Nguyen hail from Hanoi, Vietnam, where he lives with his parents. A gamer as a child and a developer since his teens, Nguyen wrote the Flappy Birds app over a weekend holiday. Flappy was his second title, released shortly after he created Shuriken Block, a similar game that mixes easy to learn games with challenging gameplay.
The Flappy app was less complex than Shuriken Block, but equally challenging. It was designed to be capture the essence of the Nintendo games Nguyen grew up playing.
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.
Flappy Bird launched with little fanfare and languished in the App Store until a firestorm of publicity hit the app late last year. The app rocketed to the top of the iOS App Store and Nguyen became an instant celebrity, whether he liked it or not.
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.”
Nguyen eventually removed the game from the App Store in response to an increasing number of emails describing how his app ruined their lives.
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.
The weight of the app’s success and his concern for others who were obsessively playing the game led the developer to pull the Flappy Bird app from the App Store. Despite its removal, Nguyen is still making advertising money from people who downloaded the app before it was removed.
Since his meteoric rise, Nguyen has quit his day job and is working on three new titles with the same retro graphics, simple play and through-the-roof difficulty. As far as Flappy Bird is concerned, Nguyen says he may bring it back.
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.”
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