Thursday, October 21, 2010

Designing Puzzles Backwards (Part I)

In Part I of this article, writer-designer Steve Ince gives an overview of how story, plot, and gameplay feed into puzzle creation in a game.

I’ve spent most of my game development career working on various story-based games; mostly traditional adventures but other types, too. Although there are different kinds of puzzles involved in the creation of such a game, the kind I find most satisfying are the ones that tie the gameplay directly into the story by the means of shared objectives.

When I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to create both the story and design of a game, as I did with So Blonde, for instance, I like to work in a very iterative manner. I get the basic structure of the story sorted before working up some detail, which then allows me to start defining the gameplay objectives based upon that story, which then feeds back into the developing plot. By working this way, the plot becomes a high level structure that gives both the gameplay and story the shape it needs and enables me to start working up the puzzle details.

When I’m in a position to work on an objective related puzzle, I find it’s best to start with the objective and work backwards. By taking this approach I ensure that each step of the puzzle – or other gameplay that feeds into the puzzle – links to the objective in a clear way.

As I work on such puzzles I loosely go through a series of questions that help with the process.
  • What is the objective?
  • What is stopping the player character from reaching that objective?
  • How will the player deal with that blockage?
  • How will the player get the items/skills needed to do so?
  • Are there separate or side objectives the player has to deal with in order to get what’s required?
  • How can I make this more complex?
  • How can I make this more fun?
  • Is this series of events logical?
  • Is it clear to the player what they need to achieve and what they need to do to achieve it?
There may be plenty more questions relating to the specifics of a puzzle or the objects used and even the user interface, but the main thing to remember is that if you’re not asking yourself these kinds of questions, you’ve got to ask yourself why not.

Steve Ince is a Writer-Designer with 17 years in game development. After 11 years with Revolution Software, Steve turned freelance in 2004. In 2008 he received an award nomination from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for the game, So Blonde.

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