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Finding gameplay depth in typing games
Can a game where all you have to do is type words be a real game?
March 21, 2022
12 Min Read
If you already know some typing games, you probably have an opinion, good or bad. If you don’t know much about them, no worries, that’s what I expected. The genre is very niche, and for good reason: how odd to want to control a game with typing! It is indeed so odd that it brings unusual and pretty exciting design challenges. But the genre is so niche that there are few, if any, design resources available. That’s why I embarked on the writing of a gender study that aims to give a good overview of typing games, based on my personal experience as a game designer on Epistory and Nanotale, various typing games I’ve played, and interviews I’ve had with other typing game developers. Whether you find the typing constraint stimulating or focus on its limitations and never make a typing game, I think it’s interesting to analyze this rather unique genre.
The complete study is available on my website. It goes over the history and background of popular typing games, delves into the design considerations that typing poses and the solutions we can find, and tries to look at where the genre is headed. The following post is a short answer to one of the major questions of typing game design: how to find gameplay depth when all that players have to do is to type the words the game gives them?
I’ll quickly define a typing game as a game in which typing words is the main mechanic. If the typing only happens occasionally or if the typing is not a challenge (like talking to the computer AI in Event), it does not bring the same constraints real typing games have. Challenging the typing doesn’t mean that players have to type very fast, but simply that the quality of the typing should influence the outcome of the game. You can challenge speed, accuracy, consistency and sometimes reading, memorization or spelling.
If you are using the keyboard in an original way that is not typing words or sentences (like Keyboard Sports - Saving QWERTY), it’s also not typing for me. The point is that one word (or a short sentence) is one input, not a series of characters, and the players’ muscle memory makes that input feel immediate. Here lies the first advantage of typing: it’s an efficient way to make a selection among a lot of options. But it’s also the first constraint: you’re limited by what you can display on screen or what the player can remember.
For Malte Hoffmann, game designer on Touch Type Tale, an RTS where you order your troops by typing words, “typing feels like a very satisfying thing once you get a little good at it.” If you can touch type, you have all the game’s controls at your fingertips. “Having everything on the keyboard is its own special kind of feeling.”
Commanding units in Touch Type Tale - Strategic Typing
Touch Type Tale also has some typing mini games, to gather resources for example, that add variations to the gameplay. In Backspace Bouken, a typing dungeon crawler where you type dialogue sentences to beat enemies, the bosses have unique variations in the way they are typed. On of them has symbols like “#@$!” that represent curse words, another has glitched words with randomly capitalized letters or letters replaced with numbers. In Epistory, we used repeating patterns of letters like “ASDF ASDF ASDF” to open a mechanical bridge. There are also paper walls that you slash through by typing a full line of the keyboard (like “QWERTYUIOP”). When players realize that they can do it simply by sliding their finger, it creates a nice “aha” moment because they understand something new about their keyboard.
Typing games are an opportunity to play with the keyboard in fun exotic ways. But the most original ones inevitably stray away from real typing. While it’s not necessarily bad, thinking about the keyboard while playing can break the immersion. It doesn’t really fit with my definition of a typing game, and exotic typing gameplay will not bring the depth we are looking for.
Boss with glitched text that you have to type carefully in Backspace Bouken
A common way to have variations and depth in the main mechanic is to have input versatility. In an FPS, you click once to shoot, click in rapid succession to shoot repeatedly, hold to charge a shot and then release, hold and move your aim with a flamethrower, and so on. Sadly, the way you type doesn’t allow for much versatility.
Before we started developing Nanotale, we experimented with unusual ways of handling typing: typing random patterns, numbers or scrambled words is different from normal typing but not really more fun. Having to type at a low speed, for example to whisper as not to wake up a monster, is also quite frustrating (it goes against your muscle memory). Another problem is the delay between the moment you read a word and the moment you finish typing it. A delay which varies widely depending on the player: from someone typing at 20 words per minute while looking at their keyboard, to someone touch-typing at 110 words per minute. Even with a good adaptive difficulty, challenging timing encourages players to type a word but wait until the right moment to type the last letter, which defeats the point and feels wrong to the players.
Typing random words in The Typing of the Dead: Overkill
Typing words is a simple input with a delay, too bad. But one obvious advantage we have forgotten is the versatility of language. Random words used as input still have meaning, and you can’t expect players to ignore it. I remember some Epistory streamers making up stories from the words they typed while playing, like “BARBECUE” or “CONSEQUENTIALISM”. For Nanotale, we didn’t want players to type “BARBECUE” to analyze a fantasy creature or defeat the final boss, so we use lexical fields for each type of enemy. The fastest enemy has words like “RUSH”, “IMPATIENT” and “HECTIC”, while the enemy who protects itself in a shell has words such as “COWARD”, “DISGUISE” and “COY”.
Diego Sacchetti (game designer on Textorcist, a typing bullet hell in which you type bible verses to exorcise demons) said that “although The Typing of the Dead is one of the best typing games ever made, I’ve always thought using random words in typing games is certainly a good fit, but at the same time a big loss on meaning. Players read and type tons of words during the game but all those words never hold any deeper meaning / relationship. I wanted to avoid that by actually putting meaningful sentences in Textorcist that fit the fight, have increasing length and difficulty, are coherent with the fight and the task to perform and the story.”
