Electron Dance
5Aug/15Off

How Alphabear Became Unbearable

alphabear-title-mini
If you've spent any time on Twitter, you'll know that people love Alphabear (Spry Fox, 2015). It's official, it has won the award for Really Quite Cute Word Game of the Year. Congratulations all.

You know, I also once loved Alphabear, but not any more. This probably makes me sound like some kind of puppy-kicking monster. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a story.

Don't Get Hooked, Kids

Alphabear is a simple word game for one player. Each turn, the player has to make a word from the letters they can see. Each letter has a counter which decreases every turn the letter goes unused; when the counter falls to zero, the letter turns into stone and is out of the game. As you consume letters, bears expand into the spaces left behind and new letters are revealed around them. This carries on until the board is exhausted or a timer runs out. Score comes from the letters in play and making big bears. A board is only considered beaten if you reach the gold score target.

alphabear-game-mini

Alphabear is in beta, so these details may change but currently the game is broken into “chapters”. On each day, you’re presented with four chapter-themed boards: a big board, a timed board, a treasure board (easy but costs in-game currency) and a boss board. Defeating the boss board advances you to the next chapter, but it only becomes available once you have hit enough gold score targets.

I found it compulsive and its genius is not apparent from the get-go. The first few boards are not taxing to ease you in, but soon Alphabear takes off the kid gloves. The algorithm for generating letters is deliciously evil and you’ll often wonder why in God’s Name you have clusters of the same letter. On one board I find myself up to the waist in H’s and on another I groan every time a new J shows up. And you need to pay attention to space so if you don’t think you can use every letter, you need to carefully choose which ones to abandon to maximise the size of your bears. On later boards I was drowning in letters which, paradoxically, was just as much a curse as having too few.

Most people have likely heard of Alphabear because of the bear selfies. When you complete a board, a bear “takes a selfie” while uttering some nonsense sentence using words you made, a moment you’re encouraged to share on social media. In Espen Aarseth’s book Cybertext, the only form of computer-generated text that Aarseth got excited about was randomly generated gobbledegook from which humans could weave their own understanding, often a comical one. But this is the age of the Twitterbot and, look let me be curmudgeon for just ten seconds, I have had enough of Frankentext jutting into my Twitter feeds. Humans generate enough gibberish per day to make me want to switch Twitter off, then there’s spam and now this intentional noise. Mad Libs was invented in 1958 and I’m over it. I do not need another bleeding edge of games writing Kill Screen article to collect Alphabear tweets for me.

Phew, alright. Sorry, I lost it there. I’m back.

alphabear-connection-issue-mini

Spry Fox are still working their way through the kinks. The interface has improved in leaps and bounds since the original release but players are still dogged by the “internet problem”. On release, Alphabear needed constant connectivity for cloud saving. As soon as your internet connection dropped, the game came to an immediate stop. It is more robust now – I’ve managed to travel on the underground and not have Alphabear stop mid-game – but you still can’t start an event without being logged into Google Play on Android.

The Metagame

Alphabear is a new iteration on Spry Fox’s earlier multiplayer game Panda Poet (2010). I’ve been playing this with Gregg over the last week or so and it feels completely different. Instead of bears we have pandas and players can steal each others pandas in an Othello-like strategy for high score. Words are like resources, a means-to-an-end, part of a territorial strategy.

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Alphabear’s core is less complex so players focus more on word construction however there’s a metagame that exists around it.

You have this collection of bears. You are awarded a “common” bear for your collection if you reach the standard target and a “rare” bear if you reach the gold target. There are also “legendary” bears that only tend to appear if you defeat treasure boards.

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You’re permitted to take several bears with you onto a new board, because each bear will tweak it in some way. They can offer score bonuses, ban certain letters or add longevity to others. And they level up so, if you find the same bear twice, your bear goes up another level.

Spry Fox's Triple Town (2010) had something like this too, where the core match-3 game was nestled inside a match-3 kingdom building game. Although I found the Triple Town core interesting, I found the meta game perplexing and was not encouraged to play long enough to figure out why I was doing anything. I had similar issues with Alphabear but when I did figure out the meta game structure... I began to hate it.

In fact, I’ve almost stopped playing the game now.

Right, well, now is as good a time as any to call upon Jonathan Blow.

There Are No Levels

I want to dig up Jonathan Blow’s 2010 talk at Rice, Video Games and the Human Condition. One point he made was how role-playing games masked that your job was tediously repetitive. Character stats would improve with each level but then you’d face off against stronger foes, so the whole thing effectively balances out. Battles at the end of the game mirrored those you had at the start, the only difference being the magnitude of the numbers. Scale the damage, armour and hit point values up by 10, and that welcome-to-the-game rat fight is now identical to the climactic liche-dragon fight.

