Inside the Brief Life and Untimely Death of Flappy Bird

Jun 20, 2023 6:22 PM

In May, Dong Nguyen uploaded a new game to the iOS App Store. It was just one of the hundreds of apps added to Apple's iTunes marketplace each day. In that way, it was just another game. But it would prove to be anything but.

Nguyen had created a simple game in which the player controls a funny-looking bird by tapping the screen, and it needed a simple name. He called it Flap Flap, until he realized another app had the same title. Luckily, developing and updating games on the App Store is such a fast, iterative process that he was able to quickly retitle it Flappy Bird.

Perhaps you've heard of it.

Nguyen's game would become one of those viral success stories you hear about from time to time, the next Angry Birds, the next Temple Run. Months after he released it, Flappy Bird shot to the top of the charts, drawing even more players, which made it even more popular, which drew in even more players. Millions of people were downloading Flappy Bird at its peak, and Nguyen was raking in $50,000 a day from the pop-up ads that appeared during gameplay.

But he also was under a constant barrage of messages, insults, requests for interviews, and even death threats. Nguyen decided last weekend that it wasn't for him. He stopped talking to anyone and pulled Flappy Bird from the App Store. He'd soared briefly and came down hard, rather like the little bird he created.

This is how it all went down.


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Flappy Bird was similar to other games Nguyen had released on mobile devices, games like Shuriken Block or Super Ball Juggling. The graphics played cute homage to retro sprite art, the gameplay was extremely simple and the difficulty was jacked up high, meaning games lasted just a few seconds.

The concept sounded almost too simple: Tap the screen to fly up, release to dive down, and maneuver through gaps in a series of green pipes clearly styled after those in the Super Mario series. The gaps were invitingly wide, many times the height of the bird. But because the bird moved so fast and dove up and down so quickly, making it through the gap without wiping out proved extremely challenging. Because you get just one point for each pipe cleared, your high score is likely to be in single digits, if not zero.

For months, Flappy Bird did about as well as Nguyen's other games, which is to say few had ever heard of it. In late October, he released a small update that fixed some bugs. A few days later, something changed – someone besides Nguyen sent the first tweet about the game.

"Fuck Flappy Bird," it read in its entirety.

The game was aggravating, but addictive. And because misery loves company, players who found it wanted to vent. Throughout November, Flappy Bird slowly added users. Reviews began trickling in: One per day, then three, then 20. Its growth seemed based entirely on word of mouth as players expressed their love-hate relationship with Flappy Bird. Nguyen took to Twitter to interact with his slowly growing fan base, even promising to port the game to Android.

By the end of December, Flappy Bird had clawed its way to No. 80 on the U.S. App Store's "Free Games" chart. Then it took off. Its popularity began growing exponentially as more and more users took to Twitter to complain about its brutal difficulty. Nguyen became increasingly excited as Flappy Bird broke the top 40 most downloaded free iPhone games. Then it was in the top 10.

On January 17, it went to number one, the most popular free app in the world.

Fans began writing hilarious five-star reviews, claiming the game was ruining their lives. "I'm sitting in the bathtub writing this review, warning you NOT to download it," one wrote. "My family doesn't dare enter. My brother hasn't taken a shower in a month."

"All it takes is seeing the words 'Flappy Bird' until you find yourself, 19 hours later, fingers bleeding, screen cracked, eyes duct taped open, insomnia and paranoia set in, so determined to pass the devil bird through the impassible gates that you would sacrifice every part of your body except your thumb if it helped beat your high score," wrote another.

It was about this time that I encountered Flappy Bird, with a reaction of utter bewilderment: What is this low-budget game that looks like it took all of its art from Super Mario, and why is it becoming popular? I downloaded it, and played a few rounds. I sucked.

I kept playing. I grew increasingly pissed off that I couldn't score more than 10 points. I was hooked. I had to talk to this guy. On January 24, I emailed Nguyen, asking for an interview.

The next day, I had a response. "Wow, it is a honor to have a chance for an interview from WIRED," he wrote. "I love your magazine and I would love to do that." We set a date to talk on Skype.

When it came time for the call, Nguyen said he'd prefer to chat via text. We got through some basic questions – his name is Dong Nguyen, he's been making games for four years, he lives in Hanoi – but the back-and-forth was taking so long that I asked if he would prefer to answer my questions on his own time and email them to me. He readily agreed, since it was midnight in Hanoi and he was sleepy.

We signed off for the night, and that was the last I ever heard from Dong Nguyen.

It wasn't just me that asking about Flappy Bird. This infuriating game was garnering more varied reactions and passionate discussions than any iOS game in recent memory. CNN struggled to explain what makes Flappy Bird so addictive. Game critics declared that the game proved that nobody truly knows what players want. CNET called it "the embodiment of our descent into madness."

Through it all, Nguyen found himself under an increasingly bright spotlight. At first, he seemed to be handling the attention with cheerful aplomb. He tweeted back-and-forth endlessly with fans on Twitter, and was unperturbed whenever people sent him less-than-friendly messages.

"I got so many mean tweets, I'm getting used to it now," he wrote in late January.



