By Troy Dunniway @ Nekcom Entertainment
Designing great games is hard in ways that people may not realize. Designing puzzle games and horror games are both equally hard for different reasons. When we set out to design DYING: Reborn we were faced with the challenge of combining two very difficult genres together into a unique game. We were faced with many unique challenges that we had to overcome. This series of articles will break down many of the challenges we faced in designing a horror puzzle game. However, whether you are designing a game like DYING: Reborn, a simple puzzle game, a horror game or another type of related game, these articles will hopefully inspire you to understand the challenges in designing and developing puzzle and horror games.
Designing Immersive Puzzles
One of the hardest challenges with designing a “room break” or “escape room” game is in how to design puzzles into a realistic looking or functioning world. An immersive puzzle is one which is integrated into the game or real world in a more natural way—they must fit into the world environment, into its story, into its theme and into the game in a way that makes it seem like it belongs. These puzzles are often chained together in order to solve a bigger puzzle.
For example, in DYING: Reborn, the game consists of a lot of different puzzles, and all of these puzzles are loosely linked together and often have some kind of transition from one to another. So, solving one “puzzle” might open something, which gives you a piece to another puzzle, which when solved gives you a key, which is a piece to another puzzle and so on until the player accomplishes their final goal.
In DYING: Reborn players must complete a number of “levels”, each of which is a location (often a room) which players must escape from. Within each room, there is usually an exit door they must try to get open by solving a number of puzzles in the world. We tried to integrate the puzzles in each area within the room itself or objects within the room as much as possible.
We used a lot of traditional puzzle designs and mechanics (of which there are MANY kinds) which are integrated into our game worlds. These puzzles are for example: on a piece of paper, written on a wall, show up as an object, are shown on a computer, or within the world somehow. For example, you could literally have a jigsaw puzzle, with various pieces on a table, which players could rearrange and try to put together, and if they succeed, it gives them a clue.
However, the hardest types of puzzles to design are those which make sense to the actual location and space you are in, and don’t feel too forced or contrived. So, for example, players might need to figure out how to break open a lock (by finding something big to hit it with), or turn on the power (by finding a fuse), or open a door (by finding a key), and so on. The types of puzzles you choose the locations you choose and many factors will determine how well you can integrate your puzzles into the world and immerse the player in it.
Within a game world, there are many things, places and ways to have puzzles integrated in the world. First, things can be hidden (behind pictures, under something, behind something, inside something, written in invisible ink, too dark or dirty to see, or so on). Second, things might be locked, where they need a key, code, or secret on how to open them. Third, things might need to be moved, which can open up a space, uncover something, give you something to stand on, cause something else to move, or so on. Fourth, things might need to be combined to do something. Fifth, something might need to be activated (but it might take something else to allow it to be activated, like a fuse, lever, etc.).
Lighting and visuals can play an important part of immersive puzzle design as well. There are a lot of ways to hide clues or information in the dark, which might require the player find and use a light source to see it. You can even possibly use many forms of optical illusions, or things which require players look at a problem in a certain way, from a certain perspective, in a mirror, or in other unique ways visually to make them more obscure.
Finally, things can move in the world, allowing for a wide variety of additional interactions, and timing puzzles which require players to not only know how and what to do, but when to do it. So think about how to incorporate puzzles which utilize movement into them as an added layer of depth and complexity.
No matter how you decide to integrate puzzles into your world, it is important to make sure they are logical, or that the rules for solving them are well understood.
Immersing the Player in the World
In order to fully immerse the player in the game world, you must also think about the core game systems and how they will keep the player immersed in the game in order for them to solve the puzzles in the first place.
The choice of camera can affect the immersion of the game a lot. Putting the player in first person helps a lot in immersing the player (which is especially good for VR). A third person camera can work when designing this kind of game, but it pulls the player a bit more out of the experience and changes how puzzles are seen and accomplished. Great 3rd person games, many of which are heavily action platforming, like Tomb Raider, do exist however with lots of puzzles in them. In DYING: Reborn we chose a first person camera to help immerse players in the game and make them the one who is solving the puzzles and trapped in these rooms, not another character.
Having great audio and effects not only is great and necessary for immersion, but audio can also be used when designing puzzles which are immersive. When designing puzzles, think about how audio can be used to provide clues and other information for players to not just make the world seem more real, but to provide hints to solve puzzles or even be a puzzle itself. Also, keep in mind audio can play a significant part of horror in a game and can be used in many ways to creep people out and directly scare them.
Player Failure While Puzzle Solving
A major problem with designing puzzles which integrate into the world is that it can be very easy for a player to fail when trying to solve the puzzle, for a wide variety of reasons, and they may get discouraged and not realize that they should keep trying. So, when a player fails, it needs to be VERY obvious why with great feedback. The failure should hopefully also be obvious, so that players know why they are failing.
For example, let’s say you have a door with a lock and a keyhole in it, and the players find a key, stick it in the lock and it doesn’t open. The players would naturally assume they need a different key. However, what if the key hole had something inside of it, which players needed to get out before the key would work. This puzzle would NOT be obvious, unless some kind of clue was given to the player when he failed. What if the player needs to time their pushing of a button when something seemingly random happens (like press a button when lighting strikes)… does the player know they need to do this, and if not, how are they supposed to figure it out? Or, for example, what if the players need a toy car to hit something and knock it over in a place they cannot reach, but the car doesn’t have batteries, and you need to flip it over and open it to see inside, and know its missing the batteries. Will players know they need to add the batteries?
So, good proper feedback upon failure can be important. As is designing proper logic and clues into your game to make sure players understand what to do when something isn’t obvious.