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Blow argued that it was not beneficial to the player and kept us on a constant treadmill of fake rewards, an eternal grind. Blow’s view is your typical boil-the-game-down approach, a ludologist perspective if you fancy invoking Candyman, but it misses the experiential component of grind. Grind moves us to feel the story, something that Richard Hofmeier understood more than most when he developed Cart Life (2011). We grind because the hero’s adventure is a grind.

A game where you picked up the Super Nuclear Gun in the first few minutes and used it to gun down the Armageddon Machine would have no momentum or emotional resonance. Working our way through hundreds of encounters to the final conclusion, even if some of these encounters are banal, add to the weight of the climax.

The danger is if the developer makes little attempt to mask the levels and XP points, it becomes harder for a player to convince themselves that it is in the pursuit of a noble goal.

The Naked Grind

In Alphabear, as the player climbs through the chapters, the scoring goalposts keep moving further and further away. In Chapter 4, the gold targets are around 20,000 points. In Chapter 5, they are around 30,000 points. How do you pull off these high scores?

As Alphabear got harder, I was forced to up my game. But I found that playing great was not a recipe for success, somehow I was not doing it right. The exact scoring system is unclear from pure play, so had to look up Spry Fox’s post that explained it. Here’s a summary.

The most shocking revelation for me was there is no direct score benefit in finding long words. There’s no difference between scoring two 4-letter words versus an 8-letter word. Of course, that doesn’t mean long words aren’t important. Long words are vital to defeating the dwindling letter counters, because once a letter turns to stone, you’ve lost a ton of bear points. Bear sizes score exponentially, so big bears are crucial for big scores. If you can’t avoid a letter turning to stone, you’d best make sure it’s an edge letter.

Even armed with this information, I was still not hitting score targets with nigh-on perfect games, bears spanning the entire board. I needed to use the right selection of score-boosting bears to get me through. And that’s when I noticed each new chapter was pushing the score targets out of reach. I had to grind my bears up or get new powerful bears, to be able to reach the new targets.

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And boom, Alphabear disintegrated before my eyes. I saw the grind without any narrative to give it meaning.

The reason it felt pointless is our old friend the overjustification effect of taking something naturally enjoyable and destroying it with rewards. I played games like Tetris and Bejewelled (PopCap, 2001) for hours without looking for achievements. The personal goal of doing better each time was enough. My wife loves Sudoku puzzles and she doesn't need incentives to see the challenge through. I could play Alphabear boards all day except for the fact that a wacky score structure has been imposed upon it.

Now if I can't make a score target, I feel like I wasted my time. Yeah thanks for the bear, but I failed the level. I didn’t make that score.

Free to Play the Game You Wanted

I felt this is intrinsic to the Alphabear’s F2P design. Bears will “nap” after being used and if you’re trying to make lots of progress you can wake them up with in-game coins; it’s the well-known energy mechanic. (Bear naps do not upset my game too much as I tend to play a single big board over a whole day, pondering over long word possibilities on the train, in the cafe queue, at the urinal...) Treasure boards are expensive to play, but you have to do really badly to fail a treasure board – so it’s basically buying a bear. You can accelerate the grind if you spend coins, but Spry Fox have done a great job in dressing it up so it doesn’t look like a slot machine hungry for cash. I genuinely mean that as a compliment: as I’ve explained, grind can be good.

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It’s possible that Spry Fox would have built in a levelling structure to improve game longevity even without going down the F2P route. I’ve lost count of the number of wonderful games that were ruined with tedious upgrade systems. Still, we’d probably need a view on the Spry Fox design process to know if the grinding emerged from F2P aspirations.

I do wonder how many players would actually notice this or even be bothered. F2P models and associated grindy systems are so pervasive in the mobile space that it probably feels as normal as score used to be. Now that I’ve seen the grind, I cannot unsee it, and playing the game feels tawdry. It’s not about being great at words and letters, it’s about doing it enough times to get stronger bears so I can do it some more to get more stronger bears so I can do it some more...

I long for the naked game instead of the naked grind, where it’s just me up against some par scores and no bear bonuses.

But would I be the only customer to buy it?

Postscript

demruth-tweet

Aside from the internet issue I had only seen wall-to-wall love for the game, but it turns out I wasn't the only one thinking about the grind problem. I ran a Twitter search to find complaints about Alphabear and I found an interesting conversation kicked off by Alexander Bruce a few weeks ago.

It's worth a read because Spry Fox designer Dan Cook gets involved too who offers the revealing comment: "Ah, the bear wake up times. That was more about encouraging variety vs forcing a spend. We are looking at it." This dense Twitter conversation shows that Spry Fox is up against some hard design issues and seems like they're still open to ideas where the metagame is concerned.

Last but not least: a reminder that I originally talked about the overjustification effect in 2013, in the popular essay Into the Black.

