The technique LucasArts used to design its classic adventure games

Game designer Noah Falstein discusses the concept of the puzzle dependency chart, a technique that he and his colleagues used at LucasArts when developing classic adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island.
Independent game designer Noah Falstein has always had a particular interest in narrative-driven games. He was there during the golden age of story-driven adventure games, working on classic LucasArts-developed adventures like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. One of the techniques developed during LucasArts' heyday as a graphic adventure developer is the idea of a "puzzle dependency chart." Developed by designer Ron Gilbert for his groundbreaking 1987 adventure Maniac Mansion, the technique breaks games down into a flow chart that simplifies a game's narrative into objectives and solutions. One of the tricks to the technique, Falstein said at a GDC talk Monday morning, is to avoid the temptation of putting too much narrative into the chart. Instead, focus on simple goals. "It's all keys and locks," Gilbert has been known to say about game design. This is from about ten years after the original Maniac Mansion, but here is an example from LucasArts' Grim Fandango that shows what one of its puzzle dependency charts looks like (unfortunately, Falstein says the original charts for games like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island are probably lost forever):
While game progression flow charts aren't a new concept to most designers, Falstein had some takeaways during his brief talk that are worth noting:

Make it bushy

Making a straight, linear narrative is of course the simplest path for a game designer, but the problem is that when a player gets stuck, she has nothing else to do. Make your branches "bushy" by allowing players to work on simultaneous tasks, Falstein says, so that they don't get easily frustrated.

Work backwards

Falstein says that designers should work backwards from the climax of a game's narrative, and figure out how to get there. "It's actually much easier to design that way," he says.

Too easy? Break something

By working with a simple puzzle dependency chart, designers can easily adjust sections of the game that are too easy for the player to get through. By way of a simple example, Falstein described a scenario where a player acquires a key in the game. If that section needs to be stretched out and made more difficult, break the key in three and have the player go on a separate mini quest to reunite the pieces.

Too hard? Branch out

Alternately, using this same method, designers can adjust a section of the game that's too difficult for players by adding alternative solutions or additional activities.

Break up story with gameplay, and vice versa

Finally, Falstein suggests that when creating a narrative game, designers should keep themselves fresh by switching to story when they're stuck on gameplay, or switching to gameplay when they're stuck on the story. This works well on players too, it turns out, so keep that in mind when designing your game. For Gamasutra's full GDC 2013 event coverage this week, check out the official GDC 2013 event page.

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