Today, my Spry Fox family and I launched Alphabear 2. This game is very special to me and I want to tell you why.
The first Alphabear – a quirky English word puzzle game, for those of you who haven’t played it – was an award-winning and relatively popular game. It has been downloaded well over five million times. It didn’t make much money relative to other games with similar popularity, but people who loved it really loved it, and that has always been more important to us.
More interestingly, we kept hearing (predominantly via reviews) that some people considered the game to be educational, even though we hadn’t intended to create an educational game. Truthfully, I still don’t believe that the original Alphabear was particularly educational, but I could understand why some folks felt it had that potential, and it seemed like we could build on that.
No chocolate-covered broccoli, please!
So a couple years ago, we decided to do something odd. We applied for an SBIR grant to the US Department of Education. Our explicit goal was to create a sequel to Alphabear that would actually be educational, as opposed to merely seeming to be educational. But at the same time, it would be a game that could compete in today’s hyper-crowded and competitive mobile marketplace, which meant it needed to be free-to-play, it needed to be incredibly fun and polished, and it needed to somehow merge in-app purchases and advertisements with educational content. Anyone who has ever attempted to make an educational game or a highly original F2P game before will understand what an enormous challenge it might be to try to do both of those things simultaneously.
One of our academic advisors told us that learning how to use morphemes (that is, prefixes like “re-“, suffixes like “-est” and root words like “port”) is currently considered to be a critical tool for people learning English, so we decided to focus in part on that. We made it so that, in one of the key gameplay modes in Alphabear 2, there’s a “prefix of the day” or “suffix of the day”. That prefix or suffix will spawn on the game board, and the player can receive bonus points for using it correctly.
The nice thing about this is that it feels like just another challenge Alphabear 2 is throwing your way. If you didn’t know that we’d explicitly set out to make the game educational, you wouldn’t think twice about the feature.
We also integrated Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary into the game, so that people can look up the meanings of various words that they spell and stumble upon, and that too feels totally natural – less like an educational tool and more like fun window dressing (similar to how the “Civopedia” in the Civilization games feels like delightful window dressing even as it teaches you history.)
Throughout development, I was terrified that these features would cause people to dislike Alphabear 2. In fact, I was (and continue to be) so worried about the “stink of edutainment” that we avoid the term “educational” in the English version of the game’s store page and barely mention any game features that could be linked to education. When we first entered soft launch, I flinched each time I checked our reviews, waiting for the inevitable 1-star review from someone complaining that we’d created chocolate-covered-broccoli. But with literally just a single exception, those 1-star reviews never arrived. As of now, the vast majority of our reviews are 5 star. :-)
My hope is that, in particular, Alphabear 2 will prove useful to adults who are learning English as a second language. We are also working on a “classroom edition” (not yet released) that may prove useful to children in 2nd through 4th grade.
Bear speech 10x
The educational features in Alphabear 2 aren’t the only things that make it special. We worked our tails off to upgrade the bear speech at the end of every game and make it feel like a true improvement over the original Alphabear. This was harder than expected – many of our initial experiments didn’t work out. In the end, here are the improvements that seem to matter most:
- We randomly pose the bear in interesting situations (what we call “New Yorker-style settings”). Combined with random bear speech, this can occasionally produce truly hysterical results.
- We cleaned up and improved the libraries behind the speech generation system so that we could include more parts of speech in the templates themselves.
- We added a special set of templates that are highlighted when you reach them, which propose a new (randomly generated, of course) subtitle for Alphabear 2. When shared with the hashtag #renameAB2, there is a small chance that it could appear in AB2’s loading screen, where every AB2 player all over the world will see both the new game name and the Twitter handle of the person who generated it! As far as I know, we are the first game devs to ever give players an ongoing opportunity to rename their game. :-)
Everyone loves a good story
The first Alphabear lacked a narrative of any kind, and people who loved the game often lamented that missing feature. Friends whose opinions we respect also advised us that adding a narrative to a casual mobile game can have a significant impact on the game’s retention. So we decided to add a full-blown narrative to Alphabear 2 that’s a bit of a satirical take on Back to the Future as well as Rick and Morty (actually, the latter is a take on the former, so I guess we’re just continuing the tradition.) You can watch the start of the AB2 narrative here:
One of the unusual things about this narrative is that it was very much a team effort. Brent Kobayashi, David Morris and I all had a hand in writing parts of it. Normally, I’d assume that such an approach would result in a disastrous, incoherent pile of garbage. But it didn’t. :-) We riffed off each others jokes and the final product is, in my opinion, pretty darn funny and cute!
I also took the opportunity to slip in a few lines in honor of my dad, which nobody will know that I did but him, and that makes me very happy as well. :-)
A new way to (hopefully appreciate) ads
Spry Fox has historically had a really hard time integrating ads into our games. We’re passionate about making beautiful, fun things that improve the world. Advertising doesn’t often fit into that picture. So this time, we came up with a system that seems both effective (a decent percentage of players watch a decent number of ads) and also fun and thematically-appropriate.
There’s a mode in AB2 called “TV Time”, which is inspired by a similar feature in the Kongregate game Animation Throwdown. In the TV Time mode, you can (optionally) view 30s video ads to receive bonuses. The ads are presented as “Multiverse TV”, which explains why they seem to have no relationship whatsoever with the world in which they are being viewed. This is an homage to the cartoon show Rick and Morty, which includes a couple of episodes in which the main characters watch bizarre TV episodes from all over the multiverse. The kicker in our “TV Time” mode is that each time you watch an ad, your Avatar and their companion, Doc Bear, comment on the ad that you just watched. And they’re usually making fun of it. It’s a knowing wink and a nudge to the player, and people seem to appreciate it.
Hopes and dreams
There’s a lot more that is novel about Alphabear 2, but this blog post is getting long in the tooth so I’ll quickly summarize some of the other top new features:
- We added a whole new “active power” system that enables players to manipulate the board in real time via special powers granted by their bears. For example, one bear can instantly boost the lifetime of a tile; another can cause specific letters (like “ing” or “est”) to instantly spawn on the board. These powers add a whole new strategic dimension to AB2!
- You have an avatar and you can dress them up in cute and/or ridiculous things. The avatar, of course, also plays a central role in the narrative.
- The event system is significantly better designed and fleshed out than it was in the original Alphabear. It lets players choose the types of play experiences and rewards that they’re interested in, rather than forcing everyone to play the same games the same way, as AB1 did.
I’m incredibly proud of this game, and I’m proud of how the team pulled it together. Every major design decision was a group decision. Sometimes that resulted in needlessly long and annoying conversations, but more often than not, it resulted in a better decision than I could have made on my own. Now we get to find out if it was all worth it. ;-)
I hope you enjoy playing! You can get Alphabear 2 here.