What kind of mechanic to focus on?
You need to decide how you will fit Planning, Practice and Improvisation in the game:
Planning. This is the stage of the game where the player is building the strategy. This often happens in the player’s head (rarely you layout the strategy in the game, although some games do that). Yet, the game needs to support it. For example, by letting the player browse the inventory deciding what to equip, what to sell, etc. In card games, this is where you build your deck. Some games let you see what collectible you do not have, and may even give you clue on where to find them. All before you go into…
Practice. This is the stage of the game where the player is trying to execute something by memory. This usually takes the form of a scenario where the player has to do a series of step in the right order and timing to progress. How easy it is to recover from a mistake will be the measure of unforgiveness of your game. Which brings us to…
Improvisation. This is the stage of the game where you need to react to whatever the game throws at you, perhaps trying to stay close to a plan, but without one unique solution. It is in this stage where emergent gameplay is your best ally.
We have to cross this with the way people learn:
- Some people learn by experimenting. They will learn better in improvisation by trial and error.
- Some people learn better by example. They need to see how to do it first, as a form of planning for what they will do.
- Some people learn better by theory. They need to understand how everything works and what to do on every case. They learn better if you let them study on their own. I will put that on planning too.
- Some people learn better by instruction. They need somebody telling them what to do. I consider this practice.
You give these tools to the wrong person, and they hate it (so make them optional if you have them):
- Going into the game without some form of tutorial is unfair.
- Having to sit while the game does the demonstration is boring.
- Having to read in game text to understand the game is unintuitive and frustrating.
- Getting instructions of what to do at every step is annoying.
These are anecdotal. I am unaware of any study or reference material on the matter. Ern.. Egoraptor!
Considering that the player might be looking for this game to learn languages, I would say this player would not benefit from reading or from a bunch of instructions. That is selection bias. Thus, I suggest a game that focuses on improvisation and planning, and not much practice.
A game that focuses on improvisation and planning, is a game where you can pick your tools, consider weights, do some tradeoffs, and then go to an area where you don’t know what is coming for you and you got to work out with what you got and what you may get on the site.
For the player, a game the focuses on improvisation and planning can be rewarding when:
- They conquered the area, which is an accomplishment
- They satisfy their curiosity by trying different strategies and seeing how they play out
- They gain mastery on what tools to keep and how to use them
Note: This is based on what "Archivers" and "Explorers" find engaging according to Bartle taxonomy. I also considered the motivational theory presented in the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Just to be clear, I have been talking about what to focus on, not what to have and not have in the game.
The repetitive temptation
It is tempting to make a game focuses in practice for learning languages. Tempting because you start on the premise that you need repetition. Yet, in actuality, communicating is not a repetitive skill. Unless you are preparing for a recital or something like that, languages is more akin to improvisation. If you want to be able to have a conversation, you need to be able to understand and respond to whatever the other person “throws” at you.
Note: If you believe that you can teach languages by simply teaching a person what to respond to each prompt. Then you believe that the person in the Chinese Room knows Chinese.
That does not mean that practice has no didactic value. It is great for rhythm games, for example. A great example is singing games, where you actually develop the skill to sing.
Note: In general, we want the player to enjoy every part of the game. You may still get the player to do the not funny, repetitive, boring things... for example by Classical conditioning or my emulating a Skinner Box. Do not do that.
Be wary of random encounters. Being an RPG it is very easy to build the repetition mechanic in random encounters in the game. So that you “battle” by having to remember the thing that you are supposed to be learning. The problem many fall in the trap of designing random encounters as a means to a goal, and not to be engaging... if you focus on practice, that is what you would be doing.
Note: See Intrinsic vs Extrinsic - Designing Good Rewards in Games - Extra Credits.
I once tried a couple RPG games that were supposed to teach me some other language, and they fail to engage me because of that. The general description of these games is as follows:
You have to go from town to town because reasons and then enemies pop out in the journey – and you hate this because you want to get to the next town – and each enemy is a symbol, a word, or a phrase and you have to translate it, spell it or something like that to defeat it.
Note: Project LRN is an example that went this route. Certainly, it has been useful for some people. Yet, its lack of popularity - at least in its current form - supports the hypothesis that this is a bad idea.
Do not do that. That is my suggestion.
Engaging the player
What you should aim for is to take the player to the zone, I mean, to a semi meditative state where the player can perform the actions by reflex. You can archive this by:
Having a well stablished set of predictable mechanics.
