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 f***ing 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 QWOP - credits 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 US$50,000 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.