Flappy Bird, gone but not forgotten. Photographer: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images
Flappy Bird, gone but not forgotten. Photographer: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

If the rise and fall of Flappy Bird, a simple game for touchscreen devices that was downloaded about 50 million times before its developer took it down, weren't a true story, some novelist should have invented it. It's your full guide to the app economy's promise and pitfalls.

Flappy Bird appeared in Apple's iOS store on May 24, 2013, and briefly made the top 1,000 in one of the categories, Family. It then sank into obscurity until late last year, when it re-emerged and, by Jan. 17, reached No. 1 in the U.S. iOS store. On Feb. 8, the game's Vietnamese developer, Dong Nguyen, notified users he was taking it down. "I cannot take this anymore," he tweeted. Flappy Bird disappeared the following day. Enterprising users are now selling their old devices with the game installed on eBay. Believe it nor not, there are actual bids in some of the auctions, although one where bidding almost reached $100,000 turned out to be a dud.

There is little about Flappy Bird that could justify its extreme popularity. Nguyen is a fan of pixelated, retro games and he has made a few of them. This one has a simple design resembling Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. and borrowing, not so subtly, some of those games' features, like the pipes through which the player needs to take his bird. Playing the game is annoyingly difficult and requires extreme concentration.

App developer Carter Thomas built a circumstantial case for foul play, saying he had never seen an app plunge from view in the app store and then make such a strong comeback. "I have seen a lot of shady stuff in the app store and this is textbook," Thomas wrote. "Essentially people will create cloak IP addresses and automate hundreds of thousands of Apple ID accounts on virtual devices that download an app millions of times. Because chart ranking is primarily driven by download volume, the app goes to the top of the charts. Then it enjoys all the organic volume that that chart position gets." The Apple IDs, he wrote, can even be programmed to leave a review of the app.

There were, however, plenty of real people downloading and playing the game. The hashtag #flappybirdhighscore grew popular on Twitter. Mashable.com did its own analysis of the game's user reviews and claimed it could find no evidence of a scam.

Another bizarre aspect of the Flapping Bird case is that Nguyen, who claimed he was making $50,000 a day from in-game ads, appears to have taken the game down for ethical reasons. On Feb. 10, the 29-year-old developer explained what exactly it was he "couldn't take" to a Forbes reporter in Hanoi who spoke to him in Vietnamese. He was smoking nervously and had to put off the interview because of a meeting with a deputy prime minister.

"Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed," Nguyen said. "But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem."

The American Psychiatric Association has so far declined to include computer game addiction to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Still, some studies have shown that game addiction and substance dependence may share the same neurobiological mechanism. In effect, Nguyen felt he was selling the equivalent of drugs, and that bothered him. Some people appear to have reacted adversely to withdrawal: When Nguyen took the game down, he started receiving death threats that looked only half-facetious.

The low entry barriers in the app economy make it the perfect playing field for enthusiasts wherever they live. An unknown programmer who isn't even very young by tech industry standards can suddenly produce a huge hit in a field where major companies are spending millions of dollars. There are shady ways of achieving success, but once an app goes viral, its spread becomes uncontrollable, and its creator becomes a star.

It may be counterintuitive, but the world of game developers is full of people for whom stardom is a burden. They just want to do their thing quietly, without media hype or million-dollar revenues. Viral marketing can turn these people into victims of their own success. There will be people arguing that the removal of Flappy Bird is a clever marketing stratagem for Nguyen, who is working on more games and already has a few popular ones in the app stores. His desperate tweets, though, suggest he felt harassed and overburdened as the game's popularity exploded. People are more complicated than corporations, and in the app economy, we are still often dealing with people.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him onTwitter.)

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net