Should puzzles be dumbed down to increase playability?

watermark

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Recently, one of the puzzles I designed for a game demo, which I thought was really easy, stumped most playtesters. Most players could not figure out how to solve it. Now the puzzle is of a logic kind, where the player has to infer what to do based on npc dialogue, but none of the NPCs directly tells the player how the mystery should be solved. This in a way is an "old school" approach that's closer to the old King's Quest games and whatnot.

Now, assuming I don't change the content, I could make this puzzle even easier by using popular capitalize or highlight techniques such as "So, I hear that THE LADY IN THE RED DRESS knows about the quest." Basically, capitalizing/highlighting the key info for the player so he doesn't have to read the whole spliel. I could even go one step further GTA style by marking out the next destination point on the minimap.

Now what this does is it makes sure that most players can solve this puzzle and go on with the rest of the game. This might even be crucial should the game be entered into a contest where you don't want the judges to get stuck and prematurely finish judging your game.

The downside is it might make the game less fun...for some people.

So, what do you think would be the best way to implement a difficult puzzle in a game?
 

Andar

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There are two different aspects of puzzle difficulty that you need to take into account and decide how to handle.

The first aspect is your target audience. Do you want to target your game on the casual gamer who plays as fun entertainment? Or do you want to target the advanced strategy gamer that plays to be challenged?
You cannot target both, because for the casual gamer you indeed need to dumb down the game, list pointers to every quest objective and so on. But for the gamer that wants to be challenged you'll need to remove the map markers and make sure that every puzzle is both difficult and solvable without guesses.


The second aspect is to identify the requirements to make the puzzle easy or difficult. Because sometimes that has nothing to do with the puzzle itself but with the knowledge of the player - in your case above that was that the player would probably know how to handle logic to have the puzzle easy.

I'll give you another example of how one of my own puzzles in a PnP-RPG failed twenty years ago:
I build the puzzle around the color circle, one way of representing how the base colors can be mixed that I learned in class eight or nine in school. I thought that this would be an easy puzzle, especially since one of the players at that time was an art-and-design student with several years already in at the university.
Only after the game - where everything failed - I learned that she never heard of the color circle, having it neither in her school days nor in their university classes.
And without that knowledge of how to present mixing colors the puzzle became guesswork even if everyone knew exactly what colors were mixed how - they just couldn't connect the pieces of knowledge as for them a circle was geometry only and had nothing to do with colors.

So first you'll have to decide who you want to make the game for, and then what knowledge you might have to place in the game to keep the puzzles solvable without outside knowledge.
 

Oddball

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Train the player to the individual pieces of the puzzle first, break it down so they can solve each part without much, if any instruction. Then throw a puzzle at them that has all the pieces together
 

zzmmorgan

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One thing to remember about the Kings Quest games was that Sierra for a while had a 900 phone number that charged a fairly significant rate to get game hints. Got an unexpectedly high phone bill that way once when a roommate got stuck on a Sierra game and didn't realize just how long he'd been on the phone to get hints.......

There's no one way to solve that. Puzzle games tend to be rather hard for some people and if you try to "dumb down" the game for them then others won't feel challenged. One option might be to have a difficulty setting which might trigger NPC dialog with more clues on the lower difficulty. Another might be to set switches or a variable to how often the player is asking NPCs for clues and if it's a LOT then start giving stronger clues and possibly, ultimately the actual solution..... Common events can be your friend here.....
 

Tiamat-86

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this thread giving me some PTSD about playing brain lord and startropics back in the day.
1 had the puzzle like 20minutes into the dungeon but the clue was way the f back in town and wouldnt even know this random NPC was giving you a hint unless you've done it before.
the other game the clue wasnt even in game, it was on the back of the instruction booklet so if didnt have that you were screwed (the days before internet guides)
make sure your clues are close to the puzzles.

also @Tw0Face idea is probably the best option to appeal to casual and pro gamers alike.
just dont disappoint the pros by having the very difficult puzzles giving out crappy rewards.

edit: also good idea to limit the harder puzzles to sidequests (this idea alone can tie into the difficulty vs reward) and only have easy puzzles for main story progression.

edit2: also get a few other people's opinions "is this puzzle to hard / to easy"
puzzles that i find basic and easy will completely stump my older brother until he has some kinda epiphany when he's waking up.
puzzles you find hard might seem easy for others and vise versa
 
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Basileus

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You might want to explain what the actual puzzle was and what hints you gave. You compared your puzzle to Kings Quest, but those games were infamous for insane "moon logic" puzzles that made no sense to anyone but the developer.

