Applying game design notions
The first question we asked ourselves when thinking about the typing game that eventually became Epistory, was how to give players meaningful choices—something that was lacking in the typing games of the time because they followed what I referred to above as the “classic formula”. Inspired by the common wisdom that you shouldn’t describe your game in terms of what players have to do, but rather what they can do, we looked for reasons to want to type one word rather than another. That led to the battle gameplay, where you cannot move and have to kill all the enemies before they reach your avatar in the center of the arena.
The base gameplay is classic typing design, but the different enemy archetypes have different speeds and life points (how many words you have to type). This gives the choice of which one to attack first to stay safe, which challenges your judgment of speed / distance and your attention. When an enemy is hit, there is a knockback that reduces the urgency to attack that enemy and prompts the player to choose another.
The second layer of depth comes with the “magics” that you can select by typing their name. In exchange for taking a bit more time to type the magic’s name, you get its benefit: ICE stops the enemy for a while, which is good against fast enemies or ones with very long words. FIRE burns the next word to type so you don’t have to type it, which is best against enemies with long or complex words. (It takes a few seconds, so you still have the choice between typing it faster yourself or switching your attention to another enemy.) ZAP and WIND have similar uses than fire and ice but with an area of effect, so the choice of which magic to use also depends on how enemies are grouped. I have heard debates among players about which magic was the best, so I’m sure there is part of personal preference as well in the choice of magic.
When Ettome started experimenting with typing mechanics, he had at one point a prototype with words falling down the screen a la Guitar Hero and thought there was something missing: “How can I add another dimension to simply typing words as they come and turning your brain off?” His solution in Typing Hearts is an ever-filling grid of words so you don’t have to (and can’t) type all the words. The goal is to reach a given score in a limited amount of time, knowing that the longer words give more points and that there is a multiplier that increases with accuracy (decreases if you mistype). A good strategy is to type small words to increase the multiplier, then type the long words to make more points. On top of that, words are grouped in conversation topics, indicated by the color of the word, which give different amounts of points. The choice of which word to type is based on its color, length and complexity, relative to the other words available and the current multiplier level.
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For Nanotale, which we developed as a spiritual successor of Epistory, we kept the battle phases but added the ability to move. The problem of having to focus on both where to move and what to type is solved in part by having the enemies run in slow motion while your avatar moves. Being able to choose where to position yourself adds spatial agency to the battles. It’s a choice based on the location of enemies (and enemy spawners) and the risk you’re willing to take. The addition of teleporters later in the game gives even more movement options (you type their word and get teleported on them).
There’s another aspect of the game where we gave more spatial agency compared to Epistory, and that is the way you cast spells on enemies. There are different kinds of spells (I’ll give examples later) but what matters here is that they come in different shapes. The basic shapes are a spherical area of effect centered on the target and a ray going from the avatar in the direction of the target. Thus, both the position of the avatar and of the chosen target matter in the casting of the spell. And by “target” I mean enemies but also other “interactable” objects with a typable word on top of them. That also works outside of battles, when you need to find the right spell to use on the right target to solve a puzzle.
All the words on screen are opportunities to interact with the world.
I’m talking about spatial agency, a term I borrow from Matthias Worch’s three types of agency. If you’re not familiar with the concept, let me summarize it for you. Players want to feel a sense of agency, that is, feel like they act on their own and see the consequences of their actions on the world. Giving a large possibility space (more things to do and different ways to play) increases agency. Matthias Worch then distinguishes between three types: spatial agency is about where you play, how your position and movement change the way you play. The scheduling agency is with whom or what you play, how the tools, guns, crew members or upgrades you chose over others limit your possibilities of action. For example, the upgrades in Nanotale add a bit of scheduling agency because the abilities available depend on the upgrades you choose to unlock. But that mechanic is not related to typing.
The systemic agency is the only one that is fundamental—spatial and scheduling are combined with it to expand the possibility space. The systemic agency is about how you play and comes from the connections between game systems. Let’s say you can use weapon A against enemy X in the left room of the level, or weapon B against enemy Y in the right room, or any other possible combination. As long as each feature really feels different, combining them multiplies the player’s options to approach a problem.
So can we make the typing more systemic? This is what we tried to do in Nanotale. In Epistory, you can choose between 4 magics and use them against any enemy. In Nanotale, you can do the same but with 8 effects (PUSH, FIRE, ICE, ZAP…) that you can cast as a default area of effect or combine with one of 3 shapes (RAY) and/or one of 3 modifiers (LONG). So a FIRE RAY that stays active for a LONG time is one of 8 x 4 x 4 = 128 possibilities. Of course, most of these are variations of each other and some only have a very specific purpose and are rarely used—like LIFE SELF which can be used to heal yourself. But our QA tester has found several emergent ways to use the spells that were not explicitly designed, so I believe there is something meaningful there.
There are still other ways to combine words left to explore. Here are potential implementations of a two-step choice:
- First word selects an action, which opens more words from which you can select a sub-action. By acting like a cascading menu, you can give many options in a convenient way. This could work well in a turn-based game, especially once you can directly access the sub-sub-sub-action you want because you remember what to type for it.
- First word selects an action, second word selects a target / a position in space. That is exactly Nanotale’s system.
- First word selects a target, second word selects an interaction. This allows for contextual interactions akin to right clicking on a building or unit. In Touch Type Tale, you type a word to select a building, then select an action or play a typing mini-game (depending on the building).
- First word selects one target, second word selects another target. This method can connect the two points together, to build a road between cities on a map for example. If the order is important, the first target can act on the second: a soldier unit attacks an enemy, a healer unit heals an ally…
The “classic” way to implement typing mechanics
does not leave players any agency.
Give players meaningful choices with multiple viable options. Allow optimization by understanding the system and making good choices, and reward it (get a higher score, finish a battle faster, kill multiple enemies at once…).
Frame typing as an opportunity rather than a constraint and use it to expand the possibility space.