In the late spring of 2013, a deceptively simple-looking game appeared in Apple’s App Store. The premise was very straightforward: a player tapped repeatedly on a phone or tablet screen to keep a character with a rudimentary resemblance to a bird flying through an obstacle course of pipes that appeared stolen wholesale from Super Mario Brothers 3.
The game, Flappy Bird, sat around the Apple and Google Play stores, garnering some notice and reviews without really making a splash. And then suddenly, last month, the game exploded. It shot to the top of the stores’ most-downloaded lists, earning hundreds of thousands of rave reviews and reportedly generating somewhere around $50,000 per day in revenue from the ads that popped up during gameplay. It also made an overnight media darling of its creator, Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen.
Flappy Bird became more than a “meme” or “trending topic” online — it became a bona fide craze. Despite the fact that, aside from an increasing level of difficulty, the game doesn’t change much and is, as far as anybody knows, pretty much unwinnable.
Dozens of theories have been put forward to explain the game’s success. It was word-of-mouth. It was “bots” — automated programs designed to post fake reviews and artificially inflate download numbers. It was a cleverly designed stealth marketing campaign. Nobody really knows why Flappy Bird took off.
But this week, at the height of its popularity, Nguyen announced he was pulling the game from the mobile app stores forever. Now, it’s gone. And in the style of a true craze, people are doing anything they can to try and get it — including paying sums of more than $1,000 on eBay to buy used phones just because they have the game installed.
The designer has been extremely close-mouthed about his reasons for doing away with Flappy Bird, refusing interview requests while making vaguely distressing statements about losing sleep and fearing he created an overly addictive entity. “I cannot take this anymore,” he posted to his Twitter account.
Which, of course, increased not only the game’s mysterious cachet but also the wild and sometimes oddly existential speculation about its origins, popularity and ultimate purpose. Most English-speaking (read: American) commenters to weigh in on the many, many online articles about Nguyen’s decision have already decided there’s an angle at play here — some plan to make an overwhelmingly lucrative enterprise even more so.
It’s funny how we immediately go there. To how he’s cutting a deal with Nintendo. To how he’s planning on offering a premium version of the game that will no longer be free. To how he’s making the story more provocative in order to set up a documentary or a movie package.
Or maybe, you know, he came to the conclusion that millions of people were making too big a deal about and wasting far too much of their time on something not just allegorically but quite literally meaningless, and he didn’t like being the guy behind it. Maybe he thought there was something more important to him than maximizing viral buzz to generate the highest media saturation and fiscal yield. It happens, sometimes. Dong Nguyen is, after all, part of a very different culture, with very different values.
I guess we’ll have to wait for the movie to find out.