Why Flappy Bird’s Developer, Dong Nguyen, Doesn’t Owe You Anything

Dong Nguyen created Flappy Bird, and then suddenly removed it from the app store. But does the indie developer really owe anyone anything?
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Let me preface this article by stating outright that, yes, this article is biased to some degree. I personally support Nguyen’s right to remove the game and withdraw from the public eye. You’re also likely to find a bit of opinion, supposition, and personally-reached conclusion within this article. Please remember that my word is not conclusive on the subject; I am simply providing my take on it in the hopes that it will help to shed some light on the topic. In the end, you should decide for yourself how you feel about the game and Nguyen.  

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Dong Nguyen never expected the firestorm that his game Flappy Bird would cause. Although the simple game doesn’t include very many complex moves or environments, it immediately drew attention and became addictive for many people. Within just a few short weeks, the game had become so popular that it was amassing $50,000 worth of advertising income each day.

It also drew a lot of attention to the developer, who really didn’t want that attention to begin with. Dong Nguyen took to Twitter to try to tell people that the game wasn’t really all that they were making it out to be; it was only ever supposed to be a cute, once-or-twice-off casual game. Unfortunately, Nguyen became the video game industry’s king when he released the game, if only temporarily. His Twitter messages made it clear that he had enough:

Nguyen also mentioned, further down his Twitter feed: 

This exchange is interesting because it may give us a glimpse into how Nguyen thinks. Is it perhaps true that he is simply a staunch believer in staying little and not “selling out?” Or is the truth much murkier?

It’s hard to wade through the fact and fiction that’s currently surrounding the topic. Nguyen has received death threats from fans for removing the game. Gaming outlet Kotaku even released an article entitled, “Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art.” The article came under fire by many people for being inflammatory; Kotaku responded with the following:

UPDATE (2/8/14): This article was originally titled “Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art.” Given that the word “ripped” can be interpreted as “lifted,” I’ve decided to change the headline for the sake of clarity. Before scrutinizing the two pipes side by side, I believed that Flappy Bird‘s art was directly taken from Mario—however, when examined, it’s clear that Flappy Bird‘s pipe is a new albeit unoriginal drawing. The similarities are apparent, as I originally noted, but “ripped” may have been too harsh a word. 

Calling a developer out for ripping off a game is akin to calling them a thief for most gaming industry professionals. While Flappy Bird may very well draw parallels to the original Mario game, it’s too bad that a media outlet chose their wording so poorly, and in such a way that it was clearly biased. A short time after this, Kotaku’s Editor-in-Chief, Stephen Totilo, released a follow-up apologizing for the article. 

Opinions from people outside of the gaming industry vary widely; some think Nguyen is a genius, while others feel strongly that he engaged in underhanded practices in order to propel the game into fame. The developer has received hundreds of death threats, accusations, and hate mail for both the game itself and the removal of the game from the app store.

In an effort to simultaneously inject a bit of personal opinion and neutrality into the topic, I wanted to draw attention to a couple of points:

  1. Someone who had used underhanded tactics in order to propel the game into fame wouldn’t likely want to simply let the game go once it became popular. Such a person would most likely take advantage of the publicity, rather than retreating back from the public.

  2. The developer most likely would have made a better effort to hide his true identity were he trying to game the system. 

  3. It’s really not fair to assume that every developer will be thrilled when their game reaches the pinnacle of success. Not every game developer is in the business solely for money or fame–some really do just want to further the industry and support indie gaming. It’s entirely possible that Nguyen simply wanted to remain a part of what he loved, rather than becoming the next big thing with gaming companies everywhere.

  4. There’s always bias everywhere. Media should be the one place that has as little of it as possible, but this is sadly just not how it happens. Much of the bruhaha, accusations, and conclusions that have drawn a negative light onto Nguyen have started within media. While Kotaku wasn’t the first or the last outlet to make allusions to the fact that Nguyen gamed the system, the example I’ve posted above is shining proof of how easily one off-handed comment by a journalist can become several thousand serious accusations and threats. 

  5. The game does appear to have similar elements to Mario; with that being said, how many games have borrowed or taken inspiration from a different video game in the past? Obviously, taking elements from another game without asking isn’t right, but we don’t know that this was the intention, here. Nguyen hasn’t confirmed or denied these claims, and until he does or there is a court case, it’s not fair to assume.

  6. Nguyen says that he never intended for the game to become so popular. In the same vein, he probably didn’t ever plan for such a popular game because it was so unexpected. Maybe he didn’t consider the ramifications the game would have, including the assets used within it.

  7. No one, whether involved in a legal battle for game assets or not, should ever be threatened with physical harm. The fact that Nguyen has received death threats, cruel comments telling him to kill himself, and many much worse comments is deplorable. I am a passionate gamer as much as the next person, and an artist and writer, so I get the need for copyrighted work to be respected. However, I also believe equally in human rights and the right for every person to be respected at a basic level.

  8. If Nguyen had done something wrong, then the truth will be revealed in time. It’s also surprising that Nintendo hasn’t had anything to say on the subject, if indeed the game did break copyright law.

  9. There’s way, way too much assumption going on with both sides. Assumption only serves to take reality further from the truth. Being patient and asking good, honest questions of good, honest sources is the best way to determine the truth. And of course, when asking sources, refer back to number 4.
Dong Nguyen’s Game, Dong Nguyen’s Choice

In the end, this can be simplified to just a few sentences. Nguyen created the game; that means he has the right to remove it or stop offering it whenever he wants. As a human being, he also has a right to his privacy.  I see a lot of people demanding things from him, yet few offer him the peace and privacy he desires. What right does anyone have to demand the game from him, especially if they haven’t even purchased the rights to it?

It remains to be seen if Nguyen is a quiet, reserved indie gamer who simply loves his peace, or if he happens to be an unscrupulous developer who is riding on the coattails of other games. Until such time that it becomes clear what the answer is, I feel that we should remind ourselves that there is a real human being behind his accounts; a human being with feelings, needs, and opinions of his own.

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MandieM is a gamer girl with a double-life. In the day, she masquerades as TaskHeroGirl, a valiant freelance copywriter. At night, she turns back into the mild-mannered MandieM, gamer extraordinaire. She likes games that are packed full of great stories, filled with inspiration and meaning, or even just good, clean, silly fun. When she's not writing at GameSkinny or working, she's probably tucking into the newest Steam game or finding her way through some distant dimension.