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Comments (16) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I will say that Blow’s point is only valid if you don’t play good RPGs. Sure, the basic underpinning is adding numbers, but a well-designed game will give you more possibilities for tactics and skills as you continue. I’m playing Baldur’s Gate, which doesn’t give you a ton of character customization options with each level, and yet battles at the end are completely different than battles at the beginning because your casters learn a wider variety of spells, you get different items and equipment, etc. A tough battle in Chapter 1 involves your fighters moving in to bop the enemy, maybe someone shooting off a magic missile or two, and a lot of prayer. Now, at level 7-8, I’m setting up multi-spell combos, having characters sneak around in the shadows to jump out at enemies, using potion combinations to reduce damage–I’m doing a lot more than simply watching numbers go up. In Lords of Xulima, your tactics shift each time you learn a different skill or when you’re facing a different type of enemy. It’s not completely inaccurate to look at the numbers in an RPG and conclude that Hour 1 and Hour 40 are the exact same thing, but it is fairly reductive.

    But I do stress saying “good RPGs”–there are plenty of dumb meathead RPGs where, if you’re playing a fighter character, all you do is bop the bandits, maybe occasionally throw off a dragon shout or two, and watch numbers go up. It seems like that’s where Alphabear fits in: The beard themselves are an analogue of taking different party members along and getting different skills, but the game itself doesn’t seem quite as deep enough for that to *matter*, really. The little time I spent with it, it seems like it’s an extra little burst of numbers but not much else–if you get one of the bears that gives you bonuses for making certain themed words, for example, due to the nature of how the game plays you’re not able to seek that out so much as you’ll just stumble upon it from time to time.

    Of course I haven’t played much Alphabear since it’s a mobile game which requires an internet connection to even start a game which is total bullshit seeing as, uh, I play most mobile games on the subway where there is no connection. Sorry, Spryfox, but if I’m at home and I have the choice between playing Alphabear or a real game, well, I know what I’m gonna do.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this bear to drop!

    Ahh, that entire ‘There are no levels’ section is exactly what I’ve been moaning about for years as well. The experiential component of grind is fine, but so few developers capitalise on that, most just treat it as a way of artificially padding out the game with fluff. Cart Life is defined by that grind, as is Little Inferno, and I’d say it’s a key part of the Souls games’ appeal too in the sense that your journey is hard bloody work and exhausting. 10,000,000 is grindy but the match-3-ing is neatly folded into the narrative of ‘gathering materials to improve your gear to last longer to escape the dungeon’. I’m not sure whether that counts but it’s enough for me. That reminds me, I must play You Must Build A Boat…

    Hailey downloaded Alphabears before me and she said something along the lines of: ‘You’re not going to like this Gregg: you collect bears and can level them up for score bonuses.’ I frowned when she said ‘level them up’ and facepalmed when she concluded with ‘score bonuses’. I saw all the grinding to beat the soaring score targets coming a mile off, especially with it being F2P, but I was hopeful I was wrong. Then you visited Joel and confirmed my fears so I uninstalled it and fired Panda Poet up instead, which I much prefer. I especially like the bespoke different sized pandas over the super stretched bears in Alphabear. Also: multiplayer, no grinding or F2P fluff, and the adorable (original) theme used in Alphabear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d66YIDopY-U (you have to win to hear this though)

    “It’s not about being great at words and letters, it’s about doing it enough times to get stronger bears so I can do it some more to get more stronger bears so I can do it some more…”

    Nail on head. I’d also add that I generally suck at words and letter games because I’m far too visual, but the space management aspects of Panda Poet and Alphabear (and Threes, and Megacity, and Triple Town) give it another angle for me.

  3. “I saw the grind without any narrative to give it meaning.”

    You make your own fun: http://analphabear.tumblr.com/

  4. “…and yet battles at the end are completely different than battles at the beginning because your casters learn a wider variety of spells, you get different items and equipment, etc.”

    Yes, exactly. Even Mass Effect gets this right. Skyrim/Oblivion don’t, so props for your dragon shouts there.

    A good RPG essentially puts a toybox in front of you and lets you pick out things to play with for yourself, and your experience should vary as a direct result of your choices.

    There are lots of ways this can go wrong, of course, but the idea that lategame battles are just early experiences dressed in eveningwear isn’t really applicable to many games. And I play more dumb AAA RPGs than Richard does, with his ongoing quest to play all the proper CRPGs ever. :)

    Gregg: surprised to hear grind in the context of Little Inferno? The game is, like, six hours long, and you’re constantly getting drips of narrative, new toys, etc. Grind, to me, implies long stretches of repetitive activities. If you’re referring to the tedious experimentation toward the very end, when you’re trying to figure out the last few combos: I can sorta see that, but I still wouldn’t apply the term myself.

    Interesting read, Joel. Definitely looks like Spry Fox are approaching monetisation differently to their previous games. Particularly interesting in the context of their stated strategy of releasing a commercial game, then an experimental game; one on, one off, with the commercial efforts bankrolling the experimental games. Apparently Road Not Taken was a commercial failure, but if you ask Dylan (who never finished an article about it), Road Not Taken is one of the deepest, cleverest puzzle games of recent years.

