Mike Rimer(mrimer)United States
This is the last article in a series on developing Twisty Little Passages, a puzzle dungeon crawl adventure book.
In this last part, I explore how to balancing puzzle difficulty to maintain the right level of challenge throughout the book's puzzles.
Hints and solutions
Our team wanted to provide puzzles that provide a wide range of difficulty levels. Of course, aware that everyone is at a different level and has a varying level of experience in solving puzzles, we didn't want players to reach a point where they're simply stuck and don't know how to solve a puzzle.
I included a set of progressive hints for each puzzle to help players understand and get past the current obstacle, without spoiling the entire puzzle. To avoid unintentional spoilers while reading hints, I copied a simple technique that was used in a children's puzzle book series, the Usborne puzzles.
Simply write the hints in mirrored fashion.
You will notice that when you focus on the mirrored hint, you can read it. Without focusing on it, you are unaware of what it says.
We also include full puzzle solutions in compact form at the end of the book. Providing puzzle solutions lets a player verify that their approach was correct. The full solutions are also marked in such a way as to minimize spoilers unless looking directly at a puzzle solution.
At first, I wondered whether it would be thematically interesting or more accessible to allow various "difficulty modes" to each puzzle. For instance, the player could begin each puzzle with different stats, based on "easy" or "hard" play modes. Would this make the experience more enjoyable? Would players be more comfortable solving puzzles the "easy" way, and then want to come back and figure out how to solve it the "hard" way? When designing a maze, for instance, providing multiple exits, as opposed to a single exit, should make it easier to solve. Essentially, the challenge is being watered down. Early on in testing, we discovered providing multiple options mainly served to compromise the integrity of elegant puzzles and solutions, and we discarded that idea for this book.
We decided to design each puzzle so there is one best/right way to solve it. For a dungeon crawler, this translates to surviving each area with exactly one life point remaining. Were there options to complete a dungeon with greater than one life point, it opens the door (no pun intended) to finding additional, easier solutions that allow taking more damage along the way. This route is a double-edged sword (again, no pun intended). It becomes less clear to the player whether they solved the puzzle in the intended way, and the experience of victory becomes tainted.
When puzzles are designed with one specific solution in mind, players can assume they have found the right solution when they complete an area with a single life point remaining to their name. In many cases, the win is achieved by defeating a deadly boss enemy at the end and surviving by the skin of your teeth. We found this was the most satisfying way to design puzzles. Our playtesters enjoyed planning their route and equipment focused on preparing to defeat a tough boss at the end of the level.
It can be argued that a puzzle or a piece of art is only is good as the impact it has on its audience. It must stand on its own merits.
We playtested prototypes with multiple groups, including families and younger children. Adults appreciate the unique nature of the experience, and teenage boys and girls also expressed interest, saying,Quote:"I like these kinds of books and puzzles!"
When one boy grabbed an early prototype version from his dad, excitedly flipping through it and exclaiming,Quote:"This is what I always wanted!"
we knew we had a winner on our hands.
Thanks for taking the time to read our thoughts on good puzzle game design and developing TLP. If you like dungeon crawlers, puzzles and mazes, please back our campaign and share with your friends and family.
We’re appreciate your feedback, and we hope you enjoy Twisty Little Passages!
Development journal for a novel game book of dungeon crawl puzzle adventures, live on Kickstarter
Archive for Puzzle Design
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02 May 2019
As we developed puzzle content for Twisty Little Passages, we considered how so many types of games feature mazes in some form or another.
Many board and card games, when looked at in a certain way, are a maze in essence. We commonly speak of paths to victory in the context of what a game's rules, mechanics and elements allow. Exploring these paths is a delight. I believe, as players, we mentally map a game's state and rules into a maze-like space. Intentional players make moves to navigate the maze toward that place of victory.
Mazes become even more fascinating when their paths change as we navigate them. As game turns are made, paths open and shut. We try to predict which beneficial paths will become available in future turns and we prepare to take them. Our minds are invited to continually re-evaluate the maze. We enjoy attempting to perceive the shifting paths to victory.
We are fascinated by mazes and the instinctual challenge of getting from Point A to Point B.
