In the end, despite our collective ignorance of game design we decided on a massively multiplayer crossword game similar to a very popular board game. Thanks to the magic of HTML5 WebSockets, everyone playing the game would be playing at once, on a single enormous board. Everyone would see everyone else’s tiles as they were played. Naturally it had to work in any modern HTML5-compliant browser, too – we’re picky that way. We spent an afternoon playtesting using a large collection of physical game boards cut to uniform size. (The looks one gets at a store when buying five copies of the board game are, I suppose, justifiable) A few tweaks to the playing board, some paper UI wireframes and we were ready for code.
Scrabbly went on to win the Popularity prize in NodeKO, missing the top spot by only a fraction of a percent. We’re still actively developing the game; we’ve added a minimap to help players navigate the game world, complete with radar–like pings when players place a tile or word. I highly recommend programming competitions as a means of exploring what’s possible with new technologies. You might be surprised what you can build.
For a bit more information on Scrabbly, check out the talk I gave at Seattle’s Google Technology User Group last month (thanks to TechFlash for recording the video).