The Flight of the Birdman: Flappy Bird Creator Dong Nguyen Speaks Out
How did a chain-smoking geek from Hanoi design the viral hit Flappy Bird - and why did he walk away?
Last April, Dong Nguyen, a quiet 28-year-old who lived with his parents in Hanoi, Vietnam, and had a day job programming location devices for taxis, spent a holiday weekend making a mobile game. He wanted it to be simple but challenging, in the spirit of the Nintendo games he grew up playing. The object was to fly a bug-eyed, big-lipped, bloated bird between a series of green vertical pipes. The quicker a player tapped the screen, the higher the bird would flap. He called it Flappy Bird.
The game went live on the iOS App Store on May 24th. Instead of charging for Flappy Bird, Nguyen made it available for free, and hoped to get a few hundred dollars a month from in-game ads.
But with about 25,000 new apps going online every month, Flappy Bird was lost in the mix and seemed like a bust – until, eight months later, something crazy happened. The game went viral. By February, it was topping the charts in more than 100 countries and had been downloaded more than 50 million times. Nguyen was earning an estimated $50,000 a day. Not even Mark Zuckerberg became rich so fast.
Yet as Flappymania peaked, Nguyen remained a mystery. Aside from the occasional tweet, he had little to say about his incredible story. He ducked the press and refused to be photographed. He was called a fraud, a con man and a thief. Bloggers accused him of stealing art from Nintendo. The popular gaming site Kotaku wrote in a widely clicked headline, FLAPPY BIRD IS MAKING $50,000 A DAY OFF RIPPED ART.
On February 9th, at 2:02 a.m. Hanoi time, a message appeared on Nguyen's Twitter account. "I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users," it read. "22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore." The message was retweeted more than 145,000 times by the disbelieving masses. How could someone who hit the online jackpot suddenly pull the plug? But when the clock struck midnight the next evening, the story came to an end. Nguyen, as promised, took Flappy Bird offline. In his wake, he left millions of jilted gamers, and one big question: Who was this dude, and WTF had he done?
Watch David Kushner reveal how he landed his Flappy Bird exclusive in the video below:
Two weeks after the demise of Flappy, I'm taxiing past pagodas and motorbikes to the outskirts of Hanoi, a crowded, rundown metropolis filled with street vendors selling pirated goods, to meet with Nguyen, who has agreed to share with Rolling Stone his whole story for the first time. With the international press and local paparazzi searching for him, Nguyen has been in hiding – fleeing his parents' house to stay at a friend's apartment, where he now remains. Although dot-com millionaires have become familiar in the U.S., in Vietnam's fledgling tech community they're all but unheard of. When the country's first celebrity geek, a boyish, slight guy in jeans and a gray sweater, walks hesitantly up and introduces himself, he measures his words and thoughts carefully, like placing pixels on a screen. "I was just making something fun to share with other people," he says with the help of a translator. "I couldn't predict the success of Flappy Bird."
Growing up in Van Phuc, a village outside Hanoi famous for silk-making, by 16, Nguyen had learned to code his own computer chess game. Three years later, while studying computer science at a university in Hanoi, he placed in the top 20 of a programming competition and got an internship with one of Hanoi's only game companies at the time, Punch Entertainment, which made cellphone games.
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.
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.