Flappy Bird’s Smoke & Mirrors – Is Something Fishy Going On?

by Carter Thomas

Using Bots For App Store Rankings

In the past few years, I have seen people go under the radar and use bots (fake accounts run by computers to artificially create downloads/ranks and reviews). It behaves very strangely and accounts for seeing apps skyrocket to the top of the chart with no real explanation.

Looking at some of the top apps in the store by Dong Nguyen, I hate to say it, but it looks really similar to bot activity. Of course, I can’t prove this and there are strong cases for lots of different potential growth strategies, but I do want to bring this up to engage a discussion and get industry leaders to weigh in with some analysis so that we can find out how this happened.

It’s the first time in the app store that I’ve ever seen this and, if it turns out that it’s just a wildly viral game like Gangnam Style, my hat is off to Mr. Nguyen and I wish him the very best of luck and success.

But….things still look weird.

First – these are the apps in question: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/dong-nguyen/id636374342

Second – check the screenshots below to show his rankings.

don

flappybirds

don2

 

Impressive, right? It looks like in December/January the app gods shined their lights down on Dong Nguyen and said “YES YOU ARE WORTHY” and completely changed Apple’s algorithm to catapult him to the top of the charts. What a miracle it is!!

Typically, if I ever saw any rank insanity like this I would assume that there was traffic buying going on. This happens all the time and makes sense. This happens to indie developers as well when they release a game that hits.

BUT.

When you release games in MAY (Shuriken Block) and JUNE (Flappy Birds) that have a non-existant launch, then magically lift off 6 months later, it looks weird. Especially when your other games coincidentally all do so at the exact same time as well.

No cross promotions so the top game isn’t directly lifting the other apps. As said in a recent interview, Nguyen claims he did zero promoting of this app and was just really lucky. People just want really simple, stupid apps. Right?

Get real.

Check the Reviews

Here’s another nice little tidbit. Read through the reviews. Check the word count. Do an analysis on how many times the word “glitch” “pipe” “addicting” are used relative to the review length. Also check how many negative reviews give 5 stars.

Here’s a quick snapshot from a 3 minute scroll through Flappy Bird’s reviews.

reviews

I don’t think there is any app on the app store that has this many consistently morbid reviews that use the same words over and over and are posted in such regularity. If I am wrong, please let me know and we’ll start a petition for Apple to stop approving such life destroying apps.

I Smell Something Fishy

I’ve seen a lot of shady stuff in the app store and this is textbook. For any of you that don’t understand how this works, 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 are then programmed to leave a Review of the app (4 or 5 stars) and can create copy using powerful automated programs.

I am very much against this sort of marketing and I hope that this ends up not being true. One saving grace (if he did, in fact use bots) is knowing that he’s using AdMob banners and nothing else to monetize, meaning he left about $1M on the table this past week.

Oops.

 

What do you think? Is this guy legit? Leave a comment below or ping me on Twitter.

Will February 7, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Obviously the secret to success is people telling other people NOT to play your game. Everybody ALWAYS wants to do exactly what other people tell them not to do, even if they have no actual desire to do it beforehand.

Seagull February 7, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Terrible sub-conclusions based on no supporting data with sensationalist writing.

You cannot seriously write a blog post about scamming without any evidence to support your point. You literally have nothing. Not a single piece of solid evidence.

It’s as if you just wrote a sensationalist article to get attention and scam people into wasting their time reading your crap. Oh, wait…

Nathan February 7, 2014 at 11:00 pm

@Jonathan

Look, I have a few things to say to you.
1. The app I made was free and I had no plans of making it paid.
2. It was an idea that hadn’t been attempted before from what I had seen.
3. I’m perfectly fine about the fact that my app isn’t popular. I mean, I’m just glad people have downloaded it.
4. I programmed that app when I was about 13. Bearing that in mind you have to think about how much work I put into making it. Hell I had to buy a new pc just so I could run the windows phone emulator to test the app (I released the app on the windows phone store). I put A LOT of work and care into making it instead of just making a half assed attempt at cloning something really badly and watching it rake in downloads through false advertising. Each download I have feels more satisfying because I know people would have downloaded it because they were interested in the idea of my app and not because it was masking as another app. The guy who made flappy bird on the other hand just blatantly ripped off another already existing app and somehow his one got downloads for some reason. He got downloads through ripping off another app and that is just cheating your way to the top.

