Few things have captivated the Internet in 2014 quite like Flappy Bird. The mobile game TUAW called a "digital drug" (there really is no better description) combines the side-scrolling, two-dimensional style of the early 2000s Helicopter Game with our proven love of cute miniature birds. An extreme level of difficulty from the start -- most players are happy with a high score of 10 -- and excellent pacing are really what makes the game so addictive, though.
The exact reason may never be known, but one thing is clear: The economics behind the game's rise are remarkable.
Flappy Bird was released in May 2013 after Nguyen and the Vietnam-based dotGears Studios spent only a few days developing it, according to an interview with Chocolate Lab Apps. For over six months, the game languished in anonymity until December, when it debuted on the top 1,500 in Apple's U.S. iOS Store.
The demand shift
After a rapid rise up the U.S. charts in December, the game became the most popular iPhone app in early January, subsequently hitting No. 1 in Canada, Great Britain, and China, among other countries, a week or two later. It experienced a similar trajectory in the Google Play store.
Clearly, the first demand shift originated in America, but if you're asking why, good luck finding an answer. Nguyen himself has said he didn't promote the game in any way, and accusations of bot usage (to generate fake traffic and boost the app's ranking) remain unsubstantiated. It's possible Flappy Bird simply went viral, and a tongue-in-cheek Twitter contest to post the most entertaining, long-form review of the game may be one reason for the hype.
By the first week of February, Flappy Bird was generating thousands of social media mentions per day, $50,000 in daily ad revenue, according to The Verge, and had eclipsed 50 million downloads. Assuming App Annie's data from above is correct, Nguyen and dotGears Studios have made at least $1.5 million from the game, possibly more.
But that's not the full story.
The supply shock
For reasons that aren't entirely known, Nguyen pulled the game from the Apple and Google app stores last Sunday. As VentureBeat points out, this move is "unprecedented" for a game with its level of popularity. Nguyen didn't offer much explanation, other than a couple Tweets that said it wasn't for legal reasons, before adding, "I cannot take this anymore."
An unwillingness to deal with the media's spotlight may be why Flappy Bird was removed, but regardless of the true motive, Nguyen's decision just vaporized the supply of one of the world's hottest pieces of software overnight.
In economic theory, this situation is known as a supply shock, and unlike an oil or diamond shortage, it's possible Flappy Bird will never be available again.
How has the market reacted?
Quite spectacularly. In some cases, consumers are willing to pay thousands of dollars to purchase iPhones or Android phones equipped with Flappy Bird (it's still playable as long as it was installed before Sunday's removal).
A few examples of the price surge caused by the supply shock:
- Many Flappy Bird-equipped iPhones are listed for $1,000 to $10,000 on eBay, with a few priced above $50,000.
- An iPhone 5S with the app sold for $10,100.
- One iPad Air listed at over $80,000 has received multiple bids.
- eBay nixed the auction of a Flappy Bird-equipped iPhone as it neared $100,000, the LA Times reports.
The list goes on and on, but before you shake your head at how ridiculous it seems -- Flappy Bird was a free app, after all -- remember the economics at play. Any supply shortage will inherently lead to a rise in price. eBay's (EBAY 1.01%) cancellation of some auctions will only lead to higher prices in the secondary market.
A third shift?
As of this moment, at least two major changes have hit Flappy Bird since its creation. The first was last December's demand shift, and the second was the subsequent supply shock that sent the price of phones equipped with the app soaring.
The death of Flappy Bird might've also led to a third shift: another increase in demand. The buzz surrounding the game remains high, and its developer now has a newfound air of mystery that continues to generate headlines.
A future of many possibilities
Dong Nguyen makes other games, and he has told reporters that he is thinking about a sequel to his hit app. Those are both facts, and while it's impossible to get inside his head, is it too much of a stretch to think the the decision to kill Flappy Bird was a publicity stunt?
Forbes has speculated on the possibility, mentioning, "intentional or not, Nguyen's announcement … has turned into what could possibly be the most genius act of marketing in the history of the app market."
With new users foaming at the mouth to get their hands on the app, and existing ones still playing in droves, a Flappy Bird sequel would almost certainly debut at the top of the charts. And don't forget the original still makes $50,000 in revenue per day -- that equals nearly $20 million a year.
Assuming he doesn't get snatched up by a larger studio, Nguyen may be at the helm of one of mobile gaming's most promising franchises. For something developed in less than a week, that's one of the tech world's most significant accomplishments ever.