September 6, 2022 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Surfwords is a very hard word building game. After I sold Semantle (previously), I decided to quit my job and make games. Surfwords is my first. I released it a few weeks ago, but I just decided to add a playable demo. You can try the demo on the web (works best with Chrome). The soundtrack is by Patrick Cornelius, and everything else is by me.

I used Godot, which works pretty well. Yeah, there were a lot of bugs, but that's basically par for the course.

I'm pretty pleased with how it game out -- it plays exactly like I expected it to.
Role: Programmer, game designer
posted by novalis_dt (18 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

I tried it on Firefox. I would have liked the ability to hit enter to submit a word.
posted by aniola at 2:42 PM on September 6, 2022

Up arrow will submit a word. That way you don't have to move your fingers off the arrow keys.
posted by novalis_dt at 4:05 PM on September 6, 2022

Ok! I played it a few times, and it wouldn't let me do EE (Scrabble word) or Reno (major US city). Now I see why you put so much time into deciding on the word list! Words are hard!

I liked the part where it said it thought I was going to do THIS word but then it thought I was going to do THAT word. That was fun.
posted by aniola at 4:55 PM on September 6, 2022

Neat! Not sure if you want suggestions for the wordlist or not, but I was frustrated that BETEL was not accepted β€” happened to be the first word I tried.

Also would be nice if there was a way to turn the volume down without adjusting my system volume or futzing around with pavucontrol.
posted by wesleyac at 5:38 PM on September 6, 2022

Also, GOY, although that being excluded is maybe more understandable. It's definitely addicting :)
posted by wesleyac at 5:48 PM on September 6, 2022

It's an interesting idea, but it's really hard to play on my phone at the native size, and zooming in doesn't work well at all. I also tried rotating the phone to landscape but it didn't really help.

It's hard to say whether it would work better for me with a full screen and arrow keys on a keyboard, but as it was I found it too hard to see and way too fast. Maybe consider it slower for the first few words of the "real" game before speeding up? Or maybe I'm just super bad at it. As it is I wouldn't spend any time trying to get better at it, but I feel like if it were more mobile friendly and easier to see, I would persist longer before concluding I am just not fast enough and giving up.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:47 AM on September 7, 2022

BETEL is definitely in the word list. Maybe you pressed to early or late?

GOY is missing because it's sometimes used as a slur, and I've chosen to avoid slurs. There are a few odd cases (e.g. the name of a band which won a Supreme Court case over a trademark on their name, which is also a word with other meanings). And I recognize that many people use goy neutrally, but it's often enough used as a slur that I decided to avoid making people upset.

Volume controls are not idiomatic for mobile games (perhaps since your fingers are always right next to hardware volume buttons), but since I have the HTML5 and desktop versions, I should probably add that. I'll probably get to it when I get to a pausing point on the next game.

On the demo, there's a button in the bottom-right which will make it full-screen. I just tried it in Firefox on Android, and it's a pretty good approximation of the mobile app (although of course, it will eat way more battery). I have't tried it on other mobile browsers.

It's supposed to be pretty hard, but there are two features to make it easier: You can change the speed in the settings (and, in fact, the game will offer to slow down if you're doing badly enough, so if you didn't see that offer, it means that you're not as bad as you think). And you can also change it to 2-letters-visible instead of 3, which is much easier; the game doesn't automatically offer this because I consider the 3-letter version to be the best version, but it's there if you want it.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:17 AM on September 7, 2022

It seems tuned slight too fast at first? I feel myself hitting cognitive overload early, especially since I'm expected to enter words too.
posted by JHarris at 10:31 AM on September 7, 2022

It crashed my browser (don't worry, everything does), and when I reopened my browser I didn't have the "I've been here before cookie" and it insisted I go through the instructions again. Might want a way to skip the first-visit instructions.
posted by aniola at 7:35 PM on September 7, 2022

Ah, fullscreen! I hadn't been able to see the little fullscreen icon. That works much better, as did adjusting the settings to slow it down a bit and only show two letters falling. I lasted longer than one 3-letter word this time, and now can start arguing that "hoon" is too a word, at least it is here in Australia! πŸ˜‰
posted by Athanassiel at 9:20 PM on September 7, 2022

There is a way to skip those instructions: buy the game! The mobile and desktop versions should not lose your settings. But since losing settings isn't really the intended experience, I just uploaded a version with a skip button. I suspect some sort of cross-site cookie thing which is too annoying to fix for the demo version, although I guess I will eventually have to figure it out for the game that I will release after the next one.

I also added "hoon". Thanks for introducing me to a new word!