Before long, though, the negative attention on Flappy Bird started to block out the positive comments. Flappy Bird's continued hold on the App Store's number one spot brought increasingly vile online harassment, some of it racist in nature. There were also death threats. As hundreds of people continued to sending tweets to say they hated the game and hated Nguyen for making it, his self-assurance began turning into self-doubt: "And now, I am not sure it is good or not," he wrote on Twitter.

Slowly, even mundane comments began to wear him down. He apologized profusely to fans who complained about the slow pace of releasing a version of Flappy Bird for Windows phones. "I am really sorry I cannot keep my promise but I am trying really hard," he wrote. "There are a lot of things happening to me right now."

The storm of criticism and negativity raining down on Nguyen brought indie game designer Terry Cavanagh to Nguyen's defense on February 5: "Flappy Bird is kinda cool, what are you all getting so worked up about," he tweeted.

Cavanagh, whose game Super Hexagon was another iTunes success story, was among the first people Nguyen followed on Twitter. Nguyen, it turns out, follows lots of indie game designers. It's clear from his tweets and from interviews that he wants to pursue a career as a game designer. He's even explained that he doesn't want to put a PR representative between himself and his fans because the "PR will make me not an indie game maker anymore."

The media coverage, especially from gaming websites, was turning negative, too.

After The Verge revealed how much money Nguyen was making from Flappy Bird's ads, Kotaku posted a story on February 6 headlined, "Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 a Day Off Ripped Art." It accused Nguyen of copying and pasting Nintendo sprites into his game. Nguyen responded that he did not copy any art and drew everything himself. This spawned a new wave of abusive comments, and Kotaku eventually retracted the story and apologized.

"Flappy Bird isn't a good video game... arguably not even a fun one," IGN wrote on February 8, calling it "completely artless."

"Press people are overrating the success of my games," Nguyen tweeted at the beginning of February. "It is something I never want. Please give me peace."

While the gaming press piled on to find fault with Flappy Bird's mechanics, other app developers tried to advance the idea that Flappy Bird's success was ill-gotten. They believed Nguyen had used "bots" – virtual iOS devices used to juice an app's download numbers and get it onto the charts artificially – to get his games played, in violation of Apple's terms of service.

"I hate to say it, but it looks really similar to bot activity," app developer Carter Thomas wrote on January 31, before adding, "Of course, I can’t prove this."

In fact, the only "evidence" of wrongdoing Thomas had to offer was Flappy Bird's meteoric rise through the App Store's top 100 charts. This didn't stop many people from assuming the worst and accusing Nguyen of being a fraud. He denied the accusations.

Ian Bogost, who wrote about Flappy Bird for The Atlantic, told WIRED that there is really no way to tell if Nguyen cheated to get his game to the top charts.

"Who cares?" Bogost said. "What is interesting is how desperate the game devs are for it to be fraudulent. They just cannot take the idea that this is a real thing."



As the week went on, Nguyen had gone from confident to unsure to depressed. "I can call Flappy Bird [a] success of mine," he wrote on Twitter. "But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it."

"Good," someone replied. "Everyone else hates it too."

"Haha," Nguyen tweeted back.

By Saturday, Nguyen had stopped laughing. He decided to take Flappy Bird off the market.

"I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users, 22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore," he wrote. That prompted a mad rush to download the game before it was gone forever. By Sunday evening, Nguyen had followed through with his threat. Flappy Bird was gone. This only increased the attention and harassment directed towards Nguyen. "If you delete flappy bird I'll kill myself," wrote one player, including a disturbing photo of a woman with a handgun in her mouth.

Flappy Bird's detractors wasted no time spinning conspiracy theories. Some suggested Nintendo must have threatened to sue Nguyen over the similarities between Super Mario's green pipes and Flappy Bird's. A Nintendo rep, speaking to The Wall Street Journal denied these claims.

People couldn't understand why Nguyen would delete an app that was making him so much money. To be fair, Flappy Bird probably still is making money, since Apple iAds still are being served to the more than 50 million devices on which the game was installed. Nguyen also has left his two other mobile games up on mobile marketplaces, and the global attention on Flappy Bird has sent them skyrocketing up downloads charts.

So the answer to why Nguyen shut down and pulled his game might just be that he genuinely wants people to leave him alone and stop playing Flappy Bird.

Me-too apps have rushed to fill the gap. The top four free apps on iOS as of Tuesday were Fly Birdie, Splashy Fish, Ironpants and Flappy Bee – Flappy Bird clones, one and all.

Nguyen will have plenty of supporters in the gaming community if or when he returns to developing games. A group of indie developers is even holding a game jam in his honor, with the message "Have fun, be supportive, hate must not win." Super Hexagon designer Cavanagh joined in. "I dunno if a game jam makes sense here, but I'm annoyed and I wanna do something," he wrote.

Like others who became famous overnight, Dong Nguyen learned that success is rather like a game of Flappy Bird: The forces pulling you down are just as strong as the ones pulling you up, and either one can cause you to crash sooner than you expect.


All screengrabs: WIRED