E for Everyone, or N for Niche?

tl;dr – i continue to make concessions for a non-word-gamer crowd in my latest word puzzle/adventure game Spellirium. Check the poll at the bottom if you think that’s a good idea or not.

Here are the FACTS that i’ve learned about game pricing:

If your game has a broad appeal, you can charge a relatively small amount of money for it and hope to make it up in volume.

If your game appeals to a small group of people – and, i mean, it REALLY appeals to that small group of people – you can charge a higher price, to make up for lost sales to everyone else, and to capitalize on your audience’s undying love of whatever.

Angry Birds? 99 cents. Sean O’Brien: Pro Windsurfer? Ten dollars.


Pay up, bitches.

So here i am developing Spellirium. It’s a graphic adventure game, in the style of those LucasArts/Sierra Online games from the 90’s, that have been relegated to a very narrow corner of niche gamedom – nestled in-between train simulators and Japanese child-rearing games.

Princess Maker

Pay up, bitches.

But more than that, Spellirium is an experimental mash-up – a graphic adventure game mixed with a word puzzle game. It’s LOOM meets Boggle. Niche meets niche. Narrow audience carved down to an even more narrow audience. It’s like building a train simulator where you raise your train to be a little lady.

Anime Train Game Princess Maker

Pay up, b… well, you know the drill by now.

Born 2 Spell

So this game, on paper, is very very niche. Like many indies do, i’m making the game that i would want to play. You see, i grew up doing crossword puzzles. At eight years old, when other boys were thumbing through their dads’ copies of Oui, i was floundering through PennyPress variety magazines, trying to solve the Fill-Its. Other boys knew they had come of age when they finally beat up their old man after he lost the family car in a drunken poker game. My big coup was finally beating my mom at Scrabble.


This is all quite possibly a function of growing up without a father.

i ran into a lot of trouble when i presented this game to the Casual crowd in Seattle. The most common reaction i received was that Spellirium was “too smart” for the middle-aged mom audience that Casual catered to. This was a huge blow, because the game was originally designed for that exact crowd, with nods to the dark fantasy that nerdy moms love.

Dragonriders of Pern

Think moms don’t like dark fantasy? Guess again.

i learned quickly that my biggest challenge with Spellirium would not be building the game, but marketing it. How would i find the niche audience that would adore the game, and pay a little more money for it than usual because it so suited their needs?

My first attempt was to build a web game portal packed with word games, which i called Word Game World – the idea being that i could learn from the hundreds of other word games out there, meet and talk to my audience, and most importantly, control the ad inventory so i could push that audience to Spellirium. My plan failed when marketing Word Game World became as big a marketing challenge as marketing Spellirium ever was.

This all led me to face some tough questions. Chief among them: did i overestimate the word game market? Is the group of players who will enjoy my game really too small to support the cost of developing it?

EB Games

Players camp out for the midnight launch of Spellirium.

The success of Scrabulous, Words with Friends, Text Twist, and the critical success of indie games SpellTower, PuzzleJuice and Wurdle seem to suggest otherwise. i was even wrong about Bookworm Adventures, Spellirium’s kissing cousin and the game upon which this entire project was predicated. When the Casual crowd told me that word games didn’t “do well”, i thought for sure they were pointing to Bookworm Adventures, with its astronomical $700k budget, as a financial failure.

But get this: i learned recently that Bookworm Adventures has had two sequels. Generally, the existence of sequels indicates the financial success of the original, or at least projected financial success of future installments.

Titanic II


But What If i’m Dumb?

Before Spellirium was playable and i’d describe the game to people, common objections included:

  • What if i don’t know what words to make?
  • i’m bad at spelling.
  • i’m slow at making words.
  • How do you (or i) know there are any valid words in the grid?
  • Longest words are best words, right?
  • What if you just can’t make a word?

Based on these fears, i’ve made a LOT of concessions in gameplay to cater to a crowd that wouldn’t really consider playing word games, and that doesn’t count “word game” as a preferred genre.

Q: What if i don’t know what words to make?
A: There are two features – the Dictionary and the Quicklist – that mitigate this. The Dictionary stores all the words in the game. You can add words from the Dictionary on to your Quicklist, which hangs off the side of the grid while you’re playing. This way, Spellirium becomes sort of a build-your-own-word-search. And of all the activities in the Pantheon of Word Games, even the (self-described) dumbest players can complete a word search.

Spellirium Quicklist

Q: i’m bad at spelling.
A: In an early Spellirum challenge, you have to shear a sheep by spelling words that have to do with cutting: SHEAR, CUT, CHOP, CLIP, TRIM, etc. i’ve only completed five playtests, but 2/5 players have spelled “SHEER”, a homonym for “SHEAR”. And they were confused when it didn’t work.

