After dabbling in developing a multitude of game mechanics, I would assert that designing a good puzzle is one of the most challenging. Don’t get me wrong, all mechanics present their challenges in design and balance, but puzzles are a unique blend of difficulty and rule communication that’s tough to get right.

What even is a puzzle? 
In general, a puzzle is anything that requires you to accomplish a task while adhering to a specific set of rules. This can have a broad-reaching interpretation, but I like to exclude things like riddles and platforming and focus on systems that are self-contained obstacles within a level.
Where to start?
The first step to designing any puzzle is making sure you the designer have a clear understanding of the rules and how they break down into specific components of the final vision. This will help us break it down and introduce highly complex systems piecemeal to help the player garner confidence and understanding. Designers should never be out to “trick” a player with unfair “gotcha” moments or obfuscated traps – designers SHOULD be an invisible mentor setting the player up for success before giving them a challenge to overcome. To accomplish this, it’s vital that the goal and rules are clear up front to a player.
How do you teach?
Where committed puzzle games can come out swinging with rules and scenarios, like a board game instruction manual, non-puzzle games require a subtle and integrated approach. While the specific deconstruction is challenging, the theory behind it is rather simple:
The first encounter with a puzzle should be a lesson in the rules. Set up a scenario using the simplest version of the rules – not twists, tricks, or catches – simply show the player that “when I do X thing, Y is the result.” The player should not be able to proceed until these lessons have been learned and the puzzle solved.
  • In the Scout Act 2 we introduce our sliding box puzzle on a clear stretch where a player gets to the solution in a single click. Teaching 1) crates on ice travel in a straight line until they hit an obstacle and 2) a crate can be used as a leg up
The second encounter should have the player greet it with confidence, they should be thinking “I know how to do this,” and solve it with possibly more steps and at most 1 clarification/addition to the rules – it’s essentially the same puzzle but bigger.
  • In our example, our second sliding box puzzle is the same, except the ledge you want to grab is an overhang and not a flat wall, reinforcing the importance of placement on the crates. If the crate is flush against the wall, the overhang blocks your boost, but if it is aligned with the ledge, you may proceed.
The next encounter after this is where you can start to introduce complications and catches – Ideally one at a time, or two at a time max if they are closely related. These are things that subvert the learned notion of the last two puzzles or add onto the ruleset. You can continue to complicate each encounter after this until you have maxed out your puzzles’ difficulty as far as you want to go.
  • Our third and fourth crate puzzles introduce short scented crates. Showing that the scents can be used as lures but aren’t always tall enough to help reach a ledge. We also introduce the interaction of multiple boxes, and how they can become an obstacle to help with getting boxes where you want/need them.
The final puzzle should be your mastery puzzle. It should use every rule and trick the player has encountered up to this point to “test” their mastery of the mechanic. For The Scout our mastery puzzles were usually our third – as our puzzles tend to appear in trios to avoid getting overly difficult, but for games such as “Baba is You” or “OpusMagnum” you might be overcoming quite the complicated puzzle!
  • The level in Act 2 caps this by requiring a short scented crate be used as a lure. There are larger crates that you need to use for positioning, and the twist in thinking is not to use the box as a leg up, but to use its small size to pass through a gap.
Final Tips
Make any failure states obvious. A player should never waste their time thinking “if i was just a little faster or more precise I could make it.” A general rule of thumb is to roughly double the space needed to succeed. So if you can jump 3 meters, a jump you can’t make should be 6.
Use artistic composition (framing, color, lighting) to make sure your player first see’s the puzzle from a curated angle. This should make it obvious what is and isn’t important and hopefully what links to what.
Test and Iterate – be open to feedback and be ready to change, alter, and change again. But keep in mind to look at feedback from “what problems are being had” and not “what solutions do they suggest” because players often prescribed incorrect/suboptimal solutions to very real obstacles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment