3. Finding gameplay depth
Typing with an avatar
I wrote that being able to move in Nanotale’s battles added spatial agency—the opportunities for positioning and movement offered by the level design. The Typing of the Dead, the first major typing game, offered no freedom of movement because it was based on a rail shooter. But modern typing games tend to add a controllable character (maybe because we are all used to that from the games we play). Tybot Invasion: The Typing Runner has three horizontal lanes you can use to avoid enemies. Changing lanes is done by typing a word, so the typing mechanic remains unchanged. Outshine, on the contrary, has five vertical lanes you can switch to by pressing left SHIFT and right SHIFT (or CTRL). Using a simple button press to move, they challenge the player’s reactivity to dodge obstacles. Indeed, the typing input is not suited to free movement, and that makes controlling a character a big constraint: either you simplify the movement, or you use non-typing controls.
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The first prototype of Epistory featured a tile-by-tile movement on a grid: each of the four directions had a letter that you pressed to move to the next tile (we made that prototype available here, if you’re curious). After multiple attempts to make it smoother, we realized that this type of movement would always be a bigger hurdle for the players than the typing itself, so we replaced it with a free movement. This solution entails that players have to switch between the movement mode and the typing mode, and we used the space bar for this. Nanotale has the same 3Cs and follows the same system.
Epistory’s tutorial about using EFIJ to move.
Even though we could have used the arrow keys to move without having to switch between modes, we didn’t want players to have to move their hands on the keyboard. That’s also why the default key binding uses E, F, I, and J to move (in diagonals), which matches the default hand position on a keyboard. About half of the players preferred to switch to WASD or ESDF. The latter is a good compromise between a pattern players are used to and the correct finger placement, so Nanotale now uses ESDF by default.
Textorcist features both typing and movement in parallel. As explained earlier by Diego Sacchetti, “switching from one side to another of the keyboard is part of the experience.” But they also offer other options: “Apart from the basic solution we implemented SHIFT+WASD or SHIFT+IJKL movement (rebindable to fit other keyboard layouts).” Backspace Bouken, which is an old-school dungeon crawler, uses the arrow keys for its first-person tile-based movement. But in this case, movement is limited to the exploration gameplay, which doesn’t happen at the same time as the typing.
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One way to move with typing commands is to limit it to fixed positions where you can display a word. For example, in an internal prototype, we tried to use covers to justify a node-based movement, essentially creating a cover shooter typing game. The complexity of such a node-based movement depends on how many nodes you display on the screen. The more options you have, the more agency you give, but the more it clutters the screen and distracts from the rest of the game.
In Nanotale, we introduce a teleportation feature mid-game that not only adds a typing element in the exploration game loop (some secret areas require teleportation), but also makes the instantiated battles more dynamic. While it’s possible to move freely with WASD in the battles, the amount of enemies coming towards you makes it difficult to focus out of the typing to move. The teleportation feature offers limited movement options, but given the context, it’s the easiest way to move.
When Ettome experimented with typing mechanics, he also tried to move an avatar by using words as targets and letting the avatar follow its own pathfinding. But he didn’t keep the avatar because he really saw typing as “I’m set on my keyboard and I only do typing.”
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It’s indeed easier to make a typing game without an avatar or a camera that requires movement controls. So how does it work in Touch Type Tale, a typing strategy game with a fixed top view camera? “The reason why there is no camera movement is a direct result of it being a typing game” said Malte. An early design of the game had minions moving on lanes like a tower defense and you could redirect them on a different lane. But switching lanes created downtime where you had to wait without typing, which wasn’t good.
Touch Type Tale – Strategic Typing uses keywords to give
move orders to units on a node-based path movement.
In the current version, you give directions to your units on which paths to take to go fight the enemy units. Words are displayed around each crossroad so that you can select a path for your troops by typing them. By the way, that strategic unit placement is a form of spatial agency. Interestingly, they eventually put back camera movement to make some levels bigger. “We now have levels in the campaign where you control the camera with IJKL (the right hand counterpart of WASD), and what we do is we just don’t show words that start with those letters. So you really constrain the amount of words you can show and it wouldn’t work for a general typing game, but for some missions we have done that.”
The typing input cannot naturally control movement.
Moving an avatar, a camera, or anything on two axes (as we are used to) cannot be done with typing without losing freedom and responsiveness. Avoid it if you don’t want to make exceptions to the typing input.
Nonetheless, you can restrict the positioning options (using lanes or nodes) to add spatial agency to your design.