Interacting with Interactive Objects
When designing immersive puzzles which take place in a virtual world, it is very difficult to know how to find the balance between how to have a world be interactive, while not also giving away all of the clues, and not turning the game into a “hunt and peck” click fest. So, it is a major problem of knowing how much information to reveal to players, versus how much to force them to discover on their own.
In the old days of classic adventure games like Monkey Island, to the present day Hidden Object Game (HOG) genre, players are unsure of what things on screen are interactive, and what are just there to look good, such that players are forced to “click” on everything they see until they find something to interact with. This method is more immersive, as the world doesn’t have a bunch of UI elements marking all of the interactive elements, and it makes many puzzles more challenging as players don’t obviously know what they should interact with. However, this method can lead to frustration as players don’t know what to interact with and tire of clicking on everything.
On the opposite side of this, you can have UI elements which mark anything which is interactive. These UI elements might only appear if the player gets close, but it makes it easy for players to know what they can interact with. The challenge with this, is that players often then know exactly what they need to do in each location, which can often spoil the solution to a puzzle.
In DYING: Reborn we chose to not show the player what items are interactive in the game in order to keep the world more immersive. This can make some areas a little tedious however, so we needed to make sure that the player understands what they need to do in a clearer manner. Again this is another reason (of many) to make sure the puzzles were integrated into the world in a natural way is crucial.
Rewards for Exploration
Another possible solution, even though it requires more work, is to make most/more objects at least partially interactive, and which have some benefits for interacting with. Exploration of a world is really enjoyable for many players, and gaining rewards for exploration is also important. So, whether players explore a vast world, or explore more places in a smaller world (or room), they should have the same enjoyment, rewards for discovery and interest.
As players explore, they should be rewarded with finding items, clues, information, story, or other interesting or useful things which help them in the game.
Knowing What is Relevant When
The problem with a lot of games is knowing what is important. Players feel like they need to remember everything, as they don’t know what will be needed later, and this often overwhelms them.
In DYING: Reborn, we use a player log to store anything which is important for players to emember. This reduces players needing to worry about what clues and information they find in the game are going to be needed later, and removes the need for players to need to remember most passwords, key codes and other information they need to solve puzzles.
Besides information however, the same idea goes for knowing what objects are relevant or useful as well. Having useless items or items which you can collect now and use much later can be confusing for players as well. But, you also need to not have items which are not interactive early in the game or level, and then suddenly (and maybe randomly) become interactive later. Players cannot read the designers minds.
Using Objects in Puzzles
DYING: Reborn has a lot of objects in it. It can be a challenge in many games to know what objects are interactive, which they should pick up, what objects are or do, and so on. Players will need to search rooms in order to figure out which items are interactive in each room. This was a delicate trade off for us, as we didn’t want to give away any of the solutions to the puzzles and make things too obvious.
Players can also combine many objects to create new objects in DYING: Reborn and many other puzzle games. Combining objects can be a lot of fun, and basically is another type of combination puzzle, but it needs to be clear about how and why things work together or go together. I’ve played a lot of games which have very obscure items which made no sense that you should combine them, so you need to make sure that logic, or some kind of “recipe” or blueprint is given so players know what they can combine. This can be also increasingly difficult if players can combine an item with multiple different items to create several different items, such that players might or could accidentally create something they didn’t really need.
Managing an inventory can also be a difficult challenge in many games. If a game has a limited inventory, then players can be challenged to know what to keep. If the game has an unlimited inventory, players can get overwhelmed. If players can only pickup, carry or use a single item, then designing more obscure and interesting puzzles is a challenge. Each approach has its tradeoffs, which can affect the design of the puzzles and game complexity a lot.
Puzzle Difficulty Levels
It is impossibly hard to design a puzzle game for ALL skill levels. Some players are naturally more adept at solving them, they all have different experiences and education and a million other differences make everyone who plays your game different. Trying to make the game “just right”, such that it’s not too hard and not too easy is the hardest part of building puzzle games. It is almost impossible. For most puzzle game players, they get the most satisfaction with solving difficult puzzles and feeling smart instead of just breezing through something easily. So, if all else fails, design your puzzles to be a little too hard.
It MIGHT also be possible to have several levels of difficulty in the game as well, where the difficulty level affects the puzzles in some way to make them easier or harder, but this can be really difficult to do.
In some puzzle games, since it is impossible to design a game which is just the right difficulty level, you can also consider adding a hint system of some kind. The hint system could give unlimited hints, a limited number of hints, have a cost for getting a hint or many other ways to discourage its use if you want.
You also have to make sure that players can never screw themselves and do something which is unrecoverable in a puzzle game. Players should never be able to do something so bad that they could not progress from it and are forced to restart (unless there is an obvious failure state, like they set off a bomb and blow up). So, you need to make sure that players can either reset puzzles, or work backwards in a way to always solve every puzzle no matter how bad they screw up.
Finally, timers are another popular way to try and make a puzzle harder. However, just like with trying to design just the right challenge level to a puzzle, it is even harder to make a timer have just enough time to make it hard, but not so much time on it that it doesn’t make it a challenge. A proper timer should make someone feel like they are under pressure and just barely could do it. However, finding the right amount of time for all players is once again a huge challenge and usually impossible. An implied timer can work much better psychologically, where people feel pressured but cannot fail if they take too long.
As you can see, trying to design puzzles which are highly immersive in a game world can be a challenge. There is a lot more thought that must not only go into the design of the puzzles, but also into the design of the game systems which will allow the player to be immersed in the world. It takes a lot of thought to try and not only design great puzzles, but also ways to design the levels to support the various types of puzzles you need to include to keep it immersive.
In the next articles, I will dive deeper into designing puzzle and horror games and how to innovate both genres like we did in DYING: Reborn. In the meantime, you can check out more about our game online, or download it for your PlayStation 4, PS VR or PS Vita and see what you think. We hope you enjoy playing it.