The Flight of the Birdman: Flappy Bird Creator Dong Nguyen Speaks Out

How did a chain-smoking geek from Hanoi kiến thiết the viral hit Flappy Bird – và why did he walk away?


Last April, Dong Nguyen, a quiet 28-year-old who lived with his parents in Hanoi, Vietnam giới, & had a day job programming location devices for taxis, spent a holiday weekkết thúc making a Mobile game. He wanted it lớn be simple but challenging, in the spirit of the Nintenvì games he grew up playing. The object was lớn fly a bug-eyed, big-lipped, bloated bird between a series of green vertical pipes. The quicker a player tapped the screen, the higher the bird would flap. He called it Flappy Bird.

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The game went live sầu on the iOS App Store on May 24th. Instead of charging for Flappy Bird, Nguyen made it available for không tính phí, và hoped lớn get a few hundred dollars a month from in-game ads.

But with about 25,000 new apps going online every month, Flappy Bird was lost in the set and seemed like a bust – until, eight months later, something crazy happened. The game went viral. By February, it was topping the charts in more than 100 countries and had been downloaded more than 50 million times. Nguyen was earning an estimated $50,000 a day. Not even Mark Zuckerberg became rich so fast.

Yet as Flappymania peaked, Nguyen remained a mystery. Aside from the occasional tweet, he had little to say about his incredible story. He ducked the press and refused to lớn be photographed. He was called a fraud, a nhỏ man & a thief. Bloggers accused hyên ổn of stealing art from Nintenvày. The popular gaming site Kotaku wrote in a widely clicked headline, FLAPPY BIRD IS MAKING $50,000 A DAY OFF RIPPED ART.

On February 9th, at 2:02 a.m. Hanoi time, a message appeared on Nguyen’s Twitter account. “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users,” it read. “22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.” The message was retweeted more than 145,000 times by the disbelieving masses. How could someone who hit the online jackpot suddenly pull the plug? But when the cloông xã struông xã midnight the next evening, the story came khổng lồ an end. Nguyen, as promised, took Flappy Bird offline. In his wake, he left millions of jilted gamers, & one big question: Who was this dude, and WTF had he done?

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Two weeks after the demise of Flappy, I’m taxiing past pagodas và motorbikes lớn the outskirts of Hanoi, a crowded, rundown metropolis filled with street vendors selling pirated goods, lớn meet with Nguyen, who has agreed khổng lồ share with Rolling Stone his whole story for the first time. With the international press & local paparazzi searching for hyên, Nguyen has been in hiding – fleeing his parents’ house to lớn stay at a friend’s apartment, where he now remains. Although dot-com millionaires have sầu become familiar in the U.S., in Vietnam’s fledgling tech community they’re all but unheard of. When the country’s first celebrity geek, a boyish, slight guy in jeans & a gray sweater, walks hesitantly up and introduces himself, he measures his words & thoughts carefully, like placing pixels on a screen. “I was just making something fun to lớn giới thiệu with other people,” he says with the help of a translator. “I couldn’t predict the success of Flappy Bird.”

Growing up in Van Phuc, a village outside Hanoi famous for silk-making, Nguyen (pronounced nwin) never imagined being a world-famous game designer. Though his father owned a hardware store và his mother worked for the government, his family couldn’t afford Game Boys for him or his younger brother. But eventually, they were able khổng lồ purchase a Nintenbởi vì, which, like most electronics in Vietphái nam, was available only in cloned size. Marveling at the power of controlling a character onscreen, Nguyen spent his không tính tiền time obsessively playing Super Mario Bros.

By 16, Nguyen had learned khổng lồ code his own computer chess game. Three years later, while studying computer science at a university in Hanoi, he placed in the top trăng tròn of a programming competition và got an internship with one of Hanoi’s only game companies at the time, Punch Entertainment, which made cellphone games. Son Bui Truong, Nguyen’s former trùm, says the young programmer stood out for his speed, skills và fierce independent streak. “Dong didn’t need a supervisor,” Truong says. “He wasn’t comfortable with it. So we said he did not have to report lớn anyone.”

Nguyen soon tired of churning out the company’s sports games. When he later got his hands on an iPhone, he became fascinated by the possibilities of the touch screen. Few games, however, captured the simple power of the Nintenvày games of his youth. Angry Birds was too busy, he thought. “I don’t lượt thích the graphics,” he says. “It looked too crowded.” Nguyen wanted khổng lồ make games for people like himself: busy, harried, always on the move. “I pictured how people play,” he says, as he taps his iPhone & reaches his other hvà in the air. “One h& holding the train strap.” He’d make a game for them.

