From Flappy Bird clones to 2048, mobile web games are here to disrupt the App Store

Flappy Bird / 2048

Flappy Bird and 2048 have taken the world by storm in the past two months. But their importance goes beyond addictive gameplay and countless lost hours: Flappy Bird’s many clones and 2048 are the first truly mainstream “mobile web” games, and this trend will help shape how games are developed and distributed in 2014.

What do we mean by “mobile web” games? People jump into them without realizing they’re any different from other popular games. But unlike titles that must be accessed through the App Store, games built for mobile web browsers can be consumed directly in the app in which they were discovered. Simply clicking a link on Facebook leads directly to the gameplay – no App Store, no waiting for an install, less friction. Flappy Bird wasn’t initially built for the mobile web, but when Dong Nguyen removed the game from the app stores, he opened up the flood gates for successful clones, many of which run on mobile browsers, not as their own apps.

Why has it taken so long for the ecosystem to embrace mobile web games?

Because the performance of phones and tablets is finally good enough to run high-quality games in browsers. Furthermore, the channels are in place for distribution. App Stores will remain a good tool for discovery, but more and more we’re seeing social discovery make a larger impact. If you look at Flash games seven years ago, almost all of the distribution came in the form of game portals (Addicting Games, Miniclip, etc…). As soon as a good channel for social discovery opened up with the Facebook platform, there was a huge shift in the distribution model. Looking at Flappy Bird’s success, it wasn’t the mechanics of the App Store that brought Flappy Bird to the masses, it was the social effect of Facebook and Twitter. The App Store merely served as a source for downloads.

Kik

Facebook and Twitter are great for virality, but what’s been most interesting for us as game developers and distributors is Kik. Kik is a messaging app for iOS and Android that’s trying to redefine how we surf the web by embedding a browser directly into its app – and like other messaging apps, it’s attracted a young demographic that may be falling out-of-love with Facebook. Kik has taken its 100 million strong user base and enabled them to discover web apps in a seamless way, making Kik the current gold standard for mobile web distribution.

Other messaging apps like KakaoTalk and WeChat have tried to make app/game discovery more social on mobile. In China, 8 of the top 15 apps have WeChat integration. These apps, however, are accessed through the App Store, which again adds more friction. The benefit of going through the App Store is that games and apps can have better performance, but that’s become less and less of an issue as phones and tablets become more powerful.

And besides, console-quality graphics aren’t everything: Imagine if Facebook had prioritized game performance over accessibility: They could have built their platform around executable files, or opened up Steam to install and play games, but that would be a nightmare from a user interaction perspective. Where Kik really stands out is how fluid the entire process is – finding and playing a game can all be done in that one app.

Development

Distribution has been fascinating for Flappy Bird and 2048, but so has the development process. Both games led to a huge onslaught of clones – which both developers seemed to welcome.

When I reached out to Dong about building an official HTML5 version of Flappy Bird for him, he said “There is no copyright. You can make a version of your own.” That’s the polar opposite approach taken by companies like King. Likewise, Gabriele Circulli, creator of the open source 2048, has been tweeting out his favorite clones.

While some clones certainly lack creativity, others have fueled the buzz around each game and added some sort of unique gameplay mechanic. There’s even a Flappy 2048. The community behind these clones is partially responsible for the ongoing success of the original game by keeping the hype train going.

Mobile Web in 2014

HTML5, the framework used for many mobile web games, has gone through the hype cycle – introduction in 2009, hype peak in 2010 and 2011, with companies raising ridiculous money on the premise of HTML5, followed by a trough starting in late 2012 with Facebook saying HTML5 was a huge mistake for them. From what I’ve seen, HTML5 is back on an upward trend toward more mainstream use.

HTML5 Hype Cycle

2048 and the HTML5 Flappy Bird clones serve as evidence of the rise we’re seeing.

The best part is these games can still take advantage of the traditional app store distribution model. When games shifted from desktop to mobile, there was no easy way to take advantage of both – with HTML5 it’s incredibly simple. Though 2048 on the App Store is a clone (the original developer opted to not put his game there), it’s still the #3 game on iOS.

Flappy Bird and 2048 have paved the way for mobile web games and developers will continue to learn how to properly build for the mobile web in 2014. Make no mistake: Mobile web is here to disrupt the traditional App Store model.

Austin Hallock

austin
Austin Hallock is CEO of Clay.io, a platform for HTML5 games. You can follow him on Twitter (@austinhallock) or on his blog.