As a level designer there is nothing more satisfying than having a solid puzzle idea inexplicably popping into your head that needs only few iterations to be fun. Unfortunately those occasions are rare for me and usually a good puzzle requires a lot of tossed, mediocre ideas and even more hard work.
This write-up is about an arguably even harder step in designing a puzzle game. Although admittedly this may have been a very specific problem for Metrico (PS Vita) or my working methods. After creating a puzzle, and deciding whether or not it’s good enough to even make it into the game at all, comes the decision of where to put it!
A puzzle on itself may seem difficult or easy to your knowing, but the final difficulty of a puzzle in the game as a whole isn’t determined until its relative location to other puzzles in the game. The same puzzle can be either frustratingly hard or stupidly easy based on where it’s placed. The immediate adjacent previous puzzle is the most important factor to consider in this (But not the only one). In Metrico the previous puzzle may have planted a certain idea or mechanic in the player’s head that might be interesting to contradict or complement and enhance. This greatly influences the amount of time it takes a player to figure out the solution.
My two tools
There are two tools that I used in deciding the order and placement of puzzle:
First off, I created a tier system for Metrico that categorizes puzzles in terms of difficulty (as far as I can be the judge of that), type and certain tiers that tell me what mechanics they use. In Metrico’s first world for example, there are only puzzles with basic platform variables such as landing or distance travelled.
These are tier 1 mechanics that, although should still be present in later worlds, must decrease in quantity if you progress. An example of a late game tier 4 mechanic is the use of the PS Vita camera. Using this system I decided in which world a puzzle fits best, based on which tier mechanics it contains.
The second tool was play testing puzzles and rating the puzzles with the Affect Grid invented by J. Russel, A. Weiss, and G. Mendelsohn as part of a study at University of British Columbia and the University of California. Shown here, this grid can give a good sense of how players perceive puzzles emotionally which helps in distributing puzzles for optimal pacing throughout a world.
These two systems often contradict or at least argue each other in practice and in the end they’re both about equally important for the quality of the game. I wish I could have concluded with a magic formula for puzzle placement but the truth is, this process was really a matter of giving and taking, often making ambiguous compromises for the greater good.