Monday, August 3, 2009

Day 3: Woxel Word Game

So, a friend and former work colleague recently came out with an iPhone game called Woxel Word Game. As a lover of word games, I was intrigued.

I don't have an iPhone, but I bought one for Liza (my wife) for just this kind of occasion. I've been meaning to play more iPhone games and to write about the app store more generally (I'm very interested in the digital distribution of game content -- especially via social platforms).

One thing that became instantly clear: It's got to be hard for developers of new games to compete with existing publishers. For instance, Bookworm Adventures (a spiritual ancestor of Woxel) already exists in the iTunes store for the same $.99 that I paid for Woxel. As a potential customer, I need to know how Woxel is going to offer me something different and better than an established game that I already played. In the absence of this kind of comparison information, I'm likely just going to go with what I know.

Fundamentally, this is mostly where Woxel let me down. It felt less fully featured and polished than its key competitor and didn't offer anything new. Moreover, Woxel felt less like a "casual" game and more like it had been calibrated for hard core play.
  • The initial experience seemed calibrated for people who already knew that you could extend a word in any direction, not just from the last letter that had been added (as per Bookworm).
  • The first board seemed to be unduly "hard" in terms of finding lots of words at a glance. There was no ramp up.
Knowing the lead designer on the project (and his *insane* word game skills, cf. Typing Maniac leaderboards) and after thinking about the initial challenge curve of the game I wonder if it might be worth thinking about how to make this game more appealing to word gamers who are looking for increased challenge and competition. Of course, both of these requests expand the scope of the game dramatically:
  • Increased challenge means additional modes, puzzles, and variants. Not only do these features need to be implemented, they also need to be calibrated and balanced. And there probably needs to be some sort of set of achievements and unlocks.
  • Competition means community. I'm not even sure how iPhone as a platform supports this (if at all).
Another approach might be to come up with a cool, competitive Facebook app that incorporates community features (leaderboards, play with friends, play with strangers) and takes some of the approaches that make games like Griddle and Bogglific so darn addictive.

The goal for the iPhone app, then, would be as a practice module that could be upsold during free Facebook play.

Now, turning my attention to the game itself, I do have some user experience related quibbles.
  • The game takes a little while to load and the Unity splash screen is not animated so it is unclear whether the app has frozen or not.
  • The main menu slider/spinner didn't immediately look interactive, so I ended up trying to swipe the "Swipe" label. This wasn't nearly as effective as swiping the screen real estate above the "Swipe" label (a fat cushion around the actual spinner).
  • I found it hard to swipe the spinner without accidentally pressing hard enough to activate my choice and launch the currently selected mode. This may just be my lack of practice with an iPhone or may be something specific to the app.
  • There probably needs to be a sound effect and pulsing icon of some sort to indicate when the next board has loaded. The screen looks too static (and I didn't notice the change in text from "loading" to "has loaded").
  • The music is probably too loud by default relative to the other game SFX. It would also be nice to be able to shut off music and sound while within game.
  • There was no way to call up a pause menu during the game (where I could adjust options or restart) which meant I needed to hard-reset the game several times in order to change options or start over.
  • After I turned the music off, there was no "game has started" notification on game start. It seems like there should be a "game started" notification sound and visual effect. Because this is a timed trial, even having a countdown "3... 2... 1... Go!" might be a nice addition.
  • I frequently hit the bottom right letter in the grid by mistake when I meant to hit submit. This was super frustrating as it deselected my word and I needed to start over.
  • I wanted to play the game with my thumbs, but they were simply too big and covered too much of the screen to be effective. I felt like using my pointer finger was more accurate, but slower. The size of the letter tiles really made me want a stylus and I wonder whether they're just too small and smushed too close to the sides and bottom of the screen.
  • I also wondered what a horizontal treatment might look and play like.
  • The dictionary seemed quirky (a common complaint for word games). I wonder if SOWPODS or OSPD4 are available rights-free?
  • It could have used some more game play modes. At the very least, some sort of "free play" mode where the player could play relatively unconstrained in order to get a feel of the game without time constraints.
All in all, it was definitely worth the $.99 I spent. I'll play some more of it whenever I get my hands on Liza's iPhone. But, as others have mentioned, the plethora of high quality content available at this price means that expectations are going to be high. Games need to deliver well on some specific aspect, be it best-in-class game play, polished and balanced content, excellent competition and multiplayer features, or some other feature that fills our vast set of social networking needs.

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