Monday, October 31, 2022

Earn Travel Goals to Win in Plates Across America®

Travel Goal Icon

As you play Plates Across America®, you can win the game by reaching a series of "Travel Goals". Examples of Travel Goals are:

  • collecting 25 license plates;
  • visiting 10 states; 
  • traveling 20 scenic routes; and
  • visiting 50 national parks.

Travel Goal Types

There are 12 types of Travel Goals:

Bridges, Caves, Ghost Towns, License Plates, Mountain Passes, National Monuments, National Parks, Scenic Routes, State Capitals, States, Tunnels, Waterfalls.

Travel Goal Levels

Within these types there are 8 "levels" of achievement based on the quantity collected.  The quantities for each type can vary depending on how many appear in the game. For example, since there are more bridges than states, the levels for bridges are 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 150, 200 while for states it is 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40, 50.

Winning the Game

Travel Goal Icons

If you do the math, there are 96 possible Travel Goals in the Plates Across America. Because the game has many routes to choose from, the routes you choose will dictate which travel goals you can achieve. When designing the game, we did not want "winning" the game to consist of reaching all 96 Travel Goals. We wanted to give you choices about what routes to travel, not to require you to travel all of the routes. 

The game also has a leader board to show who has reached each Travel Goal first. If we required reaching all the Travel Goals to win, then everyone would need to take every route, with no freedom to choose how they want to win.

Therefore, we designed the game so that you only need to reach a subset of all those goals to win. Specifically, we require 63 goals to win the game. Why 63?

Travel Goal US Flag

We wanted to provide a fun, visual representation of a player's progress in the game. Sticking with the "America" theme, we landed on using the American Flag. Each star and stripe represents one of the Travel Goals, and that is where the game winning number "63" comes from (13 stripes + 50 stars = 63).  The flag starts greyed out and the color changes as you reach each travel goal. When you win, the flag will be red, white and blue.

Progress in travel goals icon

In case you are thinking of asking: yes, we would have to revise the game if more states were added to the union.

Disrespecting the Flag?

Although the U.S. Flag Code is included in Federal law, it is not mandatory, uses non-binding language and prescribes no penalties for violating it.  Thus, it is more of a suggested "guideline" than it is an enforceable "law". While not being fined and not having the threat of jail time is a comfort for us, we still do not want to offend anyone: we just want to provide a game that is fun to play and we are not in the business of making political statements.

Whether we are being disrespectful according to the U.S. Flag code depends on how strictly someone wants to interpret it. Ever see an American Flag in a Budweiser commercial or on one of their beer cans?  Ever use a paper napkin or plastic cup with a flag on it at a Fourth of July party?  Ever seen an American flag patch on a baseball player's uniform? These are deemed disrespectful and against the rules according to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Flag Code. 

In our experiences, people do not seem to be offended by many common uses of the flag that could be considered in violation of the U.S. Flag code. How many people even know that using a flag on a paper napkin is contrary to the U.S. Flag code?  

Therefore, we have chosen not to follow the strictest interpretation of U.S. Flag code. Even the American Legion, who were the drivers of establishing the U.S., Flag code (in 1942) had this to say about the use of the American flag in clothing even though the code forbids it:

“People are simply expressing their patriotism and love of country by wearing an article of clothing that happens to be red, white, and blue with stars and stripes."

In the same spirit, Plates Across America® uses the American Flag as part of our game's theme with the aim of celebrating the excitement of traveling the many wonderful places across the United States of America.

Beyond Winning

When you reache 63 travel goals, you have won the game. However, if you are inclined, you can continue playing. You can travel all the routes and reach all the Travel Goals.

If you have never tried our game before, please try it out here:


Happy Travels!

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Dictionary Improvements

Dictionary

We recently made some big improvements to the Plates Across America® dictionary. Our game's dictionary is the critical starting point for the word puzzles that appear on the license plates.

Starting State

Before the latest refresh, our dictionary had 99,857 words. This generated 14,900 unique word puzzles with a little over 8 million possible solutions across them. These numbers sound relatively good, but as you will see below, we needed an even better game dictionary.

