requires skill. Most games no longer ask for such know-how. They’re easy to learn, so to get good, you just have to play them often enough. Flappy Bird, by contrast, is unforgiving, so success feels meaningful. As a result, if you’re successful, you’re quite ready to share your experience on social media. Other games push this very hard, but since they’re not very difficult to master, it’s almost embarrassing to share the fact that you’ve done well. It just means that you’ve spent a lot of time playing Farmville.

But Flappy Bird got a lot of criticism…

Yes, a lot of praise and a lot of criticism. It created controversy (questions have been raised regarding whether bots were used to boost its app chart popularity), which helped it become a phenomenon. It was like, if you’re not playing Flappy Bird, you’re missing out. But its success is also down to chance. Even if you followed all these steps, it’s not certain that your game would be successful. In fact, now there are a lot of copycats, and they’re wondering why they’re not doing well even though they have the same features.

What does the success of Flappy Bird, a game created by one man in Vietnam, mean for Silicon Valley?

Indie games like Flappy Bird are becoming bigger because they have access to users through channels like the app Store. They go against the current design paradigm, and they rely the makers’ artistic sense rather than market research when they create their product. I wouldn’t be surprised if game companies start incorporating Flappy Bird aspects into their design paradigm now. But indie success like Flappy Bird is short-lived. In order to survive, you have to grow, and that means you have to start paying attention to the market. Angry Birds did that and turned itself into a media franchise, but many indie game makers don’t want to go down that route.


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