Locks and keys
A staple element of dungeon crawlers (including the likes of Zelda-esque dungeons and Metroidvanias) is the notion of the lock and key. Locks and keys come in many forms, and their purpose is to turn an otherwise simple map into a maze that changes. Locked doors are "dead ends" that cease to be dead ends once you have the matching key.
A rule of having one key per door enables spatial resource management puzzles, another common puzzle trope.
Augmented movement abilities and terrain also function as a lock and key. For instance, a jump or double jump ability lets you navigate across pits (for instance), unlocking new areas. Again, this arrangement is essentially a maze that changes as you progress through it.
From the success of the abovenamed game genres, it is evident that exploring shifting mazes is a popular attraction. How one can interact with the maze is a source of fascination.
TLP makes use of lock and key mechanics in multiple thematic ways to provide surprising shifting mazes. We're not going to spoil all of them here, but we'll provide one obvious example.
A fundamental element of a dungeon crawl is fighting baddies. We made enemy encounters a core part of the TLP puzzle experience. Combat is deterministic. Simple rules, based on player Attack and Defense stats, determine the outcome of each encounter, represented by total damage received during the fight.
Note how the duality of combat, where the player loses life points, and health boosts as the means to recover lost life points are, in essence, another form of lock and key. If an encounter would kill you, it means that path is essentially locked to you. If you can survive the encounter, the path is open.
Life points, combat damage and health boosts are additional ways to make a maze shift. When your life is low, there are more dead ends (i.e., paths leading to defeat) and fewer open paths to success exist. As you gain more life points, paths that were once closed open up. Dead ends morph into the path to victory.
I realized gameplay would go much faster if the player didn't have to work through iterative combat rules in order to resolve each encounter. Some games may focus on the mechanics of combat resolution as the main draw. The focus in TLP is to enjoy the discovery of how the maze shifts. Providing concise damage tables facilitates quick play and allows the player to easily keep track of the actual and projected outcomes of encounters. In other words, the player can envision how the maze will change (opening and closing routes) as stats change and enemies are defeated.
Grappling hooks! Indiana Jones' whip! Double-jumps! A mechanical arm!
Tools and power-ups provide fun, thematic ways to unlock additional areas of the maze.
We throw some of these into TLP, not merely for thematic richness, but to provide novel opportunities, where determining how and when to get and use these power-ups become puzzles in themselves.
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Ongoing developer journal for Twisty Little Passages, a puzzle dungeon crawl adventure book, live on Kickstarter.
In this session, I share core concepts on designing puzzles by iteratively layering concepts one atop another.
With the player's hands, eyes and mind coordinated in playing effortlessly, dungeon areas can become fun puzzles. I say "fun" because when the player's mind is not busy having to manage the logistics of the play experience (e.g., shuffling cards, mashing buttons, juggling inventory), it can remain free to focus on the puzzle at hand and the player is able to enjoy solving it with a minimum of distraction.
A team of experienced DROD puzzle designers collaborated on the core content of Twisty Little Passages. We spent months on the puzzles, designing, refining and polishing each puzzle until it felt perfect.
In TLP, we outlined each puzzle area either to focus on one new concept or element or deepen the use of a previous one. We intentionally shied away from puzzles where the player needs to learn multiple new skills at once. We gained experience in this technique over years of working on Deadly Rooms of Death and other puzzle games featuring progressive puzzle design.
Teaching and Learning through Doing
When an area is focused on a distinct game element or puzzle mechanic, the area can be designed in such a way as to teach the player how to interact with that element or apply that mechanic through play. That is, with thoughtful design, the puzzle can help the player teach themselves how to solve it, and that makes them feel like a veritable genius while doing so.
Make each element a delightful discovery
Structure the design so as to enable encountering each new thing to feel like a wonderful discovery.
To provide a simple example, when introducing new game mechanics, say, keys and locked doors, do it in a way that provides "a-ha!" moments. Rather than first giving the player a key, which gives no clear challenge or solution, e.g.,Quote:"What's this? A key! Hmm...wonder what I'll use it for..."First present the player with a locked doorQuote:"Ah! I'm going to need to figure out how to open this."The door presents a challenge that the player's mind engages with, foreshadowing something new to discover. Then, when the player finds a matching key, it provides a satisfying flash of puzzle-solving insightQuote:"A-ha! Now I can open that door. I'm anticipating what's inside."Later puzzles can broaden that experience, paving a path toward mastering that element.Quote:Hey, look at what else I can do with doors and keys!We aimed to do this in a way that brings challenge and delight, never annoyance, to the player while uncovering these deeper interactions.
