The Practical Side of Puzzle Design
Before you can learn how to come up with great puzzle ideas, you’ll need a technique for recording your ideas. in a tangible form. This will vary according to your personal preferences and strengths. You could build puzzles directly in your game engine (or a level designer built into your game), or describe them in words or pictures. Whatever works for you and your game is the best approach.
As an example, I will describe how I design puzzles.
I make notes of all my ideas for possible puzzles, ‘gimmicks’, interesting possibilities for the game mechanics, etc. I always keep a notebook (either paper or digital) on hand to make sure any idea that pops into my head is recorded. I like to keep a list of puzzle ideas in OneNote. Here are a few examples from my current project:
- The entire floor is a button
- Rolling ball – player needs to get through a gap before the ball blocks it
- Moving platforms affected by the main mechanic
Out of the project’s context those ideas might not make complete sense, but you can get a sense of the kinds of ideas I write down. These can be starting points for puzzles.
I draw my puzzle designs on paper in a notebook with colour coding and my own idiosyncratic notation. I usually draw a rectangle on the top half of the page, which will be my puzzle area, and I use the bottom half of the page to describe the steps needed to complete the puzzle and any notes. I’m currently making a puzzle platformer game, and among my drawing conventions are a triangle to represent the player, colour-coded laser beams and buttons, and objects marked with letters so I can refer to them in the description below. I usually give each level a name that describes its main idea.
Here is an example of a design for my current project. Note that I make no attempt to make my designs pretty – I just need to make sure that all the information I need to build the puzzle in my game is there. Often I need to erase things and make changes as I go, so I use pencil, and only add the colour when the puzzle is completed. The letters represent different objects that I describe along with the solution instructions (which I have omitted here because they will make no sense outside the context of the game).
Here is an example level design from Mouse Dreams alongside the puzzle from the final game. Forgive the atrocious drawing…
The puzzle design was done before the game’s theme was decided, which is why the drawing is just abstract shapes. One difference made to the final puzzle is that I moved the cheese to the upper left corner to make it a little more interesting to get to, and also to teach the player they can jump on picture frames (in the sketch, the pink triangle is the object the player had to collect). Never stop refining your puzzles! The text under the image says something like ‘door open / close due to light’ (when light hits the green switch on the wall, the chair in the final puzzle will slide down to allow the player to get to the exit, but when the moving yellow platform blocks the light, the chair moves back up to block the exit.
I have developed a set of shorthand and symbols for my puzzle designs. I use a triangle to represent the player, usually an ‘X’ or a flag to mark the goal or exit, arrows to indicate movement, and so on. Any object in my design gets assigned a letter, which I use to reference the objects in my description of the level and its solution.
Tip: I have started to write my puzzle descriptions and solutions in the levels inside the game engine (I use a Scriptable Object in Unity). This way, I never have to remember or find the solution to puzzles I created months ago and need to test or update. I also find it helpful to add a notes section, for example to note anything that may need improvement or fixing later (puzzles can often require iteration).
Different Ways to Design
You may prefer to design your puzzles directly in your game or game engine, or use physical objects like figurines or Lego bricks to plan out a puzzle on your desk. There is no correct or best way to do this, though I will later explain why it can sometimes be a good idea to mix it up and try something unfamiliar.
If you’re not sure what works best for you, just try a few different techniques until something feels right. There’s nothing stopping you from changing how you design your puzzles later on, and in fact that might be a good idea sometimes.
Here are some suggested ways to design puzzles:
- Drawings on physical paper (use symbols and colour to represent objects)
- Drawings on a computer or tablet (similar to above)
- Use toys, particularly versatile toys like Lego, to build puzzles physically
- Cards, e.g. write ‘player’ on a card and ‘key’, ‘door’, etc. and place them on a table to build a puzzle
- Any combination of the above
- Anything else you can think of as long as it can get ideas out of your head and into some physical form.
Design VS Implementation
For the purposes of this article, I have separated design and implementation, though there may not necessarily be a distinct difference in the two phases of puzzle creation depending on the game. By puzzle design I mean the act of coming up with the ideas and structure for a puzzle (such as in the sketches above). By puzzle implementation I mean the act of building and finalising the puzzle in your game, or turning the idea into a playable puzzle. Roughly speaking, I consider design the ‘idea’ part and the implementation as the ‘practical’ part.