And yes, it's tuned rather fast. I was inspired by Super Hexagon, which is punishingly hard. A friend said that it wasn't really the speed that got them, but the chance of getting a hard prefix. Basically that losing was a Poisson process. So making it a little slower won't help much but will annoy people who like the fast pace. But maybe I am wrong -- I haven't exactly sold a million copies, so it's possible that I just don't know what the market wants.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:54 AM on September 8, 2022

I ended up buying the game for my phone, although perhaps that's a mistake, it's quite addicting…

I agree that losing feels like a Poisson process, and I think that feels bad, given that the score is streak-based β€” one thing I'd be curious about is seeing a version where you lose after a number of incorrect words, and that recharges after some number of points (maybe you lose after three incorrect words, but one loss gets erased every thousand points or so?) It might be hard to get the UX of explaining what's happening to work well with that, but I think it would make it feel much more skill based.

The other thing I keep losing to is not catching a suffix and then leaving myself in a really tricky position, which feels bad but definitely seems like something I can learn to avoid. I don't totally understand how the word generation algorithm works, but it feels like sometimes I get a prefix of a word it's expecting me to get (TON / TONE was a recent one), and then the only remaining word is a really obscure one β€” I'm curious if that's a situation that the letter generation algorithm tries to defend against?
posted by wesleyac at 9:00 AM on September 8, 2022

I am a fan of twitch action games but I don't like Super Hexagon, it's too simplistic. This game has more judgement calls involved than Super Hexagon does. My own opinion is that it should offer a "normal" mode that starts slower and ramp up to the current speed, but maybe also offer an option to start out there for experienced players. You can take that or leave it, of course. I've only played it a little.
posted by JHarris at 12:31 PM on September 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

The word generation algorithm is quite complicated, but you should never have to use an obscure word (except insofar as my "common" word list is imperfect -- I keep meaning to replace it with something less subjective). Of course, if you can't think of the common word, and start down an obscure path, you can get locked in. In the TON/TONE situation, I assume that you had to find a word that started with E (though that is not guaranteed -- sometimes, the game offers is forced to use both columns to keep it fair). There are common words that start with E ( EGG, ELEPHANT, ETCETERA), but I find it harder to get words that start with vowels. What did the kill screen say about what you should have done? (Funnily, the kill screen has its own algorithm which is totally independent of the actual letter selection algorithm, which is probably dumb, but does seem to work).

In a version that let you continue after losing, it would probably have to clear the upcoming letters (at least some of the time). RST is a perfectly good way to end a word, but not a valid start. And clearing the letters is equivalent to restarting the whole game. Also, the kill screen is psychologically necessary to prove that the game is fair. So maybe I should track a multi-game score sum. Or a score EWMA.
posted by novalis_dt at 8:21 PM on September 8, 2022

Yeah, thinking about the situation I got into more, I think it was probably more of a kill screen issue than a letter generation issue? I think it was something like:

? S
? A
N ?
O ?
T ?

I entered TON and selected E, which didn't start any words, and the killscreen said "you could have gone for VAS" β€” which, my first reaction was "VAS? What kind of word is that?" β€” but of course, in retrospect, it's perfectly fair to expect me to know VAST, VASE, or VASSAL. Perhaps it's silly to care, but it would have felt better if the killscreen had suggested one of those. (it's possible I'm misremembering the exact situation, but I'm sure the killscreen said that I could have gone for VAS, since I remember being exasperated and looking it up. I know it sometimes suggests longer words β€” like sometimes there will be more than three letters I didn't get, and it'll have a suffix like "S" or "ING" that could have just been dropped β€” I don't understand why sometimes it suggests shorter words and sometimes longer ones)

I think weird three letter words are a sort of common problem in generation, though β€” I sometimes end up forced into a weird three letter word, usually because I missed a more common one, so perhaps my fault. I'm not sure how fixable this is, though β€” I get that letter generation is probably a really hard problem. And I haven't been paying enough attention to really know what the exact problem is, other than often seeing weird three letter words on the killscreen and being annoyed by them.
posted by wesleyac at 9:16 PM on September 8, 2022

This is cool.

Seconding the request for volume controls or at least a mute switch. Even on mobile, this is useful: I like to be able to mute my games so I can carry on listening to my music while I play them!
posted by avapoet at 4:00 AM on September 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

VAS is probably a case of a "common" word that isn't as common as I expected it to be. I am increasing the priority of using actual survey data for that list (the reason I haven't done it yet is that the survey data is lemmatized, and delemmatizing it is both a hassle and slightly fraught).

While I don't have a volume button, the music can be turned off from the settings (the gear icon on the main menu).
posted by novalis_dt at 2:33 PM on September 9, 2022

Ok, now there's a volume control, and the common word list should be better.
posted by novalis_dt at 7:44 AM on September 15, 2022

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