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The rise of Flappy Bird, a simple game where you fly a bird through narrow gaps, is one of the most unlikely events to happen in the $13 billion mobile gaming business. So mobile app marketing firm Distimo tracked the game’s growth from its May launch to the present.

The tale of its rise of this free mobile game is instructive for other indie game developers who hope to have the same success. Flappy Bird is now ranked No. 1 in 100 countries. On iOS, the game is No. 1 for the iPhone in 88 countries, and it is No. 1 on the iPad in 77 countries. On Google Play, it is No. 1 in 11 countries.

The first thing that jumps out is the “long tail” of this game, or one that launched without any fanfare on the Apple iTunes App Store on May 24. Its creator is Dong Nguyen of dotGears Studios, a one-man shop in Hanoi. He describes himself as a “passionate game maker” and also created two other games, Shuriken Block and Super Ball Juggling, which have also shot to the top 10 free games on iOS.

At the outset, Flappy Bird wasn’t generating much download activity at all. It was “soft launch,” or the kind that developers do when they’re still working out the bugs in a game. The initial downloads happened in Russia, according to Distimo. In May, people downloaded it in Japan, Thailand, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Belgium, South Korea, and Chile.

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That means that the game had at least some basic appeal. But in June, it had made the top rankings only in Russia. In July and August, it ranked only in Australia. It actually dropped off the rankings in September and October. That may be because it was going through a revision. Version 1.1.0 was released Sept. 13.

In November, the first significant downloads happened in the U.S., with a few in Belgium. In December, the download volume in the U.S. rose to 25 times the volume in November. Other countries with downloads included  South Korea, Philippines, Belgium, South Africa, Peru, and Finland. During the last week, dotGears other two games also shot to the top ten free games, pulled upward by Flappy Bird.

By January, the U.S. volume reached 2.5 times the downloads of December. It became a viral hit. For the month of January so far, however, it’s not gigantic. It ranked No. 13, and that’s because its ascent happened so late in the month. Some observers wondered if bots, or paid promotion through fake user accounts, were behind the sudden rise. But Distimo sees no evidence of that.

It shot to No. 1 during the past week in the U.S. on both the Apple and Google Play app stores. The next major countries in order for downloads are the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Mexico, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, and Sweden.

The appeal of Flappy Bird is in its simplicity and its difficulty to master. Anybody can play it, since all you do is tap a touchscreen to make a bird flap its wings. You have to get your bird through narrow gaps in pipes. If you hit them, you die. You do this over and over and try to beat your friend’s scores. (My record is 8. Entrepreneur Peter Levin kindly told me that his record is 92). It’s easy to share your scores with friends.

“Knowing this background, we think the consecutive increase in downloads in different countries might have given some ideas for improvement,” Distimo said. “And then, paired with the social media and viral success, this might have contributed to the large increase in ranks in the last weeks.”

Flappy Bird has integrated mobile advertising, but it’s not clear just yet how much money it’s making. A big lost opportunity is that it doesn’t have in-app purchases now, so people can’t pay real money for virtual goods in the game.

 

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