Why Flappy Bird’s success is probably genuine

I just wrote this response to a dev claiming the success of Flappy Bird is probably the result of app store scamming. Thought this response would be better as a blog post as it seems a hot button topic. And so I can be more embarrassed if I’m wrong.

I think those critics who are so quick to cry ‘foul’ might be, well, a little too quick.

It’s all happening

Right now. We are at a peak of app store scamming. A lot of things have been tried and are being tried. Bot nets for dl’s and reviews are not new and in fact they are somewhat readily available BUT: only for a boatload of upfront money.
If you read way back through Dong’s Twitter stream, the guy seems pretty genuine. And definitely not of the rich kid type.
So you would have to go all the way and extend your theory to cover that one guy somehow has his hand on a massive botnet. And then uses that to catapult app up the charts that is not well monetized, of all things? It doesn’t add up.

Get Glue

There is more: Stickiness. You can catapult an app up the free charts. It’s a known number and right now probably somewhere between 15k and 25k. Legal, with advertisement. The illegal ways are not much cheaper. It happens every day. And all those apps, once up, sink like stones within hours. Flappy Bird climbed steadily and stuck like glue.

That again would require massive amounts of $ or his own private Mega-Botnet. Again, for a small game with non-optimized monetization?

It happened before

You know where we saw similar download cycles? With the original Temple Run. Took four months to get any type of traction but then the kids latched on, carried it to Nr. 1 and it was there for months. Imangi by that time did all their pushes already to not much effect, then it went truly viral.

Tuscan Milk!

Last, the reviews. It’s a known thing on amazon that reviews in itself can go viral. See Three-Wolves-Moon and Tuscan Milk. Looking at what the kids say on youtube and twitter it seems this is genuine fun for them.

tl;dr

fishy: yes. But if Dong did it in any fishy way he has more $ than any of the large, venture backed money reeking behemoths out there. Or has a larger private botnet than Anonymous. Or found a way nobody has found before. Future will hopefully tell. Until then there is nothing wrong with a little “not-guilty until convicted” attitude and congratulate a fellow Indie dev to his overnight success

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Don’t stare at me

One of the first things that came to my mind envisioning a scenario for our game “Sorcerer’s Wrath” for the Oculus Rift, was the interactivity the game should have with the Rift itself. Where you, the player, look at, is so much more pronounced with the Rift, it felt natural to consider a response to that.

Experimenting with this, we found that while the human eye certainly is capable of side glances and does those all the time, if you really want to examine something you will rotate your head as much as possible to have your eyes in their center position (serious study definitely missing here). This allows for a rather simple implementation of “player is looking at something”.

When attending Unite 13, I heard Peter Giokaris talking about the “Tracker Rotates Y” parameter in the CameraController settings and that he is prepared to add x and z, but he has not heard of a real use case yet.

That made me think it might be worth sharing our approach, as we use those settings for a very Unity-like implementation. And I guess the use case is pretty common.

Tutorial

First, attach a cube to the OVRCameraController GameObject, about 100 down the z-axis, then stretch it’s BoxCollider towards z for 200 units. Now the collider starts in the center of the player’s view, stretching out 200 units. For good measure, disable the cube’s Mesh Renderer and check “Is Trigger” in the Box Collider. Add a Rigidbody, disable ‘Use Gravity’ and enable ‘Is Kinematic’. Name it “ViewCube”, because we didn’t come up with a better word.

Image

Next we need to patch the Oculus SDK (0.2.4).

Rifting it

Find method “SetCameraOrientation” in “OVRCamera.cs”. Comment out the line “a.x = 0″ (line 215 in sdk 0.2.4). Now the parent will be rotated with the y and x angles of the tracker. Make sure “Tracker Rotates Y” is enabled in the Inspector.

Image

Run your project and you will see how the ViewCube moves with the Rift movement. When it cuts through an object it means the player is looking at that object and that object will receive OnTriggerEnter as well as OnTriggerExit.

Examples:

- when you stare at a character in a game for a certain time, it should react

- control game objects with where you look

In “Sorcerer’s Wrath” we use it for things like ‘Force lift’. Here is how that looks like behind the scenes.

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Announcing ‘Sorcerer’s Wrath’

In Sorcerer’s Wrath you pave the way for as many knights as possible to make it through the battlefield. Keep fiery Dragons and rock flinging Ents in check.

We are using the Rift for a unique control system. Simply look at a certain spot and unleash your heat vision or force lift powers on everything there. Or sling iceballs, trying to predict where they will hit. Defend against rocks & fireballs with your force shield.

And when the night comes, fighting in the dark gets a whole new meaning with the Rift.

Sorcerer’s Wrath requires an Oculus Rift and works with keyboard or Xbox controller. Depending on how the competition goes, we will be looking into other platforms.

