WEEK 6 – RESEARCH (PUZZLES)

This week I was tasked with researching puzzles in games for our second game concept, “Code Name: Chameleon“.

The sections I have researched for this post are:

  • Puzzles and Games
  • Puzzle Difficulty and Player Engagement
  • Principles of Puzzles to be Considered
  • Design
  • Making Puzzles Games Educational
  • Strategies that Address Puzzle Constraints
  • Questions to Think About
Puzzles and Games (i)

A “dominant strategy” is when a single strategy will defeat the game every time. Once the dominant strategy is found, the game ceases to be interesting – unless, of course, the whole point of the game is to find a dominant strategy.

When you create the following definition, “a Puzzle is a Game with a dominant strategy”, puzzles are just games that aren’t fun to replay and feature problem-solving at their core – puzzles are just miniature games whose goal is to find the dominant strategy.

As game designers developed games with more fluid control schemes, puzzles became less explicit (freezing progress entirely until an unrelated puzzle was complete) and today modern games integrate puzzles into their environment (environmental puzzles enabling progress through a game).

Puzzle Difficulty and Player Engagement (ii)

I began my research by interpreting the results of a puzzle completion study conducted using data from the golden standard of puzzles – the New York Times’ daily crossword.

Given puzzles of beginner, intermediate and advanced levels as well as a large puzzle twice the size of the others (but only of approximately intermediate difficulty):

  • More people attempt the beginner puzzle and the largest puzzle than any other category.
  • Those who struggle with or can’t complete the beginner level puzzle drop out, leaving the more competent puzzle solvers to continue on.
  • The intermediate puzzles have the highest completion rate – most people that attempt to solve it end up completing it.
  • Fewer people complete harder puzzles, even though better problem solvers are attempting them.
  • The largest puzzle is attempted by more people than any other puzzle except for the beginner puzzle – BUT, on a percentage basis, its completion rate is the smallest of any puzzle.

In saying this, one would assume it would still be necessary to include ‘advanced’ levels of difficulty even if the rate of engagement is relatively low otherwise there would be no higher difficulty for the intermediate levels to scale themselves against.

In puzzle games, puzzles can’t be judged in isolation. Each puzzle should be judged taking into account its role in the sequence of puzzles in the game. For example, a training puzzle will only be good if it occurs in the right place in the game. Refer to the “Puzzle Difficulty and Engagement” section earlier in this post.

Principles of Puzzles to be Considered (i)

#1 Make the Goal Easily Understood

#2 Make it Easy to Get Started

#3 Give a Sense of Progress

#4 Give a Sense of Solvability

#5 Increase Difficulty Gradually

#6 Parallelism Lets the Player Rest (provide two or more parallel challenges at one time for players to switch between if they become stuck on one)

#7 Pyramid Structure Extends Interest

#8 Hints Extend Interest

Minimally then, a good puzzle:

  • has clear rules;
  • has a clear objective;
  • finds the balance between too easy and frustrating, to make an interesting challenge.

On top of this, an interesting puzzle can be a puzzle that:

  • stumps the player for a long time, but whose solution looks obvious once found;
  • uses the mechanics in unexpected ways;
  • has multiple solutions;
  • allows a tiered system so that beginners and novices can play at different difficulty levels.
Design (iii)

When planning puzzles and mechanics:

  • Start with the goal, and then insert the elements the player will need to get to the goal, and obstacles that will make it more difficult.
  • Design puzzles before building them, and don’t be afraid to throw some away.
  • Remove misleading paths (such as the impossible jump that looks possible).
  • Limit the number of mechanics. This lets you focus on:
    • level design;
    • interesting uses for mechanics;
    • polishing mechanics to extract the maximum amount of fun from them.
  • Teddy Lee: if you can initially think of five puzzles with a mechanic, chances are you will be able to think up a lot more later on. If you can’t, it probably means the mechanic is too brittle for making many interesting puzzles.

When building the game in the engine:

  • Introduce core mechanics in isolation. Teach hard-to-see techniques by making it the only thing the player can do.
  • One technique that is especially helpful for illustrating manoeuvres in platform puzzlers is a helper character (perhaps a ghost) to illustrate the actions.
  • Use staggering difficulty or “breather” puzzles to help build confidence and keep the player motivated. After a difficult puzzle, give the player an easy puzzle or two to allow a mental break
  • Let the player know when they are close to the end, especially when the entire playfield is not visible.

Above all else – test and iterate!!

Making Puzzle Games Educational (iv)

Acclaimed puzzle maker Scott Kim spoke in a TED talk about a game he made available for schools. It was based off a game called Rush Hour, a sliding block puzzle where the goal is to get the red car out by moving it forward and back.

Scott introduced an additional mechanic in his sequel game, Railroad Rush Hour, by introducing a new piece, a square piece that can move both horizontally and vertically. This allowed him to create a suite of whole new levels for it.

He made this game available to schools and included exercises that show not just how to solve the puzzles, but how to extract the principles that will let you solve mathematical puzzles or problems in other areas like science.

A puzzle game for children will provide value educationally by exercising critical thinking shown to be parallel to principles used in other areas of life such as mathematics and science.

Strategies that address puzzle constraints: (v)
  • Triangularity – when an easy and low-risk strategy leads to low rewards while taking the difficult and risky path leads the player to generous rewards. (The problem is that in puzzles there is usually one optimal solution)
  • Stars system – as a puzzle is about finding the dominant strategy, a star system helps minimise the ‘dominant strategy effect’ (see: section 1). It rewards the player for achieving a sub-optimal solution and, at the same time, encourages them to find the optimal one.
  • Sub-objectives, achievements – encourage replayability.
Questions to think upon:
  • What does it mean to make progress in my game or puzzle?
  • Is there enough progress in my game? Is there a way I can add more interim steps of progressive success?
  • What progress is visible, and what progress is hidden? Can I find a way to reveal what is hidden?
  • Stop thinking about whether your game is fun to play and start thinking about whether your game is fun to play with.
  • If my game had no goal, would it be fun at all? If not, how can I change that?
  • When people see my game do they want to start interacting with it, even before they know what to do? If not, how can I change that?

Players should be drawn towards manipulating the puzzle – for example, even people who don’t want to solve the Rubik’s Cube are drawn to touch it, hold it, twist it.


(i) Schell, Jesse. The Art Of Game Design. 1st ed. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2015. Print.

(ii) “Puzzle Difficulty Index From Puzzazz – How Hard Is This Puzzle Anyway?”. Puzzazz. N.p., 2017. Web. 1 Apr. 2017. http://www.puzzazz.com/puzzle-difficulty-index

(iii) Tulleken, Herman, and View;. “How Are Puzzle Games Designed? (Conclusion)”. Dev.Mag. N.p., 2017. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.  http://devmag.org.za/2011/06/04/how-are-puzzle-games-designed-conclusion/

(iv) Kim, Scott. “Transcript Of “The Art Of Puzzles””. Ted.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.  https://www.ted.com/talks/scott_kim_takes_apart_the_art_of_puzzles/transcript?language=en

(v) http://indiedevstories.com/2012/01/04/game-theory-applied-the-puzzle-of-designing-a-puzzle-game/

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