    The rest of this comment isn’t in direct response to what you’ve written – which I read as you recounting your personal responses to the game you thought you were playing, and the game you later realised you were playing. It’s an indirect response though, because I want to talk F2P, and right here, with you and these other folks, is where I’d like to do it. :)

    Anyway, the thought occurs that while Alphabear isn’t delivering on an experience that rewards the longest / best words, ala. traditional word tile games, what it is delivering is a wordgame experience with a ‘metagame’ that rewards ongoing investment. I personally get bored very quickly with games that have a nice core gameplay experience but no reason to revisit them short of beating previous scores (or, you know, just because “it’s fun” – but so are all those other games I could play!). This distinguishes me as a player from other people. I don’t really like efforts to categorise players into design demographics because ew, but still.

    Although F2P monetisation strategies have some really odious ideas at their core, it’s worth remembering that a very large number of players play such games without spending a penny, that some players love grind (I am right now sitting next to a man whose hobbies include grinding away at multiple games at once, and working out exploits to help facilitate that), and that some players love revisiting games long-term in a way that they wouldn’t in a game decoupled from F2P metagame concepts (my SO is *still* playing PvZ2, a game I initially despised for its F2P difficulty spikes, and has beaten *every single thing in it* without paying a penny – and she’s now overflowing with the game’s two non-premium currency, so she doesn’t need to pay a penny).

    None of that justifies business strategies that explicitly harvest ‘whales’ (gross term, gross concept – even if no one seems to have actually studied who these people are), or games with opaque scoring systems that mislead players. And nor does it mean that Spry Fox couldn’t have managed to design something that appealed to multiple player types (although, you know, what do they say about pleasing all the people all the time).

    Like I said, I’m not responding to what you wrote so much as trying to work through my own understanding of what F2P games are, why they exist, who is playing them, why they are as they are, etc. Having spent some years playing a lot of F2P mobile games (and, admittedly, recently seeing a bit of this world from the other side of the fence), I’m understanding that there is more complexity to these design ideas, the cultures and businesses that drive them, etc, than I had previously given credit. And since it’s not going away any time soon (despite my genuinely held belief that it was going to collapse, uh, two years ago), I think it’s useful to try and understand it better, to try to understand what players are responding to that is positive as well as what is odious, and to try to recognise which parts of the ongoing experiment that is F2P are worth keeping.

    (For as long as we endure the harsh consensual realities of late capitalism, anyway. Context, huh.)

  5. Heheh, for those who haven’t played Little Inferno and want to savour it look away now! Spoilers etc.!

    Little Inferno was all about grinding! Granted, utterly hypnotic and satisfying grinding, but still grinding. You buy objects to burn to get more money to buy more objects to burn to check combos off a list to unlock more catalogues to allow you to buy more objects to burn to check off more combos and so on. Until the end. It wasn’t about skill per se, it was more about time. It’s built into the very fabric of the game, as the main mode of play, but more importantly as the driver of the game’s core message about not frittering (or burning!) your time away. If you took away the grind, I don’t think Little Inferno would be nearly as poignant. In this case, grinding is very much a positive aspect in context of the larger experience. I loved Little Inferno and it was just what I needed after The Witcher.

    And wait, you got all the combos?

  6. What I really loved about Little Inferno is it’s a subversion–TVTropes would say “deconstruction”–of hypercapitalist F2P addiction machines. If you read about that Kate Upton game (and there was an ad for the game where Upton declared that she “always wanted to be in a videogame”, so how about the internet quit ragging on her, or are we saying that she’s a fake geek girl?) it and many others of its ilk are designed to get you hooked and to provide mechanisms for avoiding the grind–as in, the game is pleasurable to advance in and not to play, and so you pay to skip it. There is an odd pleasure involved in the grinds of some games–the RPGs that do it right tend to get combat into almost a dance where you’re *performing* rather than simply playing, and there’s a nice Zen state of flow that you get into. I would say Little Inferno has that pleasure–burning stuff never really does get old.

    But–and again, spoilers–the point of Little Inferno is that it has an ending; after a point, you’re taken out of the game and put into a brief third-person sequence where you and the President of the Little Inferno Company or whatever (it’s been a while!) have a conversation; you enjoyed burning all of those things, it boils down to, and you had a great time, but now it’s time to move on. Little Inferno pisses on the concept of F2P by making it finite.

    I think that’s a really important distinction. Grind, for me, implies infinity–in an RPG with random encounters, you walk around in circles, triggering combat, for the purposes of leveling up enough; contrast that to a game with fixed encounters or a strict level cap. Game of War encourages addiction and balances its grind to heighten it and keep it going forever; Little Inferno balances its grind to pace out its story and to underline its themes, because the purpose is not to drain money out of your bank account but to essentially teach you a lesson.

