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!