How To Make A Great Puzzle Game

A good puzzle can be appreciated in nearly every game genre. Today’s focus is specifically on games in which every level and mechanic is solely dedicated to test a player’s ingenuity or knowledge (a.k.a a puzzle game). A lot of advice out there is on a broad scope of generally good advice regarding what a whole puzzle game should be but they don’t exactly cover the process of how these amazing puzzles can be created and isn’t all in one place. I will cover what I think is the best advice to keep in mind – the good, the bad and then focus on the specific structure I follow when creating puzzle games to hopefully present a fuller picture of what goes into the creation of a good puzzle game.

THE GOOD

A compilation of the best advice out there on what to keep in mind when creating your puzzle game’s levels:

1. Minimalism: The most highly regarded puzzle making tip is that it should be minimalistic in nature. The levels should be small, allowing the player to explore and examine the space without having a large and frustrating possibility space for their actions. Furthermore, many suggest a small amount of overall mechanics as well – generally no more than 7 different types of abilities a player can perform.

2. Teaching: A good puzzle is clear and concise in what the goal and purpose of completing the puzzle is. For example, in Portal, you know that you have to get to the visible exit at every level and you know that it’s because you’re trying to escape that god-forsaken, cake-less laboratory. A good puzzle also wants to be figured out. It should make the player feel like the game is working hand-in-hand with the player to be solved as opposed to against them. We can do this by teaching the player about the mechanics in a safe space (as will be covered later in the structure section).

3. Mechanics: Mechanics are absolutely essential to any puzzle game. The range of possibilities that come out of your mechanics are what drives everything about the puzzle, from its level creation to its plot to its overall aesthetic. It seems that the most popular puzzle games come from mechanics that are strange. That’s a good place to start, think of wild and weird fantasies that could present themselves as mechanics (time travel, teleportation, rolling a giant sausage).

Think of mechanics that have a wide range of possibilities but keep the amount of your mechanics small (as mentioned in point 1). For example, in the widely accredited Stephen’s Sausage Roll, he can only move in 4 directions but the placement of himself and his fork make for so many more possibilities.

Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid and The Witness) suggests that most of his games levels were made by playtesting and just examining the limitations the mechanics would cause. The levels in his games, he says, would write themselves in that way.

4. Playtesting: Essential for every type of game imaginable. In our case, it is rarely clear to the creator of puzzles what the player could be thinking when first presented with a puzzle. What is obvious to the creator may be completely out of the box to someone else. Hence, playtesting is absolutely crucial to find out where players get frustrated or where they find it too easy and boring. Puzzle games are among the hardest games to make in this aspect because we, as creators, know the solution when creating the puzzle and would therefore have an incredible misrepresentation of its difficulty.

Edit: In a direct reply to this article, Jonathan Blow mentions:

“I think too much “playtesting” as described here will make your game boring, and will degrade your skill as a designer, and over time make you a boring designer. It is important to avoid this.

If you playtest too much it means you don’t really know what you are making or don’t have confidence to determine what playing it can be like. Even if you don’t have these skills or this confidence yet, you should be working on building them. Certain high skill levels of design will not be accessible otherwise.

The amount of playtesting we did on The Witness was very small — about 5 or 6 days over the course of 6.5 years, on a game that takes 50-100 hours to play through.

Whereas I do sometimes get puzzle ideas from bottom-up exploration of a space by myself (which is the definition of “playtesting” that would make sense here), in fact the vast majority of my puzzle ideas just spring to mind after I have built a sufficient understanding of the possibility space. So these are more like two distinct phases of design, and you might switch between them when designing one game. But I think most of the actual puzzle ideas have to come at least semi-intentionally, or the game will not feel very strong.”

THE BAD

Where there is good, there is evil. There are many pitfalls to avoid when creating puzzle games that would frustrate and annoy your players if kept in your game: 

1. Reversal: A widely debatable concept in puzzle creation is whether or not to start from the end. “If you want to make a puzzle, imagine your end result and work backwards from there”. Do not do this. In fact, Jonathan Blow suggests you do the exact opposite. He suggests you work the puzzle forward. He would play through the game and see where the mechanics get you stuck and that would be what he creates his levels around.

Furthermore, working backwards would most likely involve you adding more and more limitations or obstacles to your existing level, opposing the point about about minimalism. Also, it would cause the player to be frustrated as it doesn’t necessarily involve thinking smarter, just more – hence, our next point.

