Addiction & Fame: How Flappy Bird is the App Store’s Grunge Moment

Flappy Bird burned fast and hot, and now it’s gone. Its creator never wanted it to be this big.

Remember the grunge scene?

Back in the 1990s, small, derivative scenester stuff goes surprise-huge, accusations of unoriginality fly from traditional circles, and musicians mope darkly about how they hate all the fame and attention, withdrawing from award shows, and exiting from the spotlight amid conspiracies and speculation.

Cut to this week.

Unlikely App Store sensation Flappy Bird was reportedly earning some $50,000 per day in ad revenue when its creator, indie developer Dong Nguyen, decided to pull his little game from the store.

Flappy Bird had hit the big time—then disappeared just as fast.

The game went viral thanks in part to fans drawn to the hooky, junky riff of tapping the iOS touchscreen at just the right moment to prevent a bug-eyed birdy’s plummet, and is now gone, leaving only conspiracies and speculation in its wake.

Now I know this sounds a bit ridiculous. And truth is, nothing really tragic occurred here. But bear with me. This whole thing resembles, in a way, the rise and untimely fall of Kurt Cobain. A star that burned too bright, too fast, and hated all of the attention.

But like Nirvana’s music, the game was just as popular thanks to all the people who didn’t get it, the ones who tweeted about how impenetrable and stupid it seemed, however inexplicable its popularity. A groundswell of professional game developers reacted with extreme prejudice to Flappy Bird’s popularity, hoping to clip its dirty wings by scolding it for “cloning” the visual iconography of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros franchise, or from ripping off the game design of other “cave helicopter"-style games.

Late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain transparently admitted that his band’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, was him “trying to rip off the Pixies”. Hindsight these days suggests much of the short-lived grunge music trend was ultimately about radio-friendly brooding men taking punk aesthetics and making them “corporate”, even though the Pixies probably owe a massive generation of fans to Nirvana’s borrowing.

Flappy Bird, though, ripped a corporate aesthetic and made it punk, in a way.

As a developer making small, free games out of Vietnam, Flappy Bird’s Dong Nguyen was most definitely an outsider. The recipe for Flappy Bird’s success is in many ways fairly standard for the Western indie game development: small and simple, yet sadistically challenging, with a borrowed retro aesthetic.

Yet it seems the traditional development community wanted to “other” Nguyen, to discredit his success because he wasn’t one of them, because any game maker from the developing world just has to be some kind of evil clone manufacturer. The conflict reminds of the spiritual clash between traditional, formal heavy metal arrogance and the quiet humility of grunge guys in sweaters playing funny, derivative little riffs to mass appeal.

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“I can call Flappy Bird is a success of mine,” tweeted Nguyen, shortly after announcing he was taking the game down. “But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”

When Nguyen decided to remove Flappy Bird from the App Store, he said it wasn’t due to any legal complaints from Nintendo, whose green pipes Nguyen is disdained for imitating (lots of independent games borrow structural elements from classic Nintendo universes; Nintendo itself later confirmed that it wasn’t interested in pursuing infringement action against Flappy Bird).

At the time, most bloggers and industry-watchers assumed it was because of the overwhelming wave of “hate” and controversy; others pointed to tweets from Nguyen during which he appeared to worriedly counsel players who said they were especially hooked on Flappy Bird, or too frustrated with it. “I cannot take this anymore,” Nguyen had tweeted as a preface to his takedown notice—but no one could identify what “this” truly was.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, the world may finally have its answer. Nguyen said he had wanted to “create a game that people could enjoy for a few minutes.” But it was too good. It got too big. Too fast. “It was just too addictive,” he said in the interview. “That was the main negative. So I decided to take it down.”

Nirvana fans, and many music fans who grew up in the 90s, presume Kurt Cobain chose to leave this world because he was overwhelmed by the fame. Fans who understand the challenges of mental health point pragmatically to a history of Cobain’s depression and addiction as the most likely catalyst. And still, there are the still fringe conspiracy theorists who believe there was foul play involved instead.

Likewise, there may always be conspiracy theories about the “death” of Flappy Bird, too. Lots of cynics think the game wouldn’t have lasted long once the slow but sure searchlight of Apple’s supposedly-rigid copyright watchdogs fell on it, so maybe Nguyen wanted to take his ad revenue and run—before facing the risk of losing it all. No one knows, everyone emphasizes.

One Flappy Bird critique by videogames writer Brendan Keogh does an excellent job of highlighting fans’ fixation on the idea that there always, always has to something sinister going on beyond our frame of reference, and provides an elegant analysis of the game’s design: you have to let the Flappy Bird plummet, and trust that you’ll know when to pull it back up. It’s bleak when you think about it like that.

I remember the mass commercialization that followed Cobain’s death, the incredibly tacky memorial T-shirts that he surely would have hated. Now, there are smartphones for sale with Flappy Bird installed going for thousands of dollars on eBay (and even their legitimacy is being questioned). I don’t know Dong Nguyen, and I don’t know how he feels about fame and money, but based on what we know from his comments so far I have to presume he would hate such a turn of events, too.

The fascinating tragedy of Flappy Bird might go down in history as a defining “grunge moment” for videogames. Or it could be totally forgotten next week, as oftentimes these things are.

Still, it’s better to burn out than to fade away, as they say.