Peeking Into the Mind Behind Word Peaks

Published May 14, 2024

Hi! Can you tell us who you are and about your game?

Hey there everyone! My name is Devin Spikowski, and I’m the creator of Word Peaks. For my day job, I’ve long been working as an IT Consultant, but I’m very passionate about game development, digital art, animation and music. 

I’ve created things like my Snow-Stamp, a utility site for Discord snowflake IDs, and D-Zone, an ambient life simulation connected to user activity in a Discord server. I also have several itch.io games like SpinBlocks, Hook, Line and Spelunker, and Dungeon Grinder.

Word Peaks is a word puzzle game that works similarly to Wordle. The catch with Word Peaks is that it changes the color of each letter depending on the range of your input, green if you got it right, orange if the letter is too early on the alphabet and blue if it’s too late. There are also automatic range hints depending on your inputs, and every guess you make also creates a procedurally generated landscape based on them.

What started your gaming and game creation journey?

So pretty much my whole life growing up, my first memories, we always had a Nintendo, the original NES. I can remember playing the original Mario Bros. And I remember we had the one that had that orange gun—Duck Hunt. From there growing up, consoles like Sega Genesis and the N64. But I also got into PC gaming very early.

I remember Simcity 2000 on our computer in the living room. I remember getting my first computer. To have one in my room was the biggest deal ever because before the internet blew up, I would be able to play games whenever I wanted. And so I gradually moved more into PC gaming at that point.

Learning to make games and code

I think I first played around with the idea of making games when I found a very early version of GameMaker, which I think is now called Game Maker Studio. It was a very simple-to-use 2D game engine. And I think the most I really did with it was take the example games. They had an example platformer and an example vertical scrolling shooter. And I would kind of work based off of those and draw my own little sprites and, you know, try to explore what I could.

And this was all with no coding. There was a sort of node-based visual scripting thing, but anytime I saw the ability to write code, I was shutting that out. Like, I didn't want to get into that at all. And so it wasn't until a high school class on Visual Basic that I started getting into code. And then I also around the same time, got into web development.

I took the class because I was interested, but not really like… If I were to say, I guess I had to do it to know. I guess I never gave it a chance, and so I didn't know how I would take to it. And I'm very much a learning-by-doing kind of person.

If I had to sit and read about how to use a language or a library or something, I couldn't stand it. I have to make something, and better yet, if I have something in mind that I want to make, then I will learn how to do the parts to make that. That's how I've approached all my projects to this day. That's how I do things.

I started learning HTML, CSS, etc. And that's how I got started.

On learning animation

I think I started animating with Adobe Flash, which back then was Macromedia Flash. Yeah, I was instantly addicted to that. At the time there were Flash, or very early Flash animations on the Internet, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to make stuff like that, which was actually mostly stick figures in violent situations. That was what I was into when I was twelve or thirteen.

So I started animating in Flash, and that kind of was my main program for doing animation. Like, even when Flash stopped being supported, I would export to video and upload on YouTube. But having a sense for motion and animation fundamentals is something that I've always had an interest in. And like, whenever I get the opportunity to practice those things, and the dancing letters and Word Peaks in particular, having them move in a way that felt natural, having the timings right. How long does the letter peak out before it goes away?

How long do I build that anticipation where it finally hops out? How long does it dance for? Does the momentum look right? Does that look like a natural movement? All those little things that I've refined through animating over the years, coming into play in a much less intuitive way, to build those animations, I was literally typing in values for the timing and the coordinates to move to.

There was no visual animating tool that I was using there, so I felt kind of proud about doing that. But, yeah, that animation, I think, is a pretty critical part of making a dynamic feeling interface.

Why did you create your game?

So it really just came out of nowhere. I think just one morning I was thinking about Wordle. I had been playing for probably a month at that point, and game designers are always in the mood to come up with new games. And so I just thought of, okay, for each letter, every letter, when you guess a word, every letter in your guess is going to be before or after the letter and the target word. So why not make a game about that?

And so I just started sketching a board similar to Wordle’s, you know, five letters long. I drew little arrows on each letter indicating whether the correct letter was above or below in the alphabet. And then from there, I started coding, started a project and I started coding to see how easy it would be to do. And I got the game working in a day, which isn't that impressive because it's such a simple game. But it always feels good when you can execute a concept in a short amount of time and not have it drag out and you start questioning where you want to take the direction.

