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10 things Vietnamese people still don’t understand about Flappy Bird

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UPDATE: For the Vietnamese version of this article, please see this link.
The world is still talking about Flappy Bird, even after the game’s creator removed it from app stores. While English-language publications like Forbes and The Verge have put out particularly insightful articles on the Flappy Bird phenomenon, media outliets in Vietnam, where the game’s creator resides, have published drivel. They clearly don’t understand why the game is a hit.

Because of this, Vietnamese people are totally focused on the wrong aspects of Dong Nguyen’s success with the rise of Flappy Bird. Jump over to the many conversations happening on Facebook, the main channel for Vietnamese people to chat, and you’ll quickly see the main topics surrounding Flappy Bird are saying that Dong Nguyen stole from Nintendo, that he will be taxed on his income, that he is lucky, that he doesn’t deserve his success, and that the game is generally stupid.

So let’s clear some things up for those who have misconceptions about tech, entertainment, and Vietnam’s gaming world.

1. Copying happens all the time and it’s not the reason for success

There are many articles in English – and especially in Vietnamese – about how Dong Nguyen copied Piou Piou and Nintendo to come up with Flappy Bird. My response is this: even if he did copy all these elements from various games, so what? Was Facebook the first social network? Was Gangnam Style the first song with funny dancing? Was iPhone the first smartphone?

And if you attribute his success to how he copied the green pipes of Super Mario from Nintendo, that’s even more ridiculous. Let me ask you this, are the green pipes why people play the game? No. The main thing people mention in Flappy Bird reviews are how difficult the game is. By far the most viral video about Flappy Bird has nothing to do with the pipes. Nintendo even denied any complaints publicly. It’s all about how insanely tough the game is. And this underlines something else that is quite interesting…

2. It is not easy to copy Flappy Bird

Right now, there are at least ten clones of Flappy Bird on iOS and Android and they are starting to crawl up the charts, But if you are a gamer like me, you will immediately see disparities in quality. First of all, the clones’ graphics are simply not as good as Flappy Bird, which is ironic, given that Flappy Bird is a retro throw-back to pixelated gameplay.

Secondly, the reviews give a clear picture. After hundreds of thousands of reviews, Flappy Bird still maintains a four-star rating. That’s not an easy feat. All of the clones can’t even break three stars after thousands of reviews. Thirdly and most importantly, the physics of the games are just not as real, and the flight is not as difficult and punishing as in Flappy Bird. Fly Birdie, for example, the most blatant clone, with its cheesy music and profoundly ugly brown bird, is very easy. Ironpants, one of the first clones, is easily comparable to Flappy Bird. That leads us to an understanding of the game’s creator, the founder of .GEARS.

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3. Dong Nguyen has discipline and passion

At first glance, Flappy Bird looks like a stupid yet fun game that anybody can make and probably took little time to code. But that’s not the point here. The fact that Dong Nguyen sat down and decided that Flappy Bird would be affected by a stronger gravity than other similar games is profound. For a game like Temple Run, the premise is that the game designers decided that they wanted the gamer to enjoy as much time as possible on a complete run. The purpose is to get better at running and jumping and to get a greater score from a longer journey. Indeed, Flappy Bird wants the same thing, but Dong Nguyen had the discipline to say, “No, let’s make this really difficult.”

This is very clear when you see how many bells and whistles games like Temple Run have. There are long stretches of time where it is easy before the game throws you something tougher. It also encourages you to collect different artifacts to enhance or make gameplay more engaging – and to persuade you to opt for in-app purchases. But Flappy Bird is simple. Win or lose. That’s it. This turned out to be one of the most viral aspects of the game.

So, saying that Flappy Bird is just luck isn’t the whole picture. Don’t underestimate its simplicity. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

4. Constraints lead to beauty

Let’s look deeper at simplicity and why it works. Ed Fries, the co-creator of the Xbox, went in depth into this issue at the BTIC event in Vietnam in 2012. He noted that console games are generally very similar. A great example of this is the proliferation of first-person shooters. Contrast this with the many genres of games that came out of the original Atari and Nintendo games, ranging from Pong to platformers to puzzles to Tetris. His point was that these older consoles involved constraints that lead to great diversity and beauty in games. By giving oneself artificial constraints, the game designer is forced to explore other options and possibilities of gameplay. This leads to more creativity in games. This is exactly what Flappy Bird has done. Don’t underestimate this.

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5. It’s a content play, not a tech play

Despite the constraints and simplicity of Flappy Bird, it’s important to note where it stands in the industry.

Comparing Flappy Bird to Facebook, Apple, and other product tech companies is ridiculous; yet that’s what some Vietnamese media outlets have been doing. Fundamentally, Flappy Bird is a content play. That means it’s more apt to compare Flappy Bird to Psy’s Gangnam Style, viral videos, and obviously Angry Birds and Clash of Clans. Yes, there is a bit of luck in the situation. Clearly, from Nguyen’s tweets, he did not expect the fame and fortune that was thrown at him. He had some theories about how games should be, and he executed that concept in all of his games. The same is true of Rovio, which failed over 50 times before finally getting a game that went global. For every successful Flappy Bird, there are thousands if not millions of people that never make it. Rovio now has the advantage of an entire company and team behind Angry Birds. Now they can build a franchise with stuffed toys, cartoons, and a series of sequels that continue to make the company money.

