It’s summer 2017 and the App Store is spilling over with fidget spinner apps. Their titles are largely uninspired, impossible to tell apart: Fidget Spinner, Fidget Spinner Toy, Fidget Hand Spinner, Fidget Spin. Most are lazy re-creations of the popular stress reliever. All are indicative of a larger trend in mobile gaming to identify and mass-produce the hot idea of the moment.
The fidget spinner — a cheap, easy-to-make object that you can pick up at your local bodega or gas station — exploded into popularity in late April. The toy, which comes in a variety of colors and shapes, has inspired techno music, phone cases, rocket-powered safety nightmares, and even the dry world of workplace art.
Fidget apps began to overflow in the App Store around mid-May. The rush to crank out clones and copies is a predictable aspect of the mobile ecosystem. Flappy Bird, Threes!, Pokémon Go: all of these games were followed by a surge of rushed rip-offs hoping to ride the wave of popularity and skim some cash in the process.
But fidget spinners are a strange take on this trend: a play off the popularity of a physical toy that serves very little purpose, translated into a digital app that does even less. The entire point of a fidget spinner is the tactile feel that no app can capture.
Earlier this month, Ketchapp’s Fidget Spinner was the top free app in the App Store; it’s since fallen to number six. The app isn’t a high-quality game or a good stress-releasing spinner toy. As my colleague Paul Miller explained, “The whole app is basically designed to minimize your time fidget spinning while maximizing ad impressions.”
Developer Ketchapp has a history of controversial apps. The company has been accused of cloning games like Sirvo’s Threes! and ustwo Games’ Monument Valley with 2048 and Skyward. Ketchapp disputes these claims. Last February, co-founder and co-director Antoine Morcos told Tech Insider that Skyward was a different type of game that didn’t fall into the same genre Monument Valley. His response to 2048’s similarities to Threes! Was that “all [car] racing games look the same.”
Today, Ketchapp exists under the umbrella of publisher Ubisoft. The company behind AAA franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs acquired Ketchapp last year.
Fidget Spinner looks and functions like many other fidget spinner games in the App Store, but it’s hard to tell who’s mimicking who. It seems all parties are equally looking to cash in on a hot, albeit undoubtedly short-lived, trend. In an email to The Verge, Morcos says the idea was inspired by the popularity of real-life spinners. “Seeing [people] playing the Fidget Spinner everywhere has given us the idea to create a game based on this trend, that would be as addictive as the real toy,” he says. “We came up with something interesting and unique, the idea of spinning the fidget to earn coins, which in return would let you unlock new crazy models. Also, there is a concept of ‘the more you are good in spinning, the better you will improve the stats of your spinner over time.’”
Trend-chasing developers approach the market like gamblers: the more you play, the better your odds. A handful of creators have multiple fidget spinner games listed on their developer page, or attached to different accounts. Binh Nguyen’s iPhone apps, for example, include four fidget spinner-themed games: Tappy Fidget Spinner 3D & Challenge Games, Fidget Spinner!, Spinner Color Finger – Fidget Ping Pong Games, and Swing Fidget Spinner – Arcade Games.
All four games are listed under Binh Nguyen, but clicking the websites associated with each will take you on a wild goose chase. Tappy Fidget Spinner directs to an unfinished website, labeled “Games iOS 2017,” with images of men and women on a beach. Fidget Spinner! is a Facebook fan page for Five Keys Studio; Spinner Color Finger leads to a Facebook page for Five Keys Studio IOS Games, as does Swing Fidget Spinner. Both Facebook pages share the Five Keys logo with the Arts Game page, a website associated with Le Anh, which has its own Fidget Spinner game on the App Store, Flappy Fidget Spinner – Returns Classic Games — a clear knockoff of Flappy Bird, but with the popular toy.
Neptun Digital is another developer taking more than one bite from the same apple. It lists two games, Fidget Spinner – Finger Hand Spin Simulator and Fidget Spinner – Hand Spin Simulator; if you’re having trouble telling them apart, the former uses a red-and-gray color palette while the latter is primarily blue and gray. Neptun Digital is a team of five based in Slovenia. Their only other game on the App Store is called Jumping Fred!, a game starring a red-feathered fellow with an Angry Birds aesthetic. Aljosa Pavsic, the company’s CEO, said that creating these apps took less than a week to develop from scratch.
When asked what sets a game like Fidget Spinner – Finger Hand Spin Simulator apart from others in the App Store, Pavsic says, “Our game in comparison to others has multiple fidget spinners to play with simultaneously.” (In testing out a wide variety of fidget spinner games, The Verge found that several did offer a variety of spinners to choose from.)
“In a way,” Pavsic says, “all the fidget spinners on the App Store are a response to this new fidget spin phenomenon, because the digital world (social media, YouTube, app stores) is almost always a response to the real-life events happening around us. People these days tend to search for a digital experience after each physical one if possible.”
Tastypill claims to have produced the first spinner game — Spinny Fidget — in the App Store’s top charts. (It’s also the creator of Fidget Spin.) “It was not a craze yet until we realized we were gaining chart momentum,” founder Phillip Kung tells The Verge. “Now there are many of these games, several of which have cracked the top charts. Many more are being introduced into the app store each day … We created Spinny Fidget with a completely unique and never before done game play mechanic. Just 1–2 weeks after we released our game and hit the top 5 in the app store there are more than a dozen games that have released that are exact clones of our game.”
Kung says Tastypill released two games themed around fidget spinners in an effort to best penetrate the market. There is no fear of diluting or dividing players. Fidget spinner loyalty is apparently hard to come by. “We know that the traffic is going to be there,” he says, “and that a large portion of the audience will download several different games based on the trend.”
Spinny Fidget took about a week to complete, the developer says. The short development time on these games is indicative of their life span. Regardless of how many developers crank out games, the fidget spinner craze will die, as all these fads do. According to Google trends, search interest has already begun to wane. Developers are looking for whatever the next big thing may be.
Ketchapp is the most prolific of the developers The Verge interviewed, having released dozens of games under its banner on the App Store. When asked by how the studio prepares for the next big thing, Morcos gives a vague answers:
“At Ketchapp, we want to stay connected with our audience, in real time if we can,” Morcos says, “and really understand what our fans love to do these days. This changes very rapidly. The idea is to create games based on what they love to do, or what they currently are interested in. It could be anything.”
“If I could personally go back to school and spend time with teens,” he continues, “it would definitely help me better understand the trends and new behaviors on mobile phones.”
In other words, the flood of trend-chasing games is dictated by the fickle infatuations of the average 13-year-old. The truth is almost enough to make your head spin.