Hello Daily Click! Brice here again with another article I thought everyone here would like from my blog over at The Game Prodigy - http://thegameprodigy.com/
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Puzzles in games are the spice of life. Not only Tetris puzzles but also Zelda puzzles - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xemfY6uZMU - , they can be sprinkled into games as fun distractions, or entire titles can be built around them. Mini-game style puzzles give players a break from the normal grind of gameplay to delve into a completely different scenario. They give players an opportunity to think, to feel clever, and to gain a sense of intellectual accomplishment.
But where should puzzles be used? What makes a good puzzle? What makes a great puzzle? These are all questions for the game developer that are in fact a puzzle in themselves.
Luckily, as a smart game designer, it is a puzzle you can learn to solve with ease.
The Structure of Puzzles in Games
In a previous article, we discussed the game design concept of Clusters and Hooks - http://thegameprodigy.com/category/clusters-and-hooks/ . Clusters are small games within a game, that are connected together by Hooks, or small bits of overlap. In talking about puzzles then, they can be viewed as their own Cluster that then Hooks into other parts of the game by giving you some reward such as an item, or letting you continue through the level or dungeon.
A puzzle, in the sense we are discussing here, has traditionally been used in games where the player needs a break from the main gameplay. In an RPG that may mean taking a break from the grind of battles, or in a First Person Shooter it may mean taking a break from the ducking and weaving through bullets. They offer a moment's rest to take the player's time and explore a different problem set, using other parts of their brain so that they can relax. For this reason many players find puzzles enjoyable, like a surprise snack that takes them away from the normal grind just long enough that they appreciate it when they return.
However, as fun as they are to me and maybe to you, not all players enjoy puzzles. Some players of action games will quickly grow disgusted that they are being asked to perform an activity that apparently has nothing to do with the game experience they signed up for. Other players will enjoy the added challenge, especially over long epic titles. This is a matter of just being familiar with the players who are going to be enjoying your game and catering to that audience.
Indeed, entire games can be built out of puzzles. Sokoban - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokoban - is one of the earliest computerized puzzle games, where the player had to push blocks around a warehouse in order to complete each stage. Another of the all time greats is Adventures of Lolo for the original NES. Each level is broken into its unique challenge, and the world is full of different game pieces, each unique, and they are built together into their own separate levels. At each stage all of the hearts must be collected, but there are obstacles in the way, enemies who have particular behavior (such as causing death if you stand directly beside them), and so the levels are like patterns that need to be unlocked.
Portal is another game that is built entirely of puzzles. A descendant of the puzzle structure of Lolo, each of Portal's puzzles (at least in the early game) are broken into clearly defined rooms. In each one, the player needs to use the Portal Gun to interact with a variety of game objects - buttons, platforms, energy balls, and companion cubes - and figure out how to unlock the answer and open the final door.
But in each of these games, the Gameplay Clusters are made of nothing but puzzles. However just because you are making an action game, a bullet-hell game, a side scroller, or an RPG, that doesn't mean you can't include puzzles in your game. By thinking of a puzzle as its own rule set, its own Cluster, you can sprinkle them throughout your game as you please to get the variety of experience that you want.
Readers: What are some of your favorite puzzle-rich games? Please leave comments below!
Structure of Puzzles
Almost all puzzles in games (and in life, for that matter), follow a similar pattern:
- The player becomes aware that they have encountered a puzzle
- The player begins poking around, trying to understand the rules of the puzzle
- The player fully understands the puzzle and now knows what they need to do
- The player executes on that theory and finishes the puzzle
The enjoyment of a puzzles comes in two main places. The second step, trying to understand the rules of the puzzle, and the fourth step, completing the puzzle. Players enjoy learning new things and finding boundaries (or lack thereof). They enjoy understanding systems and problems and getting new information that is relevant to them. This is the second step. They also enjoy rewards in a game (which can be anything from a new level to gear or points) and feeling a sense of accomplishment, which is the fourth step.
Making players aware of puzzles and feeling like they can solve them in a reasonable amount of time (a duration which may differ from player to player) makes the puzzles fun and enjoyable. Additionally, there is a risk that if the rewards or the entertainment value of solving the puzzle dip below the difficulty or time investment the player believes they need to solve the puzzle, then they will give up. If players find that the puzzle is too frustrating, they will just quit, and the time that the developer spent making the puzzle is lost. This is obviously a situation that practical game developers would want to avoid.