A more rigid puzzle mechanic (e.g. the mazes in The Witness, which generally have a single ‘correct’ solution) might be entirely created in a single design phase; but a physics puzzle like in The Incredible Machine or Game of Clowns will likely have some disconnect between the initial design and the final implementation, as it can be difficult to predict how a puzzle will play when it is designed in a theoretical or ‘on paper’ kind of way.
If you prefer to build puzzles directly in your game or engine without first designing elsewhere, you are likely to design more ‘off the cuff’, and the design and implementation phases blend together.
This article is mostly concerned with the design aspect. How you take those designs and put them in your game will depend a lot on your specific game and game engine. As I touched on before, don’t consider design finished when you transfer your puzzle into your game. You may find that the idea ‘on paper’ doesn’t quite work how you expected, or you may find that the puzzle has an unintended easier solution. You may also need to tweak your puzzles when the game is being tested and issues are found.
Puzzle Design Techniques
Now let’s go through some of my favourite and most fertile puzzle design techniques. Each of these techniques should help you to find ideas and implement them well to create good puzzles for any type of puzzle game.
A great way to start designing puzzles for your game is to first create the puzzles I call ‘no brainers’. These are puzzles that may not even fully fit the definition of a puzzle, but require the player to do something that teaches them the game mechanics that they will need when the puzzles get more challenging.
This may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain…
Here are the first two puzzles from my game Mouse Dreams, which is a puzzle platformer game that starts off very easy and gradually gets more difficult. The aim of each puzzle is to first collect the piece of cheese, and then get to the exit. These first two levels are extremely easy, but they teach the player two of the game’s most important mechanics – jumping and pushing.
Here is the first level. The player has to jump up on the chair, then onto the cupboard to get the cheese, and then jump down to get to the exit (the mouse hole in the lower-right):
And below is the second level. this level has one major difference from the first – the player needs to push the red stool into position to be able to climb on it to then reach the cheese above the chest of drawers, and then push the stool to the right to get access to the exit.
You might be wondering why the first level exists at all. The second level covers the jumping and the pushing, and is itself an easy puzzle. I was in two minds about keeping the first level, and eventually decided to keep it for the following reasons:
- It makes the game more accessible to younger players
- It makes it almost impossible for any player of any skill level to get stuck on the first level
- It gives the player a very quick introduction to the game’s main play loop – get the cheese, get to the exit.
You of course don’t have to start your game with such easy puzzles, but in my opinion it is important that you design these very simple puzzles whether you use them in the final game or not, as it gets you into the mindset of making puzzles in a very simple way, just as solving easy puzzles gets a player into the game. Sometimes I combine two of these no-brainer puzzles into a single more challenging puzzle, especially if I’m introducing a new mechanic later in the game.
For each mechanic or new idea (e.g. combining two mechanics, etc.), design the simplest puzzle that gets the mechanic or idea across to the player. Designing these no-brainer puzzles gives you insight into how the mechanics work, and can help get your creative juices flowing. Since you are quite literally describing your mechanics rather than trying to craft a devious puzzle, you don’t need to be creative, and you can get a bunch of puzzles created effortlessly. You can later choose to use these puzzles or not, or you can use them as starting points for more complex puzzles. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily want your game to get constantly more difficult. It helps players to sometimes reduce the difficulty and give them a ‘quick win’, and an ideal time to do this is when introducing a new mechanic with a very simple demonstration of how it works. If your no-brainer puzzles are still too easy to solve, try combining them with a previous puzzle to create a variation that uses a new mechanic or idea.
No-brainer puzzles are also a great way to assess how good your mechanics are. When I start creating puzzles with my mechanics, I know that if I can come up with around 10 simple puzzle ideas when I first start trying, then my mechanics should be diverse enough to support a whole game. If you struggle to get more than a few no-brainer puzzles you may need to rethink your mechanics. The no-brainer puzzles should come very easily to you. The two examples above are simply from these goals:
- Show the player that they can jump up onto things
- Show the player that they can push some objects
Always remember that the fun of solving puzzles is that Eureka moment when the player discovers a new way to look at the game world. Make sure your puzzles are focused on revealing a facet of your game mechanics rather than requiring the player to use trial-and-error or brute force to find a solution.
