Typing Games: how and why?

The challenges of the typing input

This part is the fun one: all the design challenges you don’t think about when you play a typing game, but have to learn the hard way when you develop one. I’ll try to highlight the main ones without complaining too much…

Remember that, in Textorcist, players are supposed to switch between the arrow keys to move and the keyboard to type? As Diego Sacchetti explains, “we must always keep in mind that dodging bullets requires looking at the screen while typing requires (very often) looking away from it. Switching your hands takes time and so the pacing in the game must leave some space for players to adapt. This means we had to add lots of different elements to help players perform both activities at the same time.”

Even if you keep all inputs accessible from the typing position (which is what Epistory, Nanotale and Touch Type Tale do), players’ typing skills range from the “blind typing” to the “hunt and peck” methods. In other words, they are often not looking at the screen when performing an action. To make up for that irregular attention, important information displayed on screen must remain there longer than in a regular game, and feedback showing the direct result of an action must last longer or be delayed to give the player time to look up.

This is also why words displayed on the screen should not change without an action from the player. For example, an enemy that grows bigger and stronger over time might see its word change into a longer one. But there is a chance that the player is typing the previous word from memory, without looking at the screen, and will be frustrated to realize that the game has changed the rules without them noticing.

Most players do not look at the screen when typing.
Take into account the inconsistent visual attention in the timing of the signs and feedback. Sound is helpful in this context, but remember that not all players hear well or play with sound.
Don’t change or remove the typable words without clear feedback.

* * *

The main challenge of a typing game is to type words properly. As with any game, failing this challenge can be frustrating if it feels unfair. Failing, in our case, means mistyping a word or sentence. The longer or more complex the word, the higher the probability of a mistype. Inexperienced typists, who put the most effort into playing, are even more prone to the frustrating errors. This is why the most important feedback of a typing game is to tell when the right letter is typed and when a wrong letter is typed. As we said before, it needs to be visual and audio because players that have typing difficulties are looking at their keyboard as they type. Perhaps a flashing effect on the whole screen (as an option) would help to catch the players’ attention, but I never tested such a thing.

It’s generally best to avoid punishing mistypes too much. Ettome removed the penalty on mistakes after testing it in Typing Hearts because the time loss was a sufficient penalty. In most games, you lose a combo meter or a perfect strike, that is, a bonus, but you don’t explicitly get a malus. In Epistory or Nanotale, wrong letters are ignored, but you have to type all the letters in order (you can’t skip one). In Backspace Bouken, where you type full sentences, a mistyped word doesn’t deal damage to the enemy but you can just carry on with the rest of the sentence.

In a platformer, if you run off a platform and press the jump button too late, the game can fix your mistake by giving you a few frames after the avatar leaves the ground, during which the jump can still occur (often called “coyote time”). We can eliminate some of the frustration of mistypes by using similar tricks that players may not notice. For example, in languages with accented characters, the game can accept the same character without accent. The letter “e” counts as “é”, “c” as “ç” in French and “n” as “ñ” in Spanish. It helps if you missed the accent key (for keyboards where you have to press the accent then the letter), but also for players used to type without accents or who play with a keyboard lacking the accented characters (when learning a foreign language for example).

“There’s nothing you can do about [languages with special characters being harder]” said Malte Hoffmann. “You could allow the player to just type the word without an accent, if you have an ‘é’ you can just type an ‘e’ but then it kind of misses the purpose of learning to type in French or German. So we decided to enforce the use of the umlaut and other accents.” Taking it a step further, an auto-correct feature that counts “WOXD” as valid for “WORD” would facilitate interactions even more. But then you’re really removing the challenge of typing and just using it as an input method. At this point, why use typing at all?

* * *

I said about Nanotale that all words displayed on screen are opportunities for interaction. While this is true, it also means that all opportunities for action have to be displayed as word prompts. Remembering command words by heart is not really fun and, even if you could start to remember them after a few hours of playing, you may take a long break and forget everything. That’s why Epistory and Nanotale have their list of keywords in the UI at the bottom of the screen.

There is a minimum text size to display readable words on a computer screen. There is also a maximum amount of words you can read and choose from in a reasonable amount of time. So if all the words the player is supposed to type are shown on screen, the limit you set for your game to avoid cluttering the screen gives you the maximum amount of direct actions available. If you want more, you will need word combinations (like Nanotale’s spell casting), or multiple-step inputs (typing one word displays a selection of sub-words, and so on, like cascading menus).

* * *

The typable words have to be integrated into the game world in a way that fits the theme and make them stand out as typable. Players must be able to tell without hesitation what is typable and what is not. In Nanotale, the typable words are in a unique font, are white with a black outline, and are always capitalized. This code is constant in the game world, the menus and the dialogues with the NPCs.

According to Malte, using a lot of text is a challenge for Touch Type Tale because “non-typable text is confusing in a typing game.” They show non-typable text in a different font and on clearly delimited text boxes (dialogues and missions). “It’s quite clear that it’s not meant to be typed because it’s on a text bubble. [Besides that], if we have text it’s handwritten by our artist”.

Some players get used to typing everything.
Differentiate clearly between typable and non-typable text (font, capitalization, color, context) to avoid the frustration of false or hidden affordances: typing non-typable text or missing typable text.

* * *

Now that our typable text is identifiable, players can type the word they want to, say, attack an enemy. But what happens if that word starts with the same letters as another available word? Because we don’t know which word the player is actually looking at, we have to select all possible words simultaneously. In Typing Heart, both words are highlighted and the correct word is selected when the first discriminating letter is typed. The same is done in Epistory and Nanotale. Touch Type Tale goes further to avoid the confusing situation: “The algorithm always tries to give you a word with a starting letter that is not already used (on the screen)” explains Malte Hoffman. “We also use, for languages where it’s possible, capital letters as their own starting symbol. So for our game, capitalization matters.” Using capital letters (which is left as an option that players can turn off) also allows players to easily switch to another word.

Players should never be locked on the word they started typing because they might have selected it by mistake and because when the game state changes, they might want to do a different action. In Epistory and Nanotale, the game always checks if the letters you mistype can match another word. If the first two letters of another word are typed, it switches to typing that word. Note that even this method is not perfect. In rare cases, I have seen players mistype two letters that happened to match another word and be confused as to why the word they were looking at was reset. Touch Type Tale adds an animated circle feedback around the word when you start to type it to draw the player’s attention to it.

In the heat of the moment,
players pay attention to one word at a time.
Allow players to intuitively select a word, even if they are already typing another.

* * *

If you want to go all-in on the typing, you should have menu navigation done with typing too. Maybe not those that are outside the game, like the options menu, but definitely those that are part of the game loop. Having to reach for the mouse breaks the typing flow.

For Malte Hoffman, not having tooltips on mouse-over for a strategy game was the most difficult thing. Simple things like the cost of a building or the damage done by a unit are easily shown from a quick mouse-over. But not if you don’t have a mouse. “We have to convey all of this through our interface and graphics, and at the same time not cluttering up everything by putting text on it, because text is confusing in a typing game because it looks like words you can type.” The absence of mouse-over is also why Epistory’s upgrade menu has to fit all upgrade descriptions in one page.


Continue ->