Monday, January 11, 2021

Game Redesign and Lessons Learned

We've been a bit quiet the last couple months with regards to postings about our game. We have been actively working on a major revamping of the game and it turned out to be a fair bit of work, complete with periods of "writer's block". We had lots of ideas for the game, but at times struggled to put them together into a coherent game story.

The initial idea we had for Plates Across America was to combine solving license plate letter puzzles with the feeling of driving across the country. Our first version of the game wound up being predominantly about the puzzles and it did not give a player a good sense of traveling.  The first version was also a bit too open-ended, requiring the players to determine what their ultimate goal was.  The next version of the game seeks to solve these shortcomings.

We've had over a thousand people play the first version of the game. A few dozen found it enjoyable enough to return to play over and over, and a few dozen more more played it a handful of times. This was encouraging, but it also provided a strong signal that something was missing from the game.

Major routes planned for new game design.

The general shape of the new game will be to “complete” the game, where completion will be defined by the goal of having “visited” particular places across the country.  A player will progress through “levels”, where each level will have a smaller goal of travel-based achievement.  Traveling will still be done by solving the word puzzles, but there will be more emphasis on acquiring a collection of places visited to meet the goals. For example, when you have visited your 10th National Park, you will move to the next level.

We are pretty excited about how much this will improve the game.  Providing a good "travel" experience means we have more work to do than just writing the software. We'll need more data about routes and locations across the country.  We'll be working on curating this data and writing the software in parallel to help speed things up, but we still expect it to take a few months.  Our game continues to be available to play in its first version in case you are interested in seeing the basic premise of the game.

Plates Across America Demo Game

 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Why Sign In?

Plates Across America™ provides a demo of its single-player game so that you can know if you would be interested in playing. We know that signing up for a new, possibly unknown service makes a lot of people nervous. However, the two-player racing game is not available in the demo and requires signing into our game. Why? 

 There's a much longer article that could be written with the technical details, but the short answer is:

to improve security and prevent abuse. 

Once you provide the ability for more than one person to interact on a website, the potential for it to become a problem grows significantly.  You would not be playing our game for very long if people started harassing you, whether it be with malicious intent, offensive content or trying to sell you something. 

Requiring people to log in, and verifying their email, provide a first defense to prevent anonymous people from doing bad things. As a second line of defense, even if some "bad actors" do sign up and begin to behave badly, we have the ability to block their account to ensure the abuse is stopped.  Our terms of service outlines what we will not tolerate and ensures we have the right to deny access to abusers.

We hope this explanation gives you a better understanding of why we require signing up to play the more compelling two-person race game.  If you are ready to sign up and try out the race game, just visit:

Plates Across America™ sign-in page

Happy Travels!



Sunday, September 6, 2020

Free Games are Not Free

Imagine you are out shopping and are browsing through the aisles of your favorite store. After a while, you glance over and notice someone standing further down the aisle. They are staring at you and holding a clipboard. You were so distracted with what was on your mind that day that you just now noticed them, but you are not really sure how long they have been there. Have they been watching you the whole time?

You bend down to pick something off the bottom shelf to look closer.  As you do this, you look over and the person writes something down on the clipboard.  You put the item back, glance over and again, they frantically write some more.  You decide to move on to another aisle to escape their gaze.  But they follow you, writing more as they go.

Being a little too creeped out by this person, you decide to leave the store and continue your shopping elsewhere. As you enter the next store, you look up there is that same person by the shopping carts. Again, looking at you and making more scribblings on their clipboard.  It's like the Twilight Zone.  You leave the store immediately to drive home, now sufficiently frazzled.

As you drive, you are consumed with the thought of this person following you. Who were they? Why were they following? What were they writing? How did they know where I was going?

As you calm down a bit, you peek in the rear-view mirror. You see this person is now sitting in the back seat of your car. Startled, you scream. You pull over, demand they get out of the car and hand over the clipboard. You see that they have written down your every action. Every store you visited, product you touched, every turn you made in your car, how long you stopped at each stop sign, the radio station you are listening to and which songs you sung along to. The clipboard contains a record of your every action and behavior throughout the day.

The Internet

How would you feel if something like that scenario happened to you in real life?  Would you be tolerate someone recording your every move no matter where you went? Would you allow them to follow you around all day? Would you be happy if that person was selling your information to anyone and everyone willing to pay for it?

Besides the physical person and clipboard, that scenario is exactly what happens to you every day on the Internet and with most every web site you visit.  The only difference is that the person with the clipboard is invisible (unless you know how to look). What nearly no one would tolerate in their physical life is being allowed to happen with their on-line life. Practically speaking, there is really no difference between these two scenarios nowadays.