It's fine to reprise elements from previous levels, as the player should already be familiar with them. In doing so, we were deliberate in combining multiple elements. Doing so implicitly raises puzzle complexity and difficulty. To decrease difficulty, remove some of the elements, maybe featuring them in a second, distinct area. To increase difficulty, add elements (previously encountered, of course) to raise the number of non-trivial steps or interactions to discover in order to solve the puzzle.
One last note for designing puzzle widgets is to introduce game elements that serve different purposes from one another. By this, I mean assigning properties to elements that are distinct from other elements.
For instance, rather than simply presenting color-coded versions of a monster, where some are easier to defeat and some are harder, present tradeoffs in situations where a player would want to engage with one type versus another.
A common example of this is an enemy (let's take an archetypal slime monster), where one type deals more damage per attack, while also having a weakness to a certain type of attack (e.g., elemental attacks with ice, fire, lightning, etc).
Other examples involve developing unique combinations of attributes that exist in the game world. For instance, in the context a platformer, an entity's mode of movement, speed, density, modes of interaction, and resilience can serve to distinguish one element from another. Some creatures may walk, others hop quickly, while others float slowly. Some may dodge, others can mimic your movement, still others knock things back, and others explode when touched.
Choosing distinct sets of attributes for each game element can lead to interesting emergent behaviors when combined. Balancing player abilities and attributes with those of the game elements is a good way to manage difficulty and challenge.
What non-trivial ways of adjusting puzzle or play difficulty and teaching game elements do you like?
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Ongoing developer journal for Twisty Little Passages, a puzzle dungeon crawl adventure book, live on Kickstarter.
In this session, I share how to engage the player's mind at a level that balances ease, fun and challenge.
One draw of board games is, essentially, being able to play with toys. I wanted the player’s hands to be actively involved in playing the game. In solo adventure books, you might use a pencil-and-paper or track your stats on a page of the book. I wanted the player to be able to track stats and inventory on the same page as the current area they're playing. Again, this is so there's no flipping back and forth or having to hold your finger at another place in the book to break immersion. Each area layout is designed in such a way as to provide some dedicated space for stats and inventory tracking.
I wanted a quick and clean system of interacting with elements on the map. You mark off items you collect, doors you open and enemies you defeat. I wanted area topology to be straightforward, so it's always obvious what areas are open and where you can move to at any given moment. This affordance makes it straightforward to play as a team with multiple people solving the puzzle. As all information is open and visually represented on the page, a team can talk through how to clear an area together.
In early experiments, drawing on a map with a pencil and erasing past plays or mistakes got messy. I experimented with placing a clear plastic sheet on a map and drawing on the sheet with a dry-erase marker. That was a neat way to track progress without messing up the book, and it was easy to wipe the sheet and play again. Since it's a puzzle game, this also made it quick and easy to take back moves the player wants to undo simply by clearing their marks in reverse order. However, using a plastic overlay limited play to one area at a time (per sheet), and I considered that one or more players might conceivably want to be playing multiple areas at once, possibly over an extended period of time.
Next, I experimented with placing map prototypes in a plastic page protectors. This was an even better experience than with a single plastic sheet, because you can keep track of multiple maps in progress at once, and also your marks on the page protector won't slide around relative to the map page, like a plastic sheet might.
This experience worked so well during playtesting that I decided the book's pages would best be laminated, in order to allow flexible and effortless play on any and all of the areas at any time.
The end result is that the player's eyes and hands are free to move through the dungeon and take actions as fast as their mind can conceive of making them. This works very well in practice to maintain momentum in moving through the level to solve the puzzle.
In what ways do you like to interact with puzzles?
In the next piece, we'll follow-up with our experience with core puzzle design in TLP and share ways of abstracting puzzles and diversifying through theme, such as movement mechanics and combat.
Thanks for supporting the creation of Twisty Little Passages!