We formed the initial dictionary from multiple non-commercial sources since we had a very limited budget when we first started creating the game. These "free" dictionaries all had some quality problems, so we opted to use them all in a "voting" scheme where we (conservatively) only included words that we saw appearing in multiple dictionaries.

In Game Improvements

Dictionary Badge

Because we took a conservative approach, we knew the dictionary had gaps, so we added a feature to allow users to suggest new entries from within the game. If the game flagged your answer as not matching (because it was not in our dictionary), you could click a link to notify us and we would then review it. We built tools and a process to review player suggestions and add them to the dictionary. We even added a special "badge" (at right) to recognize the player's contributions.

As more players joined the game, our queue of suggested dictionary additions got busy. Reviewing these confirmed our suspicion that we had gaps. We realized that the gaps might be bigger than we expected. The dictionary issues were becoming our biggest problem to address.

Dictionary Improvements

Since we first built the dictionary, we have found a few other freely available dictionaries. The best one we found had some issues of allowing some hyphenated words and capitalized words (proper nouns), which are not valid answers according to our game rules. However, the number of good words it had was significant, so we decided to take the bad with the good. We'll eventually remove the bad words, but we felt being more liberal about what is included in the dictionary was a better decision. Our first attempt was way too conservative.

Our resulting dictionary has 172,584 words. On first glance it looks like we added 72,727 (172,584 - 99,857). However, during the dictionary upgrade process, we detected 21,072 "bad" words in the original dictionary. Thus, this new dictionary source effectively added 93,799 new words: double the size.  This new dictionary bumped up the number of possible word puzzles to nearly 16,000 and the total solution count across them to just shy of 15 million.


Plates Across America

Conclusion

All in all, our dictionary was significantly transformed and improved with our latest efforts. For those that played our game and were flagged for wrong answers for valid words, we wish we could go back in time to prevent that, but at least we have made some strides to prevented it in the future.

If you have never tried our game before, please try it out here:

https://platesacrossamerica.com

Happy Travels!






Saturday, October 8, 2022

Designing the Vehicle Avatars for Plates Across America®

Initial vehicle avatars
The vehicle styled avatars in our game was one of the last big features we added before we undertook our recent, major redesign. Not only can you choose which type of vehicle you want other players view for you, but you can also customize your avatar with different paint colors, accessories and modifications. Many players liked the vehicle avatars so we did not change it at all when we recently relaunched with our new version of Plates Across America®.

Back when we added this feature, we created 16 vehicle types since we wanted to give you a wide variety of avatars to choose from. We still have a long wish list of vehicles we want to create and add. In the coming weeks, we plan to add a number of new vehicle types, so stay tuned as we roll them out. These will all be fun additions to our vehicle avatar choices.

Below, we give a brief "behind the scenes" look at the process we use to create these vehicle avatars.

Designing the Avatars

Idea Phase

Cars, bikes and trucks are rich areas for ideas, especially when you consider not just the contemporary offerings, but all the vehicles throughout history. There are also appearances in popular culture to add to the richness of choices. Thus, coming up with the initial ideas is easy, but there are some limitations to consider:
  • Variety - we do not want to have avatars that are highly similar, so we try to find a "category" or "type" that is distinguished from the others.
  • Copyright - as much as we would like to offer avatars like the Batmobile or other vehicles from popular culture, we also very much like not being contacted by lawyers with cease-and-desist letters or seeking royalty payments.
  • Priority - we needed to consider which vehicles will have the most appeal and interest for players.

Sampling Phase

Once we have settled on the type of vehicle, we hunt around the Internet (usually using Google's image search) for examples fitting this genre. We do not use these images directly, but they serve as inspiration for our avatar drawings. We look for images showing a nice clean side profile as that is how all our avatars appear. We sometimes need to horizontally flip the images as our avatars face to the right.

Drawing Phase

We use the open-source program Gimp to do the design (it's like Photoshop, only better). The trickiest part of the design work is planning the "layers".  

