The Flappy Bird Fiasco

The Flappy Bird Fiasco

“People prefer imperfect things,” the creator of the incredibly popular, loved, hated and now-notorious Flappy Bird, Dong Nguyen, mused over Twitter last March, long before most anyone had ever heard of him or played his game. He was stating why he thought he’d be ok launching a video game that included some bugs. “They need something they can comment as a constructive feedback.”

Nguyen has received ample feedback over the last several weeks about Flappy Bird, his maddeningly difficult game about flying a yellow bird between a series of vertical green pipes. Some of the feedback has been positive, some of it brutal, some of it from happy gamers, some from angry gamers — some of it from from gamers so infuriated by the difficult yet charming Flappy Bird that in a roundabout way they’d seemingly come to love it. Some of it’s come from the press, including one regrettable piece from Kotaku. I’ll get to that, but, first, more about Nguyen’s journey.

For a time earlier this year, the Hanoi-based Nguyen merrily retweeted a lot of the feedback he got. He was seemingly in on his own joke that his free game was so difficult that it drove some of its players up the wall.

“Dear creator of Flappy Bird,” one person tweeted at him in late January as the game was rocketing to the top of the iTunes charts, “I hate you. Go die in a hole.”

“Sorry but I won’t :-),” he replied.

“I hate you and your stupid fucking game!” another wrote, around the same time. “I mean I hit one feather on a pipe and die! How realistic is that?!?”

“Please don’t expect realistic in games,” Nguyen replied, “Beside, I think my games are not for everybody.”

“As you created flappy bird,” someone wrote, “can you make me win?”

“No, I cannot,” he answered. “It’s just a game. Take care of yourself first. I don’t make game to ruin people lives.”

A couple of days later, someone asked him, “How many death threats do you get a day?”

“Few hundreds,” he answered.

Since late January, Nguyen has replied to dozens of gamers day after day, addressing bugs, explaining the game’s medal system, seemingly laughing off the angry and/or mock-angry tweets sent his way, seeming to take his success in good stride.

But this weekend, as the success of Flappy Bird seemed to cast more of a pall over Nguyen, he pulled his game from the iOS and Android stores.

“I cannot take this anymore,” he wrote on Twitter.

It’s not clear what the “this” is. It might have simply been the high volume of attention he was getting that he seemed compelled to reply to. It might have been blowback he was getting from people who were suspicious about how Flappy Bird and other games he has made, released in May of 2013, suddenly shot up in popularity around the same time late last year. It might have been attacks on him due to the game’s art style, that last category of which my own outlet regrettably contributed to with a ham-fisted article last week about Nguyen’s Flappy Bird game including so-called “ripped” art from Super Mario games. It might have been any of that. It might have been none of that. (Nguyen has previously declined to do interviews and was not approached for this story.)

I can’t shake the feeling that this is largely a sad story. This is a story about a developer whose game rose to prominence in the unlikeliest of ways and became improbably beloved by tons of gamers despite — or because of — its rough edges and yet appears to have become distressed by the success of his creation.

What to make of this game and the fallout around it?

I have to make a few things clear.

First, some people think Flappy Bird is a terrible game; other gamers think it’s brilliant. Some think it’s badly made while others marvel at what they see as a masterfully-tuned game designed for quick, challenging play and speedy restarts — just the kind of game that can appeal to the many people who are looking for a short burst of entertainment that requires some effort but doesn’t cause any pain.

I tend toward the populist side of things. If crowds love something, I assume there is something good there, even if it’s lost on me. I may stink at difficult games (and even at some easy ones!), but I can appreciate a game for masochists and I can appreciate that Flappy Bird catered to that appetite. If the people love a game — be it Flappy Bird, Angry Birds or Call of Duty — I trust there’s something wonderful in the thing they love. So count me in as someone who thinks that Flappy Bird was something great.

The game designer Bennet Foddy — who has crafted his own magnificently tough games, including QWOPcredits Nguyen’s game with “eliminat[ing] all extraneous complexity to focus on one very simple input mechanic.” The mechanic of trying to tap a bird afloat as he flies rightward toward narrow spaces set at various heights can be enthralling. Most of the time, players won’t get very far at all, but they seem to be unable to resist going back and trying again, which the game makes it a cinch to do.

Second, for good or ill, Flappy Bird had become controversial. Last week, my fellow reporters and I noticed some chatter on Twitter about how the game and Nguyen’s other titles had suddenly risen in popularity. We saw people suggesting that Nguyen may have used bots — computer programs that would repeatedly download and/or auto-generate reviews of the game in order to raise its app rankings. We were intrigued, but couldn’t find anyone who had proof and left that story alone. Since then, I’ve seen blog posts from people who are sure Nguyen did or didn’t get help from bots.