I rest my case.

DrClown February 8, 2014 at 4:39 am

I only played it because I saw pewdiepie play it, and I didn’t think it could be as hard as he made it look. But it was. After 5 minutes, I deleted it.

Alexander February 8, 2014 at 9:37 am

The first 24h of the 1.2 version has 24k rating but not a single review. Not very usual, huh? Where are all “my life end”, “satan”, “stupidly addicting” going?

Mattie Belle February 8, 2014 at 1:13 pm

I question your research. As you seem to only highlight a few negative phrases in the reviews. One of them claims that Flappy Bird is literally out to kill them. Another starts off with saying “I hate it” which you highlight, and goes on to say “Actually, I love it…”

Seriously, you tell us to read the five star reviews. Have YOU read those reviews…?

tyler February 9, 2014 at 2:17 am

you’re an idiot sorry to tell you

rhein February 9, 2014 at 2:39 am

I think business is business whatever the marketing sytle is (and is not a criminal) and as long as the player/gamer enjoy the product

Vince K February 9, 2014 at 3:19 am

Your comment is a simple case of jealousy. In any episodes of life, people can get lucky. Just learn to accept that and be happy with what you have. Stop thinking what other people might or might not do to get whatever they have. I teach that to my 5 years old, and even she understands that. How old are you?

Kevin February 9, 2014 at 4:16 am

Okay seriously… those commenters who are like “this game is terrible” don’t get the point at all. Flappy Bird doesn’t have good graphics and it’s bad quality? ARE YOU KIDDING. AS IF NO ONE NOTICED THAT. That’s why it’s popular in the first place. Saying that sounds INCREDIBLY pretentious, stuck-up, and ignorant.

If you’re steaming off because you think you put oh so much effort into your own app, NOBODY CARES if you think your app is Oh So Incredible; it’s not going to go viral just like that. And like what someone wrote above, people can smell attempts to make something “viral” from a mile away and they hate it. It’s a hit or miss thing, and if your app missed, I’m sorry, but that’s no reason to go hating on Dong Nguyen. And if you think he copied some other app… I’m pretty sure that anyone could invent Flappy Bird in their sleep. It’s not exactly original and nobody thinks it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ripoff either. How many to-do apps are there in the Play Store, again?

The only evidence the author has against this app is that it suddenly went viral. Anyone who thinks that’s reason has obviously never heard of how the Internet works. People share inane and stupid things on the internet BECAUSE THEY’RE INANE AND STUPID. Do you not understand that? This is especially the case for teenagers or young adults: I heard about Flappy Bird at my school and now I guarantee there’s not a kid in my school who doesn’t know what it is. (And believe me, these include some of the best high schoolers in the US.) OF COURSE it’s possible for an app to spread virally in just a couple of days. Welcome to the Internet.

As for the “fake” reviews: I too left a review like that. And so have a couple of people I know. Maybe it’s because of the other reviews, but if you aren’t frustrated that you can’t get a higher score on Flappy Bird, then you’re too busy hating on it to pay attention. It’s not unusual to hate Flappy Bird and the app stores are a nice place to vent one’s anger.

I’m sorry if I sound really angry what with all the caps (not normally me), but this is really just a bunch of speculation ungrounded in any sort of fact. Maybe you think Flappy Bird did X or Y wrong, but it’s not right to accuse him of faking his reviews or ripping off another app just because of that. In any case, he did manage to make his game addicting enough – intentionally or not – to attract a wide audience. And to all the app developers here, I encourage you to take a step back from being upset at Flappy Bird to think about what lessons you can take from it in building your own apps. Best of luck!

Vu February 9, 2014 at 4:28 am

what a hack… Carter, just worry about yourself. whether the guy did anything or not, it has no relevance to your life. you sound like the housewives who gossip about the girl next door that they’re jealous about…

fu February 9, 2014 at 4:34 am

carther, you are stupid. don’t write useless article anymore. the app is not a destructive one but this piece of worthless crap you have written. cheers! :)

Kevin February 9, 2014 at 4:39 am

Here comes a more specific response to @Chris:

“Anyone moderately knowledgeable about IP cloaking and bots can see this is a straight up textbook cheater.”