We use the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format to render the avatars on our website and Gimp supports this with its "path" feature. The SVG format is more flexible that using plain old GIF, PNG or JPG images and it allows us to more easily provide the customization feature. We actually use multiple SVG images, one on top of the other, so that we can "insert" an accessory or change color. For example, look at our convertible avatar below:
Blue Convertible Vehicle Avatar
Notice the black door guard band across the body. When you change the color of the car, we want only the body to change color and not the door guard, i.e., we want this:
Yellow Convertible Vehicle Avatar
We achieve this by putting the body drawing on one layer and the door guard on a layer above it. Then we can change only the body color, redraw and the black body guard is rendered over the body's yellow coloring.  

This layering approach is a common pattern used in most design software, including Gimp, so we are able to create each SVG layer in its own Gimp layer. Notice that the rear view mirror of the vehicle is also in the upper layer and gets drawn over the body color too.

We also have to consider the customizable accessories for the vehicle when we plan out the layers. For example, adding purple stripes like this:
Yellow Convertible Vehicle Avatar with accessory
means we need another layer between the body and the door guards since you probably would not paint stripes over the rubber door guard in real life.  When a vehicle has lots of different accessories, the layer planning gets more complex.

Coding Phase

We then use the "export path" feature of Gimp to output a separate file for each SVG layer. These files will become part of our source code. Inside our code, we maintain a list of all available vehicle types and what accessories it has. We add the new type to that list, its accessories and include the names of all the new SVG files. We also set the game cost for the vehicles (in "ride points") and decide at what point in the game the new vehicle will be "unlocked" and available. Vehicles get unlocked in groups as you reach milestones, so here we determine which group it should be in.

Van Vehicle Avatar

We have a special vehicle test page which allows us to view the result and visually verify it before we make them part of the next game release.  An important part of this visual verification is to make sure the left-facing, mirror image looks correct.  In our two-player game, we render the player's avatar in the default right-facing view, but their opponent is mirrored so that the avatars appear facing one another.

Conclusion

We hope this glimpse into the design process for our vehicle avatars was interesting. It can sometimes be a tedious chore to draw out all the layers of a new vehicle, but it is always exciting at the end when it all finally comes to life as a new avatar choice in the game.

If you have never tried our game before, please do here:


Happy Travels!



Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Plates Across America's® Trip Check Feature

Trip Check
We recently introduced a new feature we call "Trip Check". Every 10 puzzles, the game now reports how far you have traveled from your answers to those last 10 puzzles. You can track your game progress for the day, the week or for all time. There is also a new Trip Check leader board so you can compare your scores to other players.

We had gotten feedback from our players that something was missing in the single-player game. Something was needed to break up the longer routes and to be give more discrete feedback on a player's game progress. This is what the Trip Check feature is meant to address.

Trip Check Dialog

Trip Check Dialog

After every 10th answer, you will now see a dialog as shown on the right.  This tells you how far you have traveled since the last Trip Check. It tracks your best score for the last day (24 hours), the week (7 days) and for all time.  

The feature saves the best scores for all players, so during the Trip Check you  can see how your latest score compares to all of the best scores and let you know if you have beaten any of them.  

When you achieve a new high score, you earn points which you can use to help customize your vehicle avatar.

Stats

Whenever you want to see you best daily, weekly or overall Trip Check scores, just visit the "STATS" page under the "MY STUFF" menu option (see below).

Game Progress stats

Leaderboard

The new leaderboard page shows three columns, one of the daily, weekly and overall best scores. It tracks the scores for all players so you can see what you need to score to climb up the leaderboard. You can access it from "TRIP CHECK" in the "LEADERS" menu bar option (see below).

leaderboard

Final Thoughts

We are pretty excited about this new Trip Check feature. Our preliminary testing showed it to be a compelling addition to the game and our initial user feedback has been very positive.

Try out this new feature here:

https://platesacrossamerica.com/demo/puzzle

Happy Travels!