Regardless, Nguyen himself seemed to deny it. When asked on February 6 on Twitter by a reporter about the accusations that Flappy Bird‘s download stats were somehow falsified, he replied, “It doesn’t matter. Don’t you think? If I did fake it, should Apple let it live for months?” He’d also told the reporter that the game’s “success is really overrate,” adding that he refused to answer questions and wanted the press to give him peace.

If, at worst, Nguyen found a way to cheat the app store ranking system — and I’m sceptical, absent proof, that he did — the end result is that his game still appeared to win over gamers around the world. Whether his success was natural or assisted, it seems to have ultimately been deserved, because the game he made resonated with people. He made a hit. He found an audience that could love his game.

Nguyen also wound up receiving some negative attention because of the art in his game. That’s where Kotaku comes into the story more than I’m comfortable with. And that’s where I believe we owe Nguyen an apology. I’ll say it now…

Dong Nguyen, I’m sorry about what we wrote about your game’s art. And I’m sorry if what we wrote contributed to any harassment you received about your game. Even if it didn’t I wish we could do that one over.

The author of that piece, Jason Schreier, has also asked to say the following…

“Over the past couple of days, I’ve spent a lot of time reading reactions and feedback to the article I published last week, and I’ve spent a lot of time regretting it. The post was rash, and hasty, and below my usual standards. To Kotaku I apologise for allowing that to happen. To Dong Nguyen, I apologise for my poorly-chosen words, and I hope that you find peace.”

Much has been made about that article we ran last Thursday, which originally was headlined “Flappy Bird Is Making $US50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art.” The word “ripped” was too strong, and the article’s author has come to regret it. I do, too, and wished I’d caught it. The headline’s been changed since then.

I wish that partially because I disagree with the opinion of the piece. I see Flappy Bird as being inspired by Mario art. I think it’s as fair an inspiration as the many inspirations we’ve seen of classic Nintendo art in games from 3D Dot Game Heroes to Guacamelee to Braid. There’s room for debate there, but that’s where I stand.

Moreso, I regret not catching an article that didn’t make what I’d consider to be a clear or fair argument. Why shouldn’t a game creator riff off of classic game art? Why would a game have to be original? Why couldn’t it remix existing styles of graphics and play? Our writer failed to wrestle with that and so we failed our readers and Dong Nguyen with that piece. Our writers don’t have to agree with my opinions, but we all need to have ample nuance in our takes and I need to ensure that something like that doesn’t slip through again.

Nintendo themselves have denied having an issue with Flappy Bird. A rep for the company told the Wall Street Journal, “While we usually do not comment on the rumours and speculations, we have already denied the speculation [last week.]”

With or without our “help”, the Nintendo-style art in Flappy Bird seems to have outraged some gamers who saw Nguyen as trying to piggyback on Nintendo’s success or even trying to deceive gamers. I see little evidence of such scheming. Nguyen tweeted a drawing on November 6, 2012 that included the bird that’d come to be known as his Flappy Bird. It fit in well in the non-Mario-looking world in that scene.

Looking at that old picture, I see a game dev loving old-school games. In a tweet a few months after that, Nguyen playfully talked about “[t]hinking about making a clone of breakout with some new things :-)”, I can’t help but see a developer expressing a desire to build on what went before while adding his own touch in the process… a reasonable desire, in my book.

Near the end of last month, someone wrote the following to Nguyen on Twitter: “i have been flappy bird for 3 hours straight its the most addicting thing ever”

He answered as follows: “That is too much. Please give yourself and the game a break :D”

This type of response became a recurring element of his discourse over the last couple of weeks as he began to encourage players to stop playing — even if just temporarily — the game he’d made and been so proud of.

“Have a good night,” he told one obsessed player, “Give my games a break too.”

“You should take a break,” he said to another.

One gamer said they were going to cry because of this game. “Girl, actually it was made to make you laugh,” he answered.

Nguyen didn’t just seem to be distressed about gamers playing his game to a point where it made them unhappy. He also seemed to be swimming in negative feedback.

On January 31, he retweeted the following: “The creator of Flappy Bird is probably the most cussed-at developer in the world right now.”

It became clear that Nguyen wanted a break of his own from a lot of the attention he was getting. Throughout his late-January and early-February flurries of tweets, Nguyen kept turning down press interviews. He gave a brief interview to The Verge, which reported that he was making $US50,000 a day. Regardless, he rebuffed suggestions that he charge for the game, telling one person who asked for him to drop the in-game ads and let people pay for Flappy Bird that “I don’t think I can charge people for such a simple game.”

Nguyen regularly retweeted comments from people who were either praising his game or gnashing their teeth over it. And when he was accused of copying a 2011 game that featured a yellow bird flying through spaces between green cacti, he wrote, “It happens to look alike. But I don’t even know about the game at the time I made it.” He pointed out that he’d already drawn his bird for a platforming game, the one he’d tweeted the image of more than a year ago.