There is a multi-billion dollar market in buying and selling your personal data and that of every other person on the planet. Most any web site you visit is participating in either writing on that clipboard, or buying the data it contains.

If I have a company with a web site, should I be allowed to

  • track your every move;
  • share that data with anyone I please; or
  • combine that data with the data from all other companies?

Not only do most web sites do this, it is currently deemed as the "right way" to run a web-based company.  The industry acceptance practice dictates that you should not be entitled to any privacy. They all put "tracking pixels" on their site which enables them to see your every move. This is not limited to simple things like which web sites you visited, but can include recording every movement of your mouse, where you hover over, for how long and where you click.  The most valuable asset for these companies is the log of all your personal actions.

Free Games

There is a well-known phrase:

"If the product is free, then you are the product."

This perfectly sums up what is going on with the "free" games that are out there.  These are provided by companies that participate in this anti-privacy web culture.  You give up your privacy, they sell your data and you get to play for free.  What we like to say is that for these "free" games:

"They are only free if you do not put any value on your privacy."

Why does it Matter?

Humans are flawed.  We can be manipulated to do things that do not make sense, that we do not need to do or even that we do not want to do. Most people would like to think they are immune to this, but no one is. Even the smartest psychologists, who are experts on the topic, admit that even they are susceptible to manipulation even when they know it is happening.  A good reference on the topic is: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini.

Deeply ingrained into our mental machinery are things that make us vulnerable to being manipulated. You and I are no match for the corporations that are peddling our private data.  They have got the manipulation game refined to such a level that most people do not even notice it happening. The ramifications are scary. The fact that most people are not aware of this, or do not care about it, is even scarier.

Privacy-focused, Family Values

At Plates Across America™, we do not not engage in any of these unsavory practices and we promise never to do so. The game was conceived, designed and developed by a family (wife, husband and daughter) with the philosophy that we should treat you the way we would want our family members to be treated. We are not interested in selling your data or exploiting you in any way.  We will not annoy you with advertisements, excessive emails, newsletters, on-line tracking, solicitations or any of the other nonsense most other companies seem to think is an acceptable way to treat you.

Focusing on privacy and respecting your inbox means rejecting the current accepted practices of the industry.  This is like trying to swim upstream in a roaring rapids.  However, just because it is hard does not mean we cannot try.  We like to think it is only a matter of time before there is a rejection of the current norms and that we will be on the right side of history. Change has to start somewhere, so maybe our efforts can contribute to this in some small way.

Nothing Hidden

We charge a fee for our game because we think the honest way of doing business involves a fair exchange without any hidden costs (such as giving up your privacy).  We aim to provide hours of entertainment, and we only hope for a very small fee in return.

A movie gives 2 hours of entertainment and costs $10. A cup of coffee costs nearly $3 and lasts less than a hour.  Our game costs less than both of those and provides many, many more hours of entertainment.

We do not try to trick you into buying the game. We provide a demo version so you can understand whether it has any appeal to you, and then a generous free trial period that gives you access to the full game and all its features. Only then, once you know exactly what we have to offer, do we ask whether you feel it provides enough value to justify the cost.

We encourage you to try our game and support the idea that privacy-focused companies can succeed. 

Start with our free demo:

Play the Free Demo Game

Happy Travels!

Friday, September 4, 2020

Puzzle Scoring

The main premise of our game is to try to complete a route in as few puzzles as possible.  The general rule is:

The longer the answer, the further you travel. 

If you play the game in our "Race Mode", at the end of the race it will show all the puzzles with you and your opponent's answers side-by-side (see image at right). If you compare the scores, you might see something that does not match the "longer is better" rule. That is because there are some exceptions to that rule. This article explains the nuances of how we calculate the scores to help explain when the rule does and does not apply.  

Lemmas

The word "lemma" has multiple meanings, but here we mean it to be the "root" of word. For example: "wanders", "wandered" and "wandering" are related words and share the same lemma word "wander".  This concept is important in the scoring because we reward a good vocabulary more than someone's ability to creatively add extra letters (also known as "stemming" words). For example, someone should not get a higher score than you just because they to added a trailing "s" to pluralize the word.

Plurals

The important part of understanding how plurals are scored is awareness that there are two different cases.

  • Case (1) Both the plural form and that word's lemma both match. In this case, pluralizing the word is somewhat superfluous and is only really serving to increase the letter count.
  • Case (2) The lemma of the word does not match and the pluralized form is required to be a valid answer. i.e., the ending "s" is required to make the word match.

For Case (1), the plural answer will be scored the same as the singular.  There is no penalty for using the plural form, but also there is no credit for the extra letters.

