In my previous developer update (Link), I showed off the “core” experience of my current game. It can be summarized by solving logical gate problems (AND, OR, XOR, etc.) horizontally and vertically where each bit can impact multiple equations, changing one bit to solve an equation left could un-solve an equation right, or up, or down. But what to do with a novel puzzle that is both dull and complex at the same time? How do I containerize puzzles? How does the player feel progression? What is the overall reason to play this game over the 500 other games released that month?
The best place to start looking for answers is at how your contemporaries solve the problem of framing progressions and increasing difficulty in puzzle games on mobile. The surreal levels punctuated by abstract storytelling of The Monument Valley, the simple level nodes over art segmented by unique obstacles of Candy Crush Saga, or completely strip down the game to the polished, minimalist UI of Threes. These existing game frameworks are great in their own unique way but do not address the weaknesses of your particular puzzle paradigm. Designing to address the unique weaknesses to your core experience is what can elevate a novel puzzle paradigm to an award winning, top grossing premium game.
Strengths and Weaknesses
To start off I need to first take a sober, cold hard look at the gameplay and realize what are the inherit strengths and weaknesses.
- Unique puzzle paradigm
- Puzzle complexity can easily scale
- Simple touch inputs, no dexterity required
- Short game sessions (great for mobile)
- Steep initial learning curve
- Visually dull
- Low excitement
- Low diversity from puzzle to puzzle
- Easily copied if successful (Threes & 2048 situation)
- Not familiar looking or feeling
- Low value proposition for a premium mobile