How do you know how hard your puzzles are?

Silversmith

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So, here's the situation: the characters are descending deeper and deeper into a dungeon. At regular intervals, they reach a room with a sort of block puzzle in it, and when the block puzzle is completed, it turns on a teleporter. Thus, they don't have to do the whole dungeon in one go.

The natural progression would be to make Block Puzzle A super-easy and Block Puzzle D pretty hard. But here's my thing: they all look about the same to me, since I made them up and I know how they're solved.

How do you evaluate your own puzzles? Is it just a matter of complexity—how many blocks, how many moves, that sort of thing—or is there more to it?
 

Wavelength

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For something as simple and quantitative as a block puzzle - yes, it's usually a matter of how many blocks, how many moves, etc. I randomize my own puzzles of this sort, so I've been able to get a good grasp of which ones feel more difficult and it's usually the ones with more moving parts.

For stuff that's more qualitative, like figuring out a clue or noticing something out of place, or really for anything where you (as the designer) already know the answer, the only way to figure out how difficult your stuff is, is to record playtests with hundreds of players. Community commentary won't provide a clear assessment because you will hear from a vocal minority who had a hard time with it, and nothing you can do on your own will help because you already know things your players don't. You have to do playtests with other players, you have to record them (so you can figure out metrics like how long the puzzle took to solve, but also so you can figure out how they got from A to B to solve it), and you have to do it with a lot of players in order to get a reliable sampling rather than a fluke.

This is why puzzles often end up being sore points in indie games that don't have the resources available to conduct large-scale playtests. Sometimes it's better to err on the side of too easy, or even leave them out entirely.
 

TheoAllen

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During my junior high school time, I used to like concepting puzzle that involves block movement (iirc it was a clone from a certain Game House that I forgot the title) using pen and paper. I categorized the level design based on difficulty. The way I categorize them is based on how intuitive they are and how many movement need to finish it.

By intuitive I mean, when you just need to move the block right to the path. It will be less intuitive when you have the path blocked and you need an extra move to open the path. Even lesser when you have to pull it back and forth, like maybe one of the block already taken the place, but for some reason you need to pull it off again to open the path for the other. It was confusing my friends because they didn't think they need to take it back for a moment and put it again later for finishing.
 

Silversmith

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Good to know, thanks. I definitely feel like I'm erring on the side of too easy, so I suppose I need to stick with what I'm doing. I don't feel quite right leaving them out completely; I don't want gameplay to get monotonous, which is a danger with big dungeons, even big dungeons with moving gimmicks and whatnot.
 

Silversmith

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So, I should not only count how many moves I have to make with the block, but whether I have to do something non-intuitive like stop pushing that block and move another block first, is what you're saying? Thanks, that's really helpful. I think I'll start my evaluation with that.
 

Kes

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[dpost]Silversmith[/dpost]

If you want to add something, use the Edit button on your first post.

I think designing puzzles is more of a mechanics thing.
[mod]I am, therefore, moving this to Game Mechanics Design[/mod]
 

Wavelength

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So, I should not only count how many moves I have to make with the block, but whether I have to do something non-intuitive like stop pushing that block and move another block first, is what you're saying? Thanks, that's really helpful. I think I'll start my evaluation with that.
Yes, exactly. It's a good point that @TheoAllen brought up and it's actually a really important part of evaluating the difficulty of certain types of puzzles, like Switch/Door puzzles where activating switches opens doors.

Most players will always activate each switch they find in a dungeon (and most puzzles of this nature in RPGs require nothing more than finding and activating each switch). It rarely occurs to players that they might need to leave some switch inactive, or even go back and flip a switch back to inactive later, after using it to open a new part of the dungeon. Therefore this solution is considered "unintuitive" (though creative), especially if it is not visually clear to the player what doors open/close based on the switch's position - and it greatly increases the difficulty.

An analogy in traditional verbal puzzles might be found in the problem of the Fox, the Goose, and the Cabbages - a farmer needs to transport all three to the other side of the river, but his boat is only big enough for himself and one animal (or vegetable). He can make as many trips as he wants to, but if he ever leaves the fox alone with the goose, the fox will eat the goose. And if he ever leaves the goose alone with the cabbages, the goose will eat the cabbages. How can he get all three across the river safely?
The farmer must first take the goose across the river. Then, he goes back, and takes either the fox or cabbages across the river, and as soon as he gets there, must put the goose back into the boat and take it back with him. He drops the goose off and takes the cabbages or fox (whichever he didn't take last time) across the river. Finally, he goes back to retrieve the goose, and take it across again.

Although this puzzle only has three moving parts, and only requires five moves to complete, it throws a majority of people to the point where they can't solve it, because they don't expect to have to "erase" progress they've made (taking the goose back across) in order to solve the puzzle. It feels unintuitive so the mind is unlikely to really explore that possibility. Therefore, even with just a few moving parts, if the solution is unintuitive (which IMO creates some of the most interesting and memorable puzzles), it's important to make sure that they won't be obstacles to the player's progress because some people will just never think of the solution.
 

mauvebutterfly

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Something that's probably obvious but still worth starting is that the more choices your players have, the harder the puzzle will be.