Was there any way for the players to know that the NPC dialogue was important? Did you train them earlier in the game that talking to NPCs was important? Could your puzzle eventually be solved by talking to/interacting with everything visible on the map, or did it involve hidden objects or actions the player didn't know they could take?

It's important for puzzles to start easy and get harder later. This means the player should be given a simple puzzle using the same logic that later, harder puzzles will use to train them. Suddenly throwing a difficult puzzle at players that involves mechanics that they have never had to use before is going to end badly. So you may not need to "dumb down" the puzzle if you have sufficient hints and tutorials for it.
 

Riazey

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Adding in additional ques or a backup system might be worth it~

For example, if it takes place in a town have the red-dress lady walk by in a cutscene that plays at random as long as this puzzle goes unsolved, or add in a stand selling red dresses and have that man be the one to deliver the dialogue (i.e "Yeah a lady was here like that, she bought one of my dresses") and those types of things help to guide the player.

I had an idea at one point where if easy mode was turned on talking to a specific orb/point in the dgn would give hints so that works too, that way even on easy mode they can attempt thee big boy puzzles first then fall back on the hints if they need to.
 
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Make every puzzle skippable but give the player an achievement in case he/she solves it.
I'll almost always vouch for this approach

A lotta people are interested in RPGs mostly for the story, and blocking them from progressing can frustrate them. Difficult battles can also do this, but those can usually be overcome through grinding or getting better equipment; things that keep the player in the game

On the other hand, you can't grind levels to bypass a puzzle that's stumping you, and at that point, your only solution is to go outside of the game and look up the answer, or even just quit the game outright. And if it's an indie like an RPG Maker game, chances are there isn't a guide or a forum or video clip of people posting the solution to the puzzle, so they often don't even have that option
 

Elissiaro

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You could always have a cheat sheet in the game folder, for anyone who gets stuck, or hates puzzles but still wanna experience the story.
 

h0tWalker

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Since most already have mentioned the important bits, I'd just put my tidy bit in here. Just like you increase your players skill in combat (easy encounters -> hard encounters), the difficulty scales up. It can be done in a balanced way, which teaches the player how to, go an easy route or dark souls route.

I mention combat cause i feel puzzles falls into the same category. You see this in many games, the first puzzle you do has an introduction of sorts and there is a helper, or the character you play has a hint to it. Then as you progress, you have to start thinking yourself. A great example is "The Beast Inside" it starts of with hints that the first code you have to break is a "Julius Cesar Cypher", a code breaking cipher (code breaking is the theme of this game). Then it gets progressively harder.

It can be everything from navigating a maze and turn four switches to answering a riddle, or even, as in this game, decipher. Judging based on your game, you of course want to reach your targeted audience in terms of difficulty and not make it too hard or frustrating. For me, i make the campaign have the easier puzzles, but the achievement hunters or people who truly want to explore an ancient ruin go through the difficult puzzles. After all, they want to explore the world, not just the story.

Edit:
Initially, if you have multiple characters in your party, they can talk between themselves to assess the information and further hint to the solution. Or if a certain amount of time passes, they start talking, or the character starts a dialogue with himself repeating the hints and concludes with another hint.
 

Tai_MT

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My personal standpoint is likely to be fairly "controversial" as I tend to be in the minority of things.

