Certified Puzzle Mechanics

Today we’re going to continue with what has become somewhat of a “series” on the deeper aspects of designing a game at Cyan with someone we introduced everyone to last year: Cyan’s Principal Engineer Karl Johnson.

A couple of updates ago we talked about how Cyan goes about developing something from a concept to a game… In the last update, we dove into how we are bringing the characters to life in the world of Firmament. This brings us to an aspect of the game that, while not entirely unique to Firmament, is something that not every game development effort has to contend with: the puzzles.

Before we dive in I also want to mention that the videos which we’re going to be showing you today are “massing models only,” and are not representative of any specific area or puzzle which are actually in Firmament.

Adjunct Concepts by Joseph Chen. Does not represent finalized art.

To briefly recap the term, creating Massing Models means using simple geometric shapes to represent objects in the world we’re building. Doing this allows the team to get things like the size and scope of the Ages, as well as the mechanics of the puzzles somewhat dialed in before they start the difficult work of making everything look amazing!

This truly is about being efficient… imagine building an entire level in immaculate detail and scope only to realize that the puzzle is too difficult, or (even worse!) isn’t any fun to solve! As with many things in game development, there is a push <—> pull as the team creates, but it is nearly always less time-consuming in the long-run to build a simple version of an area or a puzzle before the team builds out the final version that you will get to play in the end.

With that in mind, here’s some of the challenges that the team faces as they create the puzzles.

What’s the Goal?

At Cyan we try our best to make sure that every puzzle has a reason for being in the world and that it makes sense for the world it lives in… To be fair, perhaps a puzzle doesn’t always have to have obvious deep context right when the player is in the thick of solving it, but we always want the player to be able to look back later on their experience and have additional “ah-ha” moments. The goal is to give the player multiple payoffs as the game goes on… The payoff of solving the puzzle… The payoff of seeing how the puzzle fits into the bigger story… The payoff of realizing that there is a coherency to the world’s story as a whole… The payoff of understanding how some aspect of the world works… It all contributes to an overall sense of the world being real in a way that simply slapping some puzzles into a space cannot.

Is It Too Easy? Too Difficult?

Another important aspect of puzzle design is the idea of puzzles which build on one another. There’s a bit of a shared language to good puzzle design as the skills that the player learns in early puzzles build onto subsequent, more complex puzzles. This gives a feeling of accomplishment as the game progresses and the player begins to “learn the language” of the world.

Until (of course) the team decides to subvert expectations and throw in something novel for the player to have to work through. That might be an entirely new kind of puzzle as a player finds themselves in a different Age of the game, it might be the addition of steps or processes that weren’t present in earlier puzzles, or it might be simply altering the manner in which a familiar thing operates.

Potential Adjunct look and feel by Derrick Robinson. Does not represent finalized art.

Making It Fun

Now we arrive at possibly the most “art not science” part of the puzzle creation journey. Making it fun!

For those who love what we do, we’ve found that the most sure path to answering the “fun” question sits in creating a balance of tough (but fair) puzzles which are deeply intertwined with the story we’re telling… Again referring to the payoff moments above, what’s fun about a Cyan puzzle is the solving it, but then the understanding that comes later (sometimes much later… think about how late in the game the reveal came in Myst!) which speaks to a thoroughly thought out world.

In general the team tries to hit on as many of these various aspects as possible throughout the course of each puzzle cycle and in the game as a whole… In a similar way to how every good story includes a main character who is motivated and wants something, we want the player to feel pulled forward through the story by the actions they take and the puzzles they solve.