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I've been developing puzzle games, drawing maps and inventing dungeon crawls since I could pick up a pencil. I’ve made dozens of gaming creations for personal enjoyment and in joint partnership with others. Graph paper and level editors were favorite tools growing up. As a labor of love for puzzle game fans everywhere, I co-developed a franchise of PC puzzle games over a span of fifteen years that are, very seriously, named the Deadly Rooms of Death, or DROD for short.
In DROD, you fill the role of a professional dungeon exterminator. You navigate a series of hand-crafted dungeon mazes, clearing out those pesty monster infestations with your Really Big Sword while navigating tricks and traps in search of an exit. Built and supported by an active community, the DROD games were essentially crowdsourced though TLP represents our first actual KS campaign. DROD has been acclaimed as the "best puzzle game of all time," and I think the community effort played a big part in getting it to this level.
An intentional part of this puzzle game experience is that there is no randomness involved at any point. As you know, RPGs often involve rolling dice, ostensibly to simulate and approximate the complexity and unknowns of the world. Randomness also ensures you never know quite how that next battle will turn out, no matter how well you prepare or how outclassed you may be. But things change when you take the dice away. Deterministic play ensures that strategy and tactics become paramount over luck. Now scenarios become puzzles to explore, optimize and solve. It becomes a more "Euro" gaming experience, if you will.
I got the idea for Twisty Little Passages in a flash one day, when my son shared the idea of putting dungeon maps in a book and having to solve them similar to the Deadly Rooms of Death. I imagined how such an experience could translate well to a book medium, playing to its strengths. As I asked my son more about where his idea came from, he mentioned he'd had a dream about playing Minesweeper puzzles in an RPG-style, in a book. I was intrigued!
How could one design dungeon puzzles, placing everything in plain sight, and make them interesting and fun to clear?
How can one provide a sense of exploration and discovery, solving puzzles experiences like Minesweeper (for instance) when the whole map is revealed at the outset?
After hearing about my son's dream of a puzzle dungeon crawler in a book, I was determined to figure that out. I scoured the internet and couldn't find anything providing that experience. I asked around online and in local gaming circles. Everyone I shared the idea with was likewise unaware of anything providing this type of experience. Others shared my interest in the idea and said they would like to try something like that. So, I decided to make it myself.
This project is a labor of love and something we feel passionately about.
Let me take you on a journey of lessons learned along the way in developing Twisty Little Passages.
First, let's start with fundamentals of play. There need to be rules of engagement, game elements and mechanics. I first had to determine what rules, mechanics and elements would lend themselves to the strength of the medium of the printed page in solving puzzles. I realized the printed page primarily engages your eyes and your mind, but your hands are also involved. There needed to be mechanics that engage all three.
I wanted the mechanics to be elegant and streamlined, so you could play at the speed of thought. I wanted navigating a dungeon to be able to occur as fast as your eyes could travel the twisting, turning passages. I wanted your hands to aid in tracking your progress and supporting your mind and eyes to keep doing what they do best.
When designing a puzzle game, presentation can simultaneously mean everything and nothing. Visuals don’t change the core puzzle, but setting can help fire the imagination, while theme provides a visceral experience. There are plenty of abstract puzzles out there with start design, lines and boxes, numbers and letters. It’s rarer to see puzzles placed in an RPG setting, and rarer still to engage thematically (e.g., battle mechanics). RPGs are a rich space, both visually and content-wise. We wanted to build on that wealth of material without puzzle designs, rules or visuals becoming complicated.
We spent months iterating on iconography that would be clean, clear, and unambiguous. We wanted the presentation to be colorblind-friendly. The symbology of stats, items, and monsters needed to be immediately recognizable, familiar, and intuitive. We wanted players to be able to jump right in and learn how to play as they went.
To me, playing to the obvious strengths of a book format meant displaying all the necessary information clearly and completely, which means no flipping back and forth between pages while playing to break immersion or disrupt the flow. Presenting a top-down dungeon map is a classic way to enable a player to quickly comprehend the play area. During prototyping, we decided to provide a format where areas are self-contained. Every dungeon area would always be completely visible to the player and the objectives are immediately clear. All game elements and rules would be available on the page. That meant having every level fit entirely either on a single page or spread across two pages, side-by-side.
After evaluating multiple book binding options, I decided using a wire or coil binding would work best to allow the book's pages to lie flat, keeping your hands free to play and not having to fidget with the materials so everything remains effortlessly visible.
