Lexil, From Indigestion to An Entertaining Word Game

Look around on the web, you will find scrabble knockoffs on the iPhone, iPad, Android, or in your browser. What you won't find are many word games that you can play in a few minutes while you wait for the bus, or during a commercial break. Of those games, not many offer much that hasn't been seen before. Lexil is my first attempt to make a really unique word game.

This is all a bit of an experiment, but as I build the game, I'd like to take you along and show you how Lexil progressed from a night of mild indigestion, into a game that's actually rather fun, well at least Monkey and Crow think so.

Indigestion

An excess of indian food from our neighborhood restaurant seems to ensure a restless night for me. This often means ideas. Most of them aren't worth following up, but every now and then I just know I have to write one down. One night after such a meal, I was up thinking about a very curious thing. I had recently decided to investigate the Chrome Web Store and see if there was some entertaining word game I could grab, and at the time there was nothing that caught my eye. While tossing and turning I thought about what I really wanted. Tiles connected by beams of light kept floating around in my head. I decided to try sketching it out, and behold Lexil was born.

Well, Lexolith, which was for some reason supposed to have carved stone letters and lasers. I have to say, that in the middle of the night, one is not always entirely logical, and not every idea is sacred.

A Race Against Boredom

It dawned on me that this was both something that could be completed, and perhaps something that would be worth completing, a novel concept indeed. The trick of course was to get to a point where I could tell if the game was fun before I blew too much time working on it. My friends and co-workers may remember my enthusiasm around an action packed tree growing game. It turns out that the action tree growing genre was not all it was cracked up to be, and only after I invested quite a bit of time in it did I realize that it was really not all that entertaining.

The other danger of course was that once I got 80% of the way through, I would get bored and do something else. It was a race against boredom, and when you are building something it is so easy to find some irrelevant detail to focus on instead of the real task. To combat this I instituted the "Getting Thing Done" practice, it is like GTD, but more singularly focused. I sat down at the local Starbucks (don't hate me, they have a Clover coffee maker there, which is awesome), and wrote one thing down, then I did it. I know this sounds unexciting, but it worked quite well for me. If after a few minutes I felt that perhaps I was drifting off course I could look at my notepad and say, "Ah yes 'Should draw lines between letters', that was what I was doing.".

If I was more process oriented, these steps would have made wonderful test cases, but of course then I suspect that the boredom would have won the race.

Underestimating 7th Grade Math

As with most projects, the parts of Lexil that took the longest were ones that caught me entirely off guard. Initially I assumed words would be the hard bit in a word game. It turns out that those little lines in my initial sketch took far longer than they should have.

How hard could it be to tell if two line segments intersect? It turns out that it isn't that hard, but my geometry skills have atrophied, and there are innumerable ways to mess things up. On the bright side, the rigors of coding up some basic math introduced me to some test driven development in Javascript, which helped saved me some time on a task at work. With a mild mathematical interlude out of the way, I had more or less finished the majority of the game.

Surprisingly Fun

Once the game board was done, and the basic rules were in place I actually got to try the game out. To my surprise, it was actually pretty fun! This of course was a problem, because now I had to avoid playing my own game, since it cut into development time. The game turned out to be simpler than my initial concept, that's not to say that bonus tiles, achievements, multiplayer, and timed modes will never come, but the game was fun without them.

The lesson to be learned here was one that I hear all the time, "Build the Minimum Viable Product". This is just as true for games as any other engineering endeavor.

Underestimating All the Rest

With the game mostly finished, I sat down to knock out a site. Much like geometry, this took longer than I thought, which is quite frankly absurd since I'm a developer for LiquidPlanner, which is doubly ironic since LiquidPlanner is a web based project planning application. One might assume I could estimate a project, and build a simple little website, and of course it all took longer than expected. So as to save you some time in the future, here are a few of the things that shouldn't take long, but do:

And there we have it. Lexil is more of less complete, a website is in place, and now the experiment begins.

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