Flappy Bird vs Maverick Bird and their analogies to life

In the past few days i’ve become fairly obsessed with Maverick Bird, the Flappy Bird tribute created by Terry Cavanagh who is to blame for me losing countless hours of productivity due to Super Hexagon.  As I’ve started to get better at the game at a level where i can make certain gameplay decisions by reflex more than deliberate choice, I’ve also started to notice a subtle difference in how i approach the game philosophically and psychologically versus the original Flappy Bird, and that’s brought to light some interesting and concrete revelations about both that draw analogies to how i approach music practice, music creation, and life.

For me, the most fundamental brilliance about the design of Super Hexagon is how it parallels the mastery of learning a musical instrument (as well as other skills), primarily because of the relativity of perceived difficulty.  Super Hexagon has six difficulty stages which are broken into two sets of three.  When i first started to play the game, Stage 1 (labeled “Hard”) felt daunting enough as it was – everything seemed to be moving incredibly quickly, and i was constantly dying in 10s or less.  This happened often – probably literally hundreds of times – before i got past that point and then it took maybe another 50-75 tries to hit the 20s mark.  As i got more comfortable with it, it became easier to reach higher rates of achievement, but much of it still felt like floundering and a reactionary approach to the game as opposed to true mastery.

The main difficulty difference between Stage 3 (labeled “Hardest”) versus Stage 1 is speed – not just the speed of the obstacles coming at you, but also how quickly you move as a player.  Despite my level of comfort increasing in Stages 1 and 2 where getting 30-40s was, if not easy, at least more graspable, that slight increase of speed and mobility of Stage 3 schooled me for probably at least 200-300 gameplays before i passed 15s for the first time.  At this point i was fairly obsessed with the game, trying to achieve the 60s mark, and i discovered that trying to play Stage 1 and 2 would throw me off because the timing felt so different from Stage 1, so i deliberately stopped playing those stages for a good week or so while i attempted to master Stage 3.

I think it was when i was able to get to the 40-50s mark in Stage 3 that I decided to take a break and go back to Stage 1, and I discovered to my surprise that Stage 1 didn’t just feel easy, it felt slow.  I remember the sensation of playing the game for the first time and thinking that i had to react so quickly to everything, something that would induce an adrenaline rush and a sense of urgency.  But after I had trained myself to get used to the way Stage 3 was timed, I went back to Stage 1 and felt like i had all of the time in the world to react to what was going on – enough that I could sometimes make a poor judgement call, realize that a fraction of a second later, and then make an error correction that would cause me to not die, which is something that felt impossible when i first started.  And once i got good enough at Stage 3 and started to play the “challenge stages”, Stage 6 schooled me in the same way that Stage 3 had initially, and then when i got good enough at that and went back to Stage 3, Stage 3 similarly felt not just easy but slow.  This feeling was further amplified the more people i showed the game to who would try the first stage, watch me play the sixth stage, and be flabbergasted at how i could react so quickly when it no longer felt quick to me at all.  Conceptually this ended up being reinforced by people who started to obsess with the game as much as me that would describe a similar experience of those early stages feeling like a crawl compared to the later stages once they became expert players.

There are many many similar experiences that i’ve had with other video games, particularly music video games, and i know that there are a lot of professions, particularly sports, in which that comes into play as well.  In one of James Burke’s early television shows Connections, Burke used race car driving as that analogy, saying that professional race car drivers are so practiced in driving at fast speeds that they feel like they have all of the time in the world to react to situations around them that they’ve turned into instinct and reflex.  With sports and other professions, there’s a science behind how someone can be trained to get to that level of achievement, a pedagogical approach combined with hours and days of practice.  With Super Hexagon, the game design monopolizes on that science, creating an experience that is easy for anyone to grasp just by picking up the game and pressing “go”, but takes hours and days to master, and, more importantly, rewarding the time spent by the player in very concrete measurable and iterative ways that motivate the player to want to get even better. I knew i was improving at the game, and that fueled me to reach that next step of expertise by constantly analysing how i could improve on my technique, then applying those techniques and practicing them over and over again, all motivated by sheer determination of wanting to reach a decent level of mastery – which i eventually did.

Although the paradigm of Maverick Bird is more akin to Flappy Bird than Super Hexagon, the craft of the game design reminds me strongly of Super Hexagon in a way that Flappy Bird fails to achieve.