The purpose of language is to convey meaning. The meaning of words is passed on, even subconsciously. Maybe it’s not enough to be considered depth, but it’s a great opportunity to make the typing meaningful.
Note that in addition to the meaning of the words, the action of typing better be contextualized, too. The interaction makes more sense and the unusual input that is typing is more easily accepted if your character is actually typing, writing, talking, etc.
Typing verses while dodging bullets in The Textorcist: The Story of Ray Bibbia
Most old school typing games follow a simple formula: you’re given words that you have to type within a time limit. They offer no agency to players: you just type all the words in order without thinking about it. So at the beginning of Epistory’s prototyping, the first question we asked ourselves was how to give players meaningful choices.
The first layer comes from the different enemy archetypes which have different speeds and life points (how many words you have to type). This gives the choice of which one to attack first to stay safe, which challenges your judgment of speed and distance. The second layer comes with the “magics” that you can select by typing their name: ICE stops the enemy for a while, which is good against fast enemies or ones with very long words. FIRE burns the next word to type so you don’t have to type it, which is best against enemies with long or complex words. It takes a few seconds, so you still have the choice between typing it faster yourself or switching your attention to another enemy. ZAP and WIND have similar uses than fire and ice but with an area of effect, so the choice of which magic to use also depends on how enemies are grouped. I have heard debates among players about which magic was the best, so I’m sure there is part of personal preference as well in the choice of magic.
Ettome, designer of Typing Hearts, a typing dating sim, asked himself “how can I add another dimension to simply typing words as they come and turning your brain off?” His solution is an ever-filling grid of words so you can’t type all the words. The goal is to reach a given score in a limited time, knowing that longer words give more points and that there is a multiplier that increases when you don’t mistype. A good strategy is to type small words to increase the multiplier, then type the long words to make more points. On top of that, words are grouped by colors (conversation topics), which give different amounts of points. So the choice of which word to type is based on its color, length and complexity, relative to the other words available and the current multiplier level. When you don’t have to type all the words and are rewarded when you optimize your typing, the typing becomes an opportunity rather than a constraint.
If the typing is condemned to stay on the surface layer of gameplay, you can rely on the non-typing aspects of your game to add deeper layers of understanding (which players discover as they play).
This is the case in Touch Type Tale, as Malte Hoffmann explains: “Most of the depth comes from the strategy part. Like in most strategy games there are a lot of things you have to think about—how much do you want to invest in your economy versus military units? what kind of units do you want? where do you move them? what do you capture first? and so on. That’s the core gameplay loop which creates depth in our game.”
In Nanotale, the core gameplay loop includes the typing, because typing words recharges the mana used to cast spells. But the real depth comes from the consequences of the spell in the world and the potential for chain reactions that the players learn to manipulate to their advantage. Those emergent behaviors come from a system of abstract “elemental” interactions (like fire, water, poison, heat, cold…) and a cellular automaton for propagation on surfaces. For example, a spell can heat up grass which burns and propagates fire to an explosive enemy that explodes, emitting fire around itself, killing a water enemy which releases water on the ground, which in turn makes the burnt grass grow back, and so on.
We’re getting away from the typing a bit, but good systemic agency is found by tightly liking all your game systems together. So it makes sense to link the typing to stronger systems to enrich the game experience.
Propagation of elements in Nanotale
I kept until the end two examples of mechanics that I find the most interesting because they make the players think critically about how they type. Typing smarter, not faster, is rewarded. I’ll let you decide if thinking critically about what and how you type counts as typing gameplay depth.
In typing games where you type a word to trigger an action, if multiple words on screen start with the same letters, all words are highlighted as you type until a differentiating letter is typed. In Typing Hearts, it can happen that a short word is included within a longer word. Ettome found an interesting emergent mechanic here: “you can write a word that contains another word and so write two words in one. The most hardcore of my playtesters kept some words on the grid to wait for their double and score more points.” When you type “FLOWERLESS”, for instance, you also type “FLOWER” and “FLOW”. While he doesn’t make this happen on purpose (that’s not the direction he wants for the game), a different game could very well make use of that.
Another example lies at the core of Backspace Bouken‘s gameplay. The game started at a ludum dare with the theme “out of space”, which gave Benjamin Bushe and Jake White the idea of using space characters as a resource which is spent when you type to fight enemies. This led them to add “the contraction mechanic.” When you type a sentence, you are encouraged to alter the text to use contractions (“Do not” → “Don’t”, “I will” → “I’ll”), saving you precious spaces if you think about it.
Typing themed words in Typing Hearts
In the end, all modern typing games combine several of these solutions. Nanotale finds simple typing gameplays that make sense, like writing keywords in a notebook to simulate taking notes or typing magic words to combine them into a custom spell. But it finds depth in the systemic interactions that happen mostly after a spell is cast (outside of the typing). The Textorcist has you type incantations in a relatively normal way, but disturbs that typing by forcing you to move your hand away from the letter keys to simulate the challenge of exercising demons. Touch Type Tale takes advantage of the immediacy of the typing input to make a lot of different commands directly accessible, and uses typing mini games as variations in the game loop.
Typing game design is a strange thing. Most typing games start as a game jam or a personal project, because designers like the challenge it brings. With typing you need to rethink some game design habits. But players also need to relearn basic video game rules. So you should not add typing to a game just for the novelty of it. Using a keyboard to input words has to make the interactions more meaningful.
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