By heuristics, I mean those guidelines that help us find a solution to a given problem. Moreover, if we define the problem as finding an interesting game design for a puzzle game, we could then evaluate the given solutions or designs by using these heuristics. In this article, I intend to introduce one of the game design heuristics that I came up with after playing many good and bad puzzle games. However, before I continue, I would like to highlight an important fact. Following game design heuristics is in no way an absolute measure of a design, however, it can be a good indicator of a good design.
When you play a puzzle game, there are two active models of the game. One happening on the board, and the other is a model of the game inside your mind. To better illustrate, look at this image from the game Tetris:
By simply looking at it, we can immediately see that the best move to solve this current situation is to drop the long piece at the bottom left corner. However, you won't “win” this game (or situation) until the piece reaches there. In other words, you have solved the game in your mental model, but you are yet to solve it on the board model. So, we can see that there is a distance or a period between the mental solution and the board solution. This distance or period, I call it: Reflection Distance, and the reason for this is, if we imagine the board as a mirror that the mental solution reflects on, then we can define the distance between the mental model and its reflection on the board as the Reflection Distance.
Reflection Distance Usage
What this heuristic can tell us is, that the shorter the Reflection Distance is the better the puzzle is (Not necessary, but only as a guideline) because the longer the distance is, the higher the chance is for the player to get bored and for the game to be less usable, and this happens because, in the first stage, where the player is trying to solve the game in his/her mental model, the mind is very busy and less to be distracted, which improves the flow. However, in the second stage, when the player solves it in his/her mind model, all that remains is for him/her to translate the mental solution to the board solution, which is a very mechanical stage and makes the player more prone to be distracted.
Reducing the Reflection Distance
Tetris offers an interesting technique to reduce the Reflection Distance by offering the player a control that allows increasing the drop speed of the piece. By this, whenever the player solves the problem in his/her mind he/she can fast forward to translate the solution on the board immediately and move on to think of the next piece location.
Reflection Distance in Other Game Genres
Although I have started my article defining Reflection Distance as a heuristic for puzzle games, and that is because Reflection Distance is clearly seen in puzzle games, Reflection Distance as a pattern can be seen also in other game scenarios. One example is boss battles in action games. In boss battles, usually each boss has a certain pattern of actions, and to each action, there is an appropriate reaction from the player (Monster jumps => Player rolls, Monster swings sword => Player jumps). In this case, the boss health is the reflection distance, because as soon as the player realizes the pattern, his actions become mindless repetition.
Decreasing the Reflection Distance is not a straightforward operation here, because if we thought about decreasing the boss health then we may reach a point where the boss is no longer a boss and it becomes a minion. So, a suggestion to fix that would be to randomize the boss behavior to destroy the pattern and keep the player focused and anticipated to the next boss move.
Why Game Design Heuristics?
Game Design Heuristics allows us to create a shared language between game designers, and this help in making the process of designing a game together easier. Because deciding early in the design process to achieve certain values of the Game Design Heuristics allows us all to be on the same page and helps us in focusing on what we think is important. Reflection Distance Is a very shy try in creating a game design heuristic, however, I believe that if we as designers put the time in analyzing games and recognizing these patterns or heuristics, we would end up with better designs and a mean to share and document our knowledge.