We are trying to create the perfect game to experience the Rift, especially for first-time users. One idea was to create a scenario where the character doesn’t need to move other than looking around, while still being in full control of a large scale battlefield. We found aiming at where the player looks at feels completely natural. Using “powers” that are continuous we were able to omit any artificial guide like a crosshair, to preserve immersion, and still create the sense that the aiming works for the player. Also, we found removing the mouse or any other type of input other than the power buttons really adds to the deep immersion the Rift offers.

This is our 2nd milestone for the OR vrjam.

We are happy how the game is coming along and hope you all like it!

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Teaming up

Good news: I have teamed up with my former co-founder Martin Schwarz.

We are friends since we met at our local high school. 1987, coding as a teenage hobby with our Atari’s and PC’s meant being part of small nerdy peer group of maybe 5 (out of 120). After school, our mandatory military service took us to two different towns and later we went to two different colleges, but stayed in touch, meeting most weekends in our hometown. Finally, we decided we could try starting a company while idling in our last college year, so we wouldn’t have to apply for jobs. I can force myself acting extrovert, so I got to play CEO & sales after a while (which back then just meant to talk enthusiastically about what we made), Martin is a coding god (which means he disapproved of most of what I wrote, for as long as I contributed, until he became the sole master of all things R&D). He finally pried himself from HP seven years after they bearhugged bought us.

I’d say the best Indie Game Developer team is dev + artist, that said, if life deals you two developers, you should go and make code. I have to say, my motivation/productivity went up significantly since we started. This is boosted by the fact that we are 8h apart, so every day is a challenge for the one who is up to beat whatever cool things the other one did in his shift.

Our first project is ‘Sorcerer’s Wrath“, a Castle Defense game where you overlook a large battlefield from a castle tower, defending your army from the enemy hordes. Exclusively developed for the Oculus Rift VRJAM, with Unity. We are huge fans of the device and packed some neat Rift-only stuff into ‘Sorcerer’s Wrath’ and we are still expanding it, exploring how to do things in VR after we submitted.

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What are you doing?

Sometimes, I use “Finding my way” to describe what I’m doing. I’ve been in that state for a while. It’s kind of a being-in-limbo mode, which is not really great, but it’s also a deliberate move which I want to explain.

First of all, I should note this is very much NOT how to run a startup. My own first venture I approached very differently.

Classic Startup

My friend and I (the founders if you will) were so financially pressured from the getgo we just jumped at opportunities, made some decent choices along the way and never looked back. We tried the self-financed path without knowing what that actually means, we just knew we didn’t want to borrow money (and VC’s were not a big thing in Germany). So the pressure was solely coming from ourselves to pay rent, food, etc. and stop pretending to our parents (and us) that we are still studying (heaps of praise for the open German college system where you do not have to finish at a specific point in time).

But retrospectively I’d say the financial need was  a really good guide for the early decisions you need to make in any startup. We were able to make quick decisions and test them just as quickly, which was great. Financial metrics are merciless and very black & white and while that can be horrible from a lot of angles, it is a crisp metric to test business decisions against. If you tell me you make a lot of decisions in your startup based on financial needs, I’m happy, will give you a hug, invest in your business, look forward to seeing you again next year, etc ;)

For myself, with my second venture, I’m doing something that is potentially nicer but also harder at the same time. I’m broadening the factors that make me decide if I’m doing ok.

My Perfect Startup, V2

Here are some of these factors and how they match with where I’m settling right now as Indie Game Dev.

1. Generally liking my daily work

I don’t think there is a job where you love every minute of doing it, every day. Game Dev has its ups and downs, but every phase is very challenging, diverse and creative. It often does feel like going where no one else has gone before. Works for me.

2. Having a chance of impact

Software always impacts people. Last week, my AC repair guy told me how much he wishes there was an app that would help him do some basic repeating math tasks he does with every inspection. Making such an app would impact some people, make their life better, let them go home earlier, etc.

For games, that impact can be huge. You can literally bring joy to the life of thousands of people, including those going through tough times in their life. And if that is not good enough, you can go deeper by adding a layer of social messages to your game and be a small part of what makes society change over time. This is an inherent element of the open creativity we have when making games and the large outreach some games achieve. The potential is great and that works for me.

3. Challenges

No need to elaborate on that. Exploring Mechanim today, Blender tomorrow. Make a game, write an article, lecture to students. So many amazing options. Works for me.

4. Making Money

As I mention above, I really like that element being part of the mix and I’m glad my first startup success was “mediocre” enough I still need to make money. I do know people who made enough money to never have to work in their life and some of them are really unhappy (no game devs among them, just to be clear). I also know people who are uneasy about submitting to financial pressure and I really want to put that into perspective. On a basic level, making money is about survival and hence a strong motivator. Nothing  wrong with that. Enjoy being motivated, take it from any source you can. Making money starts to be more problematic when the primary driver isn’t next months rent anymore, but greed.

From a financial perspective, games are tough, as it is such a hit driven business. But even without going all the way to contracting there are some options mentioned above that also make money and can be fun to explore. And if a game you make hits target, the financial upside can be significant and rewarding. Works for me.

