Flappy Bird flies away at height of its popularity

What's behind Dong Nguyen's decision to pull his immensely popular game, Flappy Bird, from app stores when it was pulling down $50,000 of revenue per day?

Dot Gears
Flappy Bird has a distinctly retro look.

Most app creators would be thrilled to find their game dominating both major US app stores and making $50,000 per day in advertising revenues.

But for Dong Nguyen, Vietnamese game developer and creator of the explosively popular Flappy Bird, the personal price wasn’t worth the profit.

On Saturday, Feb. 8, Mr. Nguyen posted on Twitter that he had enough.

“I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users, 22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down,” he tweeted. “I cannot take this anymore.”

By Sunday, the game was gone from both the Android and Apple app stores.

Supposedly, so ends one of the stranger sagas in video-game and mobile-app history, though for fans of the game, countless questions remain. Did Nguyen really take the game down because of personal toll? Did the prospect of legal issues with Nintendo, as well as Vietnam’s recently tightened Internet laws, seem too daunting to continue? Or is it all just a marketing tactic to keep the spotlight on Nguyen and drive anticipation for his next game?

We’ll get to those questions, but first for the 45 percent of Americans without smart phones, let's take a look at the game behind the headlines.

Flappy Bird is nothing special, technically speaking, but many believe that is the reason for its success. In this free game, players navigate a small yellow bird with comically large eyes and orange beak though a 2-D field of traitorous pipes. If you touch a pipe: Game over. Though it sounds simple, the game is incredibly difficult, prompting online lists such as “10 things I’ve done since I downloaded Flappy Bird.” (“Swear” is one of the top things.) Some say this contributed to the addictive nature of the game, which seems to displease Nguyen.

“People are overusing my app :-(" he tweeted on Feb. 8 in response to the online list mentioned above.

It also seems that Nguyen was disenchanted with the sudden success of the game. Later on Feb. 8, he tweeted, “I can call 'Flappy Bird' is a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”

Some 12 hours later, Nguyen announced he would be taking the game down.

What happened?

Here are a few things to consider. Nguyen works with Vietnamese indie gamemaker dotGears. Though the gaming company has seen moderate success, it has never had a runaway hit like Flappy Bird. However, while rival free-to-play game Candy Crush has the multimillion-dollar resources of gaming company King behind it, dotGears is a self-described “small, independent” game developer. Keeping up with the demands of a game gone viral is no easy feat.

Nguyen also told The Verge in an interview that he was making $50,000 per day in advertising revenues. And $50,000 is 200 times the amount of the average Vietnamese monthly salary, according to Time. A sudden influx of wealth, and all the difficulties that can come from it, may not seem worth the profit.

And then there are the legal complications. Rumors quickly sprung up that Nintendo had sent a warning letter to Nguyen about the close resemblance between the simplistic graphics of Flappy Bird and early Super Mario games, but Nguyen and Nintendo both commented that this was only a rumor.

Let's not forget the issue of the Internet in Vietnam. In September, the country passed a stringent Internet censorship bill that discouraged free speech online and required foreign Internet companies to host at least one server on Vietnamese soil. Some worried that the huge amount of revenue stemming from US app stores could have triggered a backlash through this particular law. So far, it doesn’t look as if that is the case, according to local law experts.

“Local Internet regulations do not specifically prohibit a local developer, such as Dong Nguyen, from providing his online game to an off-shore entity like Apple, unless the game contains illegal information or Dong Nguyen fails to comply with other local regulations,” says Tran Manh Hung, lawyer at a Hanoi-based law firm specializing in intellectual property and technology issues to The Wall Street Journal.

Despite all this, the media hasn’t heard much from Nguyen aside from his tweets, and he has been silent on the social media site since Saturday. Could this mean it was all a stunt? Or is Nguyen just gearing up for a sequel to the addictive Flappy Bird? His last tweet reads: “And I still make games.”

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones points out that whatever the reason, Nguyen has reached a level of notoriety that will no doubt drum up support for his next gaming venture.

“Maybe the main lesson we should learn from Flappy Bird is that we have seen the birth of a marketing genius,” he writes. “By killing the golden goose so quickly, Dong Nguyen has ensured that a huge audience will be waiting with breathless anticipation for his next game. And if that doesn't work, he can always allow Flappy Bird to fly again.”

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