What Marketers Can Learn from Flappy Bird

What Marketers Can Learn from Flappy Bird

4 minute read
Noreen Seebacher avatar

No one had anything nice to say about Flappy Bird, the "mindless but infuriating" smartphone game that an astounding number of people — 50 million plus, to be exact — played in spite of themselves. So why are so many people so sad that it's gone? And what lessons can the game's rise and fail have for the rest of us, including digital marketers?

If you frustrate your customers enough that they want to smash their mobile phones with a hammer, and then take away the source of that frustration, will they love to hate you and your product?

Or is it all just a weird inversion of human psychology: We simply want what we cannot have, not matter how bad for us it apparently is?

I'll Pay Anything

Say what you want about the addictive game that soared to the top of iPhone and Android app downloads only to be pulled out of app stores by its developer on Sunday. But one thing is clear: Sometimes there is more to learn from a meaningless time suck than we think.

In case you have been living in another world — the real one — and missed all the hype about the Game So Good It Had to Go, here's the story in a nutshell. Dong Nguyen (@dongatory), a "passionate indie game maker" from Hanoi, Vietnam created what is arguably a simple game with strangely familiar graphics (to anyone who has ever played Nintendo's Mario games).

Users have to tap the screen of their phone to prevent a bird from crashing into green pipes. That's pretty much the whole game.

The game debuted on the Apple App Store last May, but went viral after its Google Play release last month.

Since then, everyone seemed to be flapping their mouths about Flappy Bird. The Android version has been downloaded up to 50 million times, and attracted more than half a million reviews -- many of them including the words like "satan" and "evil."

Learning Opportunities

Nguyen was raking in a reported $50,000 a day from advertising, which you might consider a good thing. But then he did the unexpected, and announced he was pulling the game from the market.

Why Would He Do That?


No one seems to know why Nguyen pulled the plug. He's not talking, other than to say he couldn’t take the publicity anymore. Still, he insists on Twitter that he still makes games. Is he hoping the next one is a flop?

There was speculation Nguyen was forced to take the game down over legal issues. Look quickly at Flappy Bird: it's clearly reusing the pipe graphics from Super Mario World. But Nintendo sent an email to the Wall Street Journal denying it has made any complaint about the app’s similarity to its games.

5 Lessons

  1. Keep it simple: You didn't need to watch a 10-minute tutorial a la Facebook Paper to play Flappy Bird. There are no complicated instructions, no risks of misunderstandings. The only thing you're trying to do is steer a bird through some pipes.
  2. Make it challenging: Nothing is more frustrating — make that addictive — than something that's harder than it looks. No one wants to feel outwitted by something as lame as a Flappy Bird.
  3. Create an air of mystery: Nguyen refused most requests for interviews and said little in the ones he gave. This helped create some of the mystique surrounding the game. 
  4. Hope for it to go viral: No one seems to know why the game became so popular in the apparent absence of paid advertising. “The popularity could be my luck,” he said to Chocolate Lab Apps during an interview.
  5. Know when to quit: Nothing makes people want something more than the idea of not being able to have it. So boost demand by limiting — or stopping — supplies.

I planned to come up with a few more tips. But Flappy Bird is calling. The game is still on my daughter's iPhone … the one with the smashed screen.