It means that sometimes you get a hit, and so you rake in lots of money and users the first time, and then you die off. It’s likely that after the first hit you can’t come out with another hit. This is well known in the music industry, so much so that there are even lists dedicated to one-hit wonders.

Flappy Bird is a hit, but will .GEARS be able to produce more games that go global? That’s questionable. Even Psy, who had the greatest hit on Youtube we have yet to witness, hasn’t been able to replicate that success again. But that doesn’t mean it’s totally luck – he had the discipline to make it happen.

6. Venture capitalists are less likely to fund games because they’re hit-based

Due to the hit-based nature of games, it’s harder to notice and even fund gaming companies. Venture capitalists that I have spoken to in Vietnam are generally wary of funding gaming companies, especially indie gamers, because there is no guarantee that a game will become big and make money. It’s more sustainable to fund e-commerce, logistics, and product companies, which have potentially sustainable business models that will last for years.

Investors would rather fund a platform that can draw in users that give content or provide a service for users rather than a game that may be popular for a short period of time and then disappear.

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7. Flappy Bird is not necessarily successful because it’s Vietnamese

Although I do believe Vietnamese folks has a right to be proud of Flappy Bird’s rise, the game’s not a hit because the dev is Vietnamese. In many ways, Flappy Bird is a worldwide anomaly, and it’s not necessarily a Vietnamese quirk. In other words, some people look at Flappy Bird as a sign we can believe in Vietnam as a source of great coders and game designers, but that is not certain in the long-term.

Finland’s gaming industry has blossomed at the heels of Rovio and Supercell, but we only see this after those two studios have consistently released strong titles. In contrast, Dong Nguyen succeeded largely in isolation. He is the sole developer and designer behind .GEARS. Many in the startup and gaming community here didn’t know about him until his recent rise to fame.

Only when we see another success out of Vietnam on the worldwide stage can Vietnamese people actually be confident enough to say the country can consistently churn out great games. Until that time, it’s just hubris. If you don’t believe me, tell me, what is distinctly Vietnamese about Flappy Bird besides Dong Nguyen?

8. .GEARS has pioneered a new genre that will inspire whole new companies

Obviously, the success of Flappy Bird cannot be ignored and the world game design community is no doubt studying it carefully. The success points out some new things about games that have gone unnoticed by major development companies and influencers. Elements of simplicity, punishing difficulty, retro graphics, lack of levels, and virality are all being examined closely and no doubt we will start to see games of this type in the near future. It is now a new genre.

9. Ném Đá is just whiny and immature

Among Facebook users in Vietnam there are two sides of the argument on this topic. On one side are the people who are proud that Flappy Bird is from Vietnam and are celebrating its viral success, even comparing it to Psy or Justin Bieber. On the other side is a group that resents what Flappy Bird has achieved and thinks that the dev doesn’t deserve his success.

Generally, the latter group is doing something we call “ném đá” in Vietnam. Literally it means “throwing rocks” – criticizing or complaining about something without thoughtful arguments. I’ve covered this before in my article on growing the startup scene in the country. But the point is that ném đá is unoriginal, totally uncreative, childish, and it’s getting old. Ném đá is too easy; it requires no thought. Instead of whining, look closely at why he is successful and consider the elements that make the game such a blockbuster.

10. Vietnamese media also totally ignored the rise of Twitter

In this whole affair I find it amusing that Twitter was the main channel for Dong Nguyen to chat with the world. He didn’t do it on a blog, or Facebook, or even on the .GEARS website. This is ironic, since Vietnam is arguably the fastest growing Facebook nation in the world, going from 12 million users in March 2013 to more than 20 million Facebook users last month. At the same time, there has yet to be a strong migration to Twitter in Vietnam.

Where Facebook sees more than 60 percent penetration of the internet population of Vietnam, Twitter dwindles at less than 20 percent. And yet the most famous Vietnamese person today uses Twitter. This has gone totally unmentioned in Vietnamese media. Indeed, they’ve quoted from his tweets, but the fact that a Vietnamese celebrity is using Twitter for communication is totally novel. Are we about to see more use of Twitter from Vietnamese folk?

Time to flap away

Now Flappy Bird is off the app stores – though of course it’s easy to install on any Android phone if you can find the ‘.apk’ file. It’s not so easy on iOS. Who knows when the developer will release another game or if Flappy Bird will return to app stores.

Update: Although .GEARS has taken Flappy Bird down, it has just updated both of its other games: Shuriken Block and Soccer Ball Juggling.

The title was such a huge hit that we’re now seeing second-hand iPhones selling for thousands of dollars because they have the game installed, and there’s been an onslaught of clones and homages.

We’re seeing media asking about the country’s potential for indie game developers. Of course, gaming is already quite established in Vietnam. Remember that Vietnam has a decade-long tradition in its gaming industry, and the nation’s biggest tech company is VNG, which famously got rich by licensing a popular game from China. Plus there are small gaming studios like GlassEgg, Colorbox, Divmob, iWin in Vietnam, and even Gameloft has a branch studio here. On top of this, there are huge gaming-dedicated sites like Gameland.vn and SohaGame. There’s breadth and depth to the industry, so a future global hit looks likely. So let’s all calm down, move on, and download our next game.

(Editing by Steven Millward)

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