As we talk into lớn the night, hordes of agile pedestrians deftly dodge the Hanoi traffic, screens flickering in their hands lượt thích fireflies. It’s no wonder the world’s hotthử nghiệm game came from here. “When you play game on a smartphone,” he says, with an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lip, “the simplest way is just tapping.”

Last April, Nguyen was tapping his iPhone at trang chính while the rest of Hanoi was celebrating Reunification Day, the annual holiday marking the kết thúc of the Vietnam giới War. Instead of joining the throngs outside, he spent the weekover in his bedroom at his parents’ house creating a little game for fun, as a poster he’d drawn of Mario gazed down on hyên.

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Nguyen had already made & released a thiết bị di động game, Shuriken Bloông chồng, earlier that month. The object was khổng lồ stop a cascade of ninja stars from impaling five little men on the screen. This seemed simple enough – the one-word instruction read TAP. Tap the falling star at the right moment, và it would bounce away. But Nguyen understood the mantra of game thiết kế that Nolan Bushnell, creator of Pong and founder of Atari, described as “easy lớn learn & difficult to lớn master.” More recently, indie game makers had taken this to speed-metal extremes with the so-called masocore genre – games that are masochistically hard. Shuriken Blochồng was deceptively ruthless. Even the nimblest player would have sầu trouble lasting a minute before the men were spurting pixelated blood. Nguyen was pleased with the results, but the game languished in the iOS store.

For his new game, Nguyen realized a way lớn go even simpler: Let the player tap anywhere. All he needed was an idea khổng lồ build it around. The year before, he’d drawn a pixelated bird on his computer that riffed on Nintenvì chưng fish, called Cheep Cheeps. He drew green pipes – a homage khổng lồ Super Mario Bros. – that the bird would have sầu to navigate. He modeled the game on one of the most masocore analog creations ever: paddleball. The toy was a simple kiến thiết – just a wooden paddle with a string attached to a rubber ball. But players would be lucky khổng lồ bounce the ball more than a few times in a row.

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Like paddleball, he limited his game lớn just a couple of elements – the bird và the pipes – & resisted the usual urge to lard the action with new elements as the player progressed. He tuned the physics so that the bird was fighting gravity so svào, even the slightest wrong tap would kill it. Since the deaths would be so frequent, Nguyen wanted khổng lồ make them entertaining. He tried having the bird explode in a bloody pulp, or bounce bachồng across the ground, before settling on a faceplant. He then sifted through hundreds of sounds before settling on a kung-fu-style thwack to make the bird’s demise even funnier. (The first question he asks me about the game is if it made me laugh.) “The bird is flying along peacefully,” he says with a chuckle, “và all of a sudden you die!”

Before the last flag waved on Reunification Day, Nguyen had gone on Twitter & posted a screen shot of his “new simple game.” Other than a couple of tweets, Nguyen says he put no marketing behind the launch. And, lượt thích so many games released inlớn the flood, Flappy Bird flopped. The first mention of the game on Twitter didn’t come until five sầu months later, on November 4th, when someone posted a three-word reviews. “Fuông chồng Flappy Bird,” it read.

Trying to divine why stuff goes viral is lượt thích trying khổng lồ fly the bird: You over up ass-up on the ground. But “Fuchồng Flappy Bird” captured the essence of the appeal. The highly addictive Flappy Bird was like a snot-nosed kid paddleballing you in the face. It was begging khổng lồ be spanked. And you couldn’t resist or stop playing.

By the over of December, players swarmed social truyền thông lớn commiserate, compete & bitch about breaking their phones in frustration. Twitter erupted with Flappy Bird testimonials, eventually hitting more than 16 million messages. One called it “the most annoying game yet I can’t stop,” and another said it was “slowly consuming my life.” As word spread from Reddit lớn YouTube, playgrounds khổng lồ office parks, Flappy Bird rose khổng lồ the Top 10 of the U.S. charts by early January. Finally, with no promotion, no plan, no ngắn gọn xúc tích, on January 17th, Flappy Bird hit Number One. A week or two later, it topped the Google Play store, too.