    And I guess that’s ultimately why I find these kinds of games to be really unfulfilling–I guess I like endings; in a F2P game, you usually play and play and play and spend your money until the money becomes too much for you to spend and you move on. I’m thinking about Andrew Plotkin’s review of Myst where he notes that the games ending is, essentially, a character tells you congratulations and lets you wander around the game you already solved until “the player gets bored and quits”–and adds that “the player gets bored and quits” should never be the final line of a design document. Now, an adventure game and, say, a word game are two extremely different genres–but at the same time I definitely prefer one to the other.

    I mean, I also enjoyed the hell out of 1000000 and You Must Build A Boat; both of those games could have been *so easily monetized* in traditional fashion, and yet weren’t; the development was spent making the game *fun* rather than *addictive*, and so yes, I played both games feverishly, because there’s a very specific goal on the horizon of both of them, and enjoyed the experience. If that game had a grind, it was a pleasant one, and I respect a game that, after a while, says, “okay, you won, now you can move on to the next thing” rather than “gimme 50 bucks and I’ll let you see the good shit”.

  7. Hi there! Appreciate the thoughtful essay and comments.

    I’ll state up front that even though I’ve been making games for ages, I have no idea what I’m doing. So we are learning a ton from Alphabear.

    For another perspective, here are some of the constraints we were designing under:
    – Most of our players are not interested in skill or mastery.
    – For boggle-style word games in particular, the skill curve is very flat. Some spell 3 letter words and will never improve.
    – Most players wanted to relax and be generously rewarded for playing. Repeatedly, we heard in playtests that a pleasant ritualistic grind is highly desired.
    – We are making a single game that is a casual hobby people can play for years. ‘Beatable’ wasn’t desired. They play one game for a very long period of time (many month or years)
    – Somehow we need to make money.
    – Our players are F2P *fans*. That’s like an RPG fan. There exist correspondingly strong single player F2P genre conventions.
    – Breaking conventions (such as the use of energy) resulted in unhappy players.

    I don’t know what the ideal progression system might be. There exist many play-styles and player communities. So we approach it like a design problem. We build experiments, run playtests, gather statistics, dream up artsy solutions. That repeats over and over. There’s probably a better solution than the one we settled upon.

    Originally we had more skill based play. A lot of people hated it. Originally we had less grind. It broke a half dozen of the constraints above. Panda Poets is an interesting counter example. It is quite pure with minimal grinding and highly skilled positional play. There’s an extremely tiny group of highly educated players that really enjoy it. Everyone else bounces off it like it is the more vile poison ever created.

    In design, authorial taste matters. But ultimately the gig is to make a thing that works for your actual audience, not who you fantasize your audience might be. And that audience rarely matches my personal needs or tastes. (Many designers are inherently broken as gamers…we’ve seen the matrix). The lesson beaten in my brain on this project: ‘Casual’ (not actually casual) f2p folks are a highly educated, equally valid group of players. We had to toss a lot of our assumptions left over from consumption-focused gamer culture. That’s design.

    Did we succeed? I’m never sure. Certain numbers are better than any game we’ve ever made. Player interviews are overwhelmingly positive. I still suspect we can do better.

    Love the critique here. It reflects the same conversations we have on the team.

  8. I hope this isn’t as rambling as I think it is.

    @Richard: Yes I agree Blow’s point is a bit TOO reductionist, because usually games amp up their complexity; but then again, sometimes they narrow too. Wasn’t Planescape’s ending sort of a narrow experience? I’m wrestling with that one. But it’s still a good rule-of-thumb to think about in these situations: is this grind padding or purposeful? I think some amateur game designers would probably replicate the grind without paying attention to its purpose, I know I would have back in the 80s.

    I really want to play an RPG. I haven’t played an RPG for yonks.

    I should mention that the @demruth Twitter discussion also revealed that bears were meant to be more “strategic” and you had to combine them intelligently. But players who preferred simple play were getting stuck, so the brute force bear bonuses had to be introduced – but they have had the side effect of blasting away the strategic play.

    And Richard I’d like to throw you the parallel here. You’ve often said you don’t want to be made to feel bad for buying bundles rather than full price titles because it enables people who don’t have a great deal of money to enjoy the games. But, in the hands of a thoughful developer, F2P is the same deal. Independent developers are finding it hard to make money with the upfront model in the zero price age and they need to eat: you want your bundles, which are great if you’re in the Humble but otherwise not so hot. Devs don’t want to be made to feel bad for embracing F2P models to pay the bills which no one wants to pay for in the conventional way.

    @Gregg: We talked a fair bit about this when I was at your place last week and, yes, I was refining this post in my head as we discussing Alphabear. I have to admit, as Shaun mentions, there is a group of players that embrace the naked grind. And I feel it’s pull, I really do, because I worked hard grinding the bears up levels in Chapter 3.

    @Erlend: You are so trolling me. Get back to finishing Myriad.

    @Shaun: I shall henceforth call you the Shaun-type player. Anyway, on F2P.