This led one tester to suggest i modify the game so that when you lasso a group of letters (like “BAED”), the game anagrams it until it finds a valid word in the Dictionary (“BEAD” or “BADE”). So it doesn’t matter whether you can spell or not -if you know there’s a valid word in the letters you lassoed, the game will accept the letters.

Badly spelled tattoo

Yes. Yes, you are.

Q: i’m slow at making words.
A: This was a very early concession i knew i’d have to make. Many players hated the time pressure in the game, so i modified Spellirium to be turn-based. The Spellcaster has a “health bar” at the top. Whenever you swap letter tiles, your health goes down. The farther apart the letter tiles are, the more health you lose when you swap them. Guessing at bogus words also dings your bar. This turns Spellirium into a much more methodical, strategic game, and the time pressure has been removed completely.

Chess timer

Q: How do you (or i) know there are any valid words in the grid?
A: Obviously, this is a question that only non-word-game-players would ever ask. A few people have suggested that i run an algorithm in the game to highlight a valid word if a player can’t find one, much the same way that Bejeweled highlights a valid match after a few seconds of inactivity have elapsed.

Here’s the deal: the grid is 7×7 tiles, and it uses a Scrabble-like distribution, favouring common letters (RSTLNEAIOU etc – all the 1-point tiles in Scrabble). So essentially, you’re starting at a 49-letter anagram puzzle. If you can’t make a single 3-8-letter word given FORTY-NINE TILES, there’s really not much i can do for you. Go play Gears of War, and stop wasting my precious oxygen.


How spell “GRUNT”?

Q: Longest words are best words, right?
A: Here’s another classic objection from non-word-game-players. This one is so pervasive that even the creators of PuzzleJuice conceded and make longer words worth more points. As any proper Scrabble player knows, certain words are more difficult to make than others. “MUCH” is a higher-value word than “ROOSTER”, because the letters “M”, “C” and “H” are found in fewer English words than more common letters like the ones that comprise “ROOSTER”.

Much Rooster


But in his GDC 2011 keynote, Sid Meier revealed that if the odds were 60/40 that a player would win a given battle, and the player lost that battle, the player would complain. “i had more guys”, the player would say. Mathematically, it made sense. Mathematically, the player should lose 4/10 times. But it felt unfair to the player.

Likewise, most players don’t care a fig for letter distribution and probabilities. To them, it takes more mental effort to make a long word than a short one – Z’s and Q’s be damned. Even worse, many players feel that the more obscure a word is, the more points it should be worth. So PARSONS, which is an odd and somewhat outdated word, should be worth more points than the more common word PUNCH. But in Scrabble scoring, PARSONS is worth 9 points, while PUNCH is worth 10 points (P3 + A1 + R1 + S1 + O1 + N1 + S1 = 9 vs P3 + U1 + N1 + C3 + H2 = 10).

Punch Parsons


Logistically, it would be very very difficult to award the player extra points for “obscure” or “clever” words. “Clever” words, really, are the ones you can spell using as many high-value letters as possible (think “BUZZ”, “QUENCH”, and “JAVA”). But the people – and i mean the E for Everyone people – want long words to trump challenging letter combination.

Q: What if you just can’t make a word?
A: i really bristle at this. It’s like if i were building a first-person shooter, and i had a lot of non-FPS fans asking me “what if i can’t shoot a guy?” There’s no such thing as not shooting a guy in an FPS. You SHOOT GUYS in an FPS. That’s what you do. That’s like asking “what if i can’t jump?” in a Mario platformer,
or “what if i can’t make car go?” in a racing game. Spellirium is about MAKING WORDS. You MAKE WORDS. What if you can’t make a word? There’s NO SUCH THING. That’s what you DO in this GAME.


i’m Down On My Niche

(Note: that heading doesn’t make a lot of sense if you pronounce it “nitch” .. but if you pronounce it “nitch”, living does not make a lot of sense, so please go directly to the nearest suiciditorium and kill yourself. Thanks kindly.)

As of now, i’ve only ever tested the game with non-word-game-players. i love them all dearly, and i don’t want them to be offended, but for the sake of this article, i’m going to call them the dumb players (in the same way that someone who doesn’t know how to strafe in an FPS, or how to handbrake-turn in a racing game, is “dumb”). The dumb players are not the target audience.