You need to decide what your game is. Are you making a puzzle game or an RPG? If you're making an RPG, eliminate as many puzzles as possible. We aren't playing an RPG video game for puzzles. We'll play an RPG Tabletop for a few light puzzles, but that's the extent you're going to get with the typical audience of RPG's. if you're making a Puzzle Game, then most players aren't going to want to engage in combat and leveling and buying equipment.

Put simply:

There's not a lot of overlap between people who enjoy puzzles and people who enjoy RPG's.

I, personally, enjoy both. But, I do not enjoy them together (frankly, 'cause they don't fit together at all, and the only reason RPG's ever included them was to pad out gameplay).

I'll play Portal. I'll play Mass Effect. But, the minute you put Sudoku puzzles into Mass Effect, I'm out. The minute you make me fight turrets in Portal to level up in order to beat GLaDOS, I'm out.

Some people like Ketchup on their Chocolate. I'm not one of them.

So, let's talk about your particular issue now.

If you're making an RPG, you should probably make the quest much easier if possible. Most players do not enjoy games that "roadblock" them with puzzles and other such nonsense. From a player's standpoint, the minute a dev introduces such a roadblock to me, I'm immediately looking up the solution online so that I don't have to bother with it and can instead continue with the game. That is, continue with the parts of the game I'm enjoying. Story. Characters. Combat. Progression System. A full-stop to sit around and solve a puzzle is not something I'm generally in the mood for when I have to do it in order to get more of the things I enjoy.

Think of your puzzle in an RPG like a forced stealth section in an FPS like Doom Eternal. Imagine how jank that feels. Imagine how annoying that is to a player.

If you've got a difficult to solve puzzle... that's what you're doing.

My recommendation is to make the puzzle easier. You don't have to resort to outright telling the player how to solve it or the solution. Just make the solution easier to figure out. There's no need to highlight text. No need to capitalize on it. All you have to do is think of the easiest puzzle you can... and then make it easier. By and large, your players aren't going to "intuit" what you want them to by your puzzle design. Players can't read your mind. They can't get into the exact same "headspace" you were in when you came up with the puzzle. Your puzzle needs to be something easy to figure out and intuited universally across all players.

For example:

Got rock you can push, got button. Every player in the world will think, "push rock onto button".

Your puzzles need to be like this. At least, if they're in ANY genre OTHER than a puzzle game.

If players aren't figuring out your puzzle its because you've probably designed it badly. Imagine trying to solve a puzzle with no knowledge of how it was created or why or even why the solution is what it is. That's what it sounds like you've got on your hands. You came up with something you thought was simple, but pretty clever, and you're disappointed your players can't manage to find themselves in the same headspace you were in when you made it.

You need to do what other puzzle games do when you try to make a puzzle anything more than "super easy". That is, ramp up the puzzle over time and teach them all the mechanics of it gradually. You need to iterate on it. Play any of the Zelda games and look at how their Dungeon Items are used. They teach you the basic use of the item, they introduce puzzles in which you know you have to use the item, but not how, then have you experiment a little, and figure out how it works and why, and then iterate on that mechanic in other places of the game. Places where the player recognizes familiar things so they know what to try.

This is how you do puzzle design.
 

CraneSoft

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In any normal RPG where the gameplay is not about puzzle-solving, the universal solution for difficult puzzles is having that one NPC or party member who will just solve the puzzle for you if you ask. This way you won't hinder player progress and players can also solve it on their own if they so wished.

If you need an example of how not to do puzzles, look into Parasite Eve 2 - a game that's notorious for it's puzzles even though they work on (relatively) normal logic, but still require actual brainpower to solve. The end result is a lot of 15-year olds (me included) needing to resort to strategy guides at some point in the game.
 

Marquise*

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I hate when a game is dumbed down. I remember the original Fallout patch that made the warning from the water caravan guards useless even if I thought too that a water caravan going on a frequent road by your uber duper super secret vault was bound to attract raiders in a question of time and loved how unpatched even Children of the Cathedral spread in all cities... Until the game got a companion bug.

But nope, too many kids playing a mature game had to whine and they had to remove the second countdown and dire consequences. argh.

