How To Design a Good Puzzle

in Tutorials

by Artbane:

While most modern RPGs focus on story and visuals, puzzles are still close to the heart of the genre. Puzzles may be subsidiary to the plot, but when used well they can amplify the story. A good puzzle can tell you more about the characters and world that they inhabit. A bad puzzle though can detract from the experience and bring it to a screeching halt.

Below are some things to keep in mind when designing your puzzle.

Match Your Setting

The puzzle shouldn’t just “exist” in your game world. It should be a natural part of it. If you enter a cave and you’re suddenly facing a sudoku puzzle, then your suspension of disbelief is instantly shattered.

First, establish a setting. Then, try to come up with a list of possible threats and obstacles to place in the player’s path. For example, in a cave, you might think of the darkness as an obstacle. In this case, light is the solution. But how does the player generate light? Is the light sustainable? Are there other obstacles that could put out the light? Lighting a dark cave is a generic example, but you get the process.

Using switches and an explosive cart to break up boulders in a mine maze.

Using switches and an explosive cart to break up boulders in a mine maze.

Amplify Setting and Characters

The best puzzles don’t just challenge the player, but give them the opportunity to learn more about the setting and the characters. Try thinking of puzzles that explore both the environment and motivations of characters.

Imagine you’re in an ancient ruins. A spirit suddenly appears, obstructing your path, and demands an offering to their god. You already know that their god is associated with fire from a carving you encountered earlier in the environment, and it just so happens that one of your party members is a fire mage. By casting a basic fire spell, you appease the spirit and it allows you to pass. This gives you an idea of how you can interweave both setting and characters into your puzzle.

Be Fair

It helps to have a little player empathy as a designer. You don’t want to design puzzles that require some kind of arcane knowledge that the player might have missed. The tools to solve the puzzle should be readily available. The further chronologically and geographically you place the solution to the puzzle, the harder it becomes. If the solution to the puzzle requires the player to remember a side comment a NPC made two acts ago in the story then it’s probably too difficult.

You don’t want to withhold info either. Otherwise, the player will feel cheated. If the player could not have possibly solved the puzzle without failing then you probably want to rethink your approach.

Give Clear Directions

Your puzzle should make sense to the player. You want to guide them towards the solution by providing them with little clues along the way. If directions for the puzzle are too confusing, then the player will feel stupid or that the game is unfair. The player should not have to go outside the game to find the answer.

A good way to test if your directions are clear is to have someone else read them. If they still don’t understand how to solve the puzzle after reading them 2 or 3 times, then either the directions are not clear or the puzzle is too complicated.

The ghost is giving the player a hint for solving a puzzle involving sealed coffins.

The ghost is giving the player a hint for solving a puzzle involving sealed coffins.

Make It Engaging

A puzzle should be a problem that is “fun” to solve. I say that in quotes because fun is objective. Just because you think magic number puzzles are fun doesn’t mean everyone does. But if you think the puzzle is fun, then you will have an easier time designing it. If you don’t like riddles, then don’t feel the need to include them in your game. Chances are you’ll struggle to finish them, which will slow up development.

Keeping these tips in mind should lead to better puzzles in your game that also help draw the player into the fictional world.

How have you implemented these ideas in your puzzles? Do you have your own tips for making good puzzles? Or looking for some help with your puzzle design? Join the conversation below!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Great article and I definite agree with you points especially about making sure your players have the ability to solve puzzles without crazy knowledge.

  • Aeonspark

    This is some great advice.
    Making a puzzle relevant not only to the setting, but also to your characters and story is great advice!

  • Jay

    You also need to take into account with some puzzles who your target audience and cultural things can determine if they would have knowledge of something to solve a puzzle or if they would have to go online and look for help

    Example, in a game I’m working on one of the puzzles is based on something that all Japanese school children learn about certain historic figures in Japan, but your typical Westerner would be at a lost at where to begin to solve as they would not have been required to learn that.

    As a work around I currently put the required info on a scroll that the player can find in the game and the information is also repeat again in a conversation with an NPC.

  • I think if you want to make a puzzle in your game! write and draw your wonderfil ideas on paper and edit, after you finish it! You can make it on RPG Maker.

  • When I create puzzles, I try to follow what I do to solve them.
    1. Decide what the objective is. (I.e. Reach the next floor of the tower)
    2. Decide how you will prevent the player from reaching the goal. (Same example, say spike plates maybe.)
    3. How will the player overcome this objective? (A switch to turn off the spike plate)

    The other important part is to teach the player these mechanics right in the beginning. (I highly reccomend Egoraptor’s Sequelitis series, the Mega Man episode deals with what I’m talking about.) Remember in Portal how you have puzzles that force you to learn skills you’ll need later, like momentum and turrets? Then you have to combine them. Don’t expect your player to combine different ways of solving a puzzle right off the bat without demonstrating it in a controlled environment first. If you keep these things in mind, I find it makes it easy to design reasonable puzzles for players.