Connect the words in the puzzle game ‘Letter Lattice’

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

Word puzzle game lattice of letterswhich was nominated for Best Student Game at this year’s IGF Awards, players change a single letter at a time in order to move between two related words.

Ethan Zarov sat down with Game Developer to talk about the importance of a striking font when creating a word game, the tools they created to create satisfying puzzles from the high number of answers possible and nuances of building a good tutorial when creating a puzzle game like this.

Who are you and what was your role in the development lattice of letters?

Ethan Zarov, lattice of letters developer: My name is Ethan Zarov and I’m the Solo Developer and Designer of lattice of letters, a game about weaving chains of anagrams. In one lattice of letters puzzle, each word in a finished grid has only one letter different from the word before it, for example: DOG->TO DOJ->ATD->CAT

What is your experience in creating games?

Zarov: I started making games when I was very young, using the GameSalad drag and drop engine to post a shoot’em up called dodging. It was super primitive, but it certainly played a huge role in inspiring my career path.

Now I’m majoring in game design at New York University, working mostly freelance on puzzle and action games. Outside of school, I did a lot of level and puzzle design, set up crosswords, sudoku, and used level editors in my favorite video games.

How did you find the concept of lattice of letters?

Zarov: I started developing it after a few weeks of playing it in my head and on paper while commuting. Given the rules, however, it was really hard to keep track of the game state in longer puzzles. A greater percentage of my time was spent thinking about the rules than thinking about the puzzle. Making the digital version seemed like the next logical step to continue playing this game at a higher level.

What development tools were used to create your game?

Zarov: The game was created in Unity, and most of the UI was designed in Figma, Photoshop, or on paper. Sound and music were gradually reproduced in FL Studio. In addition to software, I’ve developed some helper tools in spreadsheets and Unity to generate puzzles and quickly organize clues.

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What got you interested in creating a word-based puzzle game?

Zarov: I grew up playing a lot of Scrabble and Bananagrams, so word puzzles have always been something I enjoy. I love all of the random complexities of language and the nearly endless reservoir of words and word roots to draw from.

It sounds really stupid, but a word with an abnormal chain of vowels or consonants is as aesthetically interesting to me as any other piece of art. All color palettes to unlock in lattice of letters are some of my favorite nature-based words, like Petrichor, Sequoia, and Glowworm.

Can you tell us about the design process that led you to this mix of anagrams and crosswords? How did the game change and solidify during development?

Zarov: Initially, most puzzles were designed with one or two “correct” solutions in mind, with pre-filled letters in the grid indicating that solution. It was kind of like sudoku, except it was less fun and far too difficult. I’m glad I was turned away from this by a teacher and other testers. Now, standard puzzles usually have thousands of solutions each, allowing puzzles to be human-solved and providing a more unique experience for each player.

The original puzzles with fewer solutions later became the basis of the hint mode, as these puzzles only require one solution anyway.

What thoughts go into creating the game’s word puzzles? Can you tell us about a specific puzzle example and how you created it?

Zarov: Typically, I would start by looking for interesting word pairs to serve as the basis of the puzzle. By the nature of the rules, the top and bottom words cannot share any letters, and of course there must be a solvable puzzle that extends between them. I used OneLook API and Unity to find pairs like GUITAR and MELODYWhere Tacos and BELL. From there, in each clue puzzle, I looked for words to cover them that were the most diverse set. I would throw puzzles like CARD->HARD->HARE->SALVATIONRE->RAISE, where each word is too similar to be challenging or interesting. My puzzle generator would show all possible words that could fit into the grid, and I would choose the most interesting paths as bases for the puzzles.

My favorite clue puzzle has to be level 3 in the Friendly Fours pack. Each clue refers to a different seasonal food using a similar format. It’s a pretty easy puzzle that anyone can try, so I’d rather people experience it for themselves. There is also a puzzle linking FLYING at SAUCER who places ALIENOTS directly in the center of the solved grid 🙂

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Can you tell us a bit about how you created the tools to make your puzzles?

Zarov: As I needed more and more puzzles, I started coding a generator. He basically brute-forced each puzzle, finding every possible permutation of letters (for 7-letter puzzles, about 25 million of them) that could cover the puzzle. This would rank the difficulties of puzzles based on the number of solving paths and the complexity of the words they contain. Puzzles with -ING, -ED or -S have also been factored into the difficulty, after all a 5 letter puzzle is essentially a 4 letter puzzle if you add an S to the end of each word. The generator ran on my computer non-stop every time I did my homework, so almost every possible puzzle connecting two English words (many) was found.

Making a generator proved super useful, as the surplus of puzzles allowed for an endless mode, and the difficulty leaderboards also allowed for a gradual difficulty curve. In a later update, I heavily optimized the generator and implemented it into the published game, serving as an adaptive hint generator, finding the perfect word for a player’s unique puzzle state that continues his resolution as easily as possible.

What challenges did you encounter in making your game rules clear and the interface easy to use? By making the game something people could understand and play quickly?

Zarov: I had to rewrite the tutorial and redesign how the game state is viewed hundreds of times. I would notice that people interpreted the words “exchange”, “change”, and “change” as completely different verbs. What ultimately made the game intuitive for testers was an animation visualizing each step of the puzzle and the new game state.

While it was important to be thorough and concrete about the rules when designing back-end systems, there was no need to give new players a basic understanding. It helped me to constantly remind myself of my skill level and my understanding of lattice of letters when I was still playing it on paper while working on those systems.

What ideas go into creating compelling visuals when working with word puzzles? How to make words and letters appealing to the eyes in the tough app store market?

Zarov: I think a good font plays a major role in the visuals of any word game. The fonts in lattice of letters were chosen before almost any development and have remained unchanged ever since. They served as the basis for the rest of my aesthetic choices.

Most of the visuals have been added to energize and further reward the enjoyable moments of lattice of letters, such as finding a rare word or appreciating a solution. Keeping pleasing visuals, haptics, and music present at all times without overwhelming the actual gameplay was important to me.

Lots of beauty in lattice of letters puzzles lies in the “gradient” of words that form in a finite grid. If I said that lattice of letters had a story, it would certainly be about this: finding the connections and the intertwined words in the amorphous stain that is our language.

This game, finalist of the IGF 2022, is presented as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, which takes place during the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on Twitch GDC).

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