Category Archives: Blog

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"]


Spellirium Sneak Peek: Fighting the Fnoo

Today’s sneak peek video clip is a twofer: we’re showing off a bit of combat with a creature called a “fnoo”, which can only be damaged when you spell words with blue tiles. Later in the clip, you can see the Companion System in action:

As various characters join your party, you can choose to bring one of them into battle with you. Your Companion Character hangs out in the corner of the screen and, when clicked, unleashes some cool special power. In this case, the Hunter blasts individual tiles out of the grid as you click on them. This helps you set up better combos and chains in case you get stuck.

The Hunter is unique, because she has TWO different abilities, and this is her back-up one. We won’t reveal her primary ability until later, but just like everything in Spellirium, it’s totally cool.

What do you think it could be??


It’s Not an Educational Game

Now that we’re in a sort of golden era of video game idealism, when wild-eyed evangelists are spouting that games can change our lives, i think we should get a little tougher on our definitions so that we really can become a better industry. In particular, i’d like to drive attention what some people pass off as “educational games” which are, in reality, quizzes.



There’s a vast difference between a game that educates a player, and a game that requires a player to be educated. In the past year, i’ve sat down in front of a number of “educational games” which, right from the title screen, require me to prepossess certain specialized knowledge in order to succeed. These game offers no training or instruction. The only way i could learn anything from them was to guess and, if i was incorrect, hope that the game would show me the correct answers. While there’s something to be said for learning-by-failing, i’m not convinced it should be your first line of defense while educating.

Here’s a great example: Financial Football. This “educational game” is sponsored by Visa and the NFL, and the production values (for an educational game) are through the roof.

Financial Footbal

In the game experience, you fill the role of an unseen coach. In order to successfully choose your team’s play from your playbook, you have to correctly answer a question about finances. The clock ticks down as you face a multiple choice questions about 401k plans and mortgage rates.

B… but what if you don’t know anything about finances? Isn’t the game supposed to teach you?


Apparently, a traditional schoolteacher is supposed to print out the traditional, dry-as-toast lesson plan pdfs linked to from outside the game and teach you the underlying concepts using (presumably) the age-old one-two combo of blackboard lectures and worksheet print-outs.


The future is now!

It’s a mistake to call something like Financial Football an educational game. It’s a rich media quiz, meant to be the carrot-on-the-stick to cap off a few classes of deadly boring traditional schoolwork. This game is the equivalent of signing up for a course and walking in the first day to an exam. We can do so much more with educational games!

(Note: If you’re a cynic like me, you’re already suspecting that Financial Football isn’t an earnest attempt at creating an educational game, but rather something Visa developed as a defense against accusations of predatory or unfair lending practices – the equivalent of McDonald’s funding Ronald McDonald House … an organization to help children … while the food they sell hurts children.)

Watch and Learn

i played an educational game recently that i feel got it right in a number of ways. It’s Playful Minds: Math (5-8 years old) from Gameloft.

Playful Minds: Math (5-8 Years Old)

A number of math-based mini-games – essentially quizzes – are scattered across different themed maps. The game runs a short tutorial video explaining each new concept as it’s introduced. It provides tools for interacting with the elements that aid in figuring out the answer; for example, in the counting game, you’re asked how many whatevers there are on the screen. As you tap each one, the voiced-over character counts them with you. If you get a question incorrect, the game doesn’t just throw a big red X in your face and move on … you keep trying until you’re correct. The game will repeat the instruction for you if you’re confused. It’ll replay that tutorial video. You can tap a speaker button at any time to hear the instruction again.

Playful Minds virtual goods

Hey, kids: add up the number of dollars your parents will have to pay to buy you these cool virtual goods!

Are you developing an educational game, or a quiz? Make sure that your game actually teaches something, and that it gives players interesting ways to explore and internalize the subject matter before you hit them with a time-limited gun to the head. Let’s strive to create more games that use all the advantages of an interactive medium to teach before we test!

Spellirium Sneak Peek: Shearing Scrunches the Sheep

The challenges in Spellirium are ever-changing. Sometimes success will be based on the length of the words you spell. Other times, it’s all about colour. In another challenge, the direction of the word might be the key.

Here’s an early production example of what we call a “word quality” challenge: spell words that have to do with cutting in order to shear a sheep.

Check back on Friday for a first glimpse of the Companion System in Spellirium!


Spellirium Sneak Peek: Brother Doug Dies

The folks at Telefilm were kind enough to include Untold Entertainment in their GDC 2012 showcase, which involves playing a video reel to promote participating companies’ work at the big Canada party in the middle of the week. Since i was producing a few short clips for the reel, i thought i’d share them around.

First up is a little snippet from very early in the game. It’s early yet, so there’s no sound. Note that we’re following the writing rule “always put a body on page one.” :)

We’ll be posting a few clips of word-making gameplay and the Companion System later in the week.