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Designing Wordplay +/-

Our process, some thoughts, and what we learned.

Wordplay +/- is unlike any other word game. Both players are given a word where in turn they can add, remove, or rearrange the letters to create a new word. Points are given for a players creativity, and there are 2 game modes where a player can win.

This is a short history of how we went from sketches to app submission.

Maybe it’s me, but I wanted to play a word game that wasn’t about who had the largest vocabulary, but who could be the most creative with the letters you were given. I wanted to be able to play words I knew would make it harder on my opponent.

The tried and tired rules were of no interest to me. Let me play “twerk”, “selfie”, or even my own dang name. Keep the scoring elementary. Remove all the flashy mechanics, and leave the focus on the game “banter”.

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Every good project begins with some sketches. Working out many of the game mechanics and interactions before opening Sketch allowed me to focus on what mattered within the game. Before I was distracted by type and color.

What I landed on would be a simple grid system, that would accommodate every screen in the app.

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Layout Priorities were:
- keep the layout grid-based
- type only
- only exception for player’s avatar
- allow for “familiar” interactions
- focus on gameplay
- family friendly

v0.1 worked, but points were confusing.

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In the inital go round, the points were weighted to encourage certain types of game play. We started the concept with a “point bucket”. Each turn would take points from the bucket. When the bucket was empty the game was over. Player with the most points would win. — Yeah, I know. We moved away from that early on. Even as I am typing out the explanation now, it sounds too confusing.

v0.2 get it working, test the logic

At this point, I contacted my favorite iOS developer, Bryan, to get a working prototype. We labored over how we would validate the words, and how the basic rules would work. For the first go round we tried 4 rules.

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While working out the logic we discovered that tracking the “replace” was very problematic, and it would be easier to track an “add” and “remove”. Our alpha testers were confused on the differences between replace and rearrange. So for the next versions we removed “replace” and went with only the 3 other rules.

v0.3 how to win, if there is no bucket

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Variations on how “tug of war” could be rendered on the screen.

We quickly realized the bucket wasn’t going to work. Next, I experimented with a “tug of war” mechanic. The users would pull points back and forth, first to 10 would win.

This mechanic worked very well to encourage gameplay, but matches would take nearly 40 rounds of play to even show a leader. Some matches even reaching nearly 100 rounds before a winner was determined. Back to drawing board we liked the idea of the match that came about. So we flipped the mechanic to a limited number of matches, or rounds. After 10 rounds, who could accumulate the most points.

v0.4 points values were confusing

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Trying to work out all the possible ways we could encourage more players to create new words rather than just make it all plural.

Players weren’t able to keep in mind what moves would render the highest values. We tried to weight the points to encourage a certain type of gameplay.

This didn’t work.

After at least 6 rounds of testing with our users we found that trying to encourage a type of gameplay through points wasn’t a good solution. Players wanted to get the most points, and didn’t want to waste time trying to remember what was worth what. So we flattened the scale.

3 rules with 1 point value per move.

v0.5 themes and unlock-ables

Personally I am sucker for a good unlock-able. We went through a few types of themes. Fonts, layouts, colors, sounds, animations, but in the end it was all too distracting and lowered the quality of the game.

Building in meaningless achievements or mundane goals was unappealing.

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18 themes in total. For a kindly hint. Think “material” for most.

We landed on a controlled set of common color themes.

The real challenge was discovering how a player would unlock each theme. We wanted it to be unique. Something we haven’t seen before. Then in storybook fashion, the lightning struck.

Could a player just “play” the theme name to unlock it?

After some testing, that’s exactly what we did. You can play the theme names like “pink”, “teal”, “lime”, and such during gameplay to unlock all 18 themes. With such a novel way to unlock things we expanded this to include some really fun stuff.

v0.6 screwing the other guy

One of our testers sent us some… interesting feedback.

I love the gameplay, but how can I screw the other guy.

What he was looking for was a way to put the hurt on the other player in a way that limited or blocked them from free range of play. After some long-winded debate about how much I didn’t want to build in a complicated new system to change gameplay back and forth, one of our lovely wives chimed in with a gem.

You should have a bonus letter, that gets locked after you play it.

