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I have a game design dilemma and could use some advice

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Hello. 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 the game 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 right off the bat, 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...

- Do you agree/disagree?

- 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...

- 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.

- 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.

- My second best solution is to just force the player to complete a puzzle before moving to the next and adjust the order of the puzzles so that they're more likely to get stuck on puzzles later in the game rather than early. At least this way, they'll feel more motivated to get unstuck since they're more invested in the game at that point.

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You could give the player the option to skip a level if they're stuck on it for more the five minutes or so. That, or offer them the solution.

I agree that leaving all the levels unlocked from the beginning is a bad idea. Unlocking a new puzzle is like a reward for completing a previous one. I wouldn't take that away.

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You could break the 30 puzzles per level into 6 sets of 5 and let the player solve 3 out of the 5 puzzles to progress to the next set.

So you have 5 levels, each level has 6 stages, and you have to solve 3/5 of the puzzles in a stage to progress to the next stage. This gives clear progression but gives the player some wiggle room too.

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Right now you have 30 puzzles per stage that you play one after the other.

Instead, you could have branches of puzzles. Each puzzle unlocks its "child" puzzles, of which there are maybe 2 or 3. So if you're stuck on one, you can try playing the other one or two that are also unlocked.

[Edited by - Pete Michaud on December 29, 2010 2:15:36 PM]

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There's a good chance that someone might create a walk-through for frustrated players with all the solutions anyways. I don't think there's a lot you can do about that. But putting that aside, I think that if each level is specificly designed by you, has only one solution, and each level progresses in difficulty based on your opinion of the difficulty, and you have an idea in mind for what constitutes a fun way to complete the game, then you're going to be limited in your options.

Challenging a player with a puzzle that has one specific solution is ok, but I'd recommend that you mentally prepare them for the possibility that they could get stuck. If they're expecting to maybe get stuck on a puzzle then they're more likely to come back to it than if they're expecting to be able to progress through each level at a consistant rate.

Other than that, maybe you could try and help the players to come to understand the mechanics of the puzzle possibly by providing a puzzle editor or by generating random puzzles. Or at the very least, make sure that the puzzle can be solved through logic and trial and error. There's nothing more annoying than not being able to solve a puzzle because the player didn't consider some piece of information from an outside source that isn't really connected to the game.

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/Agree with kseh.

Although it's much much harder, it has more replay value to make a puzzle generator.
For example, you could hard-code 30 sudoku puzzles, 10 easy, 10 medium, and 10 hard.
Or you could make a sudoku generator for easy, medium, and hard sudoku puzzles.

It's going to take FAR more effort and debugging to make the generator than just to hard-code them, but it gives the player exponentially more options.

As far as progression design, another option (much like Pete suggested) would be to have 3 sets of 10 per level, like 3 progression streams. Occasionally there could be a few bridges between the streams, where you can skip particularly hard ones if you go far enough on a different stream. That way there are plenty of options to reach the end (but it means that several of your levels might not be played).

For that case, just add some sort of achievements for accomplishing everything on all paths. People like achievements that they can see.

Good luck!

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I don't play Angry Birds, but I read about it a little, and apparently there's a new feature, the Mighty Eagle, that addresses the very problem you describe. In Angry Birds, you use a little catapult to knock down structures and destroy targets to pass the level. It's sometimes very tricky to finish a level, because it requires either very precise launching or very clever strategy, and it's possible to get stuck for hours, failing dozens of times.

The Mighty Eagle is basically a smart bomb that does two things: First, it guarantees victory on the level, and second, it offers an alternate score, the Eagle Score, that's based on total damage wrought, rather than on efficiency or bonus items, which is the usual way of scoring. So not only does it get you over the rough spots, it adds replay value to levels you've already beaten.

There's a catch, though: Once the Eagle has been used, it's not available for use in later levels until you go back to the level you Eagled and beat it fair and square. So when you're tearing your hair out, you can just drop the E-bomb and get a fresh challenge, but you can't just nuke your way through the whole game.

So something like that might work for your game. Give your players a big red "Eff This" button to push, but restrict its use.

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Quote:
Original post by Acharis
Every 5 levels you get an ability to skip 1 level. You can go back later and solve the level to get your "skip level" back for further use.


I like this solution. An alternative is to just give a fixed number of skip levels. This encourages you more to solve that skipped level and win your valuable skip back. The classic Supaplex gave you 2 skips levels, allowing you to play 3 different levels at any time.

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The way a lot of games solve this problem is by making it so you only have to solve a certain amount of challenges in order to progress to the next level, rather than complete all of them.

For example, in Super Mario 64 you need a certain amount of stars in order to unlock new areas and levels. You don't need to get all of the stars or in any particular order, you just need a certain amount of them. In fact you only need about 59% of the stars in order to see the ending. However, in order to feel like you have "properly" completed the game you need to collect all of the other remaining stars as well.

I think that Rycross has a good idea because it would set a balance between this and what you want. People don't have to complete all of them right away, but in order to feel like you have "truly and completely" beaten the game, you will need to go back and finish them all.

You could also make a difficulty level like many games have to determine how difficult the challenges are.

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I like those "skip" ideas and I think level designers should not expect their players to reach perfection in solving a puzzle level. That is to say, designers should hold such concept that passing a level is relatively easy while there always exists an perfect solution of the level. They should imply players that you did well and deserve entering next level but there is a better way. Anyway, setting the difficulty is very tricky.

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Just make sure the final level is non-skippable. It would be disappointing to have your carefully crafted conclusion be skipped. Perhaps just convert all remaining unused skips to bonus points near the end. (gives incentive to not use them).

Also I really like the idea of being able to earn the skips back by actually solving them.

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