With Flappy Bird, there’s a measurable finite amount of situations the player has to learn in order to master the game.  Not to say that the game is easy; the margin of error to pass through the pipes and iterate your score is very narrow, and the physics of maneuvering the flappy bird takes some getting used to.  You’re given no “training mode” or any degree of forgiveness for imperfection.  You either get through the pipe, or you die.  But once you get used to the gravity physics and learn how to manipulate the flapping to get to where you need to get through the pipes, achieving high scores is seemingly left to simple practice and repetition.

That’s definitely a contrasting experience to that of playing Maverick Bird which i’ve now played for at least twice as long as its flappy counterpart, and I’m not only still learning how to get any level of mastery, but i’m also determined to do so in a way that i’m not motivated by Flappy Bird.  With Cavanagh’s clone, it feels worth it to spend the time to experiment and explore new techniques and approaches and hone the precision of my gameplay in an attempt to more achieve more consistently, and that’s more complicated than it initially seems because of how the arc path of the maverick bird’s “flap” is not equal to the rate in which obstacles roll by (which is also true of Flappy Bird but to a much lesser degree), which means that the same obstacles sometimes requires a completely different action depending on where the bird is in its flight path, which can be subtly manipulated to make it easier or harder depending on when you’ve flapped previously.

And never mind what the “drop” action does to add more flexibility and depth to the gameplay.

From all of this, it makes it seem that Maverick Bird is the superior Flappy Bird experience.  It captures the essence of Flappy Bird’s simplicity and expands on it in a Super Hexagon kind of way, complete with high-powered techno soundtrack.  It’s immensely gratifying to get better at the game, not just to get a new high score, but to reliably get higher scores or become more consistent in dealing with obstacles and how to prepare for them.

That said, Flappy Bird does achieve something that Maverick Bird doesn’t do, something that i think is fundamental to skill-building that today’s world sometimes loses sight of.  I had said that once the mechanics of Flappy Bird is mastered, high achievability is seemingly achieved through simple repetition, but the reality of it is more complicated than that and more profound.  To excel at Flappy Bird, the player has to have patience and perseverance, be willing to put in the time to practice the repetitions, which results in a level of confidence that getting the platinum medal 9 times out of 10 is a given, that achieving newer high scores is just a matter of time.  And in that way, Flappy Bird is more akin to what is needed by the aspiring professional musician, the snare line of a world class DCI or WGI drumline that works to play every single simple and complex note with absolute clarity, the aspiring concert pianist who practices his scales every day for two hours prior to working on the actual music no matter how many times he’s played them before, the collegiate music conductor who spends the first ten minutes of every rehearsal with long tones, making sure that everyone in her ensemble is using their ears to blend and balance.

Perseverance in that Flappy Bird sensibility, therefore, feels more like a test of will and determination that has to come from within where Maverick Bird is Flappy Bird’s virtuosic and flashy partner, where the test of will and determination is inherently encouraged by the subtly complex game design.  Both of them serve as an interesting complement to each other, and to me serves as an interesting set of analogies to important life skills; it’s the Flappy Bird sort of perseverance through almost a decade of patience and determination that got me to where i am today as a musician and what i humbly feel is a successful career as a collegiate marching band instructor and music composer.  It’s the Maverick Bird sort of desire for virtuosic excellence and mastery that drives me to constantly exceed my own set of expectations and goals in those realms and in every other aspect of my life, to apply the fundamentals that i’ve drilled so meticulously into innovative and polished results.

It’s possible that that analogy is a little self-masturbatory and stretches a bit thin.  That’s okay; both Birds are still damned fun to play, if nothing else, you can take away that as the bottom line if you want.

flash game “music”

maybe this is just me, but i feel like flash game music has a hugely untapped potential.

The electronic music program in my undergrad at West Chester helped engrain in me a preference of electronic music as an interactive performance art versus a static “tape piece” that involves no live element. Not that i don’t think that tape pieces have value or their place in our modern music history, it can just be more challenging for a piece to resonate with me as both a composer or an audience member if conceived that way.

That’s really a separate discussion; i bring this up because in the past half year or so my brother has started dabbling into creating flash games and i thought it would be fun to try my hand at creating the background music. The more i would discover about some of flash’s flexibility when it comes to music handling, the more my brain shifted the musical conception away from “background music” to “interactive sound experience”.

Most flash games….

chain factor: the video – an ant hill into a mountain

This is more for my own personal historical archive than anything else, but i thought i’d post it on my blog in the event that anyone else was interested.