It's good to have a goal in mind. Okay, this is the game. Go make it. You made it.

Adding polish and flourish

Most of that finishing and flare came after publicly launching the game. It was better received than I expected, really. I usually don't get that much. Being part of the Wordle-variant scene gave me a lot of exposure that my games normally don't get, so that was really exciting for me. And I wanted to impress people even more. I wanted to do better and I wanted to one-up myself, you know? And so I wanted to, like, take my game to the next level.

But I didn't want to change the game because once people start playing the game, they don't want the game itself to change. That can only upset people, right? Like, if you want to change the game, make a different game. So I started exploring all the ways I could enhance the game, add things to the game without changing the gameplay itself. And so that's where things like all the fancy animations, the landscape, the dancing letters that come in, I wanted to delight and amuse my players in small ways. And if they want to ignore it, it's totally possible. Like all the tile animations that appear when you make a guess, those don't freeze the game state. You can type guesses as fast as your keyboard will let you.

I don't want animation and style to get in the way of gameplay. At some point, fancy animations can get tiresome, and if they are blocking your ability to proceed, then they become more of an annoyance than anything. And that's what I wanted to avoid. But, yeah, I'm still exploring and working on adding extraneous things to the gameplay. I want to explore how far I can take this concept of visual enhancement on a simple game.

Creating wonder

Another thing that inspires me in other games is that when you don't fully grasp what's going on in a game, anything feels possible. Like when you don't understand all the clockwork mechanisms that make a game work, it feels like anything could happen in the game. And I really like the fact that in Word Peaks, people who are new to the game, they’d be surprised by something like a letter F jumping out. They don't know what that represents, so they might try to use F in the word because, “Oh, is that a clue? Is that a hint?”

And the fact that people wonder about that is my goal. I want people to wonder, and I want people to read into things that I put in the game, whether or not they actually mean anything. That's really interesting to me, and if I can explore that concept, that's really rewarding for me.

Can you tell us about your design concept for Word Peaks?

When I started Word Peaks, which was back in 2022, I didn't think much of myself as a UI designer. And, up to that point, I hadn't put much effort into making a sleek UI in the little web experiments that I've created. And so I guess with the gameplay of Word Peaks being nailed down after, like, the first couple of days of development, I felt like I had room to improve things. But what should I do? And the obvious answer is the interface.

And so I started putting my work into that. Minimalistic art and design is a big inspiration for me. When I see a design that's striking and it's minimal, there's something so appealing about that to me because it feels so graspable, because there's not a ton going on. There are so few elements to this that I can grasp this, and so maybe I can figure out why it works so well. And that really draws me in.

That makes me think about design more than anything else. And so I go for those minimal designs, flat colors, simple shapes… I gravitate toward those because those feel like the most approachable paths to take when I'm designing interfaces.

On design inspirations

I mean, obviously I was inspired by Wordle. I made Word Peaks when the Wordle-variant scene was really popping off. And just seeing the little twists that people would add visually to their games compared to the original Wordle, I felt like I too could add my own little gimmick. But really, good interfaces in games just always make me want to try and see what I can do. I aspire to reach the level of creativity they have because it's what brings the game beyond.

The game's not just a set of rules at that point. It's also the experience of interacting with it.

Improving mechanics

Yeah, I kind of explored. So when I first started playing the game, after I had prototyped the mechanics itself, I realized that it was a lot harder to think of words than to guess after your first guess than it was in Wordle. In Wordle, once you get some information, you can look at your keyboard and see what letters are left and what letters are in the answer. You just stare at your keyboard and you try to form words out of it.

But in Word Peaks, each of the five tiles has its own restrictions on the alphabet, and so you kind of have to start trying words, and then if they don't work, you delete and you keep trying words. I didn't like that friction, and so I wanted to make it as easy as possible to come up with words. And so I let players click or tap on a tile to skip to it so you don't have to write in a filler letter like an X or whatever if you don't have a specific tile letter in mind. And I also have the letter ranges drawn on the tile itself and in the options. You can turn that on for all five tiles if you want if that helps.

