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For the first time in my game, I'm stuck with a real design dilemma. I guess that's a good thing ;) I'm building a word puzzle game that has five levels, each with 30 puzzles. Currently, the user has to solve one puzzle at a time before moving to the next. However, I'm finding the user occasionally gets stuck on a puzzle, at which point they can no longer play until they solve it. This is obviously bad because many people will probably just quit playing the game and delete the app.

The only elegant solution I can find to helping the player get unstuck is changing the design of the game to allow the users to pick any puzzle to play at any time. This way, if they get stuck, they can come back to it later and at least they have other puzzles to play in the meantime. It's my opinion, however, that this new flow design doesn't make the game as fun as the original flow design where the player has to complete a puzzle before moving to the next. To me, it's like anything else, when you only have one of something, it's more enjoyable, but when you have 30 of something, it's far less enjoyable. In fact, when I present the user with 30 puzzles to choose from, I'm concerned I might be making them feel like it's a lot of work they have to do and that's bad. I even had a tester voluntarily tell me that being forced to complete a puzzle before moving to the next is actually motivating.

My questions are...

  1. Do you agree/disagree?
  2. Do you have any suggestions for how I can help the player get unstuck?

Thanks so much in advance for your thoughts!

EDIT: I should mention that I've already considered a few other solutions to helping the user get unstuck, but none of them seem like good ideas. They are...

  1. Add more hints: Currently, the user gets two hints per puzzle. If I increase the hint count, it only makes the game more easy and still leaves the possibility of the user getting stuck.
  2. Add a "Show Solution" button: This seems like a bad idea because it's my opinion this takes the fun out of the game for many people who would probably otherwise solve the puzzle if they didn't have the quick option to see the solution.
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Hints are a horrible practice that should be abandoned ASAP. wkerslake and IQpierce gave enough good advices that make hinting completely useless. –  Lohoris Jan 14 '11 at 14:06

8 Answers 8

Lots of solutions:

Limited Skips

Players can skip up to X times, and clearing a previous level gets the skip back

Skip after repeated failure

If your puzzle can be failed then after a certain number of failures instead of just a retry button there is a skip button as well.

Multiple Levels of Success

For example, beating a level rewards 1, 2, or 3 stars. Then levels unlock based on stars not order. So if you are having trouble with one level you can go back and do a better job on previous ones.

Micro-transaction Skips

Depends on your platform, but you can charge for level skipping.

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7  
+1 Multiple levels of success, that didn't even occur to me. –  Noctrine Dec 28 '10 at 20:37
    
Money seize does that in platformer game, and for me, it works really well –  Luker Dec 28 '10 at 20:44
    
Multiple levels of success is an excellent model. Slice It is a game that makes good use of that system. –  Sparr Dec 28 '10 at 23:24
    
+1 Good ideas. Short and to the point. –  bummzack Dec 29 '10 at 8:03

wkerslake has some good answers - multiple levels of success has been used to great effect in games like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds, among many others.

But I'm surprised not to see any answers recommending the solution used by Guitar Hero, Super Meat Boy, and many other games, which I'll call "gating."

Divide your levels up into chunks, say "Easy, Medium, Hard, Expert" chunks; each chunk might contain, say, 7 levels. The player starts with only access to the Easy chunk, but once they beat, say, 5 of the 7 Easy levels, the Medium chunk becomes available. Once they beat 5 of the 7 Medium levels, the Hard chunk becomes available; etc.

A variation is to make it so that beating 5 of the 7 available levels opens up a "boss" level, which must be played, after which the Medium chunk appears. This ensures that the "boss" levels must always be played in any possible progression through your game.

This allows players to quit certain levels they get stuck on and either return to them later, or not return to them at all. Meanwhile players who wish to do so can still play through every single level sequentially (and should probably be given a peripheral award such as an achievement for doing so). This also preserves a progression in your game - they can't immediately skip to the last level if they want. And the "boss" system ensures that if you have a level which teaches a skill which is absolutely required for the player to learn before moving on, that the player will always have to play that level (though if that one level turns out to be the one your players get stuck on, then you're right back to the problem you started with).

Another solution is the one used by Braid, which allowed the player to simply go right on past the puzzles without solving them. They could instantly return to them later after beating them, and there was still "gating" in that they couldn't open up new areas until the puzzles were actually paused. But think about having the ability to simply "move on" to the next puzzle and return to it later - often players will return to a puzzle refreshed, and with new skills acquired from the other puzzles they solved, and will be able to defeat that puzzle they were stuck on quickly.

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I have two suggestions.

The first is to limit the amount of direct skips they get, and allow them to regain used skips if they go back and complete a puzzle they skipped previously.

This will ensure that the user remains motivated. They no-longer have unlimited potential for an easy ride, and it will add another motivating factor. Not using their skips because there is 'potentially' a far harder puzzle down the line. Also, as puzzles tend to effect the way that people approach a general set of problems they may get inspiration for a puzzle they play down the line. The act of returning and finishing a puzzle that had once defeated them will equal an immense amount of gratification (Consider finally one-upping someone who was better than you in ever class). For example of this, see World of Goo, although I don't know if they return skips.

