The Strange Saga of Flappy Bird

Chella Explains Her Admiration for Creator Dong Nguyen
What ya thinkin’ about, Chella?

So, this week the gaming and technology headlines were dominated by Flappy Bird or the lack thereof. In case you haven’t heard, Flappy Bird is the chart-topping game that’s been getting fingers tapping on smartphones, tablets and touchscreens everywhere. Launched last spring, the game was the big thing in mobile gaming, until the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen took the game down last weekend. Pleas, death threats and cries of ‘fake;’ ensued.

Ever since it’s stratospheric rise up the free app gaming charts, Flappy Bird has courted controversy. First there were the claims that it is a blatant copy of an earlier game called Piou Piou. It’s clear from stills of the two games, side-by-side that there is some truth to that. The eponymous bird is very similar to the Piou Piou original. And instead of green cactus plants to avoid, Flappy Bird has to navigate green tubes. Cue more controversy.

Some have said that Flappy Bird owes more than a small debt to Mario games for its design. It has the same blue sky and white clouds, but it’s the trademark metal pipes that have had many predicting the wrath of Nintendo.

So when Nguyen announced that he would take the game down from all app stores, with a 22 hour countdown, everyone was shocked. The game was allegedly raking in $50,000 per day, in advertising revenue. It had been downloaded over 50 million times. At first, everyone thought it was the greatest marketing stunt ever, in the history of mobile gaming. There was no way anyone could walk away from that kind of success. Could they?

The deadline came and sure enough Flappy Bird was no longer available to download. Next came the death threats via Twitter. Nguyen faced the wrath of, not Nintendo, but angry fans threatening to find him, if he didn’t put the game back up. Then the media speculated about his motives. Would he just wait a while and then put the game back up, hence making even more money? Did he just do it to avoid a lawsuit from Nintendo? Was he just mad?

Based in Vietnam, Nguyen remained silent. He posted on Twitter saying that he ‘couldn’t take this anymore’ and denying that he did it for legal reason. That’s all we heard, until Forbes managed to get an exclusive interview with the man himself. He explains that his motivation for taking the game down was because it was addictive. He told Forbes, “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”

Nguyen also claimed he wasn’t sleeping at night and that he found the media attention really difficult to handle. The interviewer described the game developer as looking stressed and nervous. He only agreed to the interview, if they promised not to show his face. This doesn’t sound like a man who’s out to pull the greatest marketing ruse and laugh behind our backs.

There are still those who are going to say, but he was making so much money. Who would walk away from that, especially if you live in Vietnam? If he really was earning $50,000 per day, that could amount to $8 million in just six months. Even if he was earning half of that amount, it’s enough for anyone. It may be hard to understand, if you’re a committed capitalist, but there is such a thing as enough money. Bear in mind, Nguyen lives in Vietnam, so that money will go even further. He’s earned more in a year, than most earn in a lifetime.

Working under the developer name of GEARS, Nguyen has other successful app games and says he will continue to create games, no doubt using the earnings from Flappy Bird. He says he feels “more confident, and I have freedom to do what I want to do.” It sounds, to me, like he just wants to make games and success turned out to be a bit of a poisoned chalice.

Ironically, the game accused of being a blatant clone now has a plethora of clones. From Happy Poo Flap, featuring a winged turd, to Flappy Whale and Flying Flappy Unicorn Bird, the clones are filling the gap left by Flappy Bird. Nintendo hasn’t any made noise about a lawsuit and similarly, the Piou Piou creators have said they won’t be launching any court case. Nguyen has said the same about the Flappy Bird clones and so the wheel of mobile gaming turns.

Rather than reacting to Nguyen with barbed cynicism (death threats aside), maybe we, as an industry, need to consider the need for support for these small teams or one-person developers. Overnight success may be a dream for many, but maybe more than a few could be overwhelmed and swallowed by the vitriol and fanaticism the Twittersphere and other social media channels can create. What do you do, as a developer, when you become loved and hated in equal measure and you’re earning pots of money? That’s quite a life-changer in a short space of time. How many death threats could you handle?

It’s not all bad news for Nguyen. He’s regained control of the situation and he’s probably still earning cash from the millions of copies of Flappy Bird that are still being played. He’s financially free to make the games he wants to make and good on him. I hope his next game is a success on its own terms, proving the naysayers wrong.

Unless there’s some big reveal in weeks or months to come, we’ll never know if his motives were truly altruistic, but I like to believe they are. Some people aren’t motivated by greed at any cost and we should support and celebrate that.

We shouldn’t judge Dong Nguyen by our own low standards.

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