“Seeing the game on top, I felt amazing,” Nguyen recalls. Like everyone else, he was shocked by its meteoric rise – và the avalanbít of money that would be wired into lớn his ngân hàng account. Even with Apple & Google’s 30 percent take, Nguyen estimated he was clearing $50,000 a day. Before long, Shuriken Blochồng và a new game he had submitted called Super Ball Juggling joined Flappy Bird in the Top 10. But other than buying a new Mac, và taking his buddies out for rice wine and chicken hot pot, Nguyen wasn’t much for indulging. “I couldn’t be too happy,” he says quietly. “I don’t know why.” Remarkably, he hadn’t yet even bothered to lớn tell his parents, with whom he lived. “My parents don’t underst& games,” he explains.

As news hit of how much money Nguyen was making, his face appeared in the Vietnamese papers & on TV, which was how his mom and dad first learned their son had made the game. The local paparazzi soon besieged his parents’ house, & he couldn’t go out unnoticed. While this might seem a small price to lớn pay for such fame & fortune, for Nguyen the attention felt suffocating. “It is something I never want,” he tweeted. “Please give me peace.”

But the hardest thing of all, he says, was something else entirely. He hands me his iPhone so that I can scroll through some messages he’s saved. One is from a woman chastising hyên for “distracting the children of the world.” Another laments that “13 kids at my school broke their phones because of your game, & they still play it cause it’s addicting lượt thích crachồng.” Nguyen tells me of e-mails from workers who had lost their jobs, a mother who had stopped talking to lớn her kids. “At first I thought they were just joking,” he says, “but I realize they really hurt themselves.” Nguyen – who says he botched tests in high school because he was playing too much Counter-Strike – genuinely took them to heart.

By early February, the weight of everything – the scrutiny, the relentless criticism & accusations – felt crushing. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus, didn’t want khổng lồ go outdoors. His parents, he says, “worried about my well-being.” His tweets became darker & more cryptic. “I can Điện thoại tư vấn ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine,” read one. “But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.” He realized there was one thing to lớn do: Pull the game. After tweeting that he was taking it down, 10 million people downloaded it in 22 hours. Then he hit a button, & Flappy Bird disappeared. When I ask hyên why he did it, he answers with the same conviction that led hlặng khổng lồ create the game. “I’m master of my own fate,” he says. “Independent thinker.”

In the wake of Flappy Bird’s demise, rumors spread. Nguyen had committed suicide. Nintenvày was suing him. He’d received death threats. His refusal khổng lồ speak fueled the speculation even more. To fill the massive hole left by Flappy Bird, imitators rushed to lớn cash in. By the time I visit, the top three không lấy phí iPhone apps are Flappy rip-offs – Flappy Wings, Splashy Fish, even a game based on Miley Cyrus. As of this writing, a Drake game called Tiny Flying Drizzy is Number One at the App Store, và, according to lớn a study, a new Flappy clone pops up every 24 minutes. “People can clone the phầm mềm because of its simpliđô thị,” Nguyen says, “but they will never make another Flappy Bird.” Indeed, for those who crave the real thing, phones with Flappy Bird installed have been listed for thousands on eBay.

But the absence has also spawned a reappraisal. Kotaku apologized for its allegations of plagiarism. John Romero, co-creator of the game Doom, says Flappy Bird is “a reaction against prevailing design the way grunge was a reaction to lớn metal.” The godfather of gaming, Bushnell, compares it to lớn his own hit, Pong. “Simple games are more satisfying,” he says.

As for Nguyen, the millions of people who downloaded Flappy Bird are still generating tens of thousands of dollars for him. He’s finally quit his job & says he’s thinking of buying a Mini Cooper and an apartment. He just got his first passport. For now, though, he’s busy doing what he loves most: making games. Over tea, he shows me the three he’s working on simultaneously: an untitled cowboy-themed shooter, a vertical flying game called Kitty Jetpack and an “action chess game,” as he puts it, called Checkonaut, one of which he’ll release this month. Each sports his now-familiar style: simple play, retro graphics and hardcore difficulty.

Since taking Flappy Bird down, he says he’s felt “relief. I can’t go bachồng khổng lồ my life before, but I’m good now.” As for the future of his flapper, he’s still turning down offers to lớn purchase the game. Nguyen refuses to lớn compromise his independence. But will Flappy Bird ever fly again? “I’m considering it,” Nguyen says. He’s not working on a new version, but if he ever releases one it will come with a “warning,” he says: “Please take a break.”