Notes on Swing Copters

1. Swing Copters is, clearly, the follow-up to Dong Nguyen’s Flappy Bird. You can see it in the art style with its vibrant colours and riffing of Nintendo motifs (the girders and hammers vividly recall the original Donkey Kong). You can feel it in the obtrusively difficult playing where getting a single point can take an afternoon of repeats. You can feel it, most clearly, in the brutally unforgiving hitboxes that give no leeway to the player. Draw a square around the outer-most limits of every sprite, and there is its hitbox. An invisible square corner beside a hammer hits an invisible square corner beside your helicopter-cap, and you’re dead. It feels cheap at first , just like Flappy Bird, but, over time, comes to feel like the game has its own unique syntax that requires you unlearn whatever rules you know about how virtual objects should work together.

2. But Swing Copters is also very much unlike Flappy Bird. Like any sequel or follow-up, it’s how it contrasts with its predecessor that it is most interesting, as it is in these differences where you see the designer’s growth most clearly. By all accounts, Nguyen was conflicted with Flappy Bird’s explosive success, and loathed the idea that he might have created something that people got addicted to. In Swing Copters, then, you have the same kind of simple-yet-tough gameplay, but presented in a far more obtuse manner. Flappy Bird’s success was in how easy it was to ‘get’. Even if your first game’s score was 1 or 2 points, you still felt like you got it, like you could do better if you practiced. The ol’ “Easy to learn hard to master” proverb written on the first page of every game design handbook is what worked in Flappy Bird’s favour. Swing Copters, meanwhile, does not give up its secrets so easily. You can’t begin to ‘learn’ Swing Copters until you figure just what the hell is even going on. In Flappy Bird, that first tap that commences the game also teaches you the central mechanic: tap to go up. The first tap in Swing Copters, meanwhile, merely starts the game. You get no hint of what you are even controlling from it. So you go into the game blind and, a second later, you have swung wildly to the right and died against the edge of the screen with a score of zero. I spent a good five games not even knowing what a tap achieved, my death came so quickly. Eventually, I figured out a tap changes directions. But even then, getting through that first gap took over a dozen games as I tried to account for inertia, hitboxes, and the constant vertical movement of my little avatar. It’s for this reason that Swing Copters will not find itself a dedicated following as strong as Flappy Bird did. They’ll all download it, to be sure, but many will give up instantly, disappointed to not find Flappy Bird’s quick fix. But I sense that is Nguyen’s deliberate (and quite clever) design decision. He doesn’t want this game to hook you. He wants you to give it your time voluntarily and consensually, and it will stand back and wait for you to come to it. It won’t meet you halfway.

3. Game designer Chris Bell said on Twitter, in a conversation with Bennett Foddy and Zach Gage, that Swing Copters was a “two-handed Flappy Bird”. It was this conversation I watched in my timeline that convinced me there was enough to Swing Copters to be worth putting up with so many terrible runs: if these game designers saw something of worth there, it was all I could do to find it. At first, Bell’s idea of a two-handed Flappy Bird didn’t make sense to me. Both games are played in portrait mode, making them perfect for single-hand play (the weight of the phone leaning on your fingers while your thumb taps the lower-right corner. But Swing Copters requires a frantic and inconsistent rhythm of tapping, especially as you attempt to stabilise your avatar to rise in a somewhat straight line. Tapping it that fast with the phone held in a single hand makes the phone wobble violently and leads to your inevitable demise. Holding the phone in two hands, meanwhile, and tapping with two thumbs, leads to a confusing disconnect between the direction travelled and the side of the screen tapped. Eventually, I settled on holding the phone in two hands, like I’m saying a prayer almost, while still only tapping with one finger. This holds the phone steady while I tap frantically to whirl around in a straight-ash vertical line. It reminds me of the early days of smartphone gaming where the first puzzle of every game was figuring out how to hold this thing in your hands. They don’t tell you how to hold them the way a gamepad does or the way a keyboard and mouse does. I’ve missed that initial exploration of how to approach the phone in my hand when I play a new game.

4.Rhythms. That is how Swing Copters most differentiates itself from Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird’s rhythm was slow and steady. It was learnable. It was a trustworthy beat. Play enough and you could almost close your eyes as you went through the next three tunnels. There was a beat and you either had to tap on the beat or let it pass. That was the whole puzzle. Swing Copter, then, is the improv jazz pianist, requiring frantic rapid-fire taps followed by sudden and precise lulls. It’s less “tap to turn” and more “stop tapping to turn”, I think. You can’t find an easy beat. The spinning hammers and your flailing avatar together demand a constant attention. In Flappy Bird, if you got to 20 you could get to a hundred. In Swing Copter, getting to 20 is no promise you can get to 21.

5. A cynical claim I’ve seen repeated (usually with the admission that it is indeed a cynical claim, at least) is that Swing Copters is hard purely to make you look at more ads. For one, this accusation ignores the fact that Swing Copters allows the player to make a one time in-game transaction of about a dollar (region pending) to remove all in-game ads. Swing Copters is, effectively, an up-front payment mobile game like those games of olde, but one that also lets you play without paying. Hardly something to complain about. But even if it was more difficult in order to make you see more ads, it would hardly be the first game whose design has been influenced by how it makes money. Know why your $60 game has a boring sewer level and a tacked-on vehicle level? To make the game feel like it has $60 worth of content. The doing-it-for-money accusation predominately shows its head when someone wants to discredit a type of game rather than actually make a valid criticism of that game.

6. Swing Copters isn’t for everyone. Many will find it obnoxiously difficult, or difficult-for-difficulty’s-sake, or (most reductively) as a ‘vertical Flappy Bird’. For me, though, having now put in the effort the game demanded for me (a labour not everyone will be willing to devote, understandably), it feels like a mature, confidently designed game by a designer who is consciously aware of the strengths and failings of his previous creation and, more important still, listened to his audience at the right times, and ignored his audience at the right times.

7. Here is a short video of me playing Swing Copters (not that well):