Twisty Little Passages

Development journal for a novel game book of dungeon crawl puzzle adventures, live on Kickstarter
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Balancing puzzle difficulty

Mike Rimer
United States
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Microbadge: Copper Board Game CollectorMicrobadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Puzzle fanMicrobadge: I design games for the love of itMicrobadge: Video Game Developer
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.

From gallery of mrimer


Simply write the hints in mirrored fashion.

From gallery of mrimer


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.

Balancing difficulty

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.

Playtesting

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!
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