Mobile game Flappy Bird has been inescapable in the media recently, but over the weekend the game's developer Dong Nguyen decided to pull the app from the iTunes Store and Google Play, despite reputedly earning as much as $50,000 a day in ad revenue for an app that only took three days to build. What can other aspiring developers learn from that?
Flappy Bird has actually been out since May last year. What changed in recent weeks was a series of online articles discussing how difficult the game is, whether its design is original or lifts wholesale from other titles, and how much money it was making. While many aspiring developers would love to enjoy that level of publicity and income, there's a downside. And that leads us to:
Lesson #1: Publicity leads to more users, but it also brings the nutcases out. In recent weeks, Nguyen has received death threats. Yes, there are people out there so deranged and self-important that they believe it is appropriate to respond to a free game they don't like by threatening to kill the person that developed it. You might suspect such threats are hollow, but do you want to be the person receiving them all?
The fact this happened does us no credit whatsoever as a society. But it reflects a reality any aspiring developer will have to deal with: if what you do becomes popular, it will also attract feedback from violent, evil freaks. You'll need a thick skin.
Lesson #2: You can copy ideas, but you have to be quick As I write this, there are multiple Flappy Birds "clones" being offered (and downloaded) in the iTunes Store.
The fact Apple's iTunes search features are so poor may well be a factor here.
The phenomenon is a little less evident at Google Play, but the ease with which apps can be uploaded means there's a booming industry in deliberately copying Android apps as well. Rip-offs are rife in the mobile world.
If you're not concerned about ethics, there is money to be made copying successful ideas. If you are, you'll need to accept that your ideas will be copied, especially in gaming. The only real protection is investing time in developing something that can't be easily ripped off.
Lesson #3: Free software dominates As we've noted before, the vast majority of apps that people download from app stores are free. If you want to make money, you have to rely either on in-game advertising (the route Nguyen took) or in-app purchases.
Lesson #4: Virality is hard to predict It's easy to sneer at Flappy Bird: its difficulty, its design, the lack of apparent artistry. But app stores are filled with this kind of crud. Most of it never attains this level of popularity. There's no foolproof formula.