Sunday, August 28, 2022

Race Game Redesign in Plats Across America®

Plates Across America  Race Logo

We've recently finished a significant redesign of our two player "Race" game. The original design would wait until the two players were paired up before starting the game, but this turned out to be a terrible way to introduce people to the game. When a new player encounters the game for the first time, it is better to allow them to begin playing immediately. This was not as simple a change as it may seem: with software, changes are often never as easy as they initially seem.

One of the other design improvements we made stemmed from this Race game redesign. If you are a new player that is unfamiliar with the game, you may be reluctant to start a game without knowing how to play. We added a new "warm up" page where players can try out the word puzzles to get acclimated to the race game and rules before taking on an opponent.

Race Game Warmup

You can start the two-player game here:

https://platesacrossamerica.com/demo/race

Or you can try some warm up puzzles first here:

https://platesacrossamerica.com/demo/warmup

Happy Travels!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

How to Get the Best Score in Plates Across America®

puzzle

In the Plates Across America® game, the quality of your answer to a puzzle will determine how far you travel: anywhere from 1 to 6 miles.  But what constitutes a "good" answer?  The simplest statement is: the more characters there are, the better it is. However, there are a host of more refined scoring rules that come into play. This article covers some of the more important ones and explains the rationale behind them.

Pluralization

Pluralizing a word adds 1 extra character without much additional cleverness. If one person comes up with a 7 character answer and then tacks on the "s", should they get the same score as the person that thought of a more "natural" (non-pluralized) 8 character answer? We think not, so a non-pluralize word will score higher than a pluralized word of equal length.

Lemmatization

Similar to the pluralization reasoning, there are a number of other ways to easily tack on extra characters. For the puzzle "SWR", the answer "swear" is valid but short and it does not require any more sophistication to pad some characters and make it "swearing". However, the word "steward" is longer than the word "swear" and deserves more credit, even if the person did not think to tack on an extra "ing" to that word. 

The process of taking a word and reducing it to it "base" form is called lemmatization. When scoring answers, we will prefer the "lemma", or the "root" word to shorter words with some simple extensions.

Compound Words

The game does not permit hyphenated words, though there is a fine line between these and compound words. For the valid compound words, we assign a slightly lower score than the other words of equivalent length. We believe that the person coming up with one long word should get more credit than a person that just tacks two short words together.

Summary

Though word length is the predominant means we use to measure the answer quality, we have rules in place to prevent rewards for padding an answer's length with trivial extensions.

If you have not played our game before, try it out here for free:

Happy Travels!


Sunday, May 15, 2022

Puzzle Difficulty in Plates Across America®

Puzzle Difficulty Comparison
If you have played Plates Across America® for even a little while, you will be well aware of the fact that not every puzzle is equal in difficulty.  

The puzzle "THS" is much easier to solve than "LKZ". If we showed only the hard puzzles, it would be a frustrating experience. Conversely, if we only selected the easiest puzzles, the game would not be very challenging and people would get easily bored.  

Therefore, the balance of the puzzle difficulty is an important part of the game play for us to get right. This article gives a few details about how the game determines which puzzles to show.

What Makes a Puzzle Difficult?

On seeing a puzzle for the first time, most people immediately are drawn to words with those letters near the beginning of the word. Secondarily, words where the puzzle letters are close together in the word tend to pop up in people's minds. Conversely, words where the letters are scattered throughout the word tend to be harder to find. For each of the game's puzzles we compute a "letter position difficulty" score which serves as one of the factors that determines a puzzle's complexity.

Among the early ideas we considered was that the more possible solutions the puzzle had, the easier it may be to solve. However, this is a flawed line of thinking because not all words are created equal. Even if the puzzle had only one possible solution, if that word was in everyone's common vocabulary, it might be relatively easy to solve. Conversely, a puzzle that has 100 solutions could be very hard to solve if all those words were relatively obscure.

We decided to use word frequency to gauge how common words are. This is based on looking at how often words appeared in large collections of text documents (e.g., how often the word appears across all the Wikipedia articles). We take these word frequencies across all possible solutions and derive a "frequency score" for the puzzle. This better represents how easy it will be for someone to come up with an answer rather than the shear number of possible solutions.  