Balancing is hard

These are just a few angles, most of them gravitating around the idea of being happy with what you do. When I made PyroPainter, I fell back into a mode of weighing the financial outlook heavily, thinking I could create a more steady income base with an app instead of a game. That backfired when I reached the point where the release went well enough to give me the outlook of constantly updating the app to claim a strong position in its niche, but bad enough to not be an instant success. If you don’t have all your heart in such an app and you don’t have the massive financial pressure to motivate you, you are not in a good spot.

I could have anticipated that earlier in my Indie career, when my kids games got somewhat successful but I so did not want to end up making kids games all the time and started to look into other areas. I should have written up some of those criteria I mention above and make more deliberate choices, instead of making a simple linedrawing game, shelving a complex zombie game and fall into the trap of making a novelty app with PyroPainter afterwards.

I’m not sure I could have done that back then, though. When you read stories about entrepreneurs, this is a recurring thing. First success is often driven by being at the right place at the right time and doing a couple of things right, but it is rarely planned. Planning the next steps instead of going with the flow is hard.

Game On

Right now I’m glad I have given myself time to explore this and allowed room for correction, even though I painfully realize how planless that might look like from the outside. It’s comforting to know that the search for the right spot that I’m doing across categories is quite common within the game dev category itself :)

Right now, settling on Game Dev feels right. It’s the most challenging and creative category in Software. I feel I finally really click with the tools I use (Unity). The Indie scene is diverse and open. The industry is very alive, welcoming yet not shy of confrontation. Like fighting bloody fights on the forefront of equality and inclusion issues while many other industries I know are still debating whether this is a thing or not.

Million Miles Away From Home

The decision to settle in this industry is correlated with our move out of California, buying me time to work on this in earnest. Which I thoroughly enjoy whenever I find time while still settling in our new place.

This felt like a good milestone to summarize my journey since I quit my job/last startup so far. I hope the one or the other finds it inspiring, no matter where in your entrepreneurial life you are. Please share what is important for you when trying to decide if your job/startup goes the right way.

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Hello again

It’s been one year since I updated this blog. I slowly feel like going back into occasional blogging again. What happened in that last year and what is happening right now is something I’m going to explain in small bites in the near future.

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A letter from China

Do you find the latest news about iDevice adoption rates in China intriguing?

Are you thinking about targeting that market with your apps or games?

When I read Bruces’ post about his experience with releasing Gun Runner, wondering what to expect from the Chinese market, I sent an email to Jack, the CEO of my former outsourcing partner. Jack and I go back more than 10 years, he is a great guy and an avid technology enthusiast. Even though I’m doing all the coding myself right now (for a variety of personal reasons), we have a great relationship and when I send him a question, I’m sure to receive a non-sugarcoated answer.

My question

Hi Jack,

hope all is well!

A fellow dev experiences something interesting with his newly released

game: http://manuptimestudios.com/the-china-syndrome/

Do you have any comment on that? I’d say the “secret sauce” is that
the game is free, but how about ongoing monetization. Is there a trend
that people are going to pay for apps soon? And/or IAP? Can they
actually?

Those download numbers from China sure are impressive :)

Jack’s answer

Nice to hear from you ! We’re doing fine with our outsourcing business, and trying to extend our iPad menu product “LetsOrder”.
Regarding your question, I’ve downloaded the app for both iPhone and iPad, and read the link.
First, Gun Runner looks like an old console game that was popular in the last early 90s in China, maybe that’s the reason it got many downloads here.
Some people on Sina Weibo said , we may have over 60 million iOS devices in China, this could be a bit exaggerative, but not far from truth. Social media and word of mouth are both the strong way to promote a good app, but the key thing is, I don’t see many people to pay for an app, no matter it’s per download or IAP.
There’s a trend that fewer people get their phone jailbroken, but most of them only download free apps. If there are ways to make money, I think it could be these ways:
  •  ADs, but the app has to have a long life cycle on the device.
  • Free app, and IAP, but the app has to be designed specifically for Chinese users, and requires heavy marketing efforts
  • Completely free, and make money from user volume for other businesses, like QQ.
For Chinese people to get used to pay for apps/games, I believe there’re a few years to go, this is also why many successful Chinese game devs aim their market target towards US and Europe.
For your friend, I think he is very lucky, but I don’t think this game can bring much sales for him(no offense at all). He can change the game to paid app and give it a shot for sure.
Sorry that my comments may sounds negative, but I hope this help him get clearer image about Chinese market. :)
BTW: Draw something got very popular recently around us, but seems to drop out very soon, users are just harder to please.
Cheers!
I found this really interesting, so I wanted to share it. From all I can see with this and talking to Liz who has similar experiences with her app in China, I’d say that the market is certainly growing fast, download numbers can be substantial but monetization is very tricky. If the latter is mainly owed to a broad stance/expectation of the audience rather than technical or financial matters, expecting too much of that certainly very tempting market could be a bad idea short-term for Indies.
Did you do anything specific with your app in China? Please share your experience in the comments.
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