Game Developer Interview -- Michael Hicks on Personal Puzzle Design

Reposted from Game-Wisdom, this is a written interview I did with Game Designer Michael Hicks on puzzle design and the challenges of tying it to a serious topic.

Michael Hicks is a developer who focuses on creating video games built on specific themes personal to him. I had a chance to talk to him through email about this approach, and how it relates to his latest game: The Path of Motus.

1. For people who aren’t familiar with your work, can you talk a little about your background in game development?

Sure! I started programming games as a hobby when I was in grade school. It started off with basic things; I loved space shooter games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron so my first games were mimicking that. Eventually I stumbled into doing this full time when I released some games onto the Indie Section of Xbox 360. My first professionally published game came out in 2015 for PlayStation 4, it’s called Pillar. My second one was just released for PS4, Xbox One and Steam, it’s called The Path of Motus.

2. From our email chat, you talked about combining esoteric elements with your game’s designs; with your last game dealing with introversion and your upcoming one on bullying. Whenever we talk about topics like this, there is a fine line between using them in a way that’s respectful, and using them that’s glamorizing or exploiting the topic. What are your thoughts on how to properly show serious topics in video games?

I think we’re still figuring out how to do properly convey things like this in game design. And even then, I think whenever you deal with serious topics like this there will be people who disagree with whatever approach you pick. The Path of Motus is a game about bullying, and in the past week I’ve had people who were bullied reach out or write articles saying the game really nailed the experiences they went through.

Alternatively, I had people pan the game saying that it was too simplistic and was damaging to the conversation. I think that’s just the type of thing you sign up for when dealing with sensitive material; everyone brings their perspectives and opinions into the experience and you get all types of contrasting opinions.

With that being said, I try to only design games about things I care about deeply or have been through personally. That’s the only way I feel like I can be respectful to the topic. I would never design a game about something I wasn’t hugely invested in.

3. Puzzle design is always a fascinating topic, and I’ve heard different thoughts from many developers. How do you approach puzzle design with your games, and tie that into the element that you’re exploring?

I try to design puzzles that express specific ideas. Puzzles usually have one solution, so that really lets you get into the head of the player at each step of the puzzle and throw in interesting tricks. In Pillar, each lightpost puzzle is about a specific moment I found to be surprising while experimenting with the mechanics. If I ever had a “wow, I didn’t expect that to happen” moment, I would design a puzzle around it.

In The Path of Motus, I wanted the puzzles to link back into the narrative. So for example, there are puzzle doors you come across during various points in the story. Right before the doors you read a poem that foreshadows what’s going on in the puzzles. The first one is in a cave, and the poem talks about Motus feeling isolated from the world, but no matter how much he wants to be alone he’ll always be connected to other people.

Immediately after that you have puzzles that were designed in a way where players intuitively want to isolate the nodes into two partitions. When that happens, a voice over from the poem plays and usually people understand that all of the nodes must be connected to solve the puzzles.

4. Continuing with that last question, where do you think the balance falls in terms of good puzzle design and making something that will be challenging, but without outright confusing the player?

I try to have a base set of rules that are easy to understand. I like puzzles that are simple to understand, but have a lot of mileage and interesting scenarios. For me, I think that helps create a balance because you can always fall back on the simple rules to help figure things out. However, my experience is that everyone has different ideas of what is challenging and easy, so no matter what you do there will be someone that finds it to be one or the other. It’s just how people are.

5. What are your favorite kinds of puzzles to play and/or design in your titles.

Most of the puzzles I enjoy and design are logic puzzles, but I’d like to branch out in future games and try different things. The combat in The Path of Motus is very puzzle based; you need to find specific ways around the enemies. I think that catches some people off guard because you expect it to be a run and gun type of experience, like most platformers.

6. What do you think is the hardest aspect of designing a puzzle for a video game?

I think it’s easy to churn out a bunch of puzzles that are challenging and time consuming, so the hard part for me is finding interesting ideas in the puzzles to explore. The first iteration of The Path of Motus had a bunch of logic puzzles, but they were all about the same idea and were pretty boring. I had to challenge myself to go further and find interesting moments in the mechanics to design around.

7. For people reading this right now, what can you talk about with regards to your upcoming game?

If anything I said interests you, be sure to check out The Path of Motus on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam! We have links to each store page on our website at It’s narrative heavy, but I think it approaches the story in a different way from most games. Like I mentioned earlier, I made a huge effort to marry the gameplay and the story, so hopefully that comes through in the final product.

Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions and best of luck with your upcoming game. You can find the Path of Motus on Steam now.

If you are a developer interested in being interviewed or coming on for one of my casts, please get in touch.

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