Designing Adlib’s Gameplay

Today I thought I’d take a look at the development process behind Adlib, specifically how I came up with Adlib’s gameplay. Needless to say the game has gone through a number of iterations since its inception. Below I’ll explain how I made my choice at each fork in the road. To help motivate you I’m even going to share an early build of the game which features gameplay elements that I subsequently removed!

My original idea for a word game was to start with Tetris and have each cell in a tetroid contain a letter. The goal was simple, you rotated the tetroid trying to place it such that its letters formed a word with the other cells on the board. Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to do this well, but I thought that perhaps if the game went slowly enough and had some power ups that it would be manageable and possibly even fun. Basically, I was thinking of something like Battle Tetris but with a word mechanic to clear cells.

So with that cliche idea in my head I set about coding things. After an evening or two of mucking around with different ideas about how to architect things and figuring out how to rotate the damn letters I had something running which would let you test things. What I immediately found confirmed what any of you would have told me, it’s impossible to stack tetroids containing letters in a way that will produce words!

Still, having written the prototype was a valuable exercise. For starters having tried it I now knew that my original idea stunk. Secondly, in the process of creating this junk I caught a glimpse of something which could potentially be fun; so I set aside the idea of tetris-but-with-words and thought about creating a game which still featured a board of letters but now revolved around flipping blocks on the board to form words.

With the core mechanic implemented I started to add new features to the game. Still thinking about battle tetris, I wrote several different types of power ups. One power up was especially nifty; it would slow the music and sound effects down (see this post to see how it works) and blurred blocks as they moved. With all these power ups the game had to move pretty quickly to remain challening, and at later levels the gameplay actually had less to do with spotting words than it did with managing letters and power ups — not a good thing for a word game.

In order to bring the focus back on finding words I needed to make a number of changes. For starters I removed or drastically changed some of the power ups. I then heavily tweaked the pacing of the game so that the player had more time to find words. And perhaps most important of all I started awarding bonus tiles for finding really long words. Taken together these changes brought the focus completely back around to finding words. Check out an early version prior to this refactoring and note it’s emphasis on power ups as you reach level 10 or so.

An Early Version of Adlib Prior to Refactoring, Yes this is really how I prototype things

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Following the latest changes the gameplay hasn’t changed too much. Naturally as things come up I’ve made tweaks here and there to try to improve the experience, but overall the foundation has remained intact. I think the takeaway from this story, if there is one at all, is that it’s critical to prototype an idea early and to keep things flexible as you continue to develop the game since you really can’t tell how things will end up until you’ve tried. Anyway, I hope you found this little expose interesting and that you’ll stay tuned for more updates in the future about Adlib. Next time we’ll take a look at the process of betatesting your game and working through feedback.

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