And like anything with game development, you will likely find that the act of doing – creating these very simple puzzles – will get your mind into the right mode to design more interesting and ingenious puzzles.
Telling a Story
Think of a puzzle as a little story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The beginning is where you are showing the player their goal – get the player to the exit or roll the ball through a maze. The middle of the puzzle is the player’s attempt to solve it, and the end is the solution.
Just like any story, you want the beginning to be intriguing. That might mean an interesting layout or unusual twist on the typical puzzles in your game. Set up clear obstacles the player will need to overcome, such as a currently unreachable exit or something that seems impossible to get past with what the player understands to this point.
The main (middle) part of your puzzle story should delight, surprise, and challenge the player as they try to find the solution. Just like a movie, you need to balance the puzzle so that the player doesn’t find it too easy or too difficult. You don’t want the player to get bored from too little challenge or to give up because they feel they won’t ever find the solution.
Finally, the end of the puzzle should be satisfying, just like the end of a good movie. This often involves the surprising ‘eureka’ moment of learning something about the game and its mechanics by finding the puzzle solution.
The story your puzzle tells can be an explanation of a mechanic or a narrative, or both. If your puzzle requires the player to push a box near the exit to climb on and complete the puzzle, then the story is “player needs to get up to the exit but can’t reach. They see a box and realise they can climb on it, so they push the box near to the exit and solve their conundrum.
Most puzzle games will have more than a single mechanic, and a great way to come up with puzzle ideas is to think about how any combination of two (or more) mechanics would work in a puzzle.
You can do this in a very mechanical way, at least at first, by creating a table to cross-reference your mechanics and trying to create a puzzle for each combination.
You can regularly assess your collection of puzzles and see which mechanics are being overused or underused, and try to create some new designs that repair any imbalance.
Come up with some random prompts using different mechanics, such as:
- Use 4 crates in a single puzzle
- Use a crate with double-jump
Once you give yourself a simple challenge, your brain will start to think of solutions.
Mixing Things Up
Mixing things up is a great way to reach different parts of your creativity. If you design all your puzzles the same way, you may get too stuck in routine and end up creating puzzles that are too similar or more importantly not creating puzzles that use all the potential of your puzzle mechanics.
A lot of times these changes in approach can unlock new veins of creativity, and lead to several new ideas.
Do Something Different
When I was designing levels for Mouse Dreams, I noticed that almost every level had the exit on bottom the right and the player on the bottom left, which is quite standard for a platforming game. To prompt myself to try something different, I decided to try creating a level where the player had to get from the top of the screen to the bottom. I drew out my standard rectangle shape for a level and placed my player at the top left, and put the exit down the bottom left. This immediately led me to create a kind of back-and-forth zigzag shape for the level otherwise it would just be the player jumping down or using a ladder. No other level had this kind of a layout, which is a good start. I then worked out what mechanics suited this particular layout and ended up with this level, where the level’s gimmick is to use the light switches to manipulate the movement of the ghosts (who are afraid of the light, and will therefore stay out of it) to enable running past them safely. A small twist (which I won’t spoil) adds a small amount of extra pressure and difficulty.
Another way of mixing things up is to do something randomly. I will sometimes draw a basic level shape and then put a random object somewhere in the level. Then I will ask myself questions like “how does the player need to use that object to progress in the puzzle?” or “what obstacle can I put in the way of the player reaching that object?”, that might prompt me to the next element of the puzzle.
You could use dice or cards to ramp up the randomness. Write your mechanics or game objects on paper cards, then shuffle them up and draw one card. Whatever is on that card gets added to your puzzle design. Repeat. Think of how the two mechanics or objects should be used together in the puzzle. Keep repeating until you have a puzzle.
Randomness can be hit-or-miss of course, but the main point is to get you thinking in new and unexpected ways. I like to use random prompts when I’m low on ideas. When it works, it can lead to puzzles with a different feel to the ones you create less organically.