I’d like to know how this involves any knowledge of “IP cloaking and bots” at all. Beyond, of course, the ability to leave fake reviews, but understanding that bots can leave fake reviews doesn’t require any such knowledge, nor does any such knowledge enhance one’s understanding of this situation. Pretending that is does seems disdainful.

“The coding is horrific to say the least, the controls are terrible, the graphics are hardly worth looking at… ”

Have you seen the code yourself? The only fault I see is that collision detection is sometimes a bit off and it lags. “Horrific”? Or are you just spewing nonsense? Also, how are the controls terrible?… I mean, WHAT CONTROLS? (rolls eyes) And obviously you’ve never heard of Nintendo? Have you ever wondered if the graphics are pixelated on purpose?

“and the game play? Difficult? No its not difficult by design, it’s difficult because it’s SO poorly written.”

LOLOL then go improve the code, I guarantee it’s not going to be any easier to navigate that bird through those pipes.

“It’s rare for people to bother to review things, let alone type the masses of text these “people” apparently have. It’s clear as day it’s standard text with %game name here% placed in it.”

I heavily digress. Even the reviews this author highlights include bird-specific references (heh). But seriously, read these reviews: many are rather creative, as is the nature of Internet commentators. (Excluding the many one-word reviews/ratings, of course… but that’s no more unusual)

“Honestly, anyone with an ounce of IT knowledge can see this is a complete joke, but fair play on the lad, he’s done what he wanted to do, and as per usual the media laps it up.”