2. Tediousness: When a puzzle can be figured out as soon as you look at it, but have to complete it anyway to proceed, it creates for busy work. This is something you want to heavily steer away from in a puzzle game. A way to avoid this is by giving the player unlimited attempts at a level (like in Stephan’s Sausage Roll where there are no consequences to dying). This alleviates the need to think hard about a level and then carefully execute the solution. Instead, the player can safely explore the space in your own time and come to a satisfying solution by themselves or maybe come up with things they hadn’t previously thought possible.

I know, however, that giving players unlimited attempts does not work with every game. In those cases where it is beneficial for your game to have consequences, just make sure that your player isn’t just doing busy work that is too easy through playtesting. If I find or come up with a clearer solution, I’ll update this blog (any suggestions?).

3. Binary: As opposed to the point on creating a mechanic with many possibilities, it is highly advisable to not come up with binary mechanics (such as switching something on or off). No matter how many of those you put in, it would be essentially as fun as unlocking a padlock through brute force (switching one number at a time till it opens). Expanding the number of state spaces a mechanic can have leaves the player’s mind open and also leaves a large number of puzzles for you to be able to create.

THE STRUCTURE

I first developed the structure when I came across a comment on Reddit describing the types of levels in puzzle games and what the purpose of each level should. It helps me to think about each level as a means to an end – whether that be the end of the game or the end of a phase in the game. When I create puzzles, I think about each of these types and how they would build off one another to reach a satisfying conclusion. The types of puzzle levels (in their usual order) are: 

1. Teachers (difficulty: 1) allow the player to explore a new mechanic in your puzzle game with little or no hardship or consequence. Every puzzle game phase should open up with at least some kind of teacher level that would allow the player to discover the extent of the game’s rule in an isolated, non-punishing environment.

2. Testers (difficulty: 3) take the player’s new found knowledge and, as the name implies, puts it to the test. These tests require the player to have an understanding of the various game mechanics and rules to properly succeed. These tests make up most of what puzzle games are all about, thinking of different ways and sequences to win the game. Obviously, for this level to be fair, the mechanics required should have been taught to the player in levels prior.

3. Consolidators (difficulty: 4)  assumes the player knows the skills the game has given them very well and mixes things up a little with that assumption. This is just like a tester level but requires a player to think outside the box, challenging what he/she believed they could do with their in-game abilities. Mark Brown covered this very well with his video essay on “What Makes a Good Puzzle”. He suggests making the player think that they have the simple and exact solution but, upon trying it out, fails. This would get a player thinking harder about the contradiction in their actions and attempt thinking outside of the box. These levels don’t appear often as they might frustrate players heavily and, to be honest, they’re pretty hard to make.

4. Breathers (difficulty: 2) are a nice change of pace from the intensity the player experiences when going through the previous kinds of levels. It is generally something simple but satisfying while respecting the player’s ability to think rationally and plan ahead. There definitely shouldn’t be many of these but they’re incredibly important to not overwhelm our players.

5. Masters (difficulty: 5) are simply hardcore. It tests the depth and mastery of the skills the player has acquired. Similar to a consolidator level, the master levels should challenge the player but on a different scale. These type of puzzles can easily take up to an hour to solve but, while extremely satisfying to the hardcore player, should be optional in most puzzle games. Completion of this optional level for me usually is accompanied with a great reward.

CONCLUSION

Puzzle games are one of the most challenging genres out there right now. I hope to have contributed a clear-cut compilation and method on how to think about, design and create your own puzzles in any puzzle game. 

This is my first blog post, I intend to write weekly on puzzle games. Whether it be through puzzle game reviews, puzzle creator reviews or general new on the puzzle game industry I hope to provide content that would be helpful and valuable to puzzle game creators worldwide. With that, please let me know what you thought of the blog post (writing, structure, content) and what you’d like to see from this website as a whole. Thank you for your time!

CREDITS

1. Where I got my inspiration to write this blog post: Answer to “Any recources that shows the guidelines for proper puzzle building?”

2. Illustrative and interactive guide to puzzle game making: How to make a good puzzle game – Tom Hermans (Gamasutra)

3. Beautiful and professional essay on general puzzle making advice: What makes a good puzzle – Mark Brown (Game Makers Toolkit)

4. Absolutely amazing resource on the different types of puzzles in games: Designing the puzzle – Scott Kim

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