The second suggestion is to give them unlimited hints, from the early casual hints to helping them step by step. There are any number of factors you could use to give out hints to players, time, failed attempts but casually release more information that would make solving the particular puzzle easier for them. For you, this may seem as juvenile hand holding, but thanks to Hindsight Bias your players won't see it that way. Mentally they will say, "Oh it's that simple, I would have figured that out" and continue without feeling slighted in the slightest. (Or alternatively, they will go "No one would have thought of that, I'm happy I cheated" or "I was over-thinking the puzzle, I'm to smart to have ever guessed that" and actually feel pleased). For an example of this (in a form) see the monkey island 1/2 remakes. You can hold down a button to get a hint, and repeatedly clicking things (in general) in monkey island games (and many other adventure games) makes the character give subtle hints.

The trick with that one, is to do it casually and without interrupting play. A simple visual tick could be the lowest hint levels, a sort of inconspicuous action to draw their eyes to something else (sparkles around something they should click, a change to a happier 'successful' tone when they are completing a proper chain of actions or touching the correct area)

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Could probably expand more if it's unclear, seems a bit more wall-o-texty than usual to me. –  Noctrine Dec 28 '10 at 20:21

One option that I've seen work well is to give the player, say, three available levels in the post-tutorial period, and then unlock an additional level when one is beaten. Thus, the player can initially do Level 1, 2, or 3; beating any one of these unlocks 4, and so on.

At any one time, the player has three different levels available. If she gets stuck on Level 2, she can do other levels all the way to the end of the game, but never has too many options to pick from.

Of course, if the player becomes stuck on three levels over the course of the game, say 2, 6, and 13, she must beat one of them to unlock a new level. Still, this gives more leeway than the beat-each-level method.

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Gimme the money!

The player should be given "money" for each puzzle they solve. The amount of money earned depends on tThe player should be given "money" for each puzzle they solve. The amount of money earned depends on the difficulty, and time taken.

money_earned = max - time_taken / difficulty;

With this money, they can buy the solution to puzzles:

#define TIME_TAKE 60 // (seconds) The averagr time it should take to solve a puzzle on level 1 difficulty; multiply by difficulty level to get time taken on that difficulty
cost_of_puzzle = TIME_TAKE * (*puzzle).difficulty;
if(buy)
    money_earned -= cost_of_puzzle;

If they have the solution to a puzzle, give them the option to skip it.

This method has a few benefits:

  • If the player is good, they can skip some of the easy levels - the faster they are, the more money they earn
  • You can force the player to go in order
  • Money makes everything all right!
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Money works well for some puzzles, but sometimes it can be annoying where you thought a solution through well but you were a second too slow, and have to replay to pass. –  The Communist Duck Jan 1 '11 at 15:19

Having to progress through levels is probably more fun for a puzzle game. That said, you have 5 level-sets, so you could force sequential progression on those 5, while allowing the player to go through the sub-levels (of the current set) in any order.

Too many hints and cheats allow the player to bypass the challenge. Games are about challenge, so letting players out of the challenge can be harmful if overdone. It will make the game less fun. Give the player credit - s/he will rise to the level of the game (within reason... you can't require them to understand quantum physics to win). Make it too easy, and they will lose motivation.

I would try to make sure that by the time they might get stuck, they have enough invested in the game that they don't want to quit. So ramp up the difficulty gradually in those first 30 levels. Provide enough challenge, but make it unlikely to get stuck in the early stages. That way, the player starts having to really think on level 25 or 35 or 45, and by that time they have (we hope) formed goals and attachments within the game. Since they've already spent x hours mastering the gameplay, and assuming those hours were fun and rewarding, they won't want to waste that investment by quitting and uninstalling ;)

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I would group 5-7 puzzles into one tier. The player has to complete a certain percentage of the puzzles for each tier to unlock the next tier e.g. 5 out of 7.

That way the player can progress and can try difficult puzzles at a later time. It would be a good idea to give some sort of incentive. Maybe making hints available if you complete all puzzles of one tier or bonus levels, different UI skins etc.

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On the lines of what IQ said, some of the puzzle flash games I played and like implemented a star or coin type progression.

You need 1 star to unlock level 2, 5 stars to unlock level 3, 7 stars to unlock level 4, etc. etc.

You get a star for solving a puzzle, and also for completing secondary objectives for each puzzle. For example, if you beat a puzzle in under a minute, you get a star. If you beat the puzzle with 85% efficiency, you get a star. This way, you still have to go rather sequentially through each puzzle, but if you do well enough on the earlier ones, you can "skip" a puzzle that you get stuck on and go to the next.

Some of it depends on what kind of puzzle game it is, but I've always enjoyed these type of progressions because you can skip puzzles you get stuck on and it adds to replayability of earlier levels you've already beaten. Especially if you get rewards or bonus levels for getting all the stars on each level.

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