Someone’s having fun

Stochastic Review has a few posts about Wordsmith. It put a huge smile on my face to see someone who’s so obviously having a blast playing the game!

1: Spelling game of awesomeness

2: Sage continues

3: …And youre probably bored of this by now

My favourite quote: “I made a Priest, Bard, Farm, Farmer, Field, Baby, Wasp, Eagle, Oak, Elm, Knight, Sheep, Cow, Crow and Goat. Unfortunately I then made a Skeleton. This did not play well with others.”

PS: “I took a Spaceship and flew up as far as I could” – In the future, yes, there will be some things to visit in space. I know some people have been wondering…

Necessity is the mother of inventory

inventory screenshot

Here’s what I made today – an inventory! If you make an appropriate container, you can put small objects into it, carry them around, and get them out later. Different objects have different numbers of slots.

The interface is still slightly rough, but it works. Next job: allow the player to drop objects onto the container itself, rather than having to click on an individual slot.

Also pictured: a sneak peek of The Alley – a new location from Night of the Wordsmith.

Night of the Wordsmith

Houston, we have a title. More importantly, we have an identity!
I’m pleased to announce that the first episode of the game will (provisionally) be called…

Night of the Wordsmith

(That’s “Gypsy Curse”, an awesome free font from http://www.sinisterfonts.com/ – can’t you just hear the organ music?)

Night of the Wordsmith is a game that fell out of the camp gothic horror tree, hitting every branch on the way down. Expect to be fighting off bats, werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and every other trope you can think of.

This game took a long time to come together, but the removal of the farming mechanic (as discussed in the last post) feels like it’s really solved a lot of issues. I’m excited; my first demo content should be ready soon!

A new direction!

I woke up this morning with a revelation; the thing that’s keeping Wordsmith from working as a longer-form game is the need to backtrack and keep farming letters from the places you’ve already visited.

And the thing that’s keeping Wordsmith from working as a shorter-form game where you start from scratch in each level, is that it’s too hard to create areas where you can farm a decent set of letters.

In other words: the letter farming is what’s keeping the game from working. And let’s be honest – people are not playing the game for the joy of farming letters.

So, here’s a new approach – what if your letters never get used up? You’ve still got a limited supply, but they’re limited per word. If you kill a rat and collect the letters R, A, T, you’ll be able to make your own RAT, and some ART, and some TAR,… but not a TART, because you don’t have two T’s yet.

This is a fascinating twist on the game. It means the game can actually work as a sequence of levels, instead of having to be one big world. In each level, the player can start in an area with no letters, and just a few (non-respawning) enemies, and use them to make weapons, solve puzzles, and fight their way through to an end point. It becomes almost a Katamari Damacy style puzzle game – you start out weak, beat up the few creatures you can beat, use them to get stronger, and work your way up.

Oh, hey, and maybe the game objective in each level is to collect the whole alphabet? That seems like a simple, natural goal. (Or maybe each level has a specific object you need to create? Collect the letters to spell M-C-G-U-F-F-I-N…)

Of course, the mechanics will need changing a little – if letters don’t get exhausted, we might have a problem that the player can create endless supplies of food to heal with, or an infinite number of monsters to attack the enemies. Even the toughest monster may die if you just create 1000 rats to attack him.

Simplest solution to that: you can only create each object once!

This is awesome. I’m feeling more optimistic about this game than I have in weeks…

First glimpse: The Cave.

First time in a long while that I’ve just been able to kick back and spend a whole day working on Wordsmith! (All right, I did take a couple of hours off to see The Avengers.)

Man, that felt good. Anyway, here’s my new location – the Cave. This will only be available in the full version. You hear that, backers? You’ll be getting your first exclusive content very soon…

Cave Screenshot

The power of the dictionary

Wordsmith already has words that generate new words – a nest makes birds, a rathole makes rats, and many other interactions. One thing we don’t have – in the demo version, at least – is many words that generate new locations.

The castle, mine and wreck illustrate the general idea: objects you create can be locations that you enter and explore. The plan was always to have more such objects, but the Unity engine really doesn’t make it easy to have persistent levels that you can move back and forth between. In the demo, all four locations are packed into a single Unity level – which causes bugs (such as the disappearing skeletons in the wreck) and also performance issues. When I sort out a better way to organize levels, the way is open for locations that lead into more locations, and so on.

So if you create a City, it probably ought to contain a bunch of different buildings – such as a palace, a market, a jail, a bank, etc. Furthermore, the bank would also contain a vault, the jail would contain cells, and so on.

Another thing that just occurred to me: people keep telling me this game has huge replay value, and they enjoy playing just the same demo level again and again, trying to see what words they can make and how efficiently they can play. To celebrate the game’s replayability, I really ought to be putting in a scoring system.

I think, each time you spell a word, you should receive points equal to the square of the number of letters in the word. Everyone likes spelling long words, right? 🙂

However, I don’t want to push people into dull grindy “spell as many words as possible” gameplay, so here’s the plan: for a word to score any points, it must contain a letter you have never used before.