    I think if I’d written this piece a year ago I’d be more scathing about F2P, but I’ve been doing a lot of research for the book and it’s calmed me down. I’m passed my “F2P is evil” phase. The only F2P I seem to like is the equivalent of shareware or demos – play for free, then pay for the rest of the game. Which of course turns up in Alphabear as honey. But when it comes for paying for avatar decoration, upgrades or accelerating a game, I start to feel the game has been compromised and that’s a difficult feeling to shake.

    We need to be honest that F2P is not the path to riches, just like every other pricing mechanism. And some customers are going to go cold on them eventually. Players who don’t want to pay are skilled in working around IAP and quite happy to wait it out for energy. I do have concerns about where F2P could take us and Jonathan Blow also did a talk on how F2P shapes a particular type of game. We may not have yet figured out better F2P models but they aim for a stream of transactions rather than one-off payments which emergence of zero pricing has destroyed the value of; if you’re not offering virtual clothing then must be offering a method to resolve game problems, which means you have to have game problems of some sort.

    I’m probably going to end up writing a bit on F2P in the book (it’s several chapters in). There are some dodgy game developers, for sure, who would like nothing more than squeeze punters for cash, but there are plenty of thoughful ones. However, even with the best of intentions and careful thought about what the “right thing to do” is, you can still wade straight into an ethical minefield. You might not have meant to create an addictive slot machine – but you have? So how do you feel about that? It was the only choice to make?

    Will F2P become the only model in town? I don’t think so but things are gonna be shook up some.

    @Dan: I know you’re not the keenest on critiques outside of developers, so appreciate you making an appearence here. I think Joel Spolsky wrote a thing years ago about the incredulity that software is always late because if this was construction, they’d be no delays at all. Every piece of software is cutting edge, because you wouldn’t be making it otherwise. And that’s not just true, but extra true in games.

    Some of your points are like being slapped around with evil truth with nails in it. “Most of our players are not interested in skill or mastery” OUCH “the skill curve is very flat” YOW

    I actually had a lot of thoughts on that last one. I did ask myself the question, would I get better at this game? Without the chapter structure, would I experience any kind of personal progression? You need crazy text indexing in your end to get good at these kind of games and I wonder if simply playing Alphabear millions of times would actually have made any difference. Then again, I find the basic Alphabear template quite interesting – although my ending is an admission that I’m a special nutcase who thinks deeply about game structure; I see a bit too much of the Matrix myself and that destroys a lot of magic.

    Maybe there was room for multiple game modes in there… but there’s always the danger that the existence of the modes can undermine each other. Eh, too much armchair design, time to reel this back in; I haven’t designed a videogame for 20 years.

    One final comment on Panda Poet. I’ve lost every game I’ve played to my nemesis Gregg and I’ve come to the conclusion is that I’m losing because of the same problem as Alphabear. I’m thinking about the words, but Panda Poet isn’t really about words. I mean, it is, but your first duty is to spatial strategy. I wonder if that’s the reason people hate it, because it looks like a word game but, really, it isn’t as wordy as it might seem.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  9. Thanks for the insight Dan, very interesting and, yowzers, I echo Joel’s reaction to “Most of our players are not interested in skill or mastery”.

    “Some spell 3 letter words and will never improve” and “Repeatedly, we heard in playtests that a pleasant ritualistic grind is highly desired” made me frown as well.

    That last point I see a lot of in multiplayer games with levels and rewards and achievements to keep people plugging away at something to get something back in return. You have games like Natural Selection 2 where there’s no reward system of any sort. No levelling, no achievements, no gear or cosmetic items to unlock — it’s just about the (highly skilful) play (which many bounce right off).

    Then you’ve got the likes of Guns of Icarus Online which has an in-game shop and a levelling, achievements and rewards system, all of which are just for cosmetic items and symbols of status (like badges and ranks). For me, this is the happiest medium from a purely competitive point of view. It gives treadmill nuts something to run on but doesn’t impact people like me who don’t give a rat’s ass about grinding for stuff to get play bonuses; it keeps things even but with some grind if you want it. I’ve also thrown a bit of money into the shop to dress my characters and ship up.

    I’ve also noticed that if a game has a level cap, then there will inevitably be people wanting it to be higher. They’ll want higher targets to hit, constantly, and rewards too. If that’s what it takes to keep your audience happy and hooked then you’ve not much choice other than to provide it. As you say, ultimately the gig is to make a thing that works for your actual audience, and consequently make money.

    I remember at EGX my brother (a professional writer who’s focus is MMORPGs) complaining that there was no incentive to play as a monster on Evolve, no XP or any kind of achievements or rewards for doing well (this is inaccurate but that doesn’t matter, it was his thought process that fascinated me). I said that the incentive to play as the monster was… to play as the monster; to play as this spectacular creature and go from being the hunted to the hunter. But no. Not enough XP or rewards or achievements. Screw the artistry in their creation, or the satisfaction of wielding this gigantic beast around against four other players hell bent on wiping you out — I want a pat on the back!

