As Jack mentioned last week, Penguin Party and its first map pack are still firmly at the forefront of our minds. In order to demonstrate this, we thought that this week would be a great chance to bring you a sneaky peek in to how we go about fine-tuning our map packs.
The biggest challenge we face as puzzle designers, is in ensuring that our levels steadily increase in difficulty throughout the game. If a puzzle stands out as too difficult, it can feel jarring and out of place. If puzzles don’t become challenging enough, it may cause the game to feel stale and boring after a while. This is further compounded by another problem that puzzle creators face: as soon as you know the solution to a puzzle, it seems trivial. The result of this is that we, as designers, are particularly ill-equipped to judge how tough a level is. We try to mitigate this by finding general rules for understanding what causes a puzzle to be tough to solve. A simple example of this, is that puzzles with fewer arrows are often easier. This is because the player has fewer choices to make and therefore, fewer paths to think through in order to reach the solution. In a similar vein, levels with lots of empty tiles on usually take longer to complete. In some ways this is counter-intuitive, as usually it is the cluttered levels that seem more intimidating, but it is clear that having more spaces on which to place your arrows will lead to more potential solutions to think through.
Whilst finding general patterns among previous levels can go some way to helping us make an educated guess about how demanding our new levels will be, this is often not enough. The best way to get the information that we need, is to get people to try the game out! Given that a good number of us come from a software testing background, we are usually fairly adept at finding defects in our games. So our testing sessions are really there to measure the perceived difficulty curve of our map packs. Usually a large enough sample of players will give us a strong indication of which puzzles need to be moved. The results are often surprising too. For example, in the original set of levels, we never expected “A little help from my friend” (Node 2, level 7) to prove so formidable for the majority of players. After all, it seems quite simple in terms of design and has a limited number of arrows. However, our testers almost unanimously ignored the penguin in the top left when it came to collecting the balloon. In fact, this was so universal, that we even gave the puzzle its name as a little nudge in the right direction for anyone that might be stuck.
So, what did we find during our first external testing session of the circus map pack? Most notably, the whole map pack was probably a bit too challenging. This showed us that, as the developers of the game, we are fairly accomplished puzzle solvers. As a result, we decided to tune down the difficultly of a few of the puzzles in the middle of each node. Now, I can already hear those of you that are thirsty for a gargantuan battle of wits screaming “but what about us!?”. Fear not my puzzle-devouring friends! This is exactly why we wanted to add the 100% club. We’re usually pretty proud of the more fiendishly perplexing puzzles that we create, and we couldn’t bare to never have them see the light of day. So instead of chucking them out, we’re putting them in to the 100% club. We won’t be pulling any punches in those levels. Some of them were so devilishly baffling that even some of our developers couldn’t solve them (and most of us take genuine pleasure in undermining each other’s levels, by finding solutions which require fewer arrows). They are so hard that, when they do go up on the PSM store, we would be very interested to hear back from those that do manage to beat them. So please, let us know what you think!