The idea to make a video of me playing chain factor came as a result of me not finding any online videos of gameplay that could help guide my own play to being better, so i decided to make my own video of one of my better runs. I got lucky – the run that i ended up recording was the first run that i did, and while it’s not my best score, i felt it was good enough for me to use.

the run actually took about 22 minutes to complete, so the first step was to speed up the video so that it would meet youtube’s 10 minute specification limit (although i do realize that yt’s limitation has more to do with filesize rather than length). Doing that meant that i couldn’t use the original music/soundtrack without it sounding ridiculous, so the next step was to find music to go with the run. Ten minutes is longer than songs typically are, but i immediately rejected the idea of using more than one song because i didn’t want the video to be broken in half by two songs. The only piece of music that I had in my iTunes library that was close to ten minutes was Cheating, Lying, Stealing by David Lang. so i sped it up slightly to get it to the needed length, and planned to just stick it in the background of the video.

Once i had chosen the tune, it didn’t feel right to just have the piece sit in the background while the video did nothing but show a static gameplay field. So i decided some basic manipulation would be easy to do. So the “tremor effect” for all of the opening kick drum segments was born. At the time, i was to just going to do that in appropriate places and call it good, but once i started to put in the effect and thought about what was happening in the rest of the music, it wasn’t enough. I felt like the music deserved more – it’s a fantastic piece with a lot of immediate appeal as well as a lot of analytical depth. To have the video manipulation not reflect that depth goes against my general artistic principles. So i started brainstorming in my head ideas for what should happen in each section of the piece.

And it kept growing. and growing. and, um.

here’s a basic rundown of each section: the effects, the motivation behind them, the evolution of them, and some of the technical construction of them:

Section A (0’00”-0’34”) – Tremor Effect: I went to the web to figure out how to do this in FCP since i don’t have a copy of After Effects or a similar program. Basically it involved creating a copy of the snippet of video in question, and then doing a right and left reposition multiple times every two frames. I decided that the only thing that i wanted to actually tremor was the playfield, so i had to create cropped copies of the right “score” side, the left “Back To Menu” side, and the bottom “Level Up” side that would run independently of the playfield. This would be key to later sections.

Section B (0’34”-1’06”) – Echo layers: Originally, the idea i had was to create a “ghost layer” every time the cello changed notes. Each layer was supposed to clearly come from the spot that it just got left off, and all of the layers were supposed to be slower. I tried this at first and decided after i watched a few layers that it moved too slowly and was too boring, so i changed the concept to instead make the layers a mix of slower and quicker and have them start in a spot where at the very end of the section they would all converge to the same moment.

This was very early in my FCP video editing chops – if i had done the middle/late sections first, i would have done these sections differently. Probably a little cleaner, and also more interesting.

Sections A’, B’, A” (1’06”-2’41”) – Recap and Ripple: The ripple is the only thing that i did differently for the section recaps. That was a basic FCP video effect; nothing too special there.

Section C part 1 (2’41”-3’39”) – Moving Menu/Score: Originally i had an idea of having either the score or the menu jitter around for every piano hit, but since i lost my score to the piece from when i analyzed/performed it in college, it ended up being too daunting and impractical. I still wanted the menu and score to move, so i simplified the criteria.

i took the screen and replicated it six times: one for the cropped version of the playfield, one for the “Level” indicator on the bottom, one for a white bar on the left side along with the sound toggles, one for the “Back to Menu” that was on top of it, one for the white bar on the right side, and one for the score that was on top of it. The white bars served as a backdrop for the moving menu and scores, and i’m guessing that i probably did this in the most inefficient way possible – i didn’t create a .tga of a static white backgorund, i just cropped a white portion of the playfield and then zoomed it by 1000 percent. I’m betting that this took extra processing power because even though the video was “invisible” since i only picked a portion of it, i imagine that the video was still running in the background, which would have caused for more cpu needed and more time to render. but oh well.

getting the menu and score to move was a fairly simple matter of finding the frames with the audio that i wanted to line the move with and then creating two adjacent keyframes: one to hold the previous position, and one to immediately move it to the new position. i also added some motion blur to give the move some more “depth”.

Section C part 2 (2’56”-3’39”) – Number Fill: Conceptually the gradual number fill turned out exactly how i wanted it – start with a basic number fill, gradually hit a point where the entire board is filled with numbers by the end. In some of its execution i’m also pretty happy with what i did; it was a deliberate choice to start with a predictable pattern before finding new ways to break it – start with all 7s, then 6s, then 5s, then break that by doing something different, then break that by doing a more random pattern, then break that by turning the numbers upside down, &c. Even so, i’m not *completely* satisfied with that section because at some point it loses its sense of direction because i didn’t pace it properly and think enough ahead.

