Making an AI to Play Flappy Bird w/ Q-Learning


In which I peel back the curtain and outline the innerworkings of a particularly insidious artificial intelligence, whose sole purpose in life is to systematically learn the optimal strategy for a terrifyingly addictive video game, known only to the internet as: Flappy Bird… and in which I also provide code to program a similar AI of your own.

More pointedly, this short post outlines a practical way to get started using a Reinforcement Learning technique called Q-Learning, as applied to a Python Flappy Bird clone, programmed by @TimoWilken.

>> Grab the code base: <<

Humble Beginnings

So you want to beat Flappy Bird, but after awhile it gets tedious. I agree. Instead, why don’t we program an AI to do it for us?  A genius plan, but where do we start?

First, we need a Flappy Bird game to hack upate. The candidate that I suggest is a Python implementation created by Timo Wilken and available for download directly at: This Flappy Bird version is implemented using the PyGame library, which is a dependency going forward.

Here are instructions for PyGame installation. If you get this runing, the hard work is done. (apt-get or homebrew are highly recommended.)

How the Game Works

The first challenge we’ll have in implementing the framework for a Flappy AI is determining exactly how the game workes in its original state.

By using the debugger and stepping through the game’s code during some trial runs, I was able to figure out where key decisions where made, how data flowed into the game, and exactly where I would need to position my AI-agent.

At its basic level, I created an “Agent” class, and passed that class into the running game code. Then, at each loop of the game, I examined the variables available to me, and then passed a ‘MOUSEBUTTONUP’ command to the PyGame event queue whenever the AI decided to jump. Otherwise, I did nothing.

State Representations

From there, the next step was determining a way to model the problem. I decided to use follow the basic guidelines outlined by Sarvagya Vaish, here.

First, I discretized the space in which the bird sat, relative to the next pipe. I was able to get pipe data by accessing the pipe object in the original game code. Similarly, I was able to get bird data by accessing the bird object.

From there, I could determine the location of the bird and the pipes relative to each other. I discretized this space as a 25×25 grid, with the following parameters:

# first value in state tuple
height_category = 0
dist_to_pipe_bottom = pipe_bottom bird.y
if dist_to_pipe_bottom < 8: # very close
height_category = 0
elif dist_to_pipe_bottom < 20: # close
height_category = 1
elif dist_to_pipe_bottom < 125: #mid
height_category = 2
elif dist_to_pipe_bottom < 250: # far
height_category = 3
height_category = 4
# second value in state tuple
dist_category = 0
dist_to_pipe_horz = pp.x bird.x
if dist_to_pipe_horz < 8: # very close
dist_category = 0
elif dist_to_pipe_horz < 20: # close
dist_category = 1
elif dist_to_pipe_horz < 125: # mid
dist_category = 2
elif dist_to_pipe_horz < 250: # far
dist_category = 3
dist_category = 4

Using this methodology, I created a state tuple that looked like this:

(height_category={0,1,2,3,4}, dist_category={0,1,2,3,4} , collision=True/False)

Then, each iteration of the game loop, I was able to determine the bird’s relative position, and whether it had made a collision with the pipes or not.

If there was no collision, I issued a reward of +1.

If there was a collision, I issued a reward of -1000.

I tried many different state representations here, but mostly it was matter of determining an optimal number of grid spaces and the right parameters for those spaces.

Initially, I started with a 9×9 grid, but moved to 16×16 because I got to a point in 9×9 where I just couldn’t make any more learning progress.

What Works

Very generally, we want to have a tighter grid around the pipes, as this is where most collisions happen. And we want a looser grid as we move outwards. This seemed to give me the best results, as we need different strategies at different locations on the grid.

Exploration Approaches

Our next task is implementing an exploration approach. This is necessary because if we don’t randomly explore the state sometimes, there might be optimal strategies that we are never able to find, simply because we will never be in those states!

Because we have only two choices at any given state (JUMP—or—STAY), implementing exploration was relatively simple.

I started out with a high exploration factor (I used 1/time_value+1), and then I generated a random number between [0,1). If the random number was less than the exploration factor, then I explored.

Over time the exploration factor got lower, and therefore the AI explored less frequently.

Exploration essentially consisted of flipping a fair coin (generating a Boolean value randomly).

  • If true:  then I chose to JUMP.
  • If false:   I chose to STAY.

The main problem I encountered with this method is that the exploration factor was very at the beginning, and sometimes choices were made that were not representative of actual situations that the bird would encounter in ‘true’ gameplay.

BUT, because these decisions were made earlier, they were weighted more heavily in the overall Q-Learning algorithm.

This isn’t ideal, but exploration is necessary, and overall the algorithm works well. So it wasn’t a large problem, overall.

Learning Rates & Their Impact

Very simply, “Learning Rates” dicatate how much we weigh new information about some state over old information. Learning rates can be an value in the range [0,1]. With 0 meaning we never update values (bad), and 1 meaning that we only EVER care about what happened the last time we were in state (short-sighted).

The first learning rate I tried was alpha=(1/time+1). However, this gave very poor results in practice.

This is because time is NOT the most important factor in determining a strategy from any given state. Rather, it is how many times we’ve been to that state.

The problem is that we make extremely poor choices at the beginning of the game (because we simply don’t know any better). But with alpha=(1/time+1), the results of these these poor choices are weighted the most highly.

Once I changed the learning factor to alpha=1/N(s,a), I immediately saw dramatically better results. (That is, where N(s,a) tracks how many times we’ve been in a given state and performed the same action.)


My final, “Smart” bird is the result of about 4 hours of training.

I don’t actually think there would be a way to make the training more efficient, aside from speeding up the gameplay in some way.

Overall, I the results I received from the investment of time I put it in reasonable.

Given more time, I would probably discretize the space even more finely (maybe a 36×36 grid) – so that I could find even more optimal strategies from a more fine-tuned set of positions in the game-space.

How to Use my Smart Bird

To use my smart bird, simply take the following steps:

  1. cd into a directory containing my source code
  2. Ensure that this directory includes the file named ‘txt
  3. Run the command:
    • python “qdata.txt”
  4. Watch Flappy crush it. (the game will run 10x)


Learning From Scratch

Probably more instructive than using my trained bird though, is to simply start training a new bird from scratch. You will see the agony and the ecstasy as he does a terrible number of dumb things, slowly learning how to beat the game.

It’s surprisingly enjoyable (though sometimes frustrating) and highly recommended. Start the process by running:

  • python 

With no other args. Then pass in the ‘qdata.txt’ file next time you run the game, to keep your learning session going.


I consulted the following resources to implement my AI. If you want to do similar work, I’d recommend these resources. These people are much smarter than me. I’m just applying their concepts.