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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.