You know, in the past, a game was hard and someone in the community helped with their logic and tips publications could help. Hence the good days of the player manual in a boxset.

You can also have difficulty settings, easy, normal, hard, extreme.
 

dollyt

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Recently, one of the puzzles I designed for a game demo, which I thought was really easy, stumped most playtesters. Most players could not figure out how to solve it. Now the puzzle is of a logic kind, where the player has to infer what to do based on npc dialogue, but none of the NPCs directly tells the player how the mystery should be solved. This in a way is an "old school" approach that's closer to the old King's Quest games and whatnot.

Now, assuming I don't change the content, I could make this puzzle even easier by using popular capitalize or highlight techniques such as "So, I hear that THE LADY IN THE RED DRESS knows about the quest." Basically, capitalizing/highlighting the key info for the player so he doesn't have to read the whole spliel. I could even go one step further GTA style by marking out the next destination point on the minimap.

Now what this does is it makes sure that most players can solve this puzzle and go on with the rest of the game. This might even be crucial should the game be entered into a contest where you don't want the judges to get stuck and prematurely finish judging your game.

The downside is it might make the game less fun...for some people.

So, what do you think would be the best way to implement a difficult puzzle in a game?
What I did in my game was have three options for each puzzle.
Easy, because that makes the most sense
Medium, because you're cautious
Hard, because you're the smartest person in the world.

I made easy super easy, medium fairly easy, and hard is super hard. For something like what you are talking about you could even have these options at the beginning of the game. Finally, another thing that I did in my game was have a side-character that you can 'call' at intervals for hints in case you get stuck. You could make the hints as cryptic or detailed as you wanted.
 

Mythmaker19

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I think players should have the option to skip a puzzle after a certain amount of time has passed if they genuinely can't solve the puzzle, but they should at least make an effort to solve them. Unless you're playing a puzzle game, I wouldn't imagine most players are really looking for difficult puzzles, but treating your entire audience as if they're stupid and hand-holding them through every single puzzle would be a bit overkill, in my opinion.
 

Wavelength

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I tend to really dislike mandatory puzzles in RPGs ("mandatory" in the sense of you can't progress through the story or game until you solve that damn puzzle). They can bring your journey to a grinding halt temporarily or even permanently, they rarely feel immersive or outright enjoyable, and they deliver a type of gameplay that many RPG players aren't even looking to experience at all in the first place.

I'm not a big fan of dumbing down puzzles to the point of telling the player outright where they are supposed to go, either. Puzzles are no fun if the player doesn't get to use any brain power - any good puzzle will make its player feel smart, and feel like the success wasn't automatic. Puzzles should force your player to synthesize or analyze information. Additionally, when it's way too obvious (like a giant wayfinding point on the minimap when you're supposed to "search for" a thief's hideout), all of the immersion is drained from the game.

So, what's the right way to approach puzzles? In my opinion it's to challenge the player, but to make sure that there is a way forward for players who get stuck. Often, this means making the puzzles optional - solving them might offer material rewards, change dialogue, or open up new paths. There are other techniques you can use to offer up ways forward for players who get stuck, too, which I discuss at length in this post.
 

Beregon

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In my opinion, if puzzles are going to be a part of your game, you should introduce them early on.

A few months ago, I've played a long demo for one RPG Maker Game, that had no puzzles until the very end of the demo (which was like 3 hours of playtime). Then, suddenly, what was the last dungeon in the demo introduced puzzles. Well, it had only two. Both of those were of the "flip levers around until all of them are activated at once". The first one was easy, it had only 3 levers and could be done just by randomly pressing levers. The problem is, it was then followed by the same puzzle that had 8 levers. I spent over an hour trying to solve it, but couldn't manage it. The puzzle also couldn't be reset (something that should be there tbh.), which also added considerable frustration.

The thing is, said game was really combat-heavy and that sudden mandatory puzzle totally destroyed a lot of the enjoyment I got out of it. I couldn't get past the barrier the lever puzzle blocked and thus couldn't finish the demo.
 

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