Also, if you type in a letter that is outside of the range for that tile, it will turn orange or blue as a subtle hint. You can submit this if you want, but this is obviously not the answer because this letter is out of range. And so I wanted to do as best as I could to make it easier for the player to come up with guesses.

How did you get the feedback from your community?

There are the usual channels, like Twitter/X, YouTube, social media… that kind of stuff. So I was amazed the first time I saw someone on YouTube playing my game. I never thought that would happen. Like, that's never happened to me before. That was an incredible thing.

Obviously, I'd shared the game with some friends and they'd give feedback. Just seeing someone find my game and thinking it was good enough to make a video on it, that's like, wow, okay. And so now I get to see someone that's totally uninfluenced by my efforts at marketing, and it fills me with something special. There are people who are enticed to play my game through my efforts in selling it, and there are people who stumble upon it or specifically find it. It’s very different when someone ends up finding it on their own and having a genuine reaction to the video.

And it’s absolutely scary watching them sometimes and then something seems off. Oh my God. Every little like, “Oh, is that a bug? Is that a…? No, that's a normal thing.” But sometimes I have seen bugs and that's also like the worst stomach drop feeling. But watching people play is how I got some of those usability things, like being able to shift which tile you're putting a letter in without doing it sequentially, that was the thing I caught. Almost immediately. I saw someone putting in X and S instead of real letters. And so I thought, okay, yeah, I can improve that.

On community feedback

Frankly, I haven't felt like my game was big enough to build any kind of community. Like a Discord server, as with most big community games. I didn't make a Twitter account for it, I just used my personal account. To me, my community is friends who play it; a small group of friends on Discord that play the game. Even if that small group was my only player base, I would still enjoy working on the game and pushing out stuff that they thought was cool because that's enough reward for me.

But with the wider player base, the only feedback I get is seeing my traffic stay consistent at about 1000 players a day. And occasionally someone buys me a coffee with my donation link and they'll usually include a nice message. And that absolutely makes my day every time. But other than that and the people who play it on YouTube or whatever on TikTok, I'm largely unaware of the specific impressions that people have. I don't know.

I have to trust that the things that I add that I think are neat are worth adding for everyone else, or that at least enough of them appreciate it as much as I do.

How did you reach 1000 users a day?

So I posted it on a couple of different subreddits like the ones for Wordle and web games. I posted it on Twitter, posted in a couple of Discords where people were playing Wordle. That's really about it. It kind of spread organically from there. I'm not that great at self-promotion. I'm not great at it and I don't enjoy doing it. So I just kind of let it reach whoever it reaches.

And so that way every time it kind of hits somewhere that's extra rewarding, you know, I didn't do that directly. That just happened on the merit of the game and that's kind of the best I could ask for. And so every now and then I'll get a spike because someone popular posted something or sometimes I get a spike and I have no idea what happened. And I always assume it was like a TikTok live where there was no link posted, and there's no record of the video. When I got a huge spike out of nowhere and I can only assume it was something like that, where someone plays it on a stream and then a bunch of people go visit.

I had one of those spikes recently and that kind of brought me a little bit above 1000 daily for the past week or so. And I also got, I've been getting like one donation a day for the past few days, which is unheard of. So that's really cool. But like everything, it'll gradually die down. And I'm okay with that because I'm just gonna keep working on the game as long as I enjoy working on it.

And that's all I need out of that project.

What are your thoughts on the monetization scheme of Word Peaks?

I'm not fundamentally against putting ads in, but with the size of my player base, it doesn't feel worth it. I've had an offer to integrate advertisements, but I just never felt like it would be worth it with the amount of players I have. Slightly worsening the experience did not feel worth what I would get out of that. And I do try to keep the interface as clean as possible. I put my name at the bottom, I put a link to GitHub at the bottom, because I felt like, I imagine most of my players have no idea what open source even means.

I felt proud to have an open-source project out there and like, “Hey, here's my game. You can fork it and make your own variant on it if you want.” And I leave the donation link for until after they finish the game, because you know, first and foremost, I want them to play the game. You know, that should be the first thing they notice.

I also am totally okay—and this is where other Wordle creators would probably disagree strongly—I'm okay with those awful sites that just embed a bunch of other games on them, like in iframes and stuff. I don't really care. I know they're making money off my game in small ways, but all I care about is people playing.