Obviously it’s a joke. That’s why it’s so popular. Congratulations on reaching a conclusion that nobody has questioned the whole time. Not sure what you mean about the media. The media is simply reporting on something that millions of people have downloaded.

~~~

Sorry, I have no life.

Jo Tizen February 9, 2014 at 8:18 am

whether he used bot or not the outcome is the same his Flappy Bird game is now a smash hit… good for him

Cody L. February 9, 2014 at 8:54 am

I like your theory. If you look at all the games, they have the sime signature spikes at congruent times. This shit kinda scrares me

Vince February 9, 2014 at 10:50 am

Lol. This article is funny as sh….oh well.

FakeReviews February 9, 2014 at 11:45 am

The reviews are fake. I only had to read a couple to notice the same repetitive sentences, over and over again. What a scammer.

G-148 February 9, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Pretty cool how quick some here are quick to attack others with this “eat the rich” mob mentality. Sorry you feel threatened by the success of others.

But hey, at least you all have some other indie devs out there fearing the idea of success with their games, so good job.

VinceB February 9, 2014 at 11:34 pm

And it’s not the only fishy thing the game is a copycat from this one: http://www.zanorg.com/prodperso/pioupiou.html

The tweet of the real creator:
https://twitter.com/kek_zanorg/status/430647482377203713

Flappy Bird is the ultimate mobile game ripoff
There’s a dark side to mobile game development focused completely on cloning popular titles
http://o.canada.com/technology/gaming/flappy-bird-is-the-ultimate-mobile-game-ripoff/

Fomeister February 10, 2014 at 7:55 am

I wish I could set a pingback shield against your post…

And while I should not lower myself to ignorance here being 43 years old, and I never troll having run forums for 24 years, I will make an exception this time which I will most certainly regret as you certainly have more experience at both trolling and being ignorant.

You need to get over this, remove your post, apologize, archive it, and move on.

If you do not, I will make it my mission to utterly and totally make you rue the day you published such a slipshod, ill-conceived piece of manufactured malfeasance parading as a blog post.

Fadzlan February 10, 2014 at 9:45 am

To those that can spot bots (eg. repetitive words) on the reviews, its not conclusive! Even Angry Birds have those too.

The bots will post a lot of reviews of popular apps. That is one way they pretend to be legit! If a game has reviewers which only review the game(and ONLY THAT game) five stars, I believe Apple would be smart to take those down in no time.

Andreas February 10, 2014 at 10:06 am

It’s clear that Flappy Bird became popular by fraudulently making it a “bestseller” through bot downloads and people only then started to download it, inspired by those blatantly fake “reviews”.

I wonder how many people bashing the OP here are paid spammers as well. Obviously, the Flappy Bird author has no problem paying to manipulate opinion.

Bob Dole February 10, 2014 at 3:13 pm

I suspect most of your blog articles are plagiarized. While I have as much supporting data as you do for this article, I can only assume you are plagiarizing other sources. If this is not the case, hats off to you.

Steveie Ray Jimi Balmer February 10, 2014 at 4:33 pm

if he releases a paid for app in the near future he has the backing of this fiasco to generate awareness of his next endeavor, I think that was the plan all along. Who knows.

Thomas Currey February 10, 2014 at 5:30 pm

It seems weird to knock a guy for negative tactics without any proof. This kind of attempt to manipulate peoples opinions about anything online are so rampant that there’s even a bunch of companies where people buy likes on Facebook (see http://www.facebooklikesreviews.com for instance) but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Flappy Bird, or at least it’s not proven. Whether or not he did some marketing is currently uncomfirmed, but what is the reality is that once people were exposed to it, there was something about the game mechanic and design that struck a real chord with people. That’s the lesson that game developers need to take from Flappy Bird – people saw some value in it. It could be because the game was so devilishly hard and has no learning curve (100% difficult from the start) that people were amused. That’s how I think it went viral.

oxipital February 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Wow. Just, wow. “THEY ALL USE DA SAME WORDS!!!!!!” How much vocabulary drift can you expect from one person to the next?

SunSailor February 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm

It’s most likely only me watching Breaking Bad at the moment, but MY first thought on the rising and the immediate take down of the game was, that there somebody is doing money laundry, which went out of control. Paranoid me, shouldn’t watch that much TV.

doubleT February 11, 2014 at 8:52 am

Welcome to the internet. May I suggest a visit to 4chan, reddit and 9gag?
Every now and then, something becomes a phenomenon and the graphs would look the same.

Now, I’ll be back in a few minutes, I hope it’s ok to leave my glas of chocolate milk. You’ll have an eye on it, right?

Julian February 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

The statements made do need to be supported with evidence. Given that most of the code will more than likely be obfuscated, it’s unlikely without re-engineering, that we will know what this app is actually doing both on the client and through the network. There is also the issue of bot activity (including how traction was built up over a relatively short time period), but this does need to be proved with investigative analysis. It’s unlikely one would be able to prove anything unless you had full disclosure from the developer.

marshall scott veach February 11, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Cody is spot on. @oxipital, go read the reviews. they use all the same words and the words are hella strange. cody didn’t even bring up the really weird ones. like how many people reference satan in their review. seriously, before you think he’s being sensationalist, i challenge you to read 10 reviews and see what you think.

moreover, some other blogger just released some data showing that the reviews for flappy bird are significantly longer than the app store average. in case statistics is fuzzy for you, when you’re dealing with these kinds of numbers, that’s a really strange thing. the chances of it happening “randomly” are incredibly low.

@julian, you clearly don’t understand how any of this works. why do you think you would need disclosure from the developer in order to investigate automated bot activity?

it won’t be long before a computational linguist takes a look at these reviews and we’ll know for sure.

dave February 12, 2014 at 8:16 am

Heh, a lot of these critical posts are also fakes meaning someone posting with an agenda.

I quite agree that something fishy is going on, had never heard of this game and do not think it is even slightly addictive or life ruining nor is it reasonable to be a drama queen at all about it, when obviously someone with an agenda wants to pretend he can trick us into believing this.

So many people today lack morals and human decency. You people should be ashamed of trying to cheat and lie.

Akshay R. Pawar February 12, 2014 at 8:22 am

A random guy creates a original game and suddenly after time he gets hit and then the people who couldn’t achieve that success starts to feel jealous, hate him and then accuse him for different things.

Now he deleted his ‘Flappy Bird’ game because of the HATERS and the COPY CATS. And most importantly he wasn’t after money and success.

Admit it people… you are in this industry only for MONEY nothing else and bcos you can’t get to that success you can’t stand some random passionate game maker achieve that.

Janmejai February 12, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Just because some people reviewed in an unusual manner doesn’t means that the developer paid for downloading and used all those useless marketing tactics,It’s proven fact that you can’t achieve anything by doing or spamming stores with paid reviews….and apple is smart enough to take all those apps down which are spamming the store….a person can’t make $50,000 a day by just bot downloads.
It was his luck that his app was a huge success and i am sure it will not be easy for him also to get the same success in future.

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