Some more images from the game in progress, showing gameplay power-ups. The winged sandal speeds up play, but gives a score bonus; the staff of Hermes arranges the letters in a sorted pattern, making them easier to use; the Gorgon’s head just freezes them all in place, which is also useful, though less good than the sorting.
(Some game design notes from mid-project, in case anyone is interested, and for my own future reference.)
The core gameplay is timed puzzles with a very light arcade element: the letters move around, but they’re not hard to catch. The main point is to challenge the player to work out how the starting sounds could be combined to produce the goal set of result sounds — and because of the diversity of elements, there are often some wrong ways to put things together as well as several right ways. The reset button lets the player restart a round from scratch if he wound up pairing things the wrong way.
This is intentionally not a drill format in which the player is asked “what does X + Y equal?”, because that’s boring. I could ask them that sort of drill question in class (and I do). The game instead provides a context in which the player has to know what X + Y is on the way to accomplishing something else, which may still be lightly challenging, but which gets easier and easier the more completely the player understands the contract vowel rules.
So the power-ups are meant to enable the player to make individual rounds a little harder or a little easier: harder by making the letters slightly zippier, or easier by slowing or organizing them. I think it’s a good idea to have such elements, but I’m not sure I’m completely happy with the specific set of powers I have. I’m earning the powerups too quickly, and the letter speed-up in particular doesn’t make the game noticeably more quirky or fun, just ever-so-slightly more frustrating. So that’s probably going to have to go again.
Conversely, there’s not much punishment for the player taking forever to work things out. There’s a score bonus for finishing a level more quickly than the expected time, but no punishment for letting the clock run out completely. I think I may want to change that and force the player to start over, with a new randomized version of the same level, when the clock runs down; this would give a greater incentive to work quickly, and also allow me to offer powerups that added more time to the clock. (Maybe the winged sandal could be repurposed for that.)
Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to evaluate important features like the difficulty of gameplay, because I already know cold the thing the game is trying to teach — so the fact that I can usually solve the rounds very quickly does not necessarily mean that students will be able to. It will soon be time for some guinea pigs.
I’ve added an options pane to turn off the music and/or sound effects, but I’m not happy with the current implementation of this because it’s not possible to access that panel during gameplay. Maybe a sound-mute token up in the corner of the screen would be better than a separate panel.
The music itself is a problem too. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been playing this thing over and over to test it, but even with several different tracks, I’m getting really sick of it all. Of course I can turn it off, but having it be not-annoying in the first place would be infinitely better. I think I’m going to need to add several more musical selections; but the soundtrack is consuming a lot of the development budget already. I’m picking up royalty-free tracks and sound effects from SoundRangers and iStockAudio. The sound effects aren’t too expensive and I’ve got all I need now, but the music tracks range in price from $5 to $25 depending on complexity and the length of the loops… and unsurprisingly the $25 ones are generally more interesting. I like the results — the files are easy to use, the music doesn’t sound too generic to me, and for a project like this it’s not reasonable for me to hire a musician.