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Boom, a stroke of genius as far as we were concerned. We added an extra point (+1) to the player that could use a randomly generated bonus letter. It would also lock in place for the next player. The player not only gets rewarded, but gets to screw the “other guy”.

v0.7 how to monetize, nicely

We wanted to recoup some of our time, and justify the effort we put into our game, but didn’t want to limit anyone from the joy of playing with a cost. How could it be open to everyone, not throw ads in anyone’s face, and not limit gameplay? We landed on a few non-intrusive ways to test in this version.

  1. extra bonus letters — watch an ad for an extra bonus letters
  2. paid bonus letters — spend a little cash for some bonus love
  3. limited game slots — we copied letterpress on this one
  4. unlock everything — players can just pay to have everything unlocked

Our initial tests would show that the game slots would be the first thing players would want to open up. To alleviate this problem, we placed it as the lowest price point apple would allow.

v0.8 bad word filter

This might be one of my favorite features we added to Wordplay. I’m all about letting people play anyword that is valid English, but… there are a few words I’d rather not read.

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Neither would I want my children exposed to them. To alleviate everyone from such language, we created a bad word filter. We rely on Google’s bad word list to filter out any language that might be offensive. I think we handle it in a pretty clever way.

v0.9 — v0.9.4.2~

If you have ever built an project for the love, more than the money, you know how this goes. There are features we won’t have time to mull over. A few are even some of my faves. For example the dictionary, or the instructions and it’s 6 variations.

We had to re-write a time or two for the Swift updates that came out as well.

v1.0 ready for app submission

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My favorite unlock-able is inverted colors. Takes a bit more effort to unlock than a single word. But, I have dropped hints everywhere.

The game in this state was stable, simple, and most importantly fun. We created a game we wanted to share with the world. Wordplay was well-built, had a unique gameplay mechanic, a truly unique unlock system, and a solid interaction model. So we sent it up to Apple to get it in the App Store.

v1.1 Apple’s push back

It can be frustrating when Apple send you back with a denial. They stressed that our game needed to not be reliant on an internet connection for playability, an offline mode. We went back to the drawing board and came up with a single player mode.

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Imagine playing a bot that constantly cursed, or only made things plural. Perhaps a bot that played the bonus letter, and got the maximum points each turn? We have many ideas for this feature set. How would a ninja bot play?

“Sam” — for Samuel Clemens, is our first of a few bots to come. He is a somewhat of a challenge to first time players. However, after a few good rounds you can whip him. There are many more challenging bots, with some very creative play styles we want to add in the near future. We will keep him in place for now, and will add more bots if we can justify the time after release.

A promise to one other.

We told each other we were not cutting corners. That when we arrived at the release version we would do our best to ensure we would not face any regrets after it was in the wild.

This first version of the app is far from perfect. Sometimes you get so close to things you can’t see some everything. But, we have done our due diligence. We have iterated, revised, tested, beta tested, re-wrote, started over, tested again, and revised even more.

We are going to give everything. No problem unsolved, no issue unresolved, no regrets after release.

Some things we learned.

  1. You can’t force gameplay without a large compromise.
  2. Point systems can only be so complicated before users lose interest.
  3. Word games usually limit the words you can play for a reason. It’s a lot of work to include nearly every word in English. (we use 6 dictionaries, and check 100,000 words in under 1s)
  4. Players need a way to impede the competition for higher engagements.
  5. A unique lock system leads to an enormous amount of feature creep.


Building a simple word game was quite a challenge, from the points, to the interactions, and the mechanics. We built a game we are proud of and hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Plus, we have promo codes. Get the from our site

More info on Wordplay +/-

iTunes Download —
Press kit —
Website —
Promo codes — try the site or Tyrale

v1.1: Wordplay +/- ready for release.

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Tyrale is a UX designer of many sorts. Always looking to build new types of interactions and fun interfaces. You can google “tyrale” or hit me up @tyrale on twitter. With such a blessed unique name from my folks, I am an easy fella to find.

Bryan is a uniquely passionate developer. Leaning over the bleeding edge of software releases, and getting projects up to speed immediately upon release. He never backs away from a challenge, and can be quite creative in his execution to make it “right”. Find him on twitter @bseaborn

Director of Product Design & Creative Consultant

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