Sunday, May 22, 2022

Puzzle Scoring Rules


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

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". (Keep in mind "likewize" is not a valid answer.)  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 and not play.  

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 to 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 think of 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 more.  Conversely, words where the letters are scattered throughout the word tend to be harder to mentally associate.  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.

What we are doing in the game is to look at the 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 previously mentioned 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 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 come up with determining 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?

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 we saw enough traction 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 company 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.

PWAs

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

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.

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

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 "magic 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 code to use to log back in.  Keeps things simpler for us and our players.

New Screen for the "Magic Code" Entry

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

Happy Travels!


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

The Creative Journey

Whew! 

Over a year ago we wrote about our 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, VoilĂ !

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

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!