Puzzle design turned out to be a little tougher than I thought it would be, so I did some research …
Dev.Mag did some interviews with puzzle-game designers. The introduction to the series said:
Computers allow us to enrich puzzles with compelling narrative. … On a computer, it is easier to string puzzles together into a unified, structured experience, making it possible to train players, to give them a sense of progression, and to award players by revealing more content.
A puzzle is a game with a dominant strategy. … For the player, the fun is in finding the dominant strategy; for the designer, the challenge is in finding the sweet spot for that strategy, somewhere between trivial and merciless.
The article then divides puzzle games into two general categories:
Heterogeneous Puzzle Games …
where the designer designs mechanics for each puzzle. Adventure games are typical examples of this type of puzzle game, and typical puzzles require a combination of common sense and lateral thinking to solve.
Homogeneous Puzzle Games …
where the core mechanics are reused often, and in many combinations. … Difficulty increases when the designer introduces more mechanics, use mechanics more cleverly, and combine more mechanics into each next puzzle.
Tiffany Manuel at Medium created some infographics from puzzle presentations at a developer’s conference.
Illustrates the principles of puzzle design given by Bill Bates. There’s a lot of stuff there, but look at the puzzle types:
Gestalt (pattern recognition) puzzles
Unusual-use (lateral thinking) puzzles
Prepare the way (setup) puzzles
Excluded middle (fill-in the blank) puzzles
Timed (optimization) puzzles
Gather information (and use it) puzzles
Code-breaking (word game) puzzles
How many text-adventure games try the homogeneous approach, where game-play focuses on one puzzle type? I know of “Counterfeit Monkey,” which seems to focus on code-breaking/word-game puzzles, but I’m sure there are others out there.
I really need to steal some ideas from you guys, so I can design some clever puzzles!
Adventure games often have a degree of homogenous (or “systemic”) puzzle design. A particular mechanic gets reused in many different contexts, perhaps in qualitatively different ways, but you have to understand the consistency of the pattern.
For example, in Loom (the graphical adventure), we have the notion of reversing spells (which gets applied to every spell). Then, at the end, the OPEN spell gets re-used on an unexpected target (the entire world).
On the other side, there are are purely systemic puzzles like Sokoban – one block-pushing mechanic, lots of levels. But then there are games which start with that mechanic and start contextually varying it to work in new and surprising ways. Baba Is You is the obvious example there.
I wrote an essay about puzzle design a few years ago and I thought it had been published but can’t find it anywhere, so I decided to repost it.
Here’s a link to it:
For other homogeneous puzzles, there’s 15 Minutes by Ade Mctavish (entirely based around 1 time puzzle), Suveh Nux (which is a great 1-room game about learning a magic language), Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Sugarlawn (timed optimization puzzles), pretty much all of Andrew Schultz’s wordplay games (Shuffling Around and Threediopolis are my favorites), Gun Mute (focusing on one-on-one gunfights). Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head!