Working on my chess game, I've been playing the chess puzzles on chessclub.com. The "TrainerBot", they call it. I'm enjoying it more than actual chess, I think. It gives me the same warm fuzzy feeling when I play Zelda - actually, even better, because I've gotten so good at Zelda-type puzzles that they no longer thrill me to solve.
Which makes me think about the whole puzzles thing. Ion Storm has this anti-puzzle manifesto -- "problems, not puzzles" -- which I think has taken maybe too strong a hold on the English-speaking game design community. (Talking to an ex-Looking Glass guy who now works at Oddworld, I mentioned that I liked Abe's - he said, "Yeah, but it was puzzley.")
I've brought this up before. So I repeat myself. Hey, it's hard to keep this blog filled sometimes.
There are a number of things to like about puzzles, and by puzzles here I'm talking about "single optimal path" level design rather than Tetris type games.
- they are pass / fail. You get an A or you get an F. If you're the sort of gamer who pride themselves on perfect play, games with a single optimal path reward you better than games where you're presented with obstacles that you can overcome in a variety of less-to-more effective ways.
- a moment of empathy with the game designer. A lot of game designers think this is uncool; when they see a contrived puzzle in their game, be it Prince of Persia or Beyond Good & Evil or Zelda, it ruins their suspension of disbelief - it reminds them that they're playing a game and not living a simulation or immersed in a story. I actually like it, the feeling that the designer is communicating with me through the language of puzzle - sometimes it's okay for games to be games and not stories or simulations. And sometimes a magician game designer can contrive the puzzle so well that you don't even notice.
- a single optimal path is usually clear. "What am I supposed to do?" the player asks.
- you can't cheese them. Creating the opportunity for emergent strategy is great but sometimes a strategy will emerge that makes all your hard work meaningless. Usually these strategies are found in test (if they aren't, then you can rest easy assuming that not too many of your paying customers will find them either) but there's always the risk that the strategy will show up in Gamefaqs (the pausing vigilante missions in GTA3 exploit, for example). (Of course, even when you're creating a linear one-intended-solution puzzle, you can still be bitten by emergent strategies. Any system can create emergencies. Heh-heh.)
I'm not sure how I got from chess puzzles to the beauty of optimal paths in videogames, but here I am.
There's a big fat problem with puzzles. Namely:
- they are, by definition, shelf level events: if your puzzle is even slightly challenging, it is going to stop some percentage of gamers in their tracks. (Ugh, I'm having one of those states where either way I spell "their" looks wrong. One problem with typepad is no spell checker...) These people will not recommend the game to their friends. They might even return it. This is why games like Zelda, BG&E, and Prince of Persia have really easy puzzles. For some reason, I still feel clever when I "solve" them, but in general I could hand the controller to a retarded monkey and they'd get through the game as well. Steve Meretzky's theory -- that puzzles should be hard because someone who's stumped can always look up the answer on the internet, but people who like them hard can't make them harder -- does not seem to be borne out by the marketplace.
All I'm saying is: do not rebuke yourself if your game design does not hold up to Ion Storm's standards. Different strokes, and all that.