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November 6, 2007

My Word Coach

Not much has been said or written about Ubisoft's upcoming Coach games, and that's a shame. Troweling the Internet for previews will yield few pre-release opinions. Yet next week, My Word Coach hits stores for both Wii and DS, and it's a title that should be on all sorts of folks' Christmas lists. With accessible gameplay that's high tech yet simple, fun for both solo and family play and genuinely "edutaining," Ubisoft is poised to have a breakout franchise that will leave many wondering why Brain Age isn't this cool.


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There are many compelling points to My Word Coach's design: the university research driving the gentle learning curve, the accurate analysis of a player's vocabulary, the addictive nature of the many game modes and the overdue option to use either the remote or a DS to play. Senior Designer Peter Yang provided us a walkthrough of the game's mechanics as well as functional design, which is founded on 16,000 words and definitions (an important distinction) from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary and the research of Dr. Thomas Cobb, a university professor in Applied Linguistics at the University of Quebec.

The Cambridge dictionary was chosen for its simple, concise definitions: learning the meaning of a word will be difficult if a person doesn't even understand the words used in the definition. Cobb's research comes into play with the spatial training that teaches words to gamers. Cobb believes that a person is much more likely to learn a word after seeing it five times. The trick is to not just repeat the word five times over, however: instead, if a word pops up in Word Coach that is unknown, it will pop up at least four more times, each instance spaced further and further apart. Come the fifth time, the word-- both its spelling and its definition-- should be truly absorbed. Learning vocabulary in this fashion, versus our common practice of deriving a word's meaning from its context within a sentence, allows for complex vocabularies built upon genuine understandings of words and, hopefully, more eloquent gamers fanning the flames on message boards everywhere.

Yet this game's appeal, and the whole point of Ubisoft's charge into casual gaming, reaches beyond just the core gamer who may visit a forum or two. Yang stated that Word Coach has been enthusiastically play tested with grandmothers at 70 years old as well as with ten-year-old school children. One child remarked, "If homework were this much fun, I'd do it every night." Unlike Brain Age's staple of math problems and basic spelling, however, vocabulary is a much more complicated beast to tackle. That's why Word Coach not only asks for your age but also employs a simple barrage of preliminary vocab tests to set up a gaming profile, complete with an "Expression Potential" that's a lot like a "Brain Age."

A person's Expression Potential evolves as time is spent with Word Coach. On a 100-percent scale, a 95% is labeled a "poet," 85% "teacher," and 75% "editor-in-chief." While I've not been able to confirm my Expression Potential is at 75% (the Nintendojo staff may have an opinion on that item), I can say it's really amusing to see the presentation of your Expression Potential at the end of each game/training session. A little stick man gets on to a soap box to speak to a crowd, and Snoopy-styled "blah blah blah" is played while the man gesticulates. A moment of silence passes, and the listening crowd responds vocally with a collective "ahhhh!" or a confused "uhhhhh?" Individual crowd members who "get you" light up and dance around, while those who remain lifeless and confused. It's a bit silly but strangely rewarding to see the results of a yes/no test play out in such theatrical fashion.

While the recommended age minimum for Word Coach is ten years old, from that point up anyone can understand and enjoy the game thanks to its ability to adapt the words presented based on the user's profile. School children will get words that are appropriate to their age range, yet graduate students will be just as challenged with the much more complex words that pop up. Such intuitive game-scaling allows for an experience that's suitable for the whole family to play at the same time, regardless of age or gaming ability.

All the research in the world can't make for a game that's simply fun, however. Gamers get to select one of four distinct personalities to act as their "coach" through the single player training modes. From stuffy, British professor Archibald to "hot librarian" Veronica to "cool guy" Lucius and "whiz kid" Penny, each in-game coach provides a unique slant on explaining the game, addressing failure and praising good performance. The voice acting and character models are top-notch, showing that while the game's interface and gameplay may be simple, Ubisoft didn't leave out an example of its abilities to create great presentational elements.

