The Puzzle of Making Puzzles...

Friday, February 19, 2016

Four Floors of Doors is going swimmingly. As such, here are some thoughts on how to puzzle good:


A room with a switch and a locked door is not a puzzle. If the only thing you can do in a room is the correct answer, this isn't a puzzle, it's a switch. Switches are boring. You need wrong solutions to tempt the player, you need red herrings. Imagine what the most obvious thing a player might do in a room, and let them do that, and then demonstrate to them that this was a stupid thing to do.

If a room only has 4 things you can do, a player will do all 4 till they hit the right answer, and they might not learn anything because they brute-forced it. If a room has 16 things, they'll quickly get tired of trial and error and actually turn on their brain and try and reason a way out. If a room has 128 things you can do, they'll recoil in horror and quit.

Don't wait until your first puzzle mechanic has been exhausted before introducing the next one. If you know there is still meat in the puzzle space of the first mechanic, save it for later. Assume your players can get bored at any second and keep introducing new things to them. As soon as they have learned how one thing works, show them the next thing. Then when your mechanics combine, you'll still have plenty of ideas you can play with, but on a much larger canvas.

When you introduce a new mechanic, it's first implementation should be as simple as possible. The player needs to know that you know they don't know what this new thing is. When they exit that room, they know that you know they know how that mechanic works. Communicate success or failure with a clear, unambiguous visual language. Reward and punish harshly, but consistently.

Never repeat a puzzle. Changing superficial details does not constitute a new puzzle. If it doesn't embody a new idea, don't build it. If you've already built it, flag it as unfinished until you can think of a good twist.

Develop a set of consistent rules about how your world works and stick to them. Beware the lure of easy functionality. If it is easy to implement, then the player has probably already played many games that used that idea. If a mechanic doesn't fit your world rules, don't build it.

Players can only think about a few things at once. Most people will never complete a puzzle that requires holding 10 things in your brain at once, 5 you can get away with. For the end-of-level finale, you can push the boat out, but if the complexity is going to ramp up too much, make sure the puzzle is staged, so that they can forget the first part when the second part begins.

An open-world puzzler gives players lots of travel time to mull over a solution in the back of their mind. A linear game is easier to control the dishing out of information, (and indeed stories and cut-scenes etc), but if they player is stuck on something small, they are stuck in the entire game.

Puzzles can be frightening or sad, wistful or treacherous. Actually, no, forget that. That sentence doesn't actually mean anything.

You can build a puzzle by brute force, just keep randomly changing the set-up and test it until it works. Or you can plot out a solution, then construct the puzzle so that only that solution works. You might have to keep adding things to make it easier or harder until there is just one correct solution.

Let players experiment in a space, and see the outcomes of their actions. Create a low-energy space, where random actions will always dump the player in the same unsatisfactory cycle. Only by climbing an improbable, high-energy peak will they escape, but they have to identify that peak themselves.

You don't have to know what the goal state of a puzzle will be before you start building it. Just build things that you can interact with, then interact with them, then think what would be a difficult but satisfying state to travel towards, then decide that is to be your goal.

Draw lots of pictures. Invent a notation system to describe complicated things in a compact way.

Build lots of puzzles. Keep them modular, so that you can easily swap the order, or delete things. Multi-part puzzles which combine several areas are more satisfying, but wait until you are confident in your skills before committing to building these. If they go wrong, it is harder to unpick the dependencies and salvage the modular pieces. 

Be inspired by, but don't steal. Copying is not creating. Take, and then transform.

Early on, you'll be building a puzzle because you know how to build it. Later on, you'll be building a puzzle because it matches an aesthetic ideal which you've developed after having built so many boring, uninspired, repetitive puzzles.


Enough. Go build something.

Tags: Unity Four Floors of Doors