Unraveling Flappy Bird: The Dark World of Cloned Apps

Unraveling Flappy Bird: The Dark World of Cloned Apps


Flappy Bird is dead, but its influence lives on. It disappeared overnight more than a week ago, but if you search for “Flappy Bird” on job sites online today you’ll get dozens of results.

None of these results or listings are opportunities to work at the real Flappy Bird, of course. Instead, there are job postings from companies and entrepreneurs looking to make quick money with their own investment.

It’s a fact of the mobile industry that every time a game comes out that turns out to be successful, dozens of clones are released in no time and they’re not far behind. It’s a gold rush for those who can code – or those who can afford to pay a programmer – to get the job done and the copy out to market as quickly as possible.

‘Create a Flappy Bird named Tappy Bird.’

Sites like Elance host a fruitful marketplace for mobile gaming mercenaries — people with app savvy who are ready for hire.

Job descriptions vary depending on what part of the app being developed needs help – in many cases the developer already has a copy of the basic code and simply wants to re-release it with changed graphics, in which case an artist can be called in to quickly provide new images.

“The rule of thumb is that you want redesigned graphics, not redesigned content. That’s a big difference. 33 days is my window to see a 100% return. If I spend $600 on a redesign, I give it 33 days to make $1,200.”

Carter Thomas, App Store Entrepreneur

“Flappy Bird-like graphics redesigned (30 images)” reads a typical post. The budget is between 150 and 250 Euros. “I’m going to need a 2D graphics design for my game very similar to the well-known Flappy Bird. What you need to do: seven simple 2D animal characters, seven seamless backgrounds associated with characters, seven images of pipes (if you’ve ever played Flappy Bird you’ll understand what this means).”

At the top of the App Store is Splashy Fish, which has a Mario Cheep Cheep.

“I imagine everything looking similar to the Tiny Wings game, and that should be your guide,” the job posting adds, “that’s what I’m looking for.”

Other developers will get someone to do most of the work for them. “A Flappy Bird clone with ads,” reads another ad. “Simple: I need a clone with ads.” [marco de desarrollo móvil] PhoneGap for the game “Flappy Bird” and integrate advertising within the game. The game needs to be submitted as soon as possible.”

Hiring someone to provide both code and graphics is more expensive, so the budget is usually higher—in this case, $500. Within two hours of publishing the post, the ad already had five bids from programmers hungry for the job.

There’s still no guarantee that an app will succeed – even when cloning a hit game – but the low cost of launching an app means the barrier to entry is low. It also means developers can flood the App Store with countless attempts just to see which ones fail and which ones turn a profit.

App Store entrepreneur Carter Thomas recently sold his portfolio of games for $200,000 and wrote a quick how-to guide for anyone who wants to profit from game cloning. The business has become known as “flipping,” and revolves around releasing games based on well-known franchises, or around famous people, then mass-producing redesigned versions to flood the market.

“We often get requests to clone popular games.”

Alexey Kholodenko, smartphone developer.
Re-skins range from the obvious to the ridiculous, like Happy Poo Flap.

Thomas got a head start by simply purchasing ready-made apps from sites like Apptopia, which host the entire code for these popular games. With a ready-to-release app he could then insert advertising and start making money immediately, before re-designing the game for a minimal cost.

“The rule of thumb is that you want redesigned graphics, not redesigned content. That’s a big difference.” Thomas wrote: “33 days is my window to see a 100% return. If I spend $600 on a redesign, I give it 33 days to make $1,200.”

“I’ll watch it and update and do whatever, but after 33 days, I forget about it. Everyone has their own number, but after the first month, those low-quality games really aren’t worth your time relative to the value you get by focusing on the next game.”

Eurogamer spoke to Alexey Kholodenko, a developer for a Ukrainian business that creates both cloned apps and new games, a practice that operates under separate company names. It creates fresh mobile games under the CCSoft brand, but also takes on outsourcing services – work for third parties, including cloning games – under the name CodeIT.

“We separate the development of our own products and outsourcing (when we develop for a third party),” explains Kholodenko, adding that each of the company’s teams “has its own structure, strategy and philosophy.”

Games built from scratch take “three to six months, sometimes even longer depending on their complexity and requirements” – much longer than the rapid turnarounds often demanded by “flappy” app developers.

Clone company CodeIT was one of the developers who had applied through ELance to create a Flappy Bird-style app. On that topic, Kholodenko defended the work his company had done, saying the studio had always tried to add “unique features.”

“We often get requests to clone some of the famous products that already exist,” he explained. “We have an agreement that makes it very risky to develop a 100% identical clone.”

“Taking any of the products as a basis, we pay a lot of attention and efforts to add some unique features to the game, especially with exceptional graphics quality. This way our products differ from the existing ones and attract and involve users in them.”

“I know that many developers are making 100% clones (just changing the graphics) and making money from video games. We have built a lot of these types of games over the last few years for third parties, and made some profit from them. But we also build games with unique changes, improvements and graphical content that have over a million active users every day.”

Beyond the “flappies” apps and code providers, there is another accomplice taking part in all this – the platform owners themselves. App cloning would not be possible if Apple or Google simply prevented the publication of copied games.

Eurogamer contacted several app developers who had submitted games to Apple to ask what guarantees they had to give about the originality of their game. The responses indicated that Apple’s policy was grey at best.

“There’s the usual material about ownership of content you upload online,” explains one source, “but that only publicly covers the scam of resources – graphics, music… – not the functionality of the app or the gameplay.”

“There is the usual material about the ownership of content you upload on the Internet, but that only publicly covers the scam of resources – graphics, music… – not the functionality of the application or the gameplay”

This is the current top ranking of the App Store.

“So technically, clones would be exempt.”

You look at the App Store and the effects of this policy are clear. The games that are currently at the top of the free-to-play list are Splashy Fish – A Tiny Flappy Bird’s Adventure, Ironpants (a Flapy Bird clone where the bird protagonist is a superhero), Fly Birdie – Flappy Bird Flyer, and City Bird – Flappy Flyer. And many of these now have in-app purchases to earn more money for development as well as advertising.

The number of other clones across iOS and Android is almost too high to count: Flappy Fish, Flappy Wings, Flippy Flappy Bird, Flappy Whale, Flappy Jellyfish, Flappy Octopus, Floppy Bird, and the mix of Flappy Bird and Angry Birds, Flappy Angry Bird, to name just a few.

Both Apple and Google declined to comment when asked by Eurogamer.

In the case of Flappy Bird, it’s ironic that the decision to pull the game from the market is due to its popularity and hence an increased demand for alternatives – a perfect scenario for cloning. But still, when looking at a cloned game in practice in general, it’s not clear what will change until the App Store policy holders re-direct it.

Translated by Marina Amores.

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