We pre-compute the "letter position difficulty" and the frequency score for each puzzle and then blend those together to arrive at an overall difficulty score. It is this final difficulty score that determines how frequently the puzzle will appear in the game.

How Does the Game Pick the Puzzle?

With each possible of the possible 14,000+ puzzles, we assign a difficulty score to them as described above. We then group them into 6 difficulty level tiers from easiest to hardest. The puzzle selection is then done randomly, but with a two level selection scheme.

  • First, we randomly choose one of the 6 difficulty tiers. This is a weighted selection so that the easiest tier is chosen 50% of the time, the second easiest 35% of the time, then 9%, 3%, 2% and finally 1% for the most difficult puzzle tier.
  • Then, from within the tier, randomly choose one of its puzzles (uniformly selected).

In Closing

The puzzle selection scheme is an important part of the playability of the game, but it is fairly involved to determine the relative difficulties of all the game's word puzzles. We think we have struck a good balance in our game, but always looking to improve if you have suggestions for us.

If you have not already played, try our game and send us feedback about what you think:

Happy Travels!



Thursday, April 21, 2022

Do you really need that Mobile App?

Plates Across America PWA
Installed PWA
Plates Across America® does not currently have a Mobile App. Shameful, isn't it? In today's world, this is a serious liability, since a mobile app has become expected, especially for a game. We would certainly like to have a mobile app, but the cost to develop one was not in our small, bootstrapped, startup budget.  

Our plan was to use the browser-based version to gauge interest, improve the game play and then assess whether enough people are interested to warrant investing in a mobile app. Currently, we are not so sure we will ever make that investment. This article is about why we are having second thoughts.

 

Why a Mobile App?

As we built the game, we invested a lot of time to make the game's interface "responsive": i.e., ensuring it displays well on devices of all sizes. Presently, it plays just fine on any mobile phone, tablet or really on just about any device which has a modern web browser. Last we checked, that means most all devices, probably even your refrigerator. 

The more we played on other devices, the more we began to ask ourselves exactly why do we need to spend tens of thousands of dollars developing a mobile app? The only thing we will get for all that money is the ability to be in an app store. After this hefty expenditure, the game would have no new features and the player's experience would not be any better. The fact that there are two (main) mobile app ecosystems, iOS and Android, makes it even worse: a developer often needs to implement the same features three times. 

There are cross-platform development frameworks aimed at helping to tame this mobile Tower of Babel. However, there is a dizzying array of (still-maturing) frameworks (e.g., Flutter, React Native, Ionic) each of which result in being locked into the particulars of their custom framework and the added expertise that requires. The dirty secret of these cross-platform frameworks, which like to boast statistics like "95% cross-platform code", is that the remaining 5% requires writing native device code on each platform. So instead of needing expertise in 2 platforms, now you need it in 3 and not the 1 as they promise. These are not (yet?) a panacea for the multi-platform problem.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)

PWA logo
It turns out, we were not the first to question the need for a mobile app. Along the way we learned about "Progressive Web Apps" (PWAs).  A mobile app is just a container that runs your software, but so is a web browser. While native apps use the Swift or Kotlin programming languages and their respective UI frameworks, web browsers use the more ubiquitous HTML, CSS and Javascript technologies.

The PWA standard was developed to leverage the common browser's tech stack, while adding some features that put the browser container on par with the native mobile app container. The noticeable visual differences go away with PWAs (e.g., search/url bar, buttons): it will look and feel like a native app. It even presents the user an "install" option to add an icon to the device's home screen. Unfortunately, the PWA standard is implemented by some, but not all web browsers, for reasons explained below.

Browser Support for PWAs

Browsers
Apple makes billions of dollars on the fees they charge for their App Store. They have little incentive to support PWAs which is why their Safari browser does not (and may never) fully support PWAs. PWA is an open standard which means that you would be able to install it on Apple devices without being forced through their App Store and their monopolistic commission fee structure. 

Google, on the other hand, was the principal driver of the PWA standard and fully supports this in their Chrome browser. Google has even teamed up with Microsoft in their PWA efforts to try and loosen Apple's grip on the mobile app market, so even Microsoft's Edge browser is PWA friendly.

