« Design process: Satisfying puzzle level design

What makes a puzzle satisfying? Having a puzzle design philosophy really helps resolve design choices. These are a few of my thoughts on what makes a good level:

The illusion of simplicity
When the user glances at the level it might look pretty straight forward. They have a go but realize that it’s not so simple after all. Preferably this realisation takes as long as possible to occur.

This false narrative may be cunning but we don’t want to use any red herrings or dirty tricks. Remember the user is not our enemy - we want them to feel accomplishment not resentment after solving the level. Games are supposed to be fun, aren’t they? So be playful.

Questioning assumptions
Perhaps after trying to use brute force to solve the level, the user has to actually think and be creative. There seems to be a natural barrier to this for most people.

The user is required to go back to the beginning and analyse some of the choices and assumptions they made along the way. They experiment and feel out different branches of consequence - each choice seems to have repercussions that are hopefully unexpected.

A narrative appears
The user must experiment over and over, slowly unraveling the puzzle to reach a solution. They know they are on the right track because a pattern appears in the chaos.

This pattern could be anything, and is difficult to describe in general terms, but it acts as a sign that the puzzle was designed by a human. A secret conversation that is earned by the user’s thoughts and imagination.

Level complete!
The user feels like a smarty pants. They were toyed with, though never tricked. They’ve been surprised and rewarded for questioning their assumptions with an interesting narrative / pattern that gradually revealed itself. They were forced to be analytical and creative along the way.

Other thoughts
This approach is more for early levels.

As levels get more advanced and introductions are out of the way then a different class of puzzle emerge. I call these types of puzzles “grinders” and they are for seasoned players who know all your tricks. They look complex - the illusion of simplicity can be dispensed with - and they take a long time to solve. They also tend to have less of a narrative / pattern. The aim here is to let the user dwell in their analytic computations for as long as possible.


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