Beyond Flappy Bird: could Vietnam teach the world a lesson in mobile games?

Flappy Bird

By now, everyone has heard of Flappy Bird. It quickly rose to prominence and is arguably the Gangnam Style of mobile gaming. With over 50 million downloads at its height, the game has now become a point of pride for Vietnamese startups and gamers. Along with that has come a barrage of questions from foreign journalists about the viability of Vietnam as a market that can create world-class games and products.

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My position is that it’s very hard to tell until Vietnam consistently creates world-class products and games. At the same time, Psy and Gangnam Style did not explode out of a vacuum. Psy was surrounded by a powerful Korean entertainment industry that fosters talent and great production. By the same token, is Vietnam laying on a hotbed of excellent game designers waiting to bloom?

In Dong Nguyen’s excellent interview with Rolling Stone, he got into the nitty-gritty of how he would come up with something like Flappy Bird:

I pictured how people play. One hand holding the train strap. When you play game on a smartphone, the simplest way is just tapping.

In the budding mobile climate that is Vietnam, with over 140 million mobile phones in a country of 90 million people, did it create the ideal space for a simple game like Flappy Bird to rise?

The attack of the Flappy Bird clones

Soon after Nguyen abruptly took down Flappy Bird, a swarm of clones arrived on the App Store and Play Store. The onslaught prompted Apple and Google to start rejecting Flappy Bird clones. But the greatest irony for me is that Asia, especially Vietnam, has been repeatedly accused of being a clone factory. People in Vietnam are afraid of their businesses and ideas being cloned in the market. But here the tech community of Vietnam was bearing witness to the rest of the world copying a Vietnamese game.

And now, is Vietnam going to continue its gaming revolution?

In many ways, Vietnam’s startup and tech scene, especially in the consumer space, is driven by the gaming industry. VNG, by far one of Vietnam’ biggest successes, is fundamentally a gaming company. And the rising stars in Vietnam’s startup scene like mWork, Appota, ME Corp, Divmob, and more also exist in this space. This is Vietnam’s gaming ecosystem.

Flappy Bird is now a legend in Vietnam. It’s a hard act to follow, but that hasn’t stopped the release of several new exciting games coming out of Vietnam. This includes level-based apps like School Cheater, which asks the gamer to avoid the leering eyes of a school teacher, to the elegantly designed 1Path, which puts a new spin on the concept of connecting the dots.

A beginning to a philosophy of gaming from Vietnam?

A new game called Freaking Math is building on Flappy Bird’s philosophy of sparse graphics, simple gameplay, and punishing mechanics.

This is also developed by a single developer based in Vietnam. It takes a very simple concept that Tech In Asia spied at the Mobile Hackathon last year and sprinkles a bit of dotGEARS gaming philosophy on top. And the best part, it’s about math. It’s so punishing that it will teach you that you suck at simple addition. Freaking Math asks the gamer to check whether a simple addition problem is correct or incorrect. Although the math is easy, it asks you to solve it quickly. Therein lies the difficulty, and the gameplay will immediately remind you of the frustration you feel when playing Flappy Bird. You’ve been warned.

What does this game show us about Vietnam? Maybe that it takes a Vietnamese gamer to innovate on a Vietnamese game? Most of the Flappy Bird clones out there just change the dotGEARS bird into a fish or a face, they tweak the physics and design a bit and release a game. But Freaking Math’s a totally novel take on what brought Flappy Bird to fame. Are we about to see more from Vietnam? We talked to the creator of Freaking Math, Bang Nguyen, to find out how it was inspired by Flappy Bird:

Freaking Math’s game play was inspired by a game show on VTV and Flappy Bird. In March, I had watched a game show on VTV that players needed to answer the question in limited time. When the time is out, they must start over again with the same questions. They needed to listen to questions and answered with the same answer again and again that can make they crazy. And Flappy Bird made people crazy, too. So i decided to make a simple game (like Flappy Bird) that make people crazy but they want to play again.

Making a game with a question is not simple. People nowadays read lots of text everyday. They dont want to read a long question on a game, it’s boring. Lots of people are also not good in English (including me). I can’t choose text questions. Images? It would take a lot of time and i’m not a good designer or content writer.

On a sleepless night, I chose math. Every person in the world who own a smartphone can do math, I guess. But the math must be simple enough that when they give the wrong answer, they want to restart. All the ideas came up and I wrote it immediately on my phone. Then i went to sleep. Few days later, I gave the first version to friends and uploaded it to the App Store.

It’s this attention to simple detail and adaptation that is slowly running through the veins of the Vietnamese mobile gaming ecosystem. For Vietnam’s mobile gaming industry, I think we’ve only just begun to see what its capable of.

This article by Anh-Minh Do originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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