9 Tips for Word Game Design
By Jeston Furqueron, Senior Developer
I have designed games for about 20 years…some games were very big hits, others were decent, a lot were not so good, there were numerous bad ones, and many of them were word games. Word games are everywhere. Books penned by Lewis Caroll are still being studied centuries later for its whimsical linguistics. On the radio, NPR has a show called ‘Says you!’ which brings word smithing to a game show stage. They are in every airport, in every newspaper, studied by mathematicians, in comedy routines, consumed by families during board gaming nights, joked about at parties, and now they are on almost every phone. We are descendants from a culture of puzzles. But what makes a good one? What makes one puzzle magical while another boring? Often times it is best to understand the roots and genesis of ideas in order to get a glimpse into how some games came to be.
Around 2001, when working on Real Arcade, it was evident that digital distribution was exploding. On the advent of this broadband revolution consumers demanded new content, opening the door to what we call the casual games market. The need for these games to be small was important due to file size limitations. As a result, the design of these games were typically based on activities; a single, easy-to-understand task requiring little instruction oft paired with a score after completion. Match 3 colors together, tumble a slots machine, drag shapes around, and the spelling of words mechanically formed entire genres.
The first generation of word games were as expected, mostly puzzle makers translating paper puzzles to a computer and exploring the scalability that comes with newer audiences. Computers could do more than puzzle books though: move letters around, generate new puzzles, and end the need for a puzzle to be scribbled in a dab of ink. For the most part, the design of these games typically took the form of a grid or scrambled letters: crosswords, hidden words, and anagrams with the reward being a score. Word games for the next 5 years more or less followed this format.
In the mid 2000s, as broadband took hold and made bandwidth less of a concern, word games starting doing more. The rise of social platforms starting to connect people together and the industry went through a social evolution. Business models changed. Banner ads, time gates, leaderboards, incentivization, e-sports, collection mechanics, free-to-play were new concepts to explore for designers. People wanted to start playing with and against each other. In parallel, the mobile revolution hit and the word game genre adapted. Asynchronous play was now possible and became very popular. New experiences were had. After a few more years, these devices grew a lot more powerful in computing, bringing new possibilities to the table. Generation of puzzles became more advanced. Complexities involving multiple players had arisen. The genre still has its roots. What is simply a few letters on a screen with a score started to become more. So too we began to learn lessons in game design. I will try to give some of the lessons I learned from making word games over the years, and hopefully, such lessons can provide insight into game design as a whole.
Tip 1: Not all scores are created equal
Linear score curves are boring for players. The make-up of a score, while still a number in the end, can make or break a game. It is the one stat that everyone clings to, brags about, compares others with. It is essentially the emotional equivalent of the player’s worth. If every move is worth the same number of points, then the incentives for big plays are gone. If the scoring model has a linear multiplier for the length of the word, then the game tends to be anticlimactic and disappointing. There must be a strong correlation of risk and return to give birth to different strategies. If the scoring rules contain no bonuses, the game will lack cognitive variety in play. Scoring models need peaks and valleys; giving rise to an emotional sense of a big find or that one round where everything seemed to go perfectly. Retention rises when players sense this and keep playing to get that perfect setup. Good games add bonuses for streaks, word rarity, perks on the pieces, and varying values in letters. When a design invests deep thought to this model, players will have more fun and a more memorable experience.
Tip 2: Influence of randomness
Like scoring, a good word game doesn’t create its puzzle with pure randomness. This method usually results in unnatural puzzles with isolated letters or boards where few words are possible. With anagram styled games, choosing a random word from the dictionary results in strange archaic words. A general solution is to seed the puzzle with digrams and trigrams: er, es, ing, and processing the results several times until vowels and constants are homogeneously positioned or until a word is found that most people can recall. Additionally, difficulty should play a factor. As designers, we can not completely remove randomness. This would essentially be creating a puzzle book in digital format and will create a consumable game which will be discarded after being solved.
