Social Games with Words: A Short History of Implementations

For nearly as long as there have been keyboards and screens in people’s homes, there have been people using them to play games. With limited graphical capabilities and a text-based interface available, most of the early commercial computer games were played with words. They were not “word games” as such; the words-and-text icons were used to convey a story or to describe a game scenario. Words were the key component of the ancestors of the modern game industry.

As the medium has matured, so have its user expectations. The interfaces have changed, so users’ experiences have changed. The progression is not always in one direction. In fact, when the social media hit Mafia Wars was released, it reset the bar all the way back to just text and still pictures!

The trick for developers has always been getting the most out of the space you have, and creating the best user interface—one that users barely notice. When we set out to make games for the Twitter and SMS platforms, we had to go all the way back to the basics: text. While we could lean on links to web content for enhancements to the game, the core gameplay had to work with just text, within the constraints of those platforms.

The Way It Started

Text-based games were the way things started, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Zork was an adventure game played through text commands: “go north” would move your character into another room of the dungeon, and you would get a sentence or three explaining the new game information. Rogue used text-based graphics to draw a crude map. Using arrow keys you moved your player avatar, which was represented with the @ symbol, and you would progress down through several levels to retrieve the “Amulet of Yendor.” These two games continue to influence gaming today. Despite decades of advancements in graphics and input methods, roguelike games are still being released with the simplest of interfaces.

The Way It Developed

When gamers started connecting with dial-up modems in the 1980s, it was not through the Internet. Players connected through local bulletin board systems and national services like CompuServe and GEnie. They played games in a similar style, but the connection with other players made our simple text adventures something more. I spent hundreds of hours role-playing through the GEnie chat rooms.

When the Internet was opened to commercial use in 1993, the pattern repeated. An entirely new generation of gamers found their way to Internet Relay Chat (IRC) servers where it all began again. The pattern continued with single-player text games for the “feature phones” of the early 2000s. And play140 continues in this pattern another decade later by designing games for Twitter and SMS.

This development pattern is no accident. People understand text; nearly everyone can read and nearly everyone can write. Words have power, and they convey so much in a small amount of space. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliché, but sometimes it isn’t accurate. What picture can unambiguously convey the concepts of “powerful” or “ripe” or “familiar”?

People have been playing digital games at home since the 1970s. As the systems became more powerful, the games became more complex. The user interfaces became more complex as well. Over the last half-decade there has been a real movement in the industry to simplify the input while still creating interesting, compelling games. Figure 1 describes many of those digital game systems, their user interfaces, and user input mechanisms.

The Way We Use Text
for Games Today

In some ways, Twitter and SMS are more primitive than PCs from the 1980s. You cannot use color, bold, italics, underlines, or even font sizes to draw attention to the important parts of your text. We experimented with different methods, ranging from CAPS to [brackets] to (parentheses) to >other options

Many games are played in the conversational style. While it can be a challenge to keep the conversation interesting and not repetitive, the reward for doing it well is a game that has nearly no interface at all. For these sorts of games, we chose capitalized words to indicate responses we are looking for. This method only works when the game designer controls all of the output, because you must avoid duplicate choice. For instance:

You are facing a Dark Knight. Do you ATTACK, USE an item, or RUN?

Its 2nd and 8 on your 33 yard line. Call your play: INSIDE RUN, OUTSIDE RUN, SHORT PASS, LONG PASS, or TIME OUT.

You finished third place in the race? Your horse seems happy. Do you PRAISE your horse, SCOLD her, HUG her, or LEAVE her alone?

When dealing with lists of information, it is best to present a simple list that people can quickly digest. We use brackets to indicate the word or characters we are looking for in response. This is especially important in situations where words can be duplicated—when the users create answers that we then send out for voting, for instance. It is also useful when a user needs to reply with a long word or phrase. We save time for them by condensing their response into just a few characters. For instance:

Vote for your favorite CITT acronym! [1a] Can’t issue the ticket [1b] Can I try tazing? [1c] Children imbibed tequila? Terrible!

