Did This Indie App Developer Trick Apple to Hit Top Charts?

By Johnson Lu on February 5, 2014

Dong Nguyen, the indie app developer behind the top 10 free apps: Flappy Bird, Shuriken Block and Super Ball Juggling has intrigued the app development community with his sudden success. The games category has been known to be dominated by big name companies such as EA, Gameloft and other similar companies with big budgets and production value. The success of Dong’s indie games shows that indie app developers have a chance to succeed in the market, but more interestingly it shows that the ranking system in app marketplaces could potentially be exploited.

The Background to Dong’s Success

Dong Nguyen claims to be a solo indie app developer. He describes his games as very simple, so they are quite easy for him to produce. Dong attributes the success of his apps to his philosophy of simplicity in game design. What is most interesting about the success of his simple games is the fact that he did no marketing whatsoever on his part. The Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts for his games are not owned by Dong and are instead run by fans.

Maybe his success is really just luck, but there is one major factor that can’t be explained. He released Flappy Bird in June and Shuriken Block in May, and both did not receive much attention at all. Fast forward 6 months and they are now both at the top of the free app list. The delayed success of Dong’s apps and the claim that Dong did not engage in any marketing activities has attracted the attention of the entire app development community.

A Closer Look

Now we are going to take a closer look at the success of Dong’s apps. Upon initial inspection of Flappy Bird’s ratings and reviews section, it is immediately clear that something weird is happening. Here are a few snippets of user reviews which have been submitted to Flappy birds, you should notice that they are quite different from regular user reviews.

Images taken from the iTunes Store

Note that the word “addictive” appears in the majority of the reviews and that there are quite a number of negative reviews that still give the app 5 stars. Explanations for this weird phenomenon range from them being paid reviews or a ploy by internet users to create the funniest Flappy Birds review. If you search “Flappy Birds review” on Twitter right now you will receive a lot of Tweets highlighting funny reviews. Are these paid reviews or just the internet coming together for one giant joke?

Other viral content has also been created about Flappy Bird, including a video on Youtube by PewDiePie which has accumulated over 5 million views. There are also various other videos created by other Youtubers which range from parodies to footage of players getting angry while playing the game. Over 5 million pairs of eyes on content about Flappy Bird (from Youtube alone) definitely contributes to a large amount of downloads and users trying out the app.

Closer inspection of Flappy Bird’s traffic also bears a resounding resemblance to bots and/or purchased traffic. A sudden spike in traffic is extremely rare for any app which claims to do no marketing or promotion. Flappy Bird experienced some traffic upon release, then almost nothing for a few months until suddenly exploding during December of 2013. Any experienced app marketer would come to the conclusion that Dong purchased traffic for his app, but there’s no proof and a lot of the data and valuable information is now lost amongst the hype generated by internet users.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQz6xhlOt18]

Did This Indie App Developer Exploit the System?

There is no definite proof that Dong Nguyen has exploited the system, or that he is even part of the hype. However there is nothing disproving it either, whatever the truth may be, it’s a great sign for indie app developers looking to delve into mobile games development. Dong could be the mastermind behind all of the commotion or just an innocent bystander riding on his luck. There is no denying that his apps are quite fun and potentially addictive, but why did it take 6 months to catch on? Maybe the app system is not as infallible as we believe it to be. Whatever the truth may be, the future for indie app developers is looking bright.