Teaching players through puzzle design
We were already pretty far in the production process of Tricky Towers when we decided to add a completely new mode; Puzzle mode. Based on missions in 99 Bricks Wizard Academy where you had to place a number of bricks below a certain height, this mode was a nice variation to the stressy Race and Survival modes. We made a single player and a multiplayer Puzzle mode which differ slightly from each other, but I want to talk about the single player for now.
In a single player puzzle level there’s a small floor, a laser somewhere above it and you get a specific set of bricks to work with. The goal is to place all bricks below the laser. When a brick crosses the laser or a brick is dropped the game is over. The trick is to find a way to fit all bricks in a relatively small space.
Because each level has only a small number of possible solutions this mode is great for teaching a player specific ways of placing bricks. The first puzzle is designed so that by placing each brick in the most logical place available at that moment you arrive at the solution. This design creates affordances; hints on how to ‘use’ this puzzle and each of its bricks.
In the second puzzle we wanted to teach the player a much needed technique we call “overhanging bricks”. To do this we created an affordance for the placement of the first brick of the puzzle by pre-placing a brick using this technique. Even though it’s an obvious hint, players still felt as if they came up with the solution themselves.
We try to ramp up the difficulty in each puzzle by keeping in mind what the player has learned so far in terms of brick placement. Based on that we either test their understanding of those skills or give them a surprise that forces them to think out of the box again.
In the first 3 puzzles affordances that were offered always led directly to the solution. In puzzle #4 we wanted to teach you to look at the order of your bricks. The first brick you get fits perfectly into the base without moving or rotating it. However, doing this will get you in trouble later on when you have to place a long brick. Most playtesters figured out in the 2nd try that they should leave the gap for the 4th brick; the long brick. After doing so each brick becomes a perfect fit again and the puzzle is easily solved. You could argue that you shouldn’t punish players for doing something you taught them earlier on. But when the steps to understanding such a switch are small enough you can play with their expectations without creating frustration.
As always, it’s easy to design puzzles that are very difficult. The hard thing is to make them so the player is constantly on the border of not understanding and then suddenly getting it. If you can ease that in with little nudges and hints hopefully they’ll feel as though they came up with it themselves. I think it is in those moments, when you realised you’ve learned something, that play is most satisfying.