Round 4 question: Greatness is something you… [4a] steal [4b] learn [4c] are born with.

Twitter does provide opportunities that developers didn’t have back-in-the-day. We can point to a website using a URL-shortener to turn something like http://blog.play140.com/2011/06/16/t-a-g-trophy-challenge-games-next-week/ into bit.ly/mGHocs. On Twitter, we efficiently use the @ (at) notation to indicate that we are speaking to someone directly, and the # (hashtag) notation to describe a topic. In fact, people use hashtags to play ad-hoc games all the time.

The hashtag is a fantastic example of compressing a complex thought into a very small amount of space. Given the nature of Twitter, the hashtag was an essential development along the way. For instance, this tweet…

We Tried to Save Private Ryan #lessambitiousmovies

…tells you everything you need to know to play the game.

Most of the communication that takes place over Twitter and SMS could happen with voice instead of text. Since people access SMS on a phone and access Twitter on their phone or computer, they have access to a phone or a microphone. We could be recording ourselves and letting our voices be heard. But, by using text, Twitter and SMS allow for an asynchronous conversation involving many people over time. On Twitter I can read a dozen “#lessambitiousmovies” in the length of time it would take me to listen to two or three of them. And it would take more spoken words to describe what #lessambitiousmovies means than it does to simply use the hashtag in context.

Pitfalls and Challenges

We’ve learned many lessons the hard way about Twitter and SMS. Both have challenges that must be overcome to make games work.

Twitter wants to avoid spam at all costs, because it can ruin their platform for everyone. Perfectly normal things for people to say in the context of a game can look like spam. So, instead of numbering options 1-2-3, we had to order them 1a-1b-1c for round one, 2a-2b-2c for round two, and so on.

While you can’t be guaranteed that any tweet you send will be sent by Twitter, you can at least check to see if and when it is sent. That is not possible with SMS. A text message you send now might be received in a moment, or an hour, or not at all. With that much uncertainty, we needed to create an easy method for players to check the state of the game, in case something got lost in transit.

Conclusion

Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a platform is critical to getting the most out of your user interface designs for it. This was true in the age of the first adventure games thirty years ago, it is true today, and I believe it will be true no matter what gaming platform develops in the future. In the case of text-driven platforms such as Twitter and SMS, we found it useful to send and receive natural-reading messages whenever possible.

Table 1. UI and input progress over the years.
Year System User Interface User Input
1977 Atari 2600 Simple line-based art Joystick with 1 button
1980 to 1982 PCs Text Mouse and Keyboard
1986 Nintendo Entertainment System Sprites Controller with D-Pad and 4 buttons
1992 to today Apple computers and PCs running Windows Text and graphics. (Graphical quality increased over time Mouse and keyboard
1994 Sony PlayStation, Atari Jaguar 3D polygons Controller with D-Pad and 10 buttons
1994 Atari Jaguar 3D polygons Controller with D-Pad and 15 buttons
2005 PlayStation2, Microsoft Xbox Improved 3D images Controller with D-Pad, 1 or 2 Analog sticks
2006 Nintendo Wii Improved 3D images, which react to player’s movement while holding the controller Controller with D-Pad and 3 main buttons (The D-Pad is rarely used.)
2008 Social media (primarily Facebook) Text and images Mouse (Keyboard rarely used.)
2009 Social media (primarily Facebook) Flash-based games, usually animated 2D sprites Mouse (Keyboard rarely used.)
2010 Kinect for Xbox Near photorealistic 3D images, which react to player’s movement and voice commands Video camera and microphone
2010 PlayStation Move Near photorealistic 3D images, which react to player’s movement while holding the controller Video camera and controller with 5 main buttons. The controller has an orb that can change color, which is tracked by the camera
2000 to today SMS Text T9 keypad. More recently, a virtual keyboard

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