In other words: at most, you’ll get 26 opportunities to score during the game. Use them wisely!
(Ok, ok, maybe other actions will also score you points. Slaying the dragon, cracking the bank vault, escaping the jail… we’ll see how it goes.)

One last obstacle

Player rewards are a tricky issue in games. Jonathan Blow would tell us that if a game over-rewards players – like WoW (his example) or Peggle (my example), it’s just dishonest game design. It’s like adding salt and caffeine and deep-frying your core mechanic in batter – it may make players want to keep playing, but there’s no nutritional value there. You’re not actually improving your players’ lives.

So how does this apply to Wordsmith? Most puzzles in the Wordsmith demo provide you with three rewards:

A) Satisfaction. (you solved the puzzle!)

B) New locations. (most of the puzzles are about getting past some kind of spatial barrier)

C) New resources. (in each new location there are usually new creatures to kill with letters you haven’t got yet; in a couple of cases, just figuring out how to kill a creature is the puzzle.)

So yeah, I’m not as ascetic as Jonathan Blow; in Braid the only reward is A. (And maybe a tiny bit of B.)

More importantly, though, I’m concerned about C. Playing through the demo, you solve puzzles to get access to new letters, and use the new letters to solve the next puzzle, and so on. It’s not sustainable like this: the alphabet only has 26 letters in it. Just letting it run out, and leaving A and B as the remaining rewards is not practical either – when the player has grown to expect C, they’re going to be frustrated if I suddenly stop giving it out. (I guess WoW’s level cap is an example of that actually being done in the wild. It might work, I guess, but for now I’m going to steer clear.)

Fortunately, I think there are a couple more tricks I can try to carry on rewarding the player in a longer-form game. The first idea is a limited supply of wildcard letters – I could make certain letters (I’m thinking U and J) completely unobtainable… except that completing a “boss” puzzle earns you a wildcard. This is a one-use, non-refundable tile that can be used as any letter at all. A little taste of infinity. Use it wisely!

The second is “golden” letters – completing certain special puzzles (or completing them in a special way, perhaps) could earn you an endless supply of a particular letter. This could be rather game-breaking, so I think this would have to be kept as just an end-game completionist’s reward. Maybe the game world is divided in some way into 26 districts, and each district has a particular “gold letter” associated with it which you can obtain in some highly non-obvious way.

That’s all I have for today…

Wordsmith expansion plans

Some more thoughts about expanding Wordsmith…

Making a bigger world is the obvious approach. I could just add more levels, with more puzzles and more stuff. For example, when you get past the spiders in the mine, maybe the tunnel continues. Rocks and walls block your way, gas pockets threaten to explode or suffocate you, and there are fiercer and fiercer subterranean monsters to fight. Similarly, when you get past the mountain, maybe there’s a glacier to explore (warm clothing necessary), and when you get past the island, maybe there are shark-infested waters blocking your way, followed by marshland filled with mosquitoes, alligators and slimes, leading up to a jungle temple filled with traps… (Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot.)

Problem: as the world gets larger and larger, it gets more and more annoying to travel around harvesting letters. “Oh, I know what I need to create! – But, I need a K. Back to the wreck, let’s kill some more skeletons. (cue 15 minutes of walking back through the mine to the start position, killing a bunch of skeletons, then walking back down to where your puzzle was.)”

To prevent the game from getting too annoying, I think the world needs to remain fairly small.

An alternative I just thought of while writing: fast-travel! Such as Torchlight’s Town Portals, perhaps, or a “warp to any location you’ve visited” mechanic like the recent Elder Scrolls games.

Hmm… that does actually sound like it has potential. Wow, Paul Graham is right. Writing essays is awesome.

I Aten’t Dead

Wow, is it really March already? I told some people I’d have a build for them to play by the end of November. Yikes.

Anyway, just a quick comment to clarify that no, I’m not dead, and neither is Wordsmith. What actually happened is that I got stuck.

The design I used for the demo clearly can’t sustain itself across a longer game: there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, and by the end of the demo I’ve already given the player about 23 of them. If the game is about solving puzzles to acquire new letters, and using them to solve more puzzles… then by the end of the demo, the game is almost over. How do I make a longer-form game around the Wordsmith concept?

So I’ve spent a few months now trying to answer that question. The obvious answer seemed to be a Minecraft-style survival mode: try to survive monster attacks by collecting letters and making weapons.

This idea did not work. The problem is, Wordsmith is inherently a very tough game; it takes time to think of good words to make, and even then the process of harvesting the letters isn’t trivial. When you add the additional pressure of coming under attack and needing to create something quickly, “tough” turns into “impossible”. It’s like adding a time limit to a puzzle in an adventure game.

As the creator of the game, naturally I know which weapons and pets are supposed to be good for fighting which enemies – but even I was getting stuck when a new enemy showed up. It was just too hard to be playable.

I think I have a new plan, though. I’ve been playing Spelunky a lot recently, and although that structure can’t be adopted wholesale, I think maybe there’s something there I can use. Will think about it, and write more soon.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Wordsmith