Nguyen pretty much responded to every kind of question, compliment or complaint people threw at him, according to my reading of his Twitter feed. He was exhaustive even as his follower count swelled suddenly from a mere 300 to 129,000 in just a handful of weeks.

Late last week, Nguyen tweeted apologies to his fans for a delay in updating the game. He blamed distractions from the press. He retweeted jokes about how much his game was making people hate him.

“People are overusing my app :-(,” he complained last Saturday. A little later, he wrote, “I can call ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.” He was asked if his distress was partly due to our Thursday article about his Mario-ish art.

“Are you tired of all the accusations from @Kotaku who believe you stole sprites from Mario games?” he was asked. (Again, for the record, Kotaku/I do not think he stole sprites from Mario.)

“Ah, I didn’t directly stole something,” he replied. “It is quite an art to doing that :-)… Sorry for the typos 🙂 Too tired to take care of.”

“No problem,” the person said, “but you hate the success of Flappy Bird?”

“Not because of them but because how people use my game,” Nguyen answered. “They are overusing it.”

Later that day, he said he’d pull the game. “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down,” he wrote. “I cannot take this anymore. It is not anything related to legal issues. I just cannot keep it anymore. I also don’t sell ‘Flappy Bird’, please don’t ask. And I still make games.”

In April of 2013, Nguyen tweeted the following: “A man only lives once and the best strategy is always to make most of it. Success is not the only reason for existence.”

The irony is that Nguyen did find success and found it with a game he said he made in just a few days. Was it the badgering he got by the press that turned things sour? The angry tweets from frustrated fans? The heavy volume of messages a developer who makes an ultra-hard game is bound to get? Was it his sudden flush of income? Was it the bug reports? Or the number of people whose heavy use of the game appeared to alarm him? It’s hard to say, but it seems, from afar, that it could have been a combination of some or all of that.

There will be some who think he pulled the game due to the potential that his game was promoted artificially. Looking at his feed, I doubt that. The man looks to me to simply have been overwhelmed.

And so I have one wish for Dong Nguyen: peace and quiet.

I’m hoping for peace and quiet to make whatever his next games will be. When they’re out, I look forward to playing them and covering them with respect. Success may not be the only reason for existence, but if you make a game that people love, you damn sure deserve some.


  • I’m really glad to see the apology for the Kotaku article, I agree with the assessment of why the article was wrong, so won’t rehash it here.

    I can see Dong Nguyen’s point, I would hate to have made a game that people become obsessively competitive over, and were playing furiously for hours at a time, just in a one-upmanship with their friends on game-centre/facebook. For others that would be a measure of success, but I can see how it could weigh on your mind.

    I can’t imagine going from obscurity to being contacted by thousands of people a day and being inundated by the media, getting mean messages and death threats. That sort of nearly-instant fame is a lot of people’s dream, but would be my worst nightmare. I could use that sort of income, but I don’t think I could take the attention that came with it. A lot of us programmers are introverted souls by nature, and this sort of attention would be difficult.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the insane difficulty of the game, it reminded me of Dark-Souls-Lite, but I did see lots of people just completely obsessed, not enjoying it really, just needing to beat their friends’ scores.
    I’ glad to see this article is well balanced and thought out, I was seriously thinking of not coming here for my gaming news anymore.

    • He could have made the pipes anything though. He specifically chose pipes in green, even a colour swap would have prevented people calling him out on it. To be fair though it seems just to be a reskin of Piou Piou (to the point where a piou piou dev commented on twitter about it).

  • “They need something they can comment as a constructive feedback.”

    He’s obviously never spoken to a gamer before 😛

  • I wonder how many people complaining about flappy bird being a “rip off” actually have Candy Crush Saga on their phones?

    This is a genuine question, how does ad revenue actually work? Is per app download, per ad or per ad clicked? because i cannot remember the last time i clicked on an ad… even accidentally. I ask because i find the whole “he makes $50k a day” argument a bit dubious.

    • I’d really like to know this as well, I did accidentally tap the ads a couple of times, their placement sometimes was where I was tap-tap-tapping, I don’t know how many downloads flappy-bird got, but I guess if you have millions of users, the ad revenue could be pretty decent. 50 grand a day is a lot of ads though.

    • In our ad enabled games we get paid per view but we don’t currently have anything on iOS so it might be different there (highly doubt it though).

      Just pulled up our monthly stats, this month we got $0.19(US)/1000 views on average. Depends on a lot of factors what that number is though, different countries have advertisers willing to pay more. China for example is $0.06/1000 and Australia is $1.04/1000. So if you can get more views from specific countries or enough extra views to counter the lower $/views you’ll get more.

