How to make word games that people will actually play

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Dig through a mobile app store and you’ll find a lot of puns, and most of them won’t be very good. Many are just too easy. They can be fun for a few minutes of mindless relaxation, but they don’t have enough substance to last. Others make the player feel like an idiot because they haven’t memorized the dictionary. The best word games offer a challenge, but also make the player feel smart whether or not they know a multitude of 7-letter words. It’s a delicate balance to strike, and only a few puns can do it right. The first thing they tend to do is forget that they’re a pun.

Zach Gage has made a name for himself with the modern reinvention of games that you might have found printed in a newspaper a few decades ago. His recent Typeshift puzzle game mixes crosswords with anagrams. The player is presented with an assortment of letters on sliders. The goal of each puzzle is to find a way to use each letter on the screen in a word. For an added challenge, there are Clue puzzles. These give witty sentences to which you must provide answers with the words composed from the cursor tiles.

The beauty of Typeshift is that even for Clue puzzles, you don’t have to be Will Shortz to have fun. The game works because even when you are challenged you are still active. You don’t spend your time feeling helpless, like you might when looking at an empty, ruthless crossword puzzle. You spin the sliders back and forth, looking for the right combination of letters to clear that damn K tile. The game experience is less like homework and more like breaking a safe. It is a process of exploration. It’s empowering. Immense wealth, or at least the completion of the puzzle, is literally at your fingertips if you can only the letter cups bend to your will.

The design also keeps players engaged with the element of surprise. While working on the regular puzzle packs, you could just move the sliders around and do nothing and come across a word that you hadn’t thought of or maybe didn’t know. Once you have cleared all the letters, you see a screen with all the words you have found. Tap on the unknown word and you will be taken to the Merriam-Webster app definition. Yes, Merriam-Webster is now a dictionary, a Twitter gold mine, and a video game contributor.

The link presents Typeshift’s educational addiction in a very take it or leave it way. There is no need to learn new words or click on the dictionary entry. But since unfamiliar words usually appear as lucky accidents, this surprise seems to encourage curiosity. And there’s a good chance you’ll remember a new word you discovered in the context of Typeshift because the discovery was unexpected.

Typeshift shows how stylish puns can be. It’s a testament to the purity of the design and the creation of player engagement. But that’s not the only way to get players to do their spelling homework. It can also happen by racking up the charm, cuteness, and consistently alluring draw of a high score.

Enter Alphabear. On each turn of this Spry Fox puzzle game, you create a word from the letters appearing on a grid. Your goal is to get the highest score possible, knowing that letters are worth less points each round and the bears you have chosen for that round will help you increase your final count. Getting big scores can unlock new bears for your collection or increase the stats of your existing bears.

The educational game is not about cramming information into the player’s skull. It’s about creating systems that encourage them to learn, expand their minds, and seek a creative solution. This is where Alphabear excels. Rather than asking players to think about the most obscure dictionary entries they can or trying to remember all that “I before E” exception, it asks you to think about the bears you chose for a puzzle. and how to maximize their bonuses. Do you get extra points for making four letter words? And to use the letter P with two turns to the left?

Alphabear offers challenges and game mechanics that have nothing to do with a million dollar vocabulary. Since the challenges are low stakes and focus away from word knowledge, the game is a relaxing experience. You think differently about the words you might say because the game doesn’t test you on your spelling prowess. You have to get creative, and like with Typeshift, sometimes you have to experiment and hope that maybe “paerrot” is an acceptable alternate spelling of “parrot”. (Hint: it isn’t.)

Giving players the right tools and the right incentives is how any game attracts a fan base. Typeshift and Alphabear are just two examples of how puns can strike the balance between teasing your brain and stoking your ego.


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