    And lastly, I sometimes see in comments people saying they won’t buy games if they don’t have a laundry list of achievements. I know I’m an outlier with a lot of things, but come on, really? How’s that for some reductionism: no cheevos, no sell! I suppose you could one further: no pat, no play.

    @Joel: Exactly. That’s what I mean about it having space management aspects. I’m aiming for good words but I’m also keeping an eye on what you could do on the next move with the letters I leave behind. There’s this lovely pull between expanding/claiming pandas and just going straight for the word scores, or holding back in the hopes of your opponent allowing you to make the final expansion on a big panda. As I said, I suck at pure word and letter games but another thing that I think helps me is the score multipliers and high value letters — they ‘anchor’ my eyes, so to speak. I can work around them and usually pull something out of the hat.

  10. Kudos to Joel for being brave enough to critique a game that currently has so much positivity surrounding it. And it’s great to hear from one of the developers; but man it must be somewhat depressing to have to leave your own preferences at the door when designing games for the masses. I guess it’s the same as graphic design and illustration – where you may not always like what your client likes, but as long they’re happy, and they’re the ones paying :-/

    I’ve currently come to a stand still with Alphabear, finding myself incapable of hitting the 20,000 points needed to unlock the next chapter. I adore the art style, and playing the game generally fills me with joy, until I realise that I’ve fallen short of the target yet again. I would ultimately love to see an update introducing a multiplayer mode akin to Panda Poet, and a score chasing mode where bear bonuses are inactive and your score is merely totted up from the words and size of bears you create. The developers have been very active in listening to feedback and making amendments thus far, so fingers crossed!
    At the moment, it kind of makes me want to revisit classic word games like Words with Friends and Scramble With Friends, where you are rewarded for your ability to play a word game, not your ability (and willingness) to grind.

    As far as the mad lib goes, it may be tiresome to some already, but I think it’s an exceedingly clever way to get other people to continuously advertise your game for you. The more controversial and funny, the more attention grabbing. As long as they keep adding new speech templates the masses will stay entertained and keep posting.

    I’m only a casual gamer, and certainly not a writer, so hope this actually makes sense as I’ve written this on my phone whilst feeling poorly.

  11. @Gregg – yep, all the combos! Claire and I enjoyed finding them all. We spent a full evening and a bottle of wine on Little Inferno. :)

    I get that LI satirises F2P models (I think I barfed up 3000 words on the topic a few years back) but I don’t regard the game as enacting grind. It enacts a lot of features associated with F2P games, but that does not include grind. I don’t recall any requirement to repeat the same combos in order to make others available. Rather, it was about experimenting and trying new things, which to my mind is the precise opposite of grind.

    My working definition of grind is the repetition of *already completed tasks* in order to increase a value high enough that either a gateway unlocks, a barrier becomes surpassable, because you want to make subsequent parts of a game easier, or simply because you enjoy seeing those numbers go up / enjoy repeating those specifics tasks even after the game design suggests you move on.

    Grind is *not* the repetition of similar tasks. If it was, I think the definition would become so broad in the context of games as to become meaningless. E.g. is it grind to shoot a hundred enemy soldiers in one level of Medal of Honor: Airborne Assault? Is it grind to shoot ten? Two? Is it different in levels in another FPS where opponents do not respawn?

    In a more familiar genre: grind is *not* fighting similar enemy mobs as you perform an initial exploration of an RPG area. Grind *is* lingering in that area longer than you need to, because you want more money or XP from fighting these mobs.

    @Richard – I think a lot of what I just wrote is also applicable to your comment. :)

    A lot of F2P games do actually have an ending in the traditional sense – they are just quite far in. Puzzle & Dragons, Battle Cats, CSR Racing – just off the top of my head these all have an achievable ending. That said because of how their revenue streams are generated, there’s a strong drive to keep adding lategame content for hardcore players. This can be seen as secondary/parallel content or shifting the finish line back, but let’s not pretend that expansion packs never existed. Most games finish when we decide we are done with them.

    I’ll certainly not argue that many F2P games are designed to be exploitative, with Game of War being probably the most successful instance of an overtly rapacious and mendacious game. It’s a strong argument for how effectively swayed by advertising human beings are, and how vulnerable we are to unfamiliar modes of exploitation. If the internet has decided to rag on Kate Upton for this, well, that probably says a lot more about other depressing aspects of human social behaviour and cultural beliefs.

    This isn’t in response to Daniel’s comment, but I did want to observe that, reading over that list of design constraints, I’m reminded of another important consideration about F2P mobile games: they aren’t directed at a market that is widely culturally experienced with the medium of games outside F2P, i.e. their history and prior conventions. Mobile F2P games are mass market products that must balance broad appeal with a still evolving set of conventions and expectations.

    Given that the ‘core’ games community (you know, not to be too broad or anything) was complaining about “dumbed down for console” AAA games not many years ago, I think there’s a lot of distance to be travelled before, well, the games industry and the communities around it really understand F2P and mobile gaming. I am very much included in that, of course.

