By early February, the weight of everything – the scrutiny, the relentless criticism and accusations – felt crushing. He couldn't sleep, couldn't focus, didn't want to go outdoors. His parents, he says, "worried about my well-being." His tweets became darker and more cryptic. "I can call '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 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, and Flappy Bird disappeared. When I ask him why he did it, he answers with the same conviction that led him to 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. Nintendo was suing him. He'd received death threats. His refusal to speak fueled the speculation even more. To fill the massive hole left by Flappy Bird, imitators rushed to cash in. By the time I visit, the top three free 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, and, according to a study, a new Flappy clone pops up every 24 minutes. "People can clone the app because of its simplicity," 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 metal." The godfather of gaming, Bushnell, compares it to 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 and 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 back to my life before, but I'm good now." As for the future of his flapper, he's still turning down offers to purchase the game. Nguyen refuses to 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."
This story is from the March 27th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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