Sonic Derp

i was concerned because the game ground to a halt at the sheep challenge when the “dumb” players played. Many of them couldn’t think of enough synonyms for “CUT”. This led me to make the biggest and most controversial gameplay concession of all: you can’t lose If you play the game and can’t pass it for lack of ability, your energy eventually runs down and you win anyway. This is based on something i heard one of the Casual folks say at GDC many years ago, while advocating for women gamers: “If you buy a video game and you can’t access ALL of the content on that disc, go ask for your money back.” So in Spellirium, you’re never “stuck”. You can always proceed through the game, see all the story bits, and play through all the challenges – even if you fail at them.


A Word From the Wise

i’ve had one lengthy email conversation with a die-hard word game fan. In stark contrast to “i can’t think of any words that mean ‘cut'” and “that’s how you spell ‘SHEER’, right?”, here’s what the target audience wants:

if the challenges are a little more difficult than three- and four-letter words for SHEAR, then it could be a new adventure for traditional logophiles (like myself).

Say, something like… “Save the equines by naming all of the varieties”… HORSE, ZEBRA, COLT, DONKEY, ZEBRASS, JACKASS, CAYUSE, EQUID, ZEBRINE, NEDDY, ZEBROID, BRUMBY, ASS, MOKE, BURRO, CUDDY, JENNY, AIVER, FILLY, etc. Or maybe instead of shearing a sheep in a hurry, you can say “Save the sheep from getting sheared by giving up all of its buddies”… BUCK, DAM, EWE, RAM, HOGG, HOGGET, WETHER, LAMB, MULE, TEG, TUP, DOWNS, SLINK, BELL, SHEARLING, etc.

The “dumb” players, after trying Spellirium, have all said to me “gee … i didn’t think i would enjoy that, but it’s quite fun, and i don’t usually like word games.” So there’s a small victory. But when the game is out in the wild with only its trailer and my under-funded marketing strategy to support it, how am i going to get non-word-game-players to even pick it up and try it? One glimpse of those letter tiles, and they’ll be headed for the hills.

i’m at a crossroads. Do i:

  1. Continue to make concessions to “dumb” players and make Spellirium playable by Everyone, and then risk “dumb” players not even bothering to try the game because it doesn’t LOOK like the kind of thing they’d enjoy
  2. Go hardcore and court the logophiles, making the game challenging and interesting (as above), and then risk not finding nearly enough hardcore wordies to buy the game and help me break even
  3. Strike some kind of balance. And what IS that balance?

i leave it to you, dear readers! Please help me figure this one out, and clarify your stance in the Comments section!

[poll id=”10″]


14 thoughts on “E for Everyone, or N for Niche?

  1. Andrei

    So I’m sure you’ve already thought about this but what’s wrong with having different difficulty settings. I don’t think it would have to fundamentally change the structure of the game. You could ask for different synonyms for cut (shred, snip, trim, shave) vs. asking for different types of scissors (shears, pruners, clippers); this wouldn’t change the overall goal of the challenge just the parameters by which it’s completed. Also a minimum word length or point value could be used in general situations where there is no specific challenge other than to create words.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Not a bad suggestion, but the (perhaps?) tricky thing off the top is figuring out the default difficulty level. i’ve heard it’s bad form to have the player choose Easy/Medium/Hard before they even know what the game’s about, so i’d have to make a judgement call very early based on the player’s performance. i’d also have to make a judgement call (or do significant testing) to determine that making synonyms for “scissors” is easier than making synonyms for “cut”.

  2. Mark

    I love the star rating option, 1 star if you passed but maybe shouldn’t have, 3 or 5 or whatever if you’re an elite logophile or the developer. It’s great for replay value and is a familiar convention in mobile gaming.

    One problem with this idea is it may require a new game mode to replay levels out of order once you’ve unlocked them. A new game mode is likely out of scope but it does solve the noob vs elite dilemma.

    Or you could make two versions of the game to play; a noob and an elite version. Let players self select and price accordingly!

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      The way we’re doing it is that every challenge is going to leave behind something … some reminder. At one point, you defeat a little spider, and it leaves a splat on the ground. If you click on that splat, Todd says “Remember when i battled that ferocious spider? …” and we do a Wayne’s World-style flashback screen effect. Then you replay the challenge and try to get a better star rating.

      Certain gates in the game will require you to have earned x stars.

      – Ryan

  3. Facebook Indie Games

    You won’t get people to “try it and see”. It’s a simple funnel…

    1. Have you heard of the game?
    2. Do you like the sound/look/idea of it?
    3. Do you try it?
    4. Do you buy it?

    When somebody answers “no” to any of those questions you lose them. They don’t progress to the next question, they’re gone. So the ONLY people who you can expect to try your game are people who like the sound of it.

    If you can describe it in such a way that most people who play casual games say, “yes I really do like the sound of that” then you have the option to price low and go broad. If you can describe it in a way where a subset of people go “THIS is the game I’ve been waiting for since 1995” — preferably a subset of people that spends a lot of time talking to each other — then you have the possibility of a lucrative niche game.