A Puzzling History
Before we get into creating some of our own puzzles out of scratch, let's take a quick tour of some classic puzzles inserted into non-puzzle focused games. As with everything else in game design, it's good to learn from what has already been done. Let's take a look at some classic puzzles that have defined games through the years. (Note: the analysis of these puzzles contains spoilers).
Final Fantasy VI, originally for the Super Nintendo, is a game that we've covered before here on The Game Prodigy - http://thegameprodigy.com/epic-game-design-how-the-incomparable-final-fantasy-is-built/ . The game makes good use of gameplay clusters throughout the adventure, and has a few puzzles scattered throughout. One of the more infamous puzzles is the clock puzzle, solving which gives the player a very special item to equip to one of their party members.
The puzzle takes place in a town of thieves. There is a clock that has hour, minute, and second hands, and the player is asked to set them all correctly. The combinations of those are all too great to just guess, so there has to be something else that can give the player a clue as to what to do. And by talking to the inhabitants of the town, the player notices that many of them mention the time and the clock.
The second hand? It's at 20!
It's exactly 6:00!
The minute hand is pointing straight down.
As the player collects these bits of information, they come to realize that many of them are contradictory. One thief will say that the hour hand is at 2:00, and another will say that it is at 6:00. What's the deal? Eventually, the player realizes that after thoroughly exploring the town, <em>all </em>of the thieves are lying. The answer to the puzzle, then, is to select the hands on the clock that no one mentioned.
This puzzle thus presents itself by the player finding the clock, and then noticing that some NPC's in the town are saying incorrect information. At some point, the player reaches an epiphany (step 3 in our puzzle solving model) and realizes that the thieves' testimonies should be used to eliminate options, revealing the answer. Once the player realizes this, all that's left is to speak with everyone in the town and then run through the remaining time options.
Lufia 2 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lufia_II:_Rise_of_the_Sinistrals - was another RPG back in the twilight days of the Super Nintendo. In addition to having a compelling story, flexible battle system, and massive world to explore, the game was also packed with puzzles. Every dungeon (and there were many dungeons) had their own puzzles, each providing a break from the normal RPG battle grind, each unique, and each making the player feel like they were on an adventure with twists, turns, and variety.
One puzzle I'd like to highlight here is the block puzzle found in one of the shrines. The player saw a floor littered with yellow and red blocks. The player could manipulate the colors of the blocks by picking them up and setting them down in different places. For example, if a yellow block was placed inside of two red blocks, it would turn red. The player had a limited number of moves to solve the puzzle requirements before moving to the next room.
What's unique about Lufia 2 is that it contained a robust system to allow for puzzles. Sure, there were the traditional Base Mechanics that most RPG's had, such as talking to people, battling, using magic, and so on. But there were also many in-world actions that the player could take, such as lifting the blocks as in this puzzle, but also shooting arrows, using a grabbling hook, and slicing tall grass. These gameplay elements, much like the elements in Sokoban or Adventures of Lolo, allowed the developers to create a great many puzzles in what was primarily a traditional battling RPG.
Machinarium - http://machinarium.net/ - was a well received indie adventure game that was released not too long ago, and like many adventure games, had its fair share of puzzles as well. One worth noting is the light grid puzzle, where the player needs to draw intricate snaking shapes through the grid without stepping back on its own path. Unlock some of the other puzzles used in non-puzzle games, however, this puzzle did not shy away from increasing difficulty.
The first level of the puzzle was meant to only teach the player the rules of the Cluster. Then the difficulty ramped up quite steeply and the player was not allowed to move on until completing all stages of the light grid. Again, this puzzle follows the major steps of making the player aware of it, allowing the player to experiment, forcing the player to understand the rules, and then requiring the player to solve it.
Coming Up with Your Own Puzzles
Coming up with puzzles for your own games isn't as difficult as it may at first seem. Many puzzles, including the ones we've covered here, all have their ancestry in other puzzles. Logic problems, trivia, and all assortments of entertaining problems all have a history of several hundred years - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Hanoi .
So when thinking of your own puzzles, feel free to borrow ideas from other puzzles that you've seen and enjoyed. Tweak them, play through them, and playtest them to see how they perform.
