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The Philosophy of Puzzle Design

Many people don't think about puzzle games as being difficult or hard to design, but for today's post, we're going to look at why a puzzle could be even more demanding than any soulslike or action game.

Josh Bycer

September 24, 2020

11 Min Read

The puzzle genre is one of the most popular among a wide audience of consumers—from the simple act of learning Tetris to the brain-melting of a Zachtronics-designed exercise. While puzzles aren’t known to tax players the same way as fighting a boss in Dark Souls, puzzle design and structure presents a unique consideration when it comes to progression, onboarding, and keeping the player from slamming their head against a metaphorical wall.

Growing the Puzzle Genre

Depending on who you talk to, a puzzle game could be anything from casual match 3 titles like Candy Crush, all the way to the subtly complicated Baba is You. One of the major aspects that has led to the growth of puzzle games has been doing more in terms of the presentation. Since its inception, many puzzle games are built as just a series of non-connected puzzles. If you were hoping for any kind of meaningful connection or story, your only answer was to play adventure games. The puzzle design of the adventure genre is in of itself its own design topic that we are not going to be looking at today.

The puzzle genre started to elevate with games such as Portal, which brought the challenge of real-time physics and velocity to puzzle solving. Braid that invited players into a strange world and told a story through its puzzles and areas. Games like Spacechem not only proved that there were always new ways of designing a puzzle game, but that you could get really complicated with the design. More puzzle games were being released that incorporated elements from other genres.

In a previous post, I spoke about elevating games with a greater focus on presentation, and this is something that has come to differentiate the successes of the puzzle genre. In the past 10 years, many indie puzzle games have taken to building a world around their puzzles—either connecting them by location or being used to advance the plot. Some puzzle games—like the award-winning Gris—brought a highly emotional story that captivated players as much as the puzzle solving.

When we talk about puzzle design outside of the adventure genre, there are two popular philosophies that designers use.

Linear and Nonlinear Puzzle Design

While puzzle design is often a complicated task, the foundation that designers use can be broken down easily into two forms. The first is a linear puzzle. The player must solve a task using the tools and mechanics provided to them, and there is only one valid solution. Even games that give the player real-time control, such as puzzle platforming, can restrict the player’s options by limiting their control over the character while jumping. A popular example of this is “Sokoban” puzzles that challenge the player to move boxes to specific positions or create a path through a room. Handmade puzzles are a popular option for developers to flex their creative muscle and come up with ways to create brainteasers. For games built around a very specific or esoteric design, it is easier to onboard the player with guided puzzles (and we’ll talk more about this in a minute.)

The second kind of puzzle is the nonlinear type. In this case, the beginning options and the end goal are fixed, but there are multiple ways of accomplishing the solution. The most famous example of this would be the titles from Zachtronics who specialize in advanced puzzle design. For their games, just getting a solution is only half the battle, then you need to compare yours to your friends and make something better. This kind of puzzle design is more about emergent gameplay than brain teasers. As the developer, you are presenting the player with a variety of tools and asking them to build a solution out of them.

Often, the player must manipulate whatever starting options with their tools in order to solve the puzzle. With linear puzzles, the player is not able to alter or change the parts of the puzzles outside of any fixed ways predefined by the developer. Any solution that meets the needs of the puzzle is considered a good one, but there is no such thing as “the correct solution” to a nonlinear puzzle. Zachtronics’ games have histograms that grade a solution on various attributes, but that doesn’t mean that one solution would be considered the best one. With Infinifactory, there are people who go for very minimalist solutions, and some who go for Rube-Goldberg master contraptions.

Another way to look at nonlinear puzzles vs. linear puzzles is how the design is presented. Linear puzzle design typically doesn’t give the player any tools, but places what they want the player to use within the puzzle itself. Nonlinear design teaches the player about all their tools which are then carried from one puzzle to the next.

As with a lot of our topics that we talk about, there is no superior option to puzzle design, it’s all about the implementation. With that said, regardless of your puzzle design, it’s important to think about onboarding the player to the thought process required.

Onboarding Thinking

While it may not look it from the outside, good puzzle design is very hard to pull off. One of the hardest areas is onboarding, and where many puzzle games quickly lose new players. With action-based games, it is very easy to set up challenges or tests on the player’s mastery of the mechanics. Organic tutorials that are integrated into the game space have been a mainstay of action-based games going as far back as the original Super Mario Brothers.

With puzzle-solving however, it’s not as easy to test the player. Like strategy and 4X design, you can walk the player through the mechanics and rules, but that doesn’t mean they actually understand what’s going on. The goal is to train the player to understand the hidden rules and dynamics of how the puzzles work so that they can figure things out and develop solutions without being directly told what to do. The problem with this goal is that too often the player either doesn’t understand what’s going on, or they’re not making that connection.

