GameLab #4: Iterate

Many people learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL) run into trouble by relying on their native language (L1) syntax, which often results in errors in word order. “Break Through” is a fast-paced single-player game meant to help EFL students focus on tricky elements of English syntax with no time to revert to L1. Players face horizontal rows of bricks each containing a sentence with one word missing. There is a sledgehammer above the wall containing the missing word. The brick wall rises as sentences/rows are added from the bottom and players must break down the wall row by row by hitting the missing word into its correct place. If a player is unable to answer fast enough and the brick wall reaches the sky, the player’s game is over.

In order to move beyond this first conceptualization of “Break Through”, I playtested the core mechanic with my family. Although my wife is bilingual in Mandarin and English and nowhere near my intended audience of young beginners, she does have a critical eye and was happy to play through the game. My son, who is learning to read, also gave it a shot. Cut-out paper rectangles served as bricks mirroring the sentences in the storyboards pictured below and my daughter’s toy hammer worked perfectly as the sledgehammer.


The player objective of hitting the hammer with the missing word into the correct space was obvious to both players. However, the pacing of the game was immediately unclear. In order to drill specific parts of word order, levels focus on adding the same word to many different sentences. The sledgehammer, seen above for example in level one, does not change from the word “to” until level one has been completed. Level two would probably be “a” or another article. But how long does one level last? The rising wall prompts action in order to not let the wall rise too high and thus lose, but there was no indication of when the level would end. This was an important motivator for both players. I decided to set a sixty-second time limit for each level and rework or clarify other details.

  • Height – Clarify that while the game begins with three rows in the wall, the space from the bottom of the screen to the sky, where the player loses, is eight rows high.
  • Speed – A new sentence appears from the bottom of the screen every three seconds rather than five, however speed settings could be offered. Beginner (5 sec.) – Intermediate (3 sec.) – Advanced (2 sec.).
  • Time Limit – Upon starting, the sixty-second timer begins counting down. Players pass the level if they prevent the wall from rising to the sky during the sixty seconds.
  • Points – Scores are totalled by the number of rows a player is able to eliminate before the time expires. Faster players achieve higher scores.

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  • Content – Sentences continue to appear until a) the time expires or b) the wall reaches the sky (eight rows high). After setting these guidelines, it was clear that upwards of thirty sentences would be needed to ensure the most advanced players would not be left waiting for sentences to appear.

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  • Feedback – “Break Through” uses a construction worker non-player character to deliver feedback during the game. While playtesting, I acted as the NPC and quickly realized how little time there might be between hits. My initial design had the NPC responding with full sentences in order to give EFL students extra comprehensible input, but in reality there was only time for a few words. Some standard phrases like “Try again.” and “Well done!” are probably better options for the short reaction time.

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Reflection: This was the first time I had playtested a game concept. Although “Break Through” would be most suitable for young beginner EFL students playing for short durations, I now understand the need to first playtest with an adult. Having a player, in this case my wife, who could not only articulate the pros and cons of the game experience, but also suggest and work through possible solutions was invaluable. My son, who is almost five, enjoyed the game, but he and I would probably both be left guessing as to why his interest eventually waned. Great experience!

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