For Case (2), the plural answer will be ranked below all the other non-plural answers whose lemmas match the puzzle. For example, if the puzzle is "BDS", then "bedside" would score higher than "bedazzles" even though "bedside" has fewer letters. It is far easier to find a word with "B" and "D" and to pluralize it then it is to find a non-plural word with "B", "D" and "S".

Word Frequency

Once all the possible solution words are sorted out by whether they or not they are lemmas and their lengths, the next thing we consider is the word's frequency.  All other things being equal, the less frequently occurring words will score higher than more common, everyday words.

For example, for the puzzle "ADT", the word "audit" would score higher than "adult" even though they both have 5 letters. The word "audit" is not used as frequently as the word "adult" in normal usage. Note that the score advantage based on word frequency is not as dramatic as it is for the lemma vs. non-lemma case: it provides some advantage, but the word length scoring is more important.

Summary

Though word length is the prime element in determining the quality of the answer, it is not the only factor. Understanding the nuances of scoring will help you finish routes faster and score better in the game.

If you have not tried the game, and are interest, here's a link:

Game Demo

Happy Travels!

Monday, August 10, 2020

Interesting Puzzle Stats


If you have played Plates Across America™ and understand how the game's word puzzles work, you might have asked yourself some questions, like "How many puzzles are there?".  In this post, we try to provide some interesting facts about the underlying puzzle data. In case you have not yet played the game, we'll first briefly go over how the puzzles work, however you could also familiarize yourself with the game by trying the free demo here:

 

Puzzle Rules

A "puzzle" is three letters, where the order matters.  A valid answer to the puzzle is a dictionary word in which those three puzzle letters appear and are in that same order.  The letters do not have to be consecutive within the word and can appear anywhere as long as the ordering is not violated. Some examples:

    PuzzleValid Answers
    ABTabout, tabletop, bicarbonate
    IOLidol, airfoil, antisocial

Most important to the game is that (generally) the longer answers are worth more than shorter answers.  The longer the answer, the further you travel with each puzzle.  The goal is to try to cover the distance in a route with the fewest possible puzzles.

There are a few nuances to the scores assigned to the answers so that it is not always strictly that longer ones score higher. For instance, if you just add an "s" to the end of a word to pluralize it, that would have the same value as the non-pluralized word even though it has one more letter.  The full run-down of all the scoring rules will be covered in a future blog post.

The Dictionary

The puzzles are derived from the words in the game's dictionary. We built this dictionary trying to cover the most common word usages.  For example, though the dictionary does include a lot of medical terminology, it is not trying to be comprehensive to cover all the more esoteric words. 

Our dictionary is not perfect, which is why we provide an in-game feature to allow players to tell us when they find something we are missing. Here's a picture of the "Report Word" link we show in the game:


So, how big is our dictionary? As of this writing, it has 98,614 words.  Every week, we add more as our players report missing words.

The Puzzles

All the puzzles we show in the game have at least one valid dictionary word as its answer. In theory, there are 26 * 26 * 26 = 17,576 different 3 letter combinations. However, not all these combinations have a matching word, e.g., "WZX". In the end, there are only a total of 14,863 puzzles in our game. 

Some other facts:
  • For the two example puzzles given above, ABT has 1,045 matching words and and IOL has 2,075.
  • The puzzle with the most matches is IES with 18,080 different matching words.

The Answers

If you add up all the valid answers across all of the 14,863 puzzles, you would get that there are 8,071,767 total answers.  That means that the average puzzle has 543 valid answers.

Other facts:
  • With a dictionary of 96,614 words, this means that the average word matches 82 puzzles.
  • Since a valid answer must contain at least 4 characters, the fewest puzzles a word can match turns out to be 3. e.g., The word "pool" only matches POO, POL, and OOL.

Parting Thoughts

We hope you found this small sample of game statistics interesting.  If you have questions or think of anything related to the game's data that you are interested in, please let us know.

Happy Travels!




Saturday, July 25, 2020

Puzzle Timer

The most controversial feature (as measured by our company's internal squabbles) was the addition of the puzzle timer.  Should a player be allowed as much time as they want to come up with an answer, or should we put a cap on how much time they have?

The designer that came up with this idea felt that a timer was essential to improving the game play.  She felt like tough puzzles was causing her to get frustrated. Her personality was such that she was not willing to give in to defeat, so would continue to stew on an answer and get more and more frustrated.  She felt that it would be a relief to be forced to move on after some time.

On the other hand, many of our early test players enjoyed the more leisurely pace of the game and having time to think.  Since the game has you traveling the country, shouldn't you be in control of when you travel, where you go and how fast you get there?