Having everything visible and in the player's field of view enables rapid play. In Twisty Little Passages, one's eyes can traverse dungeon mazes simply by following the corridors on the page. Enabling a player to move effortlessly around a dungeon, simply by moving one’s eyes, is about the simplest user interface and experience possible, with elegance unmatched by any UI or on any gaming system so far.
Putting the pieces together
Prototyping Twisty Little Passages, we’ve spent months designing puzzle and page layouts, watching playtesting sessions and garnering feedback from testers on how to improve the experience. Our goal is to balance engagement and challenge and provide a smooth difficulty ramp. We streamlined the presentation to ensure the elements on the page contribute to each unique puzzle experience in a cohesive way. We followed the artistic principle of not simply adding and adding material to make a beautiful and engaging creation, but rather seeking the point of elegance, where nothing can be taken away without diminishing the experience.
In practice, this meant developing a set of game elements that all complement one another and provide synergistic, emergent puzzle possibilities. Our team spent years honing this technique while developing the DROD series, and we are pleased to be able to provide a streamlined and elegant set of game elements and puzzles in TLP. The material is 95% completed, and we’d like to involve you in producing the final critical parts of this puzzle gaming experience through the Kickstarter compaign.
In the next article, I'll continue sharing our experience and thoughts on the value of visuals and graphic design in presenting puzzles. I'll also share how TLP engages the player's mind and body to augment the puzzle-solving experience.
We appreciate your feedback and look forward to producing Twisty Little Passages together!
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Hi, I'm Mike Rimer, lifetime board, card, and video gamer. I run an indie game studio called Caravel Games, which has been developing a series of puzzle adventure games called the Deadly Rooms of Death for 15+ years. Our team is producing a unique dungeon crawl puzzle adventure game book called Twisty Little Passages that I'm super excited to share with you. I'm organizing a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for us to publish and distribute it.
This book is divided into a sequence of story areas, where each area features a map of the area that you must navigate to move the story forward. You pick up keys, health, equipment and special items, fight monsters, and must defeat the boss at the end of the area to win. Each area is designed as a puzzle, and there is one right way to solve it, which you must discover. You draw your progress right on the map as you explore it, opening doors, defeating enemies and unlocking new areas.
There's a lot of backstory to where the idea for this book came from. I'd like to take you along on our journey and give you a peek behind the curtain for how we're developing Twisty Little Passages. I guess I should start at the beginning.
Like many of you, I grew up on D&D and other RPGs as a kid. I played in groups and built campaigns of my own starting in elementary school. Drawing dungeon maps was a core part of the fun. When I wasn't playing in a group, I played solo adventure books like Joe Dever's Lone Wolf. An aspect that has always fascinated me about RPGs was how a simple narrative and setting, layered with rules and mechanics, immediately becomes a living, breathing place in my mind. A place to imagine, explore and play.
I've always loved mazes, numbers and puzzles. A crawl through a dungeon was just another kind of maze to navigate. Dungeon map art was a bonus, but I was often just as happy to sketch out the experience with my own paper and pencil like in Wizardry! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizardry:_Proving_Grounds_of_t...). Enemy encounters, where numbers were bandied about to distill every action to cause-and-effect, were a kind of puzzle to solve. If you understood how to solve the puzzle, you'd survive. Otherwise, you'd die.
It's this idea that’s at the core of Twisty Little Passages. The title is a nod to the oldschool roots of the classic Adventure game:
An early work of interactive fiction, it featured this description for each area of a maze:Quote:YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTY LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL ALIKE.
In Twisty Little Passages, our team seeks to provide a unique puzzle gaming experience combined with thematic, fun, classic fantasy D&D-esque scenarios, designed to evoke memories of those great gaming moments we've shared over the years. We appreciate your interest in this project and are pleased to share our experiences that have led to the creation of TLP. In this blog, I'll relate a developer's journal and share some thoughts along the way on what makes for a good puzzle, what makes a puzzle interesting and engaging, ways to make a puzzle interactive and what design considerations go into sharing that puzzle with an audience.
I look forward to your thoughts on puzzle design and Twisty Little Passages as we share it with you.
What type of old school adventures do you have fond memories of?
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