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

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As we talk into the night, hordes of agile pedestrians deftly dodge the Hanoi traffic, screens flickering in their hands like fireflies. It's no wonder the world's hottest 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 home while the rest of Hanoi was celebrating Reunification Day, the annual holiday marking the end of the Vietnam War. Instead of joining the throngs outside, he spent the weekend in his bedroom at his parents' house creating a little game for fun, as a poster he'd drawn of Mario gazed down on him.

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Nguyen had already made and released a mobile game, Shuriken Block, earlier that month. The object was to 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, and it would bounce away. But Nguyen understood the mantra of game design that Nolan Bushnell, creator of Pong and founder of Atari, described as "easy to learn and difficult to 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 Block was deceptively ruthless. Even the nimblest player would have 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 to go even simpler: Let the player tap anywhere. All he needed was an idea to build it around. The year before, he'd drawn a pixelated bird on his computer that riffed on Nintendo fish, called Cheep Cheeps. He drew green pipes – a homage to Super Mario Bros. – that the bird would have to navigate. He modeled the game on one of the most masocore analog creations ever: paddleball. The toy was a simple design – just a wooden paddle with a string attached to a rubber ball. But players would be lucky to bounce the ball more than a few times in a row.

Like paddleball, he limited his game to just a couple of elements – the bird and the pipes – and 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 strong, even the slightest wrong tap would kill it. Since the deaths would be so frequent, Nguyen wanted to make them entertaining. He tried having the bird explode in a bloody pulp, or bounce back 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, "and all of a sudden you die!"

Before the last flag waved on Reunification Day, Nguyen had gone on Twitter and 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, like so many games released into the flood, Flappy Bird flopped. The first mention of the game on Twitter didn't come until five months later, on November 4th, when someone posted a three-word review. "Fuck Flappy Bird," it read.

Trying to divine why stuff goes viral is like trying to fly the bird: You end up ass-up on the ground. But "Fuck 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 to be spanked. And you couldn't resist or stop playing.

By the end of December, players swarmed social media to commiserate, compete and 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 to YouTube, playgrounds to office parks, Flappy Bird rose to the Top 10 of the U.S. charts by early January. Finally, with no promotion, no plan, no logic, 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 – and the avalanche of money that would be wired into his bank account. Even with Apple and Google's 30 percent take, Nguyen estimated he was clearing $50,000 a day. Before long, Shuriken Block and a new game he had submitted called Super Ball Juggling joined Flappy Bird in the Top 10. But other than buying a new Mac, and 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 tell his parents, with whom he lived. "My parents don't understand games," he explains.

As news hit of how much money Nguyen was making, his face appeared in the Vietnamese papers and 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, and he couldn't go out unnoticed. While this might seem a small price to pay for such fame and 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 him for "distracting the children of the world." Another laments that "13 kids at my school broke their phones because of your game, and they still play it cause it's addicting like crack." Nguyen tells me of e-mails from workers who had lost their jobs, a mother who had stopped talking to 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.

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