Both of these "camps" had very good arguments for their positions.  We were not going to add the feature until we were completely convinced it was important, so we sat on the idea for a long time, reconsidering it often.  This debate began prior to our initial release, and went through many months after our initial launch (March of 2020). 

As we discussed in a previous article, when we launched the game, we only offered a single-player option, then began working on the two-player "Race" game a couple months after launch. The puzzle timer question lingered.  However, about half-way through the design of the Race game it had become fairly clear that the timer was going to be essential for the two-player game.

Why the Timer Matters

Suppose you like the game, but since have a busy life, the amount of game play time you have is limited.  Suppose you have an independently wealthy friend who also likes the game. With much more leisure time on their hands, your friend will have a distinct advantage if they race you: they can contemplate answers for much more time than you can.  

The timer levels the playing field, while also putting a cap on how long a game is going to last.  Thus, it provides both fairness and predictability, both of which we felt were essential in the race version of the game.

Once we committed to the design and engineering effort to add the timer feature for the two-player game, we had no choice but to revisit this question for the single player game.  We ultimately decided to leave the timer out of the single player game. Since our internal factions were so divided, and since we felt the general population could have similar sentiments, providing the choice of un-timed single player mode and timed race mode could keep both types of players happy.

Pausing the Timer

Have you ever tried to interrupt someone while they are in the middle of a time-based game? The reaction you get can be a function of the person's personality, but it can often be less than civilized.  From the player's perspective, life does have a way of making "things" happen, and you might need to interrupt the game to take care of such "things".  It would be a better game if you did not have to choose between tending to life and winning a game.

To address these concerns, we added the ability to pause the game.  This game pause does not happen immediately though, but only after the current puzzle.  This was done to guard against a player using the pause function to gain an unfair advantage. We are not 100% enamored with the current design of this feature, so we may revisit this, but for now it provides the main pausing function we felt we needed.

How Much Time?

Once we committed to adding a puzzle timer, the obvious question is, "How much time should a player get for each puzzle?"  Originally, we had no idea.  We started with 25 seconds and this nearly led to riots.  If you are an adrenaline junkie, this might be your sort of game, but we unleashed 25 seconds on a set of beta testers that were more of a meticulous, laid back mind-set and who were also used to the original version and having all the time in the world.  It was a brutal culture shock for them.

The most obvious place to go from there was a 1 minute timer.  This turned out to be a fair amount of time: enough to let you think and reconsider, but not so much time that you do not feel any time pressure.

Adrenaline Anyone?

A final note about that stress-inducing 25 second timer we experimented with: we are contemplating making this a game option. We would call it something like "Sprint" mode and it would definitely liven things up a bit. We are not sure how much demand there might be for something like this, so if you think this would be of interest, please let us know.

Happy Travels!

Saturday, July 18, 2020

It's a Small World


In the early days of our game development at Plates Across America™, like many software companies, we relied on our friends and family to help test early versions. One of the more engaging aspects of playing in this small universe of people is that you personally know everyone appearing in the leader boards.

While we were enjoying the close-knit nature of the early versions of the game, our game designers began to worry that this element would be lost once we reached a certain number of players.  In any game with a large distribution, there is always a class of people that wind up being on a different level than everyone else.  If you have a million players, how many are going to care to look at the leader boards besides the handful of people that have any chance of being listed there?

The design solution we came up with to address this issue was to allow you to filter the leader boards to only a select set of chosen people.  This requires being about to find and "follow" people to build up the list of those you are interested in.  Adding the ability to find and manage a list of users is no small development effort. If you have not written or designed software before, then you might not appreciate the level of effort required to add something like this, though it sounds simple on the surface.  


This was a sizable body of work we identified before we had even launched our game.  Since we figured it was more important to focus on getting the first 100 customers before we starting to worry about the millionth, we shelved this idea of "filtered" leader boards for a while.  

If you read our previous article on issues we faced when we introduced the two-player race mode, you will have noticed that the race feature required this same need to maintain a list of people you are following (so you can more easily locate race partners).  It was this shared need of the "follow" feature which made it no coincidence that the race feature and filtered leader boards feature launched at the same time.

To use this feature, you first find and/or invite friends in the game to build up your "following" list. Then, when you visit the leader boards, you can select the drop-down menu (top left) to show only those you are following.  The game remembers this choice, so all leader boards will filter down to your list unless you switch the view back.



Another useful feature we have added is to put a yellow star next to the users you are following so you can quickly identify those people you are most interested in. If you play the game and have any feedback on this feature, please let us know.

Happy Travels!