Beyond the coaches and mellow acoustic and electric guitar soundtrack, the games are ultimately where it's at. There are many core games Word Coach is built around, and here are some that we got to try out.

  • Missing/Wrong Letter
    A word is shown on the screen with either a missing letter or a one letter that's incorrect. Write out the letter that's missing or wrong.
  • Split Decision
    A single word is shown with two definitions. Choose which one is correct. Or, a definition is shown with four words, and the right word must be chosen.
  • Word Shuffle
    Match a jumble of words correctly to a jumble of definitions. Watch out-- there are some extra words thrown in whose definitions aren't available.
  • Safe Cracker
    After being presented a definition, spell out the corresponding word by twisting the dial of a safe that's emblazoned with letters.
  • Pasta Letters
    Snag alphabet-shaped pasta letters as the rise in a bowl of soup to spell a word on the rim of a soup bowl. Letters have to be snagged before they sink into the soup and don't reappear.
  • Block Letters
    This entertaining Tetris-styled game displays a bin of falling letter-emblazoned blocks that stack up higher over time. Players must tap letters in the block pile to spell a list of words before the bin fills up with too many blocks. In multiplayer mode, a block bomb can be activated that dumps a mass of unwanted letter blocks into the other player's bin.

Had the volume level in the demonstration room been softer, we could have also tried a Spelling Bee mode, in which a word is announced and you spell it for the game in the most rudimentary vocabulary building exercise. That said, while there's nothing revolutionary in the game modes, there's something innately fun in testing your mental power and, strangely, learning at the same time. Additionally, the games' simplicity and quick pace are inherent to their addictive nature. To ensure every mistake is still healthy, a word review plays after each game that shows the spellings and definitions of all the words just seen, with the gamer's correct and incorrect answers appropriately highlighted.

Given the amount of letter writing requested by the game, it's worth mentioning that Word Coach's handwriting recognition is very sharp and frequently bests Brain Age's. Better yet, Word Coach allows for up to four DSs to be used as controllers instead of remotes. Without a DS game card but via a quick wi-fi transmission, a DS can reproduce the Wii game's screen and instantly and accurately transmits whatever's written on the DS touch screen to the main television screen. The connectivity and responsiveness is pretty amazing and provides an example of why Nintendo had been so hot on the topic in the previous generation with the GameCube and Game Boy Advance.

word on the street

Word Coach is not only a casual game but also edutainment. Normally, those labels spell disinterest in the hardcore gaming community, and that apathy is well-demonstrated by the lack of coverage this title has received. Yet like Wii Sports and Brain Age, this is a game that has to be played to be appreciated. Skepticism is understandable, but this game's fun factor can quickly blow that away.

press release notes

My Word Coach offers a fun and challenging way to improve verbal skills through a series of engaging activities and exercises.

The game was inspired by ongoing vocabulary acquisition research by Thomas Cobb, University Professor in Applied Linguistics at the University of Quebec (

Enjoyable activities include word recognition, spelling challenges, and vocabulary definition, including 16,800 words from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.

When you play, My Word Coach assesses, monitors, and rewards your Expression Potential, a score that represents your ability to command and use the English language. The higher the number (out of a possible 100%), the better you are able to express yourself!

While the Wii™ version takes advantage of the Wii Remote™ through lively mini-games and easy-to-use controls, the Nintendo DS™ version makes full use of the system’s unique, dual Touch Screen.

Discover how to improve your vocabulary in just a few minutes a day!


Ubisoft could be on the edge of something big with My Word Coach, which will also be accompanied by DS-exclusive My Spanish Coach and My French Coach next week. The game is truly fun and educational, with a richer visual presentation than the Brain Age titles. Word Coach's appeal and capability could make it not only a solid video game hit, but also a great aid for young students, crossword fans or just someone who wants to speak with more words than before. Personally, we look forward to the "ah-ha" moment that will happen when we're out on the street, or reading a book, and recognize a word we hadn't learned in school, but in a videogame.

Staff Avatar M. Noah Ward
Staff Profile | Email
"Death narrowly avoided, thanks to another friendly NPC."

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