Puzzle Design Approaches

Posted by The Architect on May - 26 - 2024

That I’m a fan of puzzles should come as no surprise (see here, for instance). On a mechanical side, I like to be challenged in unusual ways, where combat after combat eventually gets stale; in terms of atmosphere, I find exploring mystical and potentially dangerous places so much more interesting if I happen upon something puzzling.

It’s also no surprise that in modern games, including puzzles isn’t always easy, as their realistic imagery often conflicts with more abstract content (see here, or here for the CRPG Addict’s take on the topic). In classical CRPGs, however, they’re mainstays for basically the reasons I listed. Not all puzzles are created equal, though, and that’s something about which I am having an ongoing conversation with a fellow CRPG creator.

Specifically, the exchange concerns what I would dub “Dungeon Master”-type puzzles as opposed to “Might & Magic”-style puzzles. The former usually confronts the player with an environment that features numerous components interacting with each other. It is the player’s job to figure out the specific interactions, and how and in which order they have to be triggered to yield the desired result. This is generally done by triggering element after element, watching (and noting) the results, and eventually determining a pattern that can be used to achieve progress. The game rarely takes the effort to educate the player in any way.

In contrast, “Might & Magic” sometimes gives you a single question, sometimes a range of questions, sometimes an assortment of components not unlike the “Dungeon Master”-style contraptions. The major difference is the presence of clues. Sometimes, the questions themselves include the clue; sometimes, they’re scattered throughout the dungeon. The player’s job is to interpret the clues and thus deduct the puzzle solution.

The difference is obvious: in “Dungeon Master”, a major part of the puzzle is obtaining the information required to solve it, with a specific method known in science as “trial and error”. Because you lack this information initially, it is generally impossible to solve such a puzzle without a lot of experimentation. In contrast, “Might & Magic” puzzles may also take several attempts to solve (e.g. you might think of several possible answers for a riddle), but if you interpret the clues correctly, you should be able to get there with the first try.

Obviously, both types of puzzles can result in a frustrated player – I have found riddles especially to show a tendency of being either too easy (if based on a pre-existing, widely known riddle) or unsolvable for everyone except the designer. However, the “Dungeon Master”-style puzzles have one step that, in my opinion, has so much more potential for irritation, namely the communication with the player. If I’m expected to “trial and error” my way through a network of trigger interactions, in an optimal case I want the “error” to tell me something more than “that didn’t work”, e.g. give me a clue into the right direction. If it doesn’t, if I’m just pointlessly checking off one option after another, I would actually call the exercise a roadblock rather than a puzzle. (Many point-and-click adventures fail here, too, which is why I was never really fond of them.)

For bonus points, disguise which and/or how many components are involved: nothing like trying all combinations of five buttons over and over only to notice later on that there’s a sixth one two steps further which may or may not affect the others. If you want to see how a mildly sadistic approach to this could look like, I recommend this report.

The bottom line is that solving a “trial and error”-puzzle often takes just too much effort, and the payoff is rarely there, as just going through the motions doesn’t give me a feeling of accomplishment or even cleverness. Note that it is possible to create such puzzles that still reward the player’s creativity or deductive capabilities, but I’ve seen so many games of that ilk which botch this part, even professional ones, that I’m quite skeptical about the practical implementation. Especially if you don’t have a lot of playtester feedback, it’s quite easy to become a victim of developer tunnel vision here (I’ve been there myself, thanks for asking).

Of course, there is no reason we have to subscribe exclusively to one of these schools of puzzle design. Options to keep things fresh here (and probably easier on the player) could be –

  • Creating a “Dungeon Master”-style puzzle with external (non-obligatory) clues, but hide these well or make them otherwise not immediately accessible
  • Creating a “Might & Magic”-style puzzle that allows for a “trial and error”-approach if the solution doesn’t come to mind
  • With either type of puzzle, allow for multiple solutions (not necessarily all with the same degree of success)
  • With either type of puzzle, allow bypassing it via a tough combat, for those people who wonder why CRPGs should have puzzles at all
  • Replace puzzles with interaction points – mmh, I thought I had written something on the subject I could easily link here, but apparently I still have to do that. Whoops.

May you solve all the puzzles before you. Happy Crafting!

Categories: Allgemein

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