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Video: Designing puzzles that make players feel smart
February 11, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff

February 11, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Design, Video

GDC Vault offers for free a lecture from the 2009 Game Developers Conference on how to design puzzles effectively to help players feel smart, given by Tiger Style's Randy Smith.

Rather than providing too much advance information or dumbing the challenge down, Smith argues for user-centered puzzles that provide "guidance on demand." He shows Tomb Raider and Portal puzzles as excellent examples that scale to the players' needs and provide more hints only if necessary.

In this presentation, Smith covers puzzle structure along with six principles of user-centered design: visibility, affordances, mapping, visual language, feedback, and conceptual models.

Check out the free video here.

Session Name: Helping Your Players Feel Smart: Puzzles as User Interface

Speaker(s): Randy Smith

Company Name(s): Tiger Style

Track / Format: Game Design

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC China already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscriptions via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can find out more here. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from other events like GDC China and GDC 2013. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Maria Jayne
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These are great examples, the Red herring feels especially true for me. Whenever I get stuck it's usually because I believe an object or location which is irrelevant is in fact part of the puzzle. Either because it has an unusual texture or is physicaly mobile.

Making the player feel smart by implying they figured it out is huge though, it's like the freeform combat in Batman Arkham Asylum. While you do need reasonably good timing and reactions to perform well, the majority of the combat looks far more impressive than the activity you are performing to initiate it. This leads to the player feeling/looking awesome. Equally if you solve a puzzle that required some leaps of faith and intuition seemingly on your own without guides or hints it can be very satisfying.

Also: Dark Messiah of Might & Magic....such a great, underrated game. Makes me sad it never got more attention.

Jimmy Albright
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Dark Messiah had 1st person melee combat down, it was so far ahead of it's time. It was so depressing to play something like Skyrim and see that despite all the praise the combat is still not as good as something that came out 6 years before it.

My only complaint about Dark Messiah was the obvious ending, but I still had a blast playing it.

Bart Stewart
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Well, on the bright side, Arkane and Bethesda are now both Zenimax companies, so.... ;)

Who else is curious to see what a new game might look like with tech from id, world-building by Bethsoft, and systems-design by Arkane?

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Jimmy Albright
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In the co-op sections in Portal 2 my friend and I actually solved a couple puzzles using unconventional methods.

One of them I remember we solved it by timing our portals so we would collide mid-air, being launched from across map and fall down on the right platform. I'm not sure if this was the intended way or not, but I never found another puzzle that required a similar solution or built off that. My friend and I used to play climbing maps in CS, and were rather good at jumping mid-air around walls and and bunnyhopping. There was 1 or 2 levels we were able to circumvent by finding areas where we could jump and turn mid air around a wall.

Some people might argue that we weren't doing it the intended way but personally I find quite a bit of satisfaction in puzzles with multiple solutions, even if isn't intentionally designed that way.

Daneel Filimonov
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Indeed, that particular puzzle you speak of was intended to be unconventional. I think part of the fun of making (and playing) puzzles, especially first-person is to consider every aspect of the game as a viable mechanic (ie. the "wall looping" or even surf maps in CS/CSS), even when there was no mechanic intended.

David OConnor
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^ Totally agree.

I greatly enjoyed the freedom of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for the same reason.... the ability to accomplish missions, sometimes by doing things the designer hadn't thought of: the flexibility and diversity of the game's systems allowed that kind of freedom.

Sometimes, walking through a game of scripted sequences can be a bit dull. Achieving goals in different way than the the designers intended is often more satisfying, and makes the player feel smarter.

Like Frank Sinatra says, "I did it my way" :)

Nick Green
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I think most puzzles should have multiple solutions.

Possibly showing my age but I cut my gaming teeth on games like Sierra's Quest for Glory series in which many puzzles were designed with different solutions, catering to fighter / thief / mage skills and playstyles.

Each alternate solution can make a game seem a bit less linear and a bit more interactive.

Marvin Papin
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About the speech, and not portal... I just wanted to say EXCELLENT.