Tip 3: Break the monotony, vary the activity
Some games have the same activity for every level. These are entertaining for a period, but once the pattern in how the puzzles are made is discovered, a certain magic is lost. Some game makers try to hide this with sheer volume. While valid, it ultimately just shifts the time it takes for players to discover the sleight of hand involved. Make the words thematic, perhaps for one level, all words can be nautical. The game doesn’t have to explicitly reveal this, but when a player realizes that all the words have a motif, most will smile and give appreciation. Give a twist or two every once in a while – a bonus piece, a different board layout, maybe new letters come into play in different ways. Vary the activity and players will stick around.
Tip 4: Input and typography
In word games, the display is of particular interest compared to other genres. Letters having different states must not interfere with readability. Special effects typically do not overlap the puzzle. Contrast of game pieces are somewhat closer together rather than further apart as the goal is to not be distracting. When a square grid of white letters has 1 letter that is bright blue, almost always it becomes so distracting that the color takes hold in thought. The intent of the puzzle will often get lost. UI and game pieces usually use the same tones. Input is also of particular interest. Immersion and story are usually not the focus, but have a more daily routine aspect when it comes to playing word games. Highest play times are right before bed and when at work in the early am. Input must be snappier and quick. In some first person shooters, when a big explosion occurs, a drop of frame rate is somewhat forgivable; always to a certain extent though. Word games are far more sensitive to this, namely, anything that ‘breaks’ the thought process. I always recommend not trying to do anything in the game that causes a distraction.
Tip 5: Progression is more than a progress bar
It is often not enough in a casual game to consider progression as a progress bar. When a game is well made, progression is the collection of details, or tiny secrets, the minutia that a player knows of after playing for a while. Secrets whose revelations will increase performance. It is the sense that, if one were to start over, they could level up 20x faster after knowing the ‘tricks’. Veterans know not to spell a word which can be pluralized next to a triple word score tile. Progression, in a word game, is bragging rights. An MMO has a character’s equipment and inventory screen. Word games have their high scores screens. A good game can compare, side by side, a starting player to a veteran and see a clear visual distinction. Longer words, rankings, higher points, completion counts, best word of all time, trophies, stars, or whatever the game deemed as an appropriate display.
Tip 6: Sense of accomplishment
Somewhat related to progression is that a score can only go so far, no matter how well made it is. Good games have that variety in activity. When logging in, the mental model should have a variety of ‘things’ to do. Perhaps I try to beat my fastest time. Perhaps go for a high score. Maybe work on my level. Do some crafting. All of these things are in game design to allow players to achieve things. Even with arcade games, a sense of accomplishment was getting to the kill screen and not just #1 on the scores list. Adding in accomplishments and achievements and side goals are always good. In word games, these goals are mostly stats.
Tip 7: Bragging rights
Even when you lose a competitive match overall, joy can be had if someone has a stat they can laugh or talk about. Anything is better than silence. Designers want players talking, even in the face of a technical loss. Sure, your team may not have captured the flag three times, but you have the most head shots. Word games are no exception. Good quality stats really increase the vocality of a game and also its long term retention.
Tip 8: Difficulty and being fair
There are close to 300,000 printed words in the English language from books and the average adult knows 60,000 of them. New ones are being used every day. Unless your target audience is only competitive Scrabble players, you will begin to alienate the folks that almost always will shout “That is a word? What does that even mean?” Think about engineering these moments as a boss level, or a challenge mode. That is not to say the dictionary should be exclusive, but if you are generating puzzles in a casual sense, keep the word list to something that is fair and fun to the game’s settings. Too many word games treat puzzles like vocabulary tests. Words are simply the matches in the game, but not the entirety of it. In the case of Scrabble, a turn is more than the word, it’s where it is placed – the equity and values of its tiles. Some words are ‘blocking’ while others are ‘expansion’. The word is just the means to progress game flow. Difficulty does not mean the increase of frustration. This means using rarer letter combinations: -ly over -es. X’s, G’s, and J’s…perhaps additional conditions.
Tip 9: Don’t ignore current trends, and consequently, the players
Too many times do I see games these days that ignore the current trends leaving players isolated. Streaming and twitch is a big thing today and so is voice chat. As designers, we should consider adding these features to the game. Players will find a way otherwise, but they will be your champion if you support them. In the end you want them to support you. In the word game genre, people want to compete, play together, and play when they have a spare 10 minutes. Features of these games should facilitate this. If players want themed events, add a feature to support this.