CAP 203 - Computer Animation III

Chapter 12 - Game Mechanics Support Puzzles


This lesson discusses material from chapter 12 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Puzzles
  2. Good puzzles

Chapter 12 is a very short chapter. It still manages to provide us with five new lenses.

As we should expect, Mr. Schell spends a few words pondering and defining the nature of puzzles. I like the general idea at the top of page 208, that a player is working on a puzzle every time he stops and thinks about some aspect of the game. A puzzle typically has only one answer, although this is not necessarily true in video/computer games. In this way, video game puzzles can be enjoyed more than once.

A classic puzzle is only fun through the moment of discovery of the answer. The puzzle may be fun or frustrating while we are working on it, but it ceases to be fun when we know the one and only solution. In this way, a puzzle matches the definition on page 209: "A puzzle is a game with a dominant strategy." Puzzles are typically fun once, then they are no longer interesting.

Clue is a game, but it has a puzzle at its heart. Why does it continue to be fun, after playing it once? Because the puzzle is changed each time the game is played. Even though we have played the game before, we do not know the solution to the puzzle the next time we play.

In games, the puzzles that we include may detract from the game experience if they are not related to the theme of the game. Mr. Schell gives us examples of puzzles that did not relate to their parent game, The 7th Guest. Oddly, he remarks that this was a popular game, even though the puzzles in it were unrelated and strange. Perhaps this was not a negative for that game. I recall playing it myself, and I remember the odd assortment of puzzles as being a feature that was a selling point for the game. We should consider the user's expectations when we predict whether a feature will be a positive or negative experience. If the user understands that the game has "off the wall" puzzles, and buys it with that in mind, they must be a user who wants to experience that sort of thing.

A list of principles for good puzzles begins on page 211:

  1. Make the goal easily understood - for instance, show the player what the finished jigsaw puzzle looks like
  2. Make it easy to get started - if the basic solving method is not clear, the user must be shown an example
  3. Give a sense of progress - let there be a series of steps which can give some reward along the way
  4. Give a sense of solvability - see the note above about the jigsaw puzzle
  5. Increase difficulty gradually - the text suggest letting the player choose the order of events in solving the puzzle, since some players will consider different steps easy or difficult, and most will prefer solving the easy steps first; a puzzle that has multiple steps to solve it, which can be done in any order has parallelism
  6. Parallelism lets the player rest - the player can choose to do a task that is easy after doing one that was hard, as long as the order of events is unimportant
  7. Pyramid structure extends interest - when a series of puzzles can be used to get information about a larger puzzle, that is a pyramid structure.
  8. Hints extend interest - many games have included puzzle hints, phone hints, hint books, and downloadable hints. A good hint is not the answer, it is another clue to the puzzle.
  9. Give the answer - Mr. Schell tells us that we may have to give the answer to the player. He suggests this can be a reward. I suppose it may be, to some players. To those who enjoy puzzles, a series of hints would be much better.
  10. Perceptual shifts are a double-edged sword - Mr. Schell means that some puzzles cannot be solved by a method, but must be solved by an intuition. The solution to this kind of puzzle hits you all at once, or not at all, making it a poor candidate for inclusion in a game, in my opinion. Mr. Schell seems to agree.

Lens 48, the Lens of Accessibility, tells us to make sure the player can start the journey to the solution.

  • How will players know how to start solving the puzzle? In the case of Clue, the method of finding the solution is to play the game. In the case of most mechanical puzzles, the first move is to explore how the pieces can be moved. Some puzzles, however, are not obvious. Try Godtower for a bit.
  • Is the puzzle familiar? Does it work like something the player has seen before? Remember, most people learn about things in terms of things they already know. If this is totally new, what must the player be told to proceed?
  • Does the puzzle draw the player in? Does it have toy value?

Lens 49, the Lens of Visible Progress, reminds us that players need to see progress as they go. This may not be true of all players. Some martial arts (in some markets) typically employ progress levels (color belts) that have not always been used. Does your audience need color belts, or are they content to go from novice to master after a very long trial? Consider a series of levels to your puzzles.

  • Does the puzzle communicate progress to the player?
  • Does the puzzle need more steps or levels so the player can perceive the progress?
  • Is part of the progress hidden from the player? Can it be shown to them?

This takes us to lens 50, the Lens of Parallelism:

  • Can the puzzle be structured in parallel challenges, so the player can "step away" from one that is too hard, and let his subconscious work on it?
  • Are the parallel challenges different enough that the player gets some relief by going to another one?
  • Do the parallel challenges offer any insight from one to another? Can solving one help solve another one?

Lens 51, the Lens of the Pyramid, relates to challenges that build on one another:

  • Can all the puzzles relate to the final puzzle?
  • Can we use a series of pyramids?
  • Is the final puzzle interesting enough to get the player solving the earlier puzzles?

Lens 52, the Lens of the Puzzle, is an overview of the concepts in the chapter:

  • What are the puzzles in our game?
  • Do we need more of them? Fewer of them?
  • Which of the puzzle principles apply to our puzzles? Can we make them better in light of the principles?
  • Are there any incongruous (ill fitting) puzzles in the game, and can we change them to relate to the game better?