Change Your Tools
Another way to mix things up is to use a different way of designing. As already mentioned, I sketch puzzles on paper, but sometimes I build puzzles directly in the game engine for a change. Just like any other form of mixing things up, changing the medium of puzzle design forces you to look at it a bit differently. Designing on paper is very free-form, whereas designing in the engine is a bit more rigid (at least for me). The differences make you think a little differently.
Create a Problem…Then Solve It
Create a problem or obstacle in your puzzle, then work out a solution to that problem. You have an advantage over your players – you can use whatever mechanics you want to solve the problem, and you know all the ins and outs of how they work.
As a very simplistic example, imagine a puzzle platformer where there is a high wall in the way of the player’s progress. The player can’t climb or jump that high, but they need to get to the other side to get to the next level. There’s the problem. Now think of a solution using your puzzle mechanics. Maybe the player can push a box next to the wall and climb onto the box to get some height. But…maybe the wall is still too high. OK, so let’s add a second box. But in this hypothetical game the player can’t just pick up a box and stack it on top of another box. So let’s add a moving platform that the player can push a box onto, which then raises the box high enough to the player can push one box on top of the other and now they can climb up the boxes to get over the wall. And there is the basic idea for a puzzle: stacking boxes using a moving platform to raise a box up. That’s a great start to designing a puzzle.
This approach has a great side effect of making you think about your mechanics and different ways they can be used. You will also find that sometimes the prompt of creating and solving problems starts a chain reaction of ideas, and you can end up with a really good puzzle that organically grows from nothing more than the simple act of creating a problem for your player.
If you create a problem that you can’t solve…put it aside for later. Don’t discard the idea (more on this later).
A common method used to create puzzles is to reverse engineer a puzzle from a complete or solved state. The process will vary according to how your particular game works, but it basically starts with a completed puzzle where all the pieces are in their correct or final positions. Then you turn this ‘solved’ state into a puzzle by moving things around, adding obstacles, and so on.
I used this technique for a lot of puzzles in Game of Clowns, which is a physics puzzle game, and the technique is perfect for that. I would build a complex series of physics objects that would achieve the puzzle’s solution once the physics simulation is enabled. In this game, the puzzle solution is some kind of physical result, such as making a clown roll into a barrel of water. Once I had a ‘solved’ puzzle that was fun and used the mechanics in interesting ways, I would simply remove some of the objects, which became the objects the player could use to (re) add to the puzzle to solve it.
For other kinds of mechanics, it may be more suitable to do this a bit differently. For example, if you have a game that uses mazes, you might set the exit in a certain position and place the player in a certain start position, and then decide on the route from the start to the exit. With the solution mapped out, you can then start adding obstacles or hazards that block off the wrong paths or require specific actions in specific sequences to travel the correct path.
Keep ALL Ideas
Write down (or sketch) every single idea you have. No matter how bad the idea might seem, it is valuable! An idea that you think is bad could end up being good, or could go well together with another idea you have at another time, or could trigger you into thinking of a great idea. So always record your ideas.
I keep a list, making sure I always have a notebook nearby. I regularly transfer any notes I make on paper to my online notebook.
Notes can be anything, and they don’t even need to be complete or make full sense. Taking notes is about making sure you capture every thought you have that could potentially help you design puzzles. You can flesh out these ideas another time. Just make sure you record them.
When you’re short of ideas, go to your ideas list and read through it. You’ll be surprised at how often a throwaway idea sparks something.
Here are a few random items from my ideas list for my current game:
- The entire floor is a button
- Different shaped objects – e.g. triangles and hexagons
- Include more physics-based puzzles
- Box in a hole in the floor needs to be lifted out somehow
Some Starting Points
When you’re stuck, pick one of these starting points and try to create a puzzle:
- Explore/explain a specific use of a mechanic
- Teach the player something new
- Trap your player, then work out their escape
- Combine any two mechanics
- Make a puzzle twice the usual size
- Design a puzzle around a specific aesthetic choice
- Take an existing puzzle and swap 2 items for other items
- Try reversing an existing puzzle in some way