Earlier this year, an unknown Vietnamese developer named Dong Nguyen briefly owned the gaming world. His mobile game Flappy Bird suddenly and rapidly racked up millions of downloads and dominated Twitter, with Nguyen claiming to make $50,000 a day off display ads alone.
The breakout success befuddled some industry watchers as Flappy Bird became one of the top 10 most-downloaded apps in the U.S. for two solid weeks. However, Nguyen quit at the top, yanking his app from the App Store and Google Play on Feb. 9, and telling Forbes it was “gone forever.”
And then, to the muted delight of the cynics who never believed him in the first place, Nguyen told CNBC he might bring Flappy Bird back after all, in August. Before that deadline can arrive, though, a new species of copycat (Copy Bird?) has emerged: Games pretending to be “the next Flappy Bird.”
VentureBeat fell for the same hype around Let It Goat, which sends the titular goat running and jumping over a series of platforms and hazards. As The Daily Dot correctly pointed out, Let It Goat is more than anything else a ripoff of Adult Swim’s Robot Unicorn Attack. It does, however, borrow Flappy Bird’s retro graphics and punishing difficulty level.
“We could also ask why the pipes from Super Mario Bros. have become the hallmark of every deliberately glitchy, gimmicky mobile game trying to socially engineer its way to the top of the app downloads, but we suspect we just answered our own question,” The Daily Dot’s Aja Romano wrote.
Yesterday, TechCrunch joined the party, declaring of another new casual game, “Timberman Is the New Flappy Bird.” And back in May, Re/code’s Liz Gannes spoke to the co-creator of an app called Make It Rain, who called it “the new Flappy Bird.”
These apps did well, at least in the short term: Let It Goat was in the top 50 of the App Store for eight of the past 12 days but dropped 121 places in the U.S. App Store rankings between Thursday and Sunday; Make It Rain had an impressive three weeks in the top 10 before falling to no. 637 at the time of this writing. And they made some people happy, so good for them, or whatever.
But I’d like to propose a new rule: If you have to call yourself “the next Flappy Bird,” you’re not the next Flappy Bird.
It’s reminiscent of how a cottage industry has sprung up around making viral videos for YouTube, as if it were as simple as following a formula. Downloads of Flappy Bird likely would have dipped in time, too, but unlike the many other momentary success stories on the App Store, it still carries cultural currency. Why? Its sublime design*, the mobile-friendly novelty of a punishing arcade-style game, and — this is the big one — because it came out of nowhere.
We still don’t know for sure what sparked Flappy Bird’s rise from obscurity at launch to international phenomenon eight months later. It came from Hanoi, a city with countless mobile game players but few of the wannabe millionaires who are a dime a dozen in Silicon Valley. Nguyen told Rolling Stone he didn’t spend anything to market the game, but the scrutiny around his viral success — ranging from accusations that he cheated the app store to indictments of his game’s addictive nature — drove him to walk away.
Meanwhile, we know how all the pretenders got started. Make It Rain jump-started its word-of-mouth campaign with $1,000 worth of Facebook ads; Let It Goat’s creators, Jack Gilinsky and Jack Johnson, have four million followers on Vine; and Timberman took off after it was featured in the iOS App Store’s “Best New Games” section.
All are valid roads to success. But none of them are Flappy’s.
* No, seriously. If you’re interested in the importance of small game design differences, Seb Long’s deconstruction of Flappy Bird for Gamasutra is an excellent read.