Having random elements that challenge the player.
Steadily increase the difficulty (by increasing the speed).
This framework can lead to mechanics akin to the classic arcade games, but it can also lead to mechanics akin to modern sandbox and open world games. I would say it is more appropriate to pay attention to what I am not saying.
When I say well stablished predictable mechanics, I am not saying that you should copy from other games (you can, but that is not what I am saying). Instead, I am saying that you should provide an environment where the player can safely test how the game works, and seamlessly move to an environment with real risk. Do that in such way that for the moment the player struggles, it is not because of lack of understanding or predictability of the mechanics.
When I say to have random elements, I do not mean to say to make the consequences of the actions of the player are unpredictable. The player needs to know what went wrong when something goes wrong. Instead, have random elements (such as obstacles, enemies or loot) pop at a safe distance, letting the player some time to react.
When I say increase the difficulty, I do not mean to make the enemies more dangerous or complex. I mean require the player to react faster. That could be more obstacles or faster enemies.
Note: I am suggesting to increase speed, not because other ways to adjust difficulty are wrong, but because we aim for the moment where the player can respond without having to ponder (or looking up in a dictionary or something like that).
If that does not make sense, think about the game Tetris and read those points again.
Try using emotions
To teach languages you need to teach association. If want the player to understand text in another language, you have to give it context. If you can provide images and audio cues, much better. There is something even better yet: associate them with an emotion. Moreover, I do not mean an emotion of the characters of the game, but an emotion of the player!
As game designer, you can create genuine emotions. in the player (for example of joy, surprise, fear, loss, anger, and disappointment, etc... intentionally or not). You do not have to try to explore the whole spectrum (that is up to you), yet you need to recognize when you game creates these reaction and act on that. Either by taking advantage or by changing them to something different.
One good way to archive emotional experiences for the player is to archive immersion. Getting immersion is relatively easy. The first tool is audio and graphics, yet, if you have enjoyed any text only adventure game, you know you do not need those. It is more important to invite curiosity, if the player wants to explore the game, then the player is willing to suspend its disbelief.
By the way, fill the negative space. If you give the player an option, be it intentionally on a dialog tree, accidentally as a corner in a maze, or unconsciously as climbing on top of a tree or not, make it feel meaningful.
Not breaking the immersion is harder… you need to leverage mechanical transference and affordance as much as you can. Not only from the real world to the game, but also from other games to your game. Also, being your objective to teach, leverage skill transference and affordance from your game to the real world.
If you can put the playable character in the situation where it needs to learn what the player needs to learn, without braking the immersion by reminding the player that this game is an educative one, you have succeeded.
Note: See "How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design" by Katherine Isbister
Sure, you cannot teach everything this way, and you cannot really test player knowledge without removing the language from the cues. Yet, this is what will make the game memorable in the end, and it is what will allow the player to access those memories, making the learning experience long lasting.
Teach by not trying
Consider the Simlish language (from The Sims series). It evolved across various games. The developers did not mean for it to represent any real language. It does not matter if you do not understand it. In fact, the developers improvised most of it. Yet, it is consistent! People have built dictionaries out of the thing!
There are plenty of examples where the developers of a video game create some cipher (warning: TVTropes link) or crease some artificial grammar and odd symbols to write some fictional language, and somebody somewhere figure it out.
Discovering what something is or means in the game can be rewarding in and out of itself. Certainly not every player will have this experience; most will get to know by third party. Which is good! Because this means there is also a social aspect to the game that exists outside of the game itself.
Note: There are tips, tricks, cheats, walkthroughs, reviews, guides, let's play, etc... Where do I point you to justify the claim that people share information about games... Ern... Arqade!
Therefore, do not be afraid to leave thing hidden or unexplained in the game, as long as the players have the tools to figure them out and some reward for doing so (Addendum: For example, if they want a reward they will look up a word in another language, if want that often enough, they better memorize them).
Look at what works
I advise to look at Duolingo, which does a lot of gamification for language learning. Look at it with the lenses of game designer, deconstruct it into mechanics, and look how you may adapt them or improve upon them.
Addendum: You know what else works...? Games in another language that are easy enough to get into. In particular if, they have a social component. If the game can get the player hooked without using words, and then turn out you need to know some words to get good at the game... you are going to learn. Moreover, the game was not even trying to teach you another language.