Puzzle Design


If you’re looking to get involved with the video games industry in any way, then I wholly recommend The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. It’s geared towards game designers, but there is a huge amount to take away regardless of your own discipline.

I grew up playing action adventure games from the PSOne era, where puzzles were a major part of the experience, so a chapter I found particularly interesting was Twelve: Game Mechanics Support Puzzles.

The chapter goes into a lot of detail with ten puzzle principles, which basically act as guidelines for designers. I try to work from these for my own designs, although I’m feeling compelled to blog about a few of them which I think relate very nicely to our first release, The Quest.

Principle 3: Give a Sense of Progress

Quoting directly from the book; “A puzzle also demands an answer, but frequently involves manipulating something so that you can see or feel yourself getting closer to the solution, bit by bit.”
The gameplay of The Quest is to move the character Steve along the surface of a world derived from a Rubik’s Cube; we basically replaced the colours of the cube squares with 3 different types of terrain (Grass, Water & Mountain) and the player can move between each using special transition squares.
As I was building and testing the levels – generally experimenting – I managed to hit upon that sense of progression using the transition tiles. You’re moving between different terrain and you get the idea that you are finally ‘getting somewhere’ with the level. Even better, sometimes you’ll find yourself so close, yet so far away; standing on a tile adjacent to the goal but unable to touch it.

Principle 4: Give a Sense of Solvability

I had to get across the idea that you could actually complete the levels. I’ve played so many games which have presented puzzles which just seemed impossible… I honestly could have stared at it for a year and not have had even a light in the brain switch on.
The book actually mentions the Rubik’s Cube in relation to this principle: Rubik’s Cubes come in a solved state when purchased so there is instantly a sense of solvability. Fair enough, this wasn’t feasible for The Quest as such, but I felt that because The Quest was so obviously based on a Rubik’s Cube, it would give the player that idea that each level would be have a solution.
On the other hand, a number of people thought that you had to be able to actually solve a Rubik’s Cube in order to play the game! Predictable, I suppose.

Principle 6: Parallelism Lets the Player Rest

This principle discusses the idea that puzzles tend to make the player stop and think, and if they are unable to solve the puzzle, they will likely give up in frustration and abandon the whole game. This was a danger when I was piecing together our game’s levels. If just one of them had an odd difficulty spike, there was the risk that our audience would just give up. The levels are arranged in sequence but I decided to unlock 2 subsequent levels for each level completed. This very subtle design decision gives the player an option should they become stumped by a particular level.


Principle 10: Perceptual Shifts are a Double-Edged Sword
This final principle is essentially a warning to game designers to steer clear of a specific type of puzzle. The example of a perceptual shift puzzle given is “Can you arrange six match sticks so they form four equilateral triangles?”
It is one of those exercises that has a very high “you either get it or you don’t” factor. It reminds me of chronic intelligence tests, and the type of exercise sometimes given in schools to determine how successful the pupil will be later in life…
The truth is that there is no true learning with these perceptual shift problems. If you fail to solve one, you’ll not gain any useful knowledge or experience to take into the next. Fortunately, in regard to The Quest, we basically avoided this problem all together. I tried to make the game as easy to learn as possible, and once you know how to play, each level challenges you further, rather than throwing in something completely different.

This has been just a brief run through with The Quest in mind, and there are of course the other puzzle principles, some of which apply more than others. It isn’t an exact science by any means, but they provide very good guidelines to work from.

All in all, if you’re an aspiring designer, I’d go out and pick up a copy of The Art of Game Design. It’s an inspiring book covering everything important about the design discipline. It helped hugely when we were making The Quest, and I often use it for our current projects.

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