How to avoid designing a Bad Puzzle

Bad Puzzles

Bad puzzles have spoilt games within some of my favourite series.  Bad placement and puzzles where the solution is not immediately obvious can be the one thing that ends a players experience on a negative note and may even make them not want to continue playing.  This is one of the worst things that can happen for a game designer.  So how do you avoid creating a challenge within your game that is more challenging than fun?

There are a number of puzzles that when used are more likely to create bad experiences for your players.

Arbitrary Puzzles

All events should be connected to a cause.   Events should not just occur when a designer wants them.

“Designer only” Puzzles

These are puzzles that only make sense to the designer.  Steer clear of these!  Just because the solution is clear in your head do not assume that the solution is blindingly obvious to the player.  To make sure you don’t fall into this trap you should fully exploit playtesters.  They are great test subjects to make sure that your puzzles can also be solved by others and not just the designer.

Binary Puzzles

These are puzzles with two straight forward choices like “yes” or “no” which will either bring success or failure to the player.  If you have to give the player choices, make sure you provide them with a range of choices that are not simply success or failure to make it more difficult to either succeed or fail.

Instant Death Puzzles

Try to avoid creating puzzles that kill off the player without giving them any warning and only then providing them with the knowledge they need to avoid death.

For example, the player enters a room that locks automatically behind them.  A circuit box near the door sparks as the door closes.  The player deduces that they need to connect the wires correctly within the circuit box in order to open the door to escape the area.  They touch the circuit box and are electrocuted.  This should never happen.

The player should be properly informed that the circuit box is dangerous before they enter the room or at the very least attempt to touch it.  By placing warning signs on the door before the player enters the area and on the outside of the box the player has been informed that the box may be hazardous to them.  By placing a stool near the circuit box with rubber gloves you then also give the player the solution to the puzzle.

“Pixel Perfect” puzzles

Sometimes simple problems like scale can ruin a good puzzle.  If an important object within your room is very small but the room that it is held with is extremely large it may be easily overlooked by the player.  To make sure that this does not occur you have a few choices.  You can either:

  1. Make the object stand out visually from the background by making it a different colour, giving it a particle effect when the player draws closer to it or giving it an animation to make it move when the player gets close to it.
  2. Move the object into the foreground
  3. Or, make the trigger area around the object bigger than the object itself (this should be a last resort though).

Good Puzzles

Fairness

In a fair game, the solution to every problem is held within that game.   The player should also (in theory) be able to solve the problem the first time that they encounter it just by thinking about the puzzle (providing they have been given all the information needed).

Suitable to the environment

The puzzle should be appropriate to the environment of the story.  It may also give the player the opportunity to learn more about the characters and their backgrounds.

Enhance the theme

A good puzzle should ideally enhance the theme of the game (if there is one).  The player should not be making any decisions or performing actions that are contrary to the character’s background.

Lastly, a sign of a good puzzle is when a player has finally solved the puzzle and can logically see why the solution makes sense.  Not only that they are kicking themselves that it took them so long to get it.  The sign of a bad puzzle is when a player has to use a guide or asks for help to solve the puzzle.  Even after getting the answer they still can’t see the connection and know that they never would be able to solve the puzzle themselves.

All the information contained within this post has been gathered from research carried out and my own opinions. If you wish to see references for this articles please contact me.

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