GDD 020 : Puzzle Design

By September 20, 2014 Podcast No Comments
Game Design Dojo Podcast Episode

In this episode, Brian and Ike dive into puzzles and how to implement them in your game design. They compare games using puzzles as their main gameplay or as a feature thrown into the gameplay. They’ll also discuss how they go about using puzzles in their own games. So, enjoy!

Today’s Developer Diary

Brian has starting using Notepad ++ instead of MonoDevelop and Unity Visual Studio because it’s so light and fast. It’s a totally free, tiny little program that he changed all the colors to look like Unity and trained it to get all the key words in there. It’s just fantastic!

Ike has taken the opportunity to step back and put a couple of patches on the three games he has in the store after taking some of the feedback he’s gotten. He also has a fourth and fifth game in the works!

Brian explains that even though Fenix Fire hasn’t released any games this year, they have a lot that is being incubated so they’ve had a really busy year and it’s been the work for hire that’s been able to keep them going. Brian and Ike also discuss the totally different approaches their companies have to releasing games and the importance of having your game featured in the initial launch.

Puzzle Design

As a starting point, puzzles should include a couple of key traits:

  1. It should be very clear what the puzzle is  – For example – With a jigsaw puzzle you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, fit all the pieces together
  2. It should show progress as you’re solving the puzzles – Jigsaw example – As you join more pieces together, not only are you building a larger cluster but you’re also filling in this picture which is satisfying
  3. There should be some sort of a pay off when the puzzle is solved – Jigsaw example – The joy of seeing the picture all together gives a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of completeness

Puzzles in Level Design

The puzzle should be obvious with clearly defined rules. In games like Metroid and Zelda, the camera takes over and points the player to where they need to go. This gives the player a call to the puzzle and also shows the player the ingredients of the puzzle. The most common are a torch, a totem, a door, or a lock and key.

You can be innovative as much as possible when designing your game because you have the amazing opportunity to design a brand new game and can do whatever you really want in it so why resort to something that has been done a million times before?

But, be careful since it’s very easy to lose the player the more you innovate. You’ll still need to have a lot of conventional game design elements because if the game is too weird or out there then people won’t be able to understand it.

 Puzzle Games – Match 3

In a puzzle game, the call to the puzzle is the game itself and it’s just a matter of learning what the mechanics of the puzzle are. Candy Crush example.

  • Familiarity in games –  some players want something new but in a way that they understand it immediately
  • Feedback Loop – the faster a path to failure is identified, the better it is
  • Having clear, constant feedback is good – like a jigsaw puzzle trying to match pieces
  • Sounds are very important – having satisfying sounds when making progress
  • Effects are very important – Puzzle and Dragons example
  • Having a tiny bit of input gives you tons of positive feedback – makes you feel great
  • Prime demographic of match 3 games is women over 40 –  coincides with slot machine games

Every Game is a Puzzle

Anything that requires strategy, which is almost every game, the puzzle is defined by the fact that you have to make choices.

Starcraft – The puzzle is how to win the war.  You have all these tools at your disposal and there’s a constant change in strategy.

Clash of Clans – The puzzle is when you go to attack a village which of your pieces do you put down and where.

Gears of War – The puzzle is being in a large open space and shoot all kind of enemies. The AI is a puzzle and the level layout, level design is always a puzzle.

A puzzle is something that needs to be solved.

A way to declare you’ve beat a games is by saying you’ve solved it. There are puzzles through out the game but the game itself is a puzzle that needs to be solved whether it’s with skill or strategy. Arcade game example- Robotron 2084.

Different Categories of puzzles and Different levels of puzzles:

  • The puzzle game – geared toward the strategy vs the skill
  • Puzzles that are very obvious
  • Puzzles that very subtle
  • Entire game being some kind of a puzzle

Using Traditional Puzzles in Game Play

The motivation for sticking a traditional puzzle in a mostly combat game like Gears of War might be to break up the monotony of the action.

Sometimes people loose interest with having too many puzzles in a game because they’ve played so many games where they couldn’t solve a puzzle and got stuck. The challenge is how do you progress the level design of your puzzles so that you progress the difficulty.

Recommend for games that aren’t puzzle games, like an adventure game with a puzzle thrown in, make that a supplementary experience somehow. So if the player can’t or doesn’t want to solve the puzzle they don’t have to, but it would be better for them if they did.

Mobile Games

Almost every huge hit on mobile has been a puzzle and there’s some elements that are very popular in the genre of a puzzle game but they’ve added these different elements like action and physics based.

  • Taking the puzzle genre and doing more with it
  • Different degrees of solve-ability and rewarding for more mastery – if you could solve the puzzle in a more perfect way, that is then score-able
  • Angry Birds example

Solving Puzzles 

The mark of a great puzzle is to encourage the player to try a lot of different things especially if there’s a lot of different actions they can do and then give them feedback that’s appropriate to how they’re trying to attack the puzzle.

The Boss Fight

  • Been around since arcade games
  • Got all your basic mechanics that you’ve learned throughout the whole level
  • Then you put them in front of the boss
  • The key to a good boss – the character design is good enough to see what it is you’re supposed to do
  • Zelda example

 Hidden Puzzles

Some games have unlock-able doors that you can only unlock later in the game because you haven’t been given the game mechanic yet to open that door. It becomes a challenge of how do you communicate to the player that they’re supposed to acknowledge that that is a puzzle but it’s not yet their time to solve that puzzle.

  • You want them to see it
  • Want to bait them
  • Lets you create other chapters in the game
  • Do want to acknowledge it
  • The powers that you unlock to the player  – be very clear in what actions they do

Source and Puzzlin’ Pieces: USA

Brian talks about his game Source and the color coding puzzles they’re using and the challenges of making a Metriodvania game.

Ike talks about his game Puzzlin’ Pieces: USA and why he put in the hot and cold mechanic in the game.


This topic of puzzles is something that we’re just scratching the surface of and it might be worth breaking this up into sub-categories.

Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and leave us a review of your thoughts on iTunes!

Listen now to Game Design Dojo Episode #020



About Deanna McRae