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…

2 Comments

  1. tinymagus says:

    The main attraction that kept me coming back was finding more efficient and safe ways to get to the end. My sense is that a limited scope works heavily in favour of practicality in this game. If you had a very tight and complete area to play through, you might get some good replay value by allowing the difficulty to be ratcheted up by the player. For example, they could configure the game to eliminate certain letters from the game (they turn into some kind of dud item in the game). The more letters eliminated, the higher the score when the game is completed. This would require solutions requiring few letters to be difficult to obtain though, and I suppose that might be hard design-wise.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! Yeah, the limited scope issue is an interesting one. The game definitely leaves people wanting more at the moment… but just making the world larger with more puzzles is perhaps not the best way to satisfy that desire.

    The next obvious solution is just a new world; I tried making a new level where you start from scratch with a different set of objects available… but it’s actually surprisingly hard to make a fresh start like that. The “rat”, “reed” and “skeleton” you get at the start look fairly random, but it actually took me a long time to come up with those objects as starting words. I’m sure it’s possible to make a new world that works; I just haven’t found the right configuration. Still, it’s going to be really really hard to make, say, 10 levels where you start from scratch this way.

    And yes, in terms of increased difficulty, I’ve been thinking along the lines you suggest; for example, adding a “taboo” mode where the most obvious words are forbidden. Still thinking…

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