This was the first time that i deliberately decided to take a snapshot of all of the numbers indivdually into still .tga’s as opposed to grabbing small clips of video. It did me a lot of good in the long run i think – it would have been a headache both cropping-wise, timing-wise, and rendering-wise if all of those numbers were film instead of snapshots.

Section D (3’39” – 5’28”) – Rotating Playfield and Number Trails: The slowly rotating board felt appropriate for the mood of this section; since everything prior to this part was primarily percussive, the more legato sense of this section needed a more legato visual effect. The white-faded rotation that lines up with the piano cluster hits is meant to be a variation of the original “Batman” rotating segue, and although you can’t tell, it’s a copy of whatever the current playfield is at the time. Originally i had it in negative colors, but it was too distracting from the main playfield action, so i decided to change my approach.

The number trails were fairly straightforward to do, but is also one of my favorite effects in the whole video. It recycled the .tga snapshots of the previous section, just placed in strategic spots with the piano cluster hits as well. The thing that i wrestled with a little here was how the growing number of “stuck” numbers obscured the playfield, problematic because despite all of the video manipulations i was doing, the main premise behind the video was still to demonstrate gameplay. Ultimately i decided that i liked the effect too much for the lack of complete clarity to matter enough, and i’m glad i kept it in.

Section E (5’28” – 6’13”) – Moving Playfield: Another ‘gradually evolving’ section where i tried to establish the basis for the section by zooming in place, then breaking that expectation by zooming to different spots, then breaking that by adding x-axis rotation, then breaking that by adding z-axis rotation. Standard fcp functionality, but i think it’s fairly effective. i’m annoyed that by doing the z rotation, the “crop” changed so that you could visibly see the score as it rotated, but i was too lazy to try to create a moving crop to match the rotation. too much work for too little return.

Section F (6’15” – 9’06”) – Pendulum Playfield/Zoom Echo Playfields/Snare Drum Flashes: The original concept i had for the Pendulum Playfield was instead to have the hits be “mirror polarity”, as in for every hit it would flip between a mirror playfield and the regular playfield. I nixed that idea for the same reason i was wary about the “sticky” numbers in that i felt that it would obscure the actual gameplay too much. When i first did the pendulum swinging, it was an extreme and unchanging swing the whole way, and the result was pretty dissatisfying because after establishing the swing, it didn’t go anywhere and got boring too quickly. The gradual increase of the swing gave it direction but a subtle one; hopefully it’s something that you can easily not notice because it’s gradual enough and there’s too much other stuff going on, and before you realize it, the swing is at its peak.

The zoom echo playfields effect was a fairly straightforward execution at this point since i had done a different version of that earlier in the piece. I systematically created two ‘echo playfields’ that would zoom out to 1000 percent centered on a random spot, then two ‘echo playfields’ that would zoom in to zero percent centered on a random spot. This repeated for every moving note in the violin part. I toyed around with trying to make the playfields change opacity over time, but having multiple layers on top of each other achieved the effect well enough and any more lessened the impact of the swinging pendulum which i still wanted to be main focus. i did put the opacity of all of the layers back to 100% when they all came back in a collapse to try to create more visual tension. That particular moment i tried about 10 times and i’m still not completely happy with it. I had this idea of playfields zooming suddenly in in rapid succession and in rapid velocity, but i couldn’t get the effect to work the right way, so i settled for the final effect here because at this point i was also impatient to get the whole project done. I think i have a better idea of what to do if i ever tried something like that again.

The snare drum flashes came from taking a few snapshots from the background combo flashes, photoshopping out the gridlines, and then putting them all in frame by frickin’ frame. Granted, once i got the main repeating pattern, i could copy/paste the repeating pattern and place it when i needed to, but for each one i also had to make sure that where it hit didn’t potentially collide with new objects in the playfield, so it involved looking at each one fairly carefully, and when the pattern was interrupted, i’d have to shift the whole pattern around.

the snare drum hits in the music contribute greatly to the tension of the climax, and although i think i conveyed that okay in my visualization of it, it gets completely lost because of the echo playfields zooming in. I’m not completely happy with how that turned out, but again, after so many failed attempts and just wanting the whole thing to be done, i decided to call it good.

As for the final recaps of the opening sections, i put some consideration into doing something different with it to give it a better bookend but decided against it because doing anything different felt like it would have been completely out of context.

The whole project took me roughly six or so weeks to complete. crazy considering that originally i was going to make it a one-session video edit and call it finished, but i’m glad that it turned out the way that it did, because i’m happy with how it turned out, and it’s expanded my vocabulary and conceptualizations of what i can do with video manipulation which will hopefully help me with my Green Lantern project.

go me.