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  • Reflections On Puzzle Design In Puzzledorf

    - Stuart Burfield

  • Caveat

    It's possible to think you've designed a puzzle where everything has a purpose and there's no dead space.

    Then one player breaks it, finding a solution you didn't think of. That solution ignores part of your puzzle, meaning you accidentally created dead space. That's okay when that happens - you still had a purposeful design and that's what counts. You can't see every possibility. The question you then have to ask is, "Is the puzzle broken? Or was this just an unexpected but fun event?"

    If everyone skips your ideal solution, maybe it is broken and needs tweaking. Or, maybe it's just fun that the player found another solution.

    I find it fun to see players find solutions that surprise me. I then consider if the puzzle needs fixing, or if it's a rare occurrence and to leave it alone. It's a case by case thing and it's impossible to see every solution.


    This is probably the hardest aspect to get right, but incredibly important. What's the right level of complexity? And the best way to increase difficulty?

    My first puzzle game was made in Puzzlescript, which is a fast prototyping tool but has limited graphics. My way of adding more difficulty was to add more stuff to interact with, more blocks to push. With one of the later levels (pictured below), multiple people gave up when they saw it, without making an attempt.

    I decided, after much testing, there was too much information for the player to take in, and they got overloaded. My discovery, for the average player, was this:

    If player's cant take in the problem at a glance, and see a possible solution, they get overwhelmed.

    Some of the more veteran puzzle players saw the complex puzzles as a challenge and plowed through them, enjoying them. But the majority of my testers weren't "puzzle gamers", and they got overwhelmed by puzzles that were too complex.

    What I came to realize was this:

    It was not the difficulty that scared people off, but having too much information to take in at a glance.

    That information overload switched peoples brains off. When they looked at the puzzle, they didn't know where to begin; they couldn't see a clearly defined problem to solve, or any potential solutions, so they gave up. A lot of these people then walk away thinking they don't like puzzle games, when in fact the puzzle itself was at fault.

    However, when you reduce the complexity, the problem that the player has to solve becomes clearer, and they are more likely to embrace the challenge.

    Eventually, as I tried different approaches, I realized Sokoban games (block-pushing puzzles) have a number of puzzle-solving techniques. By isolating these techniques, and trying different combinations, I discovered I could manipulate the difficulty of the puzzles without adding too much complexity. I could make puzzles that looked simple, but were difficult.

    I found the following to be true:

    A puzzle that looks simple, but has a surprising solution, is deeply satisfying.

    I discovered my puzzles appealed to the broadest audience when I did the following:

    • Reduced the number of moving parts
    • Created puzzles that looked simple
    • Difficulty increased through harder puzzle solving techniques, and different combinations of techniques

    Below is an example of a later game level from Puzzledorf that looks simple, but is one of the harder levels in the game.

    It Looks Easy, But Surprises you

    I found the following to be true:

    • When a puzzle looks simple, the brain sees possible solutions
    • When you see possible solutions, you want to have a go

    When puzzles look easy, but have surprising solutions, it doesn't scare off new players. And that surprise becomes a motivator to keep playing. This broadens the potential audience, but also creates a deeply satisfying challenge.

    I see this over and again when I watch someone solve a puzzle, sit back, the next puzzle starts, then they lean forward to start the next one, unable to help themselves.

    Let me give an example. Below demonstrates the solution to a mid-game puzzle.

    To players, it looks simple. Get the blue block onto the blue cross, the green block on to the green cross, and move the white boulders out of your way (there are also colour blind options).

    What makes this puzzle interesting is the starting position of the blue and the green blocks; they're on the opposite sides of where they need to be.

    The problem, then, is figuring out how to swap their positions. It sounds simple, but the addition of the white boulders makes it a whole lot trickier. The average player takes many attempts to solve it, but since it doesn't look scary, and the brain sees possible solutions, people want to have a go.


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