Some questions to ask yourself are:
How will the player learn about my puzzle? Will there be explicit text detailing how the puzzle works, or will the player be left to poke around themselves?
How difficult will you make the puzzle? Once the player learns the rules, will you make them solve a single simple puzzle, or continually build up in level upon level within the puzzle? If you had to pick one, would you rather some players get frustrated and give up, or some players get bored because it's too easy?
Is the puzzle required, or extra? If you believe that your players will almost universally enjoy the puzzle, then you can feel free to make it a required option. If not, however, then you might want to think about making it just a bonus that doesn't block player progression through your game.
What information does the player need to solve the puzzle? Will they be able to solve it using logic alone the very first time they encounter the puzzle? Or will they need information from later on in the game to solve it, such as a key or a clue?
I Think, Therefore I'm Clever
But what makes a great puzzle? The best puzzles are ones that make players feel clever. Ones that they need to spend a good deal of time thinking about, but not so long they get frustrated and quit the game. Designing something like that is a challenge in itself! It is easy to fall of either side of the horse, either making it too trivial, or making it too complex and frustrating. Landing in that sweet spot will help players feel clever by allowing them to think through the problem.
This aspect of puzzle solving, thinking, can be a game design goal to strive for. Thinking can be defined as what humans do when they are solving a problem but not taking action. Imagine you are someone who doesn't know how to use a hammer and nail, example, and you are going to attempt to figure it out on your own.
If you are looking at the hammer and the nail and trying to figure out how to use them, then you are thinking. Eventually you will figure it out and go, Ah ha!, pick them up, and do it. On the other hand, if you just picked up the nail and the hammer and started doing random things with it, that is not thinking. You might pick up the nail and hit the hammer. You might hold the hammer upside down and see if that worked. You might throw the hammer away.
In both situations, thinking versus mindless experimentation, you would eventually figure out how the hammer and nail (the puzzle) worked. However, you would likely feel much more clever if you did so without actually touching the hammer and nail before you were prepared to solve the problem. This is a tough goal, but the greatest puzzles, the ones that give us memorable Ah ha! moments, do so because they succeed in making us think.
For those wishing to stretch their game-development brainpower, please leave a comment below to engage in the dialog around the following question:
Machinarium attempted to accommodate various skill levels by providing a hard-to-access hint book that gave answers to all puzzles in the game. Is this the best way to allow for difficult puzzles without alienating players? Why or why not?
Thanks for reading! For more articles and discussions around game and career development, feel free to visit the original blog at The Game Prodigy - http://thegameprodigy.com
Very interesting. I think this is my favourite kind of article, when people analyze commercial games, and pick out stuff that you could use when making your own.
I remember playing a game called "Cyberia", which contained a mixture of action and puzzle sequences. It was quite interesting in that you could choose a balance between the two, so if you were better at action games you could have the action levels made more difficult, and then you'd be given easier puzzle levels.
Just for the record, "Mole Mania" is easily my favourite puzzle game. You can play it online here: http://gbemul.com/game/1647/mole_mania/ - but I'd recommend downloading the rom and visualboy advance.
It has a few interesting features which guarantee you never get completely stuck while you play. Firstly, the levels are divided into a number of themed zones (eg winter/plumbing/beach/etc), and you can jump back and forth between these - so if you do get stuck, you can go play some other levels, and come back later. Secondly, if you get really, really stuck, you get the option to skip any one level from each zone (this comes in the form of an item that you have to find in the game first).
It also helps that the learning curve is perfect, and every time you encounter an new puzzle element, there is a signpost explaining how it works.
Well, i remember the stone-kicking puzzles in Goof Troop for SNES. There were some of them through the game, with increasing difficulty. The last ones were kinda frustrating, as the mechanics allowed the stones to be kicked straight only, and if you did it wrong, you'd have to start over and over, until you get it done.
Another one that was pretty good was The Incredible Machine series, in which there were pretty much stuff to do, and the ability to build your own puzzles was a plus. I think it had a button which showed hints in the puzzles, and it was sufficient to keep you playing without smashing the keyboard.
About giving away the puzzles solutions, it might work, but in a game where the focus isn't only puzzling, as some players will just think they're 'losing time' with the puzzles. But, in a puzzle game, i think it just ruins the purpose, as you're playing the game to solve the puzzles, it IS the game itself. Still, a solution button which takes away a live or points or whatever might come in handy for the harder ones