    @Joel – I attended a few talks at Develop this year, and while there was a lot about VR and AR, there were also many talks on mobile and F2P. Although I lack a lot of historical context from this dev/pub perspective, I will say that it seems like more and more are looking to the Japanese F2P model (simple core game, deep metagame, collections, gacha).

    There was also an interesting keynote which argued that the West is not at the saturation point for F2P and phone/tablet distribution: it is as a point where the Japanese market was five years ago, since which it has doubled in size – revenue per user, rather than revenue growth being driven by user base growth. Obviously no one knows whether this will be so, but it’s clearly what people are looking at.

    I don’t think it will become the only model in town, but I think it’s likely to continue to grow and surprise us.

    Also, I did a genuine lol at “if this was construction, they’d be no delays at all”. Who actually believes that?

  12. That’s a solid definition Shaun, certainly more so than whatever brain soup I had going for mine!

    I didn’t really pay much attention to the F2P satire, though I recognised the elements, for me it was mostly about the greater message I alluded to above. I looked at the list of remaining combos and thought ‘You know what? I think I’ve done enough burning now, time to move on’. Fairly often towards the end when items were getting really pricey, I ran out of money experimenting and had to burn existing combos to get more (and wait for their delivery), but I think that’s more of a technicality than outright grinding.

    I think you’re right then that it’s not grinding, but I still feel as though it’s repetitious enough (despite the puzzle aspect of finding those combos) to elicit the sensation of grind, burning through items continuously to get more fuel for the fire (without it being a chore at the same time, bizarrely). Everything about it screams grind to me but when you say ‘already completed tasks’ it does throw a spanner in the works.

    And now you’ve got me testing your definition against other games…

  13. I don’t know if anyone will see this comment on such an old post, but I just finished Chapter 10 and I find Alphabear to be a pleasant mix of skill and grinding. At higher levels, you absolutely need skill and long words to progress, as well as speed because the timed boards are the key to grinding. The untimed boards get very samey and tedious, as they get rather large. But the timed boards are always exciting and there’s a nice variety of challenges.

    The way grinding works, each Bear hits a soft “ceiling” beyond which it improves ridiculously slowly. At that point, it still takes skill and some luck to defeat the boss. There was never a point when a boss victory wasn’t satisfying in the amount of skill required.

  14. Don’t worry Isaac, I still get notified of comments and I think some of the previous commenters might indeed get an email nudge too.

    I’ve found that I can’t go back to it. I try, every now and then, but somehow it’s just “ruined” for me now. I find the grinding nature of it so off-putting, the meta-game of making progress completely mars the core game, which is kind of weird. Shouldn’t I just ignore that and pursue the core? I mean the core is pretty fun?

    I recall that having to do the same board X times felt tedious to me because I failed due to the lack of bear resources, so not sure the bosses work for me as much. I know Alphabear has had some rebalancing since I “quit” though – the percentages had changed a lot in the last game I dabbled in.

  15. I think they’ve done a lot of good tweaking of the difficulty ramping. My only real concern is the boss which has a tiny 3×5 board and gives more “E”. If I recall correctly, the score requirement on it seemed impossibly out of reach unless you were lucky enough to have the Bear that gives you 2x score for E. I luckily had that bear.

    That could be a frustrating obstacle for most players. On the other hand, I got past that one before I learned that the key to the game was grinding with timed boards. If I had known that, I might have been able to defeat that boss simply by grinding my Common bears enough. I don’t know, it’s not possible to go back and replay a boss.

    I think the big question is whether or not you enjoy the timed boards. At first, I didn’t like them, but after my skill improved I found them more fun than the untimed boards. If you enjoy the timed boards, then the game is great. If you don’t, then I think it’s inevitably going to be a tedious slog. The big untimed boards take ages to complete, and the only reward is a Bear powering up a little bit? Ugh. But timed boards? You get a powerup in less than two minutes. You can blow through a day’s allotment in timed events in a flash, grinding up your bears so quickly that you’re ready for the boss within a week.

  16. I find this to be one of the more fascinating shifts in talking about games. From an older dead media perspective, the thing that is released is a fixed artifact that can be reacted to, but there was only the smallest chance of altering it. But with a service, the game is constantly shifting. There’s a surprisingly direct dialog between the players and the game rules. The game at launch is not the exact game now and likely will be a very different game in a year. Each game is more a churning cultural wave that adapts in sync with its community. It is media subject to media criticism to roughly the degree that church bylaws over time or the cumulative laws of the United States are media. Totally valid of course, but with some fun weirdness. :-)

    Another interesting shift. Something that is so apparent as a designer is that while the more vocal enthusiasts are of course part of that dialog, with the advent of reliable data collection and the statistical math to process it all, now everyone gets a voice in the game’s evolution. In the past, only loud people dominated the conversation. Now, the silent but engaged players are given equal weight. I love that for our games they are often non-male, non-white, non-english speaking, and…over 20. A multi-dimensional rainbow of all the players feeding into what the game becomes.


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