Flappy Bird – actual strategies


(I can’t believe I’m writing about this.)

Back in the day, as an obsessed martial artist (yes, really – it was a LONG time ago) I used to go on these full-on intensive training weekends. Starting Friday night, going on late, up at 5am for knuckle push-ups on gravel; all that stuff. Hours and hours of training. You’d think we’d get knackered. But not really, not like you’d expect. Instead, your mind would go to shit.

Master Lai told us this would happen: he’d point to arms, legs, centre – then tap his head. “Always the first to get tired.”

And so it is with Flappy Bird. The infuriating game, with its ludicrously simple interface, works just like this. Once you’ve got a basic grasp of the movement, a single pipe is dead easy. Maybe even ten in a row. But after that?

That’s where the game has got interesting for me, once you get past the “regular ten” stage. Prompting thoughts on actual strategy. Finding a depth to the game that you’d never guess from a few minutes looking at the mechanics of it.

So, stuck as I have been for a few days on a high of 29, I’ve been looking at what’s going on. This is what I’ve found so far:

1. You die when you decide it’s time to die. You don’t (once you’ve got that basic movement) die at the first pipe. And probably not for the first few. But at some point your brain starts telling you that you’re a bit tired/you’ve stopped concentrating/you can’t possibly have got this far/OMG you’re nearly at your high score… And then the coordination goes, and you die. Because it was the right time to die.

2. The score can be a big prompter as to when it’s time to die. So – strategy 1 – cover up the score counter. Try it. A bit fiddly in terms of obscuring the upper pipe on high gaps, but I found at least some bliss in ignorance.

3. My second strategy was to think rhythmically. Instead of focusing on pipes, find the tempo required to sustain level flight. Sticking to that, instead of the almost overwhelming urge to give a (terminal) last thrust on gate exit, makes a massive difference. You have to be able to deal with quickening and interruption to rise and fall between gates, but if you can return to that underlying tempo, you’ll improve.

4. But I still hit a lot of pipes. Time for some reframing of the target. On the principle that if you aim for a stretched target, you’ll have a better chance of getting to what you need, I then tried another approach: visualising the gate as being about half its real height. Try to keep the bird in that imaginary central zone, and suddenly you’re clearing the pipe ends by much bigger distances.

5. Still unsatisfied, I looked for another approach. If I could manage one gate; or even consistently manage ten; why could I not manage 30? So this led to the next strategy: doing it by tens. Someone clever once said you don’t have to do something for ever, just for a day at a time; so how about breaking the longer journey into parts? Maybe this one didn’t work so well, but it was fun to explore the difference in how it felt.

6. Then I reviewed why I was dying. This “level flight” thing wasn’t actually not all that useful. I might enter the gate at the right height, but that last bump just before exit was causing 90% of crashes. So, the next approach, and the most successful so far – the rising diagonal. Again, using an imaginary safe zone rather narrower than the gate, visualise it a rising 30° angle. You enter very low, and greatly reduce the chance of that late head-hit.

7. Some things are always beyond your control: I get an occasional glitch which slows down the horizontal scrolling. Death. If there’s a really nasty sequence of high-low-high-low. Death. Too bad. Move on. Do what you can.

So there you have it. An utterly basic game on first sight. But within it: performance review, rhythm, target-setting, staging, mental fatigue, muscle memory, microprecision, feedback loops and much much more – all recorded with one, inarguable, integer. That’s why it’s such a piece of bloody genius. Now to try it blindfolded…

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