They're not re-hosting my game. It's literally just an iframe. So I still get that traffic and I can still see how many people are playing when they go through sites like that. I hope that they eventually find that they don't have to use that site that's letterboxing my page with a bunch of other crap around it. But to me it's just more exposure, so that's okay with me.

One of the sites was gracious enough to ask permission to do that. I thought that was nice of them. So, yeah, I told them, go ahead, and that's rare. That's where I'm currently sitting. Maybe in a future game, I'll feel differently, but that's where I'm at.

Have you considered collaborating with other games and game creators?

I have thought about it and the creator of Polygonle asked me about that one time and I was definitely interested. But right now I'm still so engrossed in my own ideas that I don't have the room for thinking of a good collaboration to do, I guess. But if a good idea comes to me or if he comes to me with a good idea, or if anyone comes to me with a good idea, I'm definitely interested in the concept. That sounds really fun. That sounds like right up the alley of the little experiments that I like to do in Word Peaks.

Where do you look for the sparks of ideas when you’re building games?

I would say that those come naturally. I can't say I'm really looking for them. The next thing I'm working on right now came from the Discord group that plays my game. Someone posted one of their landscapes, which is always delightful for me, just seeing people share those, because when I was working on it, I had no idea how interested people would be in it. And it had a bunch of hills on it, and someone said that it was satisfying to look at.

And I'm like, “Huh, that's okay.” And this just popped into my head. I jokingly said, “What if you could pop the hills like bubble wrap after you play? You could just click on them or tap them to pop the hills for no reason other than satisfying to do.” And so right now, I'm working on exploring that idea.

Once you're done playing, I want to let you play with the landscape just to keep you on the page for another 30 seconds, maybe. And so that comes with a bunch more user interaction work and animation work and ways to flex those design and animation muscles.

What’s your favorite game nowadays?

I am very into Balatro. It is a roguelike deck builder, which for those who don't know what that means is it's sort of a run based game where when you lose, you restart your run. So you're building a deck of playing cards and playing poker hands, but along the way, you gain these special joker cards that will modify how much you score with your poker hands and modify the rules of the game itself. It's a really brilliant indie game with amazing music, amazing interface animations and visual flair. It's extremely satisfying and addicting to play.

What you encounter in the game is very random and you get what you get. And if you mess up, you start from the beginning. You learn from your mistakes and don’t throw a fit. So it's a single-player game and you're not even playing the poker hands against another player. You're just playing poker hands to score points, every hand as a point value. But then you're also multiplying that up with the different jokers you get. Or you can enhance the playing cards themselves. You can add or remove cards from your decks. You could have a deck with twenty aces and play illegal hands, like five of a kind and whatnot.

Another interesting thing is when you play a hand, it goes through all your jokers and all the effects that are in play, one by one. And you don't know how much your hand is going to score until it goes through and tallies it up, which is really tense and exciting. You don't know for sure unless you worked it out a lot in your head beforehand whether this hand is gonna lose the game for you or beat it.

It really explores what the meaning of poker or card games is. It's a really fascinating game.

What’s next for you?

So for the time being, other than working on Word Peaks, I am working on something that’s actually complicated. So I am a moderator for a Twitch streamer. And I created a little chatbot for the streams. That's been really fun to work on. I also created a stream overlay that was also just the stream overlay is just a web page with a transparent background that overlays over the stream.

Even though I had never made a stream overlay before, it was all second nature. It was just web design and programming stuff on the web. And so probably my biggest project ever that's been in the works for about a year now is a website that viewers can visit to customize. So we have this thing that people can do in chat that a bunch of people will start spamming it to create a train. I made a stream overlay that literally draws an animated train going across the screen, and each car in the train represents a user doing that thing in the chat.

And so I had the idea to make a website where they can go in and customize what their car looks like. So that's my other big project. I'm really excited to get that out the door because that's probably the biggest thing I've ever worked on. It's a full stack. There's the website, and then there's the whole back end that has to make it all connect up with the Twitchbot and everything.

Those are the two main things I'm working on, and I think that's cool.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

I'm on Twitter. That's @Vegeta897. I'm also on Instagram, where I mostly post music on Blue Sky

Yeah. That's where you can reach me.

Have a game to sell?

Let’s find out if we play well together.