Less obvious, but something I've personally noticed with block puzzles, is that the more stuff you put in the puzzle, the less actual moves there are for the player to try. Counterintuitive though this may be, really crowded puzzles can actually be easier than open puzzles involving some sort of tricky interaction.

Of course, a lot of clutter can intimidate the player, so a big puzzle with lots of objects will be perceived as harder than a smaller puzzle with a tricky solution despite actually being easier to solve.

Also something to remember with your puzzles: they are always harder than you think they are (unless there's an unintended solution you don't know about that breaks the puzzle.) Getting feedback from other people will always be the best way of judging the difficulty of your puzzles.
 

Silversmith

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[dpost]Silversmith[/dpost]

If you want to add something, use the Edit button on your first post.

I think designing puzzles is more of a mechanics thing.
[mod]I am, therefore, moving this to Game Mechanics Design[/mod]
Sorry about that. I was responding to two different people with those posts, so I posted two different times. Won't happen again.

What Wavelength said is making me reconsider an idea I had earlier about complicating my puzzles by adding "extra parts" to them. It seems to me that might bump the difficulty up. More and more I'm thinking, like mauvebutterfly was saying, that I need to see about getting some feedback on the puzzles in particular rather than the game in general.
 

mmgfrcs

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Puzzle difficulty are difficult to assess by yourself, but the general idea is this:
  1. The more parts in the puzzle, the higher the difficulty
  2. The more counterintuitive elements in the puzzle, the higher the difficulty
  3. The more obvious the puzzle is, the lower the difficulty
  4. Common puzzles usually have a lower difficulty than rare ones
More Parts, Higher Difficulty
Give more things to do to solve the puzzle, and you'll crank the difficulty up. This is the very basic definition for puzzle difficulty.

Counter-intuitive Puzzles Trap People
Wavelength explained this quite well:
Most players will always activate each switch they find in a dungeon (and most puzzles of this nature in RPGs require nothing more than finding and activating each switch). It rarely occurs to players that they might need to leave some switch inactive, or even go back and flip a switch back to inactive later, after using it to open a new part of the dungeon. Therefore this solution is considered "unintuitive" (though creative), especially if it is not visually clear to the player what doors open/close based on the switch's position - and it greatly increases the difficulty.
Being Obvious Beats Them All
Even with more parts and counter-intuitive elements, if the puzzle is obvious, the puzzle became easier to solve. A door with 3 switches next to it is an obvious puzzle to unlock the door, and it is obvious that one or more switches might be inactive, thus defeating the counter-intuitive element. Of course, not all people would notice.

Unique Puzzles are Hard
Puzzles consists of 3 parts:
  • Finding out what it is
  • Figuring out how it works and what can you do.
  • Figuring out the solution
Each have its own difficulty. By using puzzles that have been solved multiple times, you omit the first part of the puzzle, therefore reducing difficulty. If you make your puzzles unique, players will need to figure out what it is first before ever solving them, adding its difficulty.
 

mauvebutterfly

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Training your player is a good technique as well. Wavelength mentions players not considering going back to hit switches multiple times, or switches that start in the correct setting and doing need to be activated at all. If you are doing something like this, have a really easy puzzle early on that teaches the player that this is something they can do.

This works with counterintuitive elements as well. If you are building puzzles around something, don't be afraid to have really really easy puzzles making use of that behaviour.

For example, let's look at a classic crate-pushing puzzle. Let's say you have a puzzle dungeon full of these puzzles, but a common trick used throughout is that the player must enter from multiple different entrances in order to solve the puzzle, with the state of the puzzle being remembered between room transitions.

In this dungeon I would set up the first room so that it's impossible to get to the second room without pushing a crate out of the way. However, the crate can only be pushed in one direction, ending where it blocks access to a treasure chest. The second room doesn't have much of interest, but instead loops back to the first room from a different entrance. From this entrance you can push the crate out of its new position to access the treasure chest.

With this trivial puzzle we have communicated several important things to the player:

1. You can push crates.
2. Crate positions don't reset when you leave the room.
3. Some puzzles will require you to set up crates so that you can push them from a different entrance later.

This way the player is less likely to get frustrated by a later puzzle being "impossible" all done from the initial entrance, which was the gimmick of this dungeon in the first place.

In my opinion it is important for the player to know what tools they have available. Surprising a player by requiring a tool that they had no reason to expect makes a more difficult puzzle, but it is a cheap and frustrating kind of difficulty.
 

Silversmith

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Thank you, mmgfrcs and mauvebutterfly, those are very good points. And it makes me think twice about changing up any of the elements of the puzzles in the middle of the dungeon. It's sort of a fairness issue, almost; you hide the solution from the player, but you clearly lay out the things they need to get to the solution, otherwise (as mauvebutterfly said) it's cheap.
 

Countyoungblood

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If you look at chess..skill is often related to how far into the the future the player can see. The more logical steps the player has to work through mentally to realize the answer the harder the puzzle is. You can use the same pieces repeatedly for this especially if there is feedback that expresses the state change. Like a rubix cube which only has a handful of parts yet is concidered tough to solve.

Randomly groping at buttons and levers is a good puzzle for a bird..or a mouse. But for people its just tedium. Some people are willing to look for answers that have no logical reasoning..others arent. If the puzzle is to rotate statues but the answer turns out to be activating the cat like a button id probably stop playing.
 

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