By DAVID KUSHNER
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?
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, Nguyen (pronounced nwin) never imagined being a world-famous game designer. Though his father owned a hardware store and his mother worked for the government, his family couldn't afford Game Boys for him or his younger brother. But eventually, they were able to purchase a Nintendo, which, like most electronics in Vietnam, was available only in cloned form. Marveling at the power of controlling a character onscreen, Nguyen spent his free time obsessively playing Super Mario Bros.
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. Son Bui Truong, Nguyen's former boss, says the young programmer stood out for his speed, skills and fierce independent streak. "Dong didn't need a supervisor," Truong says. "He wasn't comfortable with it. So we said he did not have to report to anyone."
Nguyen soon tired of churning out the company's sports games. When he later got his hands on an iPhone, he became fascinated by the possibilities of the touch screen. Few games, however, captured the simple power of the Nintendo games of his youth. Angry Birds was too busy, he thought. "I don't like the graphics," he says. "It looked too crowded." Nguyen wanted to make games for people like himself: busy, harried, always on the move. "I pictured how people play," he says, as he taps his iPhone and reaches his other hand in the air. "One hand holding the train strap." He'd make a game for them.
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