With the titles from Zachtronics, a major part of the emergent gameplay is figuring out these dynamics between tools that are hinted at, but never outright told to the player. With Infinifactory, it is possible to set up logic gates and infinite loops (for the programmers reading this) using the tools provided, but the game never stops to tell the player that. And that right there is the trouble when it comes to onboarding—if you give the player too much, then you’re solving all the puzzles for them. However, if you give them too little, they’re not going to be able to connect the dots on their own. To put it another way, imagine you are explaining to someone how carpentry tools work. The only guidance you give is just telling them what each individual tool does; after that, you tell them to build a house.

In many of my posts about tutorial design, I bring up the three questions you need to answer for the player:

  • What am I doing?

  • How do I do it?

  • Why do I do it?

And those questions need to be answered for every rule, object, or tool, that you give the player to solve a puzzle with. The order that you introduce puzzles and their mechanics to the player is crucial in the development process. Some games like to have an open-world structure that lets the player solve the puzzles in any order. The danger of this is having the player run into rules or new concepts before they have been properly onboarded to them.

And that takes us to an important topic and something we don’t often talk about—why very few people finish puzzle games.

The Thought Wall

We always talk about action titles with the concepts of having a skill floor and a skill ceiling—the minimum and maximum level of skill in order to beat the game. And yet, we could say the same thing about puzzle games and the level of mastery required by the player to win. Even though many people will say that puzzle games are “casual” or “simple” games, they can be more brutal to play than any Dark Souls or Doom clone.

The reason has to do with “the wall”—that moment when the player fails or gets stuck at a section. In action games, getting stuck at a challenge or hard section becomes a moment of pride when the player beats the boss, reaches the checkpoint, etc. That is the motivation for everyone who plays a soulslike or a Kaizo game. In these games, playing the game becomes an exercise to train the player to overcome the challenge. In soulslikes, the reason why they seem to get easier over the course of playing is that the player has grown in terms of mastery and knowledge of the game. The skill floor and ceiling of a soulslike are relatively close to one another, and someone who figures out the beginning of playing the game will have a good chance at finishing it.

The same can’t be said of puzzle games. Puzzles by their very design are black and white in terms of solving them—you either have a solution and can move on, or you don’t, and you’re stuck there. In action games, we have seen easy victories to nail biters and everything in between. There is no such thing as “training” or improving when it comes to puzzles. Unlike action games where knowledge and skill translate from one challenge to the next, the same can’t be said of puzzle gameplay, for the most part.

The overall rules and structure of the puzzles in a game don’t change that much, but the dynamics and thought process behind them differs depending on the mechanics used. In the puzzle game Filament, the player’s goal in each puzzle does not change—they need to take a coil and wrap it around every tower to power them. What does change are the objects and process to solve each puzzle.

In the previous section we talked about emergent gameplay, and how players start to learn how the tools or mechanics interact with each other. Unfortunately, many people are not able to make that connection for one reason or another. For them, this is where they hit the wall of playing a puzzle game, and when that happens, the enjoyment of the game nosedives.

When someone gets stuck at a puzzle game, all progress comes to a halt, and there’s nothing the player can do to fix it other than solve the puzzle. Therefore puzzle games are more frustrating than action games in the grand scheme of things. As a developer, you have options when it comes to designing multiple ways of progressing through an action game—you can have the player grind for power, call in help, change their build, or simply lower the difficulty of the game. None of those options can be applied to a puzzle game.

At this point, I’m sure someone is getting ready to comment with “why not just let the player skip the puzzle?” This is unfortunately an idea that is often the final nail in the coffin for players. The reason has to do with how puzzles are designed. Every puzzle in a set, or throughout the game, are built on the knowledge attained from earlier puzzles. If the player can’t figure out the solution to puzzle 3, then they’re not going to be able to solve puzzles 4, 5, and 6. Players can sometimes brute force a solution given enough time, but they’re not going to want to do this for every puzzle. Once they skip one puzzle, it is more likely they’re going to continue skipping.

And therefore the drop-off rate of people playing a puzzle game often nosedive even sharper than action games. Further still, for puzzle games that don’t have a focus on presentation and are just a series of self-contained rooms, it can become very tiresome to play a game that is just repeating the same elements again and again. For puzzle games that boast 100+ different puzzles, it is very unlikely that people are going to finish all of them without having something else to focus on.

A Puzzling Problem

Puzzle design is an area that we don’t often talk about in videogames despite so many people who have enjoyed them. Trying to make one that is deep, engaging, and still provide players with help when they need it is tricky. I often think about the Artifex Mundi games and how they have an “instant solve” option that turns on if the player is stuck at a section for too long and if that could be applied to other games.

For you reading this: Can you think of engaging puzzle games that kept you invested all the way through, and were there any that you hit the wall and stopped playing?

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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