      He’d only need to get ~10 million views a day (assuming my maths is correct and the numbers roughly apply) to get $50k/day.

  • Look i’m genuinely glad it is gone. Do I feel like it bears an uncanny resemblance to Mario pipe? Yes. Also it is way to similar to Piou Piou. Originaity in art style is the only thing saving the games industry. I mean if it weren’t for different art styles GOW and ME3 the gameplay would be ridiculously similar.

  • Haha, judging by the tone of this article it sounds like someone accused you of defamation. And did Jason write a proper apology article?

    But wow Flappy Bird seemed to really bring the ugly side in people. If you don’t like the game, stop playing it. Don’t resort to death threats.

  • *phew* made it!, long drawn out article. Cant help but feel its all been blown way out of proportion. Feel bad for Nguyen but only a little bit, I’d advise him to grow a pair. You cant hold everybody’s hand! If they wanna stay up for 4 days getting frustrated at your simple game LET THEM! If they wanna let the game push them to rage LET THEM! you don’t have to feel obligated to counselling gamers because of your game. Its their problem not yours. All he had to do was a couple of interviews and much of the noise would die down. Its happened before it will most certainly happen again! It will be yesterdays news and sadly a distant memory of: “Remember when that really simple game got popular and the dude took it to heart?” ……..”yeah kind of…”

    • why would they change the article title when the content would remain same? removing the article in its entirety would be more appropriate.

    • Jason should not be allowed to contribute further articles to Kotaku… He needs to realise that there are consequences to what he writes, then maybe he’ll be fairer and less judgmental in any future articles.

  • Some points that might have been missed about him pulling out is that there are rampant extortion mafias in many Asian countries and perhaps in other parts of the world too, they work a bit like Robin Hood, steal from the rich but that’s where the similarities end.

    So maybe he was getting too much attention attracting such unwarranted attention and thereby threats, not just because of frustrated gamers.

    It is only him that knows what happened, we can all but speculate and mourn the loss of Flappy bird from the charts and the store 😉

  • To Kotaku I apologise for allowing that to happen. To Dong Nguyen, I apologise for my poorly-chosen words, and I hope that you find peace..

    Thats a pretty shit apology from Jason Schreier. I hope he at least directly tweeted Mr. Nguyen or had the decency to publish a full article as an apology to him. IMO this article doesn’t count as an apology because its not from Jason.

  • I’d never heard of Flappy Bird before that Jason Schreier article and until now my entire picture of Flappy Bird was of something that was barely a game and which relied on people’s familiarity with Nintendo’s art style plus gaming the system to get into the top downloads lists (at which point getting even more downloads is a self-fulfilling prophecy) to get downloads and get cash for the creator.

    I still struggle to see Flappy Bird as much of a game (and I think there’s something to be said for people downloading it due to the art style and due to it being in the lists and in the news, rather than because it’s a great game they’ll still be playing in a week’s time) but it’s pretty clear that Jason’s version was not a fair one and that he owes Mr Nguyen a real apology and not just a paragraph in the middle of someone else’s article.

    • My nieces and nephew didn’t know anything about Mario before they downloaded Flappy Bird. It was I who told them that it was a rip-off; because at the time, I had not seen the screenshots that showed that it wasn’t a rip-off. I can imagine there are a lot of kids who are savvy with the interne and gaming but don’t have the same outlook/experience as us “older” gamers.

      With no “filters”, my nieces found Flappy Bird fun and addictive. Its objective is simple, its control is intuitive/not abstract, and no investment in time is required.

      And, it was the only game TO DATE (and I’ve been a gamer a long time) that I’ve been able to share the fun, not only, with my nieces but also with their parents. Every smartphone and the tablet had the game in it. There were four of us playing the game at one time. I can’t think of another game that I can share like that – apart from that hand-held Tetris game more than 10 years ago.

      Who are we to judge a game – it’s garnered this much discussion for a reason. And at this time, as S Totilo says, there’s no proof that he “cheated” the system. I read the article (and saw the download-rate graph) that APPARENTLY shows he used a robot downloader. But it doesn’t actually show anything except download-rates. I’ll hold my judgement until there is proof.

      Sure, judge a game if it’s unpolished or buggy. Flappy Bird isn’t either.

      • By the way, it was my nieces who introduced me to Flappy Bird. I didn’t know anything about the game before they showed it to me last week.

  • I have this thought that people in his country (maybe family, gangs or government) started to extort him or something similar over his success with the game. That could put a tremendous amount of pressure on someone’s well being.

  • A Vietnamese here. Pretty much after the article “50k/day”, our govt tried their best to tax him with the highest % of income. More or less, add more fuel to the fire of his pressure.

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