    Of course the clinical way to start a game design is with the market question, either:

    “what game description will be appealing to nearly everybody?” then build it


    “what game has ‘nice x’ been waiting for since 1995?” then build that

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah – i’ve got a bit of a struggle here, because i’m inclined to position this one as “the game you never knew you wanted.” i might have to turn that around and attune its positioning more to an existing need. One thing Spellirium has going for it is a genuinely good story. There’s a lot of moaning about how weak game stories are, so we could fill that void.

    2. axcho

      I just had to say, I found your comment very insightful, Facebook Indie Games. I’m thinking about this now… You could make that into an entire blog post and it would be a great one! Thanks! :)

  4. Strip-Arcade

    “Dumb” players aren’t going to be interested in this game. Unless their scrabble-loving friend recommends it, they’re going to take one look at all those letters and close their browser. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to strike some balance, though. I’m not exactly a wordgame fan, but your game looks good and claims to offer an interesting story and all that, so I’d at least download a demo. If the demo is ball-busting difficult, though, I’d probably give up on it. If the difficulty level ramps up appropriately, I might be drawn in and give it a buy. Strike a balance, but I would err towards catering to your niche. Easy, right?

  5. Mushyrulez

    Perhaps you could market Spellirium to only a niche audience, but wouldn’t you feel so much more successful if you could make it appeal to the ‘dumb’ people? After all, at the end of the day, Spellirium is just an ‘educational game’. Although it’s fun to play games that don’t teach you anything new (if you’re a logophile), wouldn’t you feel so much better if you could actually teach people something? Perhaps if you introduced a modest difficulty curve and focused less on ‘making words’ but rather on ‘having fun’ at the beginning, you could rope in ‘dumb’ players into actually learning. (Then again, I haven’t played a demo of Spellirium, so I really don’t know if that’s already what you’re doing!)

    P.S. Perhaps one would be immediately turned off by the title. I understand the (rather lame) pun, but its focus on ‘spell’ inherently turns ‘dumb’ people away. Unless they thought ‘spell’ as in a magician’s spell. Was that what you meant?

    P.P.S. Random House Dictionary says niche pronounced ‘nitch’. Don’t kill me yet, but I pronounced it ‘nee-shay’ until today… you can kill me now.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i think “neesh” vs “nitch” is an American vs. Everyone Else thing, like the metric system.

      i really want to be clear, though, that Spellirium is not an educational game – any more than Scrabble or Boggle are educational games. i’m not trying to teach anyone anything. The difference is this: an educational game TEACHES you something. Games like Spellirium, Scrabble and Boggle REQUIRE YOU TO KNOW SOMETHING in order to play them.

      It’s a lot like trivia. Trivia is only educational insofar as you learn stuff you didn’t know, AFTER you fail. But to succeed at a trivia game, you already have to know a lot of the answers. If anything, Spellirium will teach you how bad you are at word games, and how much you could stand to improve your vocabulary and spelling. ;)

      1. Mushyrulez

        Ah, I guess if it isn’t intended to teach, marketing it only to the niche audience would be best (after all, if the ‘dumb’ people /can’t/ play, what’s the point of marketing it to them?) Yet, some marketing towards casual, non-word-game-fans would also make sense, just by encouraging them to try the game. People are smarter than we think ;)

  6. Sam Potasznik (@SamPotasz)

    Hey Ryan,
    I don’t know anything about the game beyond reading this one post, but to me the challenges seem fun and also REALLLLY hard. I consider myself pretty good at word games, and even for me, being limited to only synonyms for “equine” seems a tad impossible. One possible solution- when I play Banagrams, I like to play with “themes” – such as “horses.” Then you get points for every horse related word you come up with in the round. Of course, there are no points in Banagrams- it’s just for fun, and additionally, you’re not limited to ONLY making words about horses!
    That seems likes an option for you here. Synonyms (equine, zebrine, filly) get a superbonus, related words such as stable, saddle, etc. get a small bonus, and non-horse words are playable for normal points.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Thanks, Sam! Equine synonyms did not actually make it into Spellirium – that was a suggestion by a dyed-in-the-wool wordie who was giving me some feedback. Based on our early playtests, the game actually grinds to a halt with the sheep challenge, because most people can only think of, on average, ZERO synonyms for “CUT” (even though the game gives you three). i’m actually going to modify that challenge so the game gives you MORE hints and MORE help, because i can’t have it hit a brick wall on the second challenge.

      Games need to be fun, and i’m doing everything i can to make this thing enjoyable for you.

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