The Future versus Today

Will PWAs emerge to eliminate this multi-platform hell or to help level the app store playing field? We hope so since the current state is terribly illogical, highly inefficient and disturbingly authoritarian. However, our game exists in the present and a generation of people have been trained to go to app stores to find games, so what should we do? It turns out there is a solution ... but only sort of.

PWA 2
Google and Microsoft have developed tools that make it possible to put a PWA into an app store. Bubblewrap is Google's suite of tools and Microsoft created the web site PWA Builder that makes these tools simpler to use. These work by creating a shell of a native app for each platform (iOS, Android and Microsoft), where this shell has just enough capabilities to render web pages (what iOS would call "web views"). It then sets up all the boilerplate config stuff to point at the web site that hosts the PWA.  Effectively, it is the devices's native container wrapped around a browser container with your code inside that. You can then take those automatically built packages/bundles and submit them to the various app stores.

We tried out this tool and were successful in getting listed on the Microsoft Store (see our listing). As of this writing, we have submitted it to the Google Play store and are waiting for them to review it.

In theory, we can submit this to the Apple App Store too, but we are not sure if we will. Being a PWA alone presents a risk they will reject it: they are hostile toward PWAs and dictatorial in their decisions. Apple also forces you to use Apple Pay if you want to be in their store (because, why not, who's going to stop them?). What is also true is that submitting to the Apple App store is about 100X more complicated than the other stores, so we could invest a lot of time for zero gain. (The following article drives that point home with some more technical detail: "I Built a PWA and Here is What I Learned".)

Summary

If the PWA standard continues to grow in adoption and people become less constrained in viewing app stores as the only means of acquiring software, there will be no need for Plates Across America® to have a mobile app.  However, that future is still uncertain. For now, we will continue to refine our browser-based version and see how it unfolds.

Happy Travels! (and please do Try Our Game for Free!)


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

No More Passwords

Plates Across America sign in page
New Sign In Screen

As we reconsidered the game's redesign, it dawned on us that the traditional email + password login scheme was not a good pattern for our game. People do not need the cognitive overhead of managing a password for a light, recreational game. They are more likely than not to forget it and then have to be subjected to the whole password reset email/awkwardness.

In general, passwords are quickly becoming obsolete with many sites always emailing you a "security code" anyway. Why not do away with the password altogether and embrace email as the authentication method?  Email has its security flaws for sure, but it is much better than it used to be, so much so that it is becoming universally used as an authentication method. If we were a bank, email alone would not suffice, but we are a game and we are not storing any important data for our players. 

So we have ditched passwords at Plates Across America® and never looked back. The game should keep you logged in for a healthy amount of time, but if you move to a different device or restart your computer or browser, we'll simply email you a 6 digit access code to use to log back in. Keeps things simpler for us and our players.

security code screen
New Screen for the Access Code Entry


I hope our players agree that this is a simpler method, but send us feedback about your thoughts on the topic. Plates Across America ® 

Happy Travels!


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Creative Journey

Plates Across America® redesign
Whew! 

Over a year ago we wrote about our Plates Across America® game redesign and our expecting it to take a few more months. Well, if you define a "few" as "14", then we were spot on!

We lived for months with everything almost fitting together, but not quite, so kept shuffling ideas and code around. Once we had everything making sense, our early testers told us it was too complicated and it was back to the drawing board. Sometime in November 2021, it all clicked together and a few months later, Voilà!

We have not perfected the game yet as there are game play refinements to be made with help from the feedback of our early adopters. However, the early indicators say this is a vast improvement over our original version.

We encourage you to try it out and send us feedback. We have a very generous free trial period with no signup required:

Link to the Game

 New Features

Some of the features of the new version:

  • Travel Goals - visit 10 states, 50 waterfalls, etc
  • Bonus Routes - unlock a trip to Hawai'i or Alaska
  • Lightning Rounds - limited time puzzles for bonus points

And don't forget about our two-player "Race" game.  That is not much changed from the original version, but is still loads of fun to play with friends and family.

Happy Travels!