Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hover Plover!

So I've finally settled on the name I want to give to the as-yet-nonexistent steno tutorial video game: Hover Plover! A plover on the wing is already faster than your average earthbound creature, just as qwerty typing is much faster than scrawling stuff out longhand. But picture with me now... A plover in a hovercraft. Zooming around over land and water, rocketing a hundred feet into the air and then plummeting dizzily down to earth again, coming to rest an inch above the ground and snickering in your face. You can see it, right? Nothing, and I mean nothing, is faster than a plover in a hovercraft. It's the perfect symbol of what steno can do for anyone who wants to turn spoken words or thoughts into text. I'm not a game designer and I'm certainly not a programmer (sadly, I haven't written any Python code for almost a year now. I keep thinking I'll get back to it, but work has been ridiculously busy this semester.), but I've been playing video games since 1986, and I've got a few ideas on where to start. They can be refined and developed later, once Plover itself has gained a few more features and once we figure out a way to raise money for game development, but this is just to prime the pump.

There are several modes in Hover Plover, because it's got two distinct purposes: One, to teach steno to total beginners, from the keyboard layout to abstract principles of theory and briefing; two, to give people an incentive to use steno, to make it a self-reinforcing experience, as addictive as any game with a significant learning curve. The payoff of being able to write at 225 words per minute is so far in the future for many steno students that it may as well be impossible. That's why about 85% of people who enroll in steno schools drop out. And since Plover is designed for people who don't even want to make a career out of stenography, but who are approaching it more casually, who are mainly just curious about what it can do to help make their daily typing tasks more efficient, the fun-to-grind ratio has to be much higher than it is in your typical steno school (which basically just consists of mindwrenchingly boring dictation drills), or everyone will drop it like a lukewarm mudskipper within five minutes of trying it out. Even at low levels, there's got to be that incremental get-a-reward-and-raise-the-stakes mechanic that keeps people playing Tetris until 4:00 in the morning.

So the first mode is just key recognition, very similar to your typical qwerty typing tutor. Color-coded keys from the steno chart flash on the screen, and you're asked to type them. The plover zooms his hovercraft around the screen to show you where to go. First you get the whole keyboard with letters on the keys, then you get the keyboard with blank keys, and finally you're just given the letter and you have to find and press the key yourself to get the colored letter flag to come up. Then you start with basic chording, along the lines of the first few Steno 101 lessons. It's hard to make this bit too exciting, but once you've got the basics down, you can go into game mode.

Game level one is individual letters -- some of which are represented by chords, some by single keys -- in a split-screen format, to encourage people to use both hands. So you have S-, left side S, and -S, right side S. At first you only get one at a time, but eventually you start having to press two letters, one on each side of the screen, at the same time. I don't know if there should be multiple plovercrafts or if one plovercraft should phase shift so it's able to hit every letter simultaneously, then coalesce back into its singular form -- but that's something we can hammer out during the design process. The main thing is that every time someone hits the right letter and scores a point, they're reinforcing the keys in their muscle memory. They can have a choice of a game with single keys that starts slow and gets faster, or a game that keeps the same pace but starts with single keys and moves up to chords. At first you're allowed to stagger the keypresses, first hitting S- and then -S for a two-stroke point. But after a while you'll be penalized if you don't hit them more or less simultaneously. Tiny incremental steps with visual and auditory reinforcements all along the way -- that's the way to get someone hooked. Once they've fully internalized the keyboard, they go back to the tutor. Again, it'll follow the rough plan of the Steno 101 series (which I swear I'll finish someday, though possibly not before summer, I'm afraid.) After you complete each tutorial, you unlock a game, and each game you unlock becomes more complex and immersive.

Eventually, I'd like to offer at least half a dozen Hover Plover minigames, in every style of classic gaming, from a platformer (where your plover moves forward at a constant rate, but you've got to strike the right chord at the right time to make him jump, or else he'll smack into something and the plovercraft will shoot out from under him), to a bird's eye space shooter (along the lines of TypeStriker, where words fly around and shoot your plovercraft, and you have to stroke them out to auto-target your lasers on them before they can deplete your shields; a good dictionary builder and memory recall tool) to a rhythm music game (the Plover mailing list has already talked about this one a bit, with the working title of "Steno Hero"), for a more integrated intermediate to advanced drill, writing actual complete sentences at a rate defined by your own favorite songs. A package of several minigames, all unified by the simple plover-in-a-hovercraft motif, would let students focus on different aspects of steno writing without getting bored by just drilling the same thing all the time.

People would post videos of themselves playing the game on YouTube, and random gamers would stumble across them, wondering how it's possible to type the words of a song as quickly as they're sung, how someone can keep their head while word-emblazoned enemy starships crowd the screen, coming faster and thicker all the time, as the dauntless plovercraft locks on to each, writes their name in a nanosecond, and blows them into smithereens. Once people see how fun the games are to play, they'll want to make the effort to learn how to play them. Then one day they'll look up from their high score table and realize that not only have they spent the past four hours blowing up baddies and buffing up their in-game word arsenal, but now they're able to write emails or sales reports or short stories or blog posts three times faster than they ever could before. That's how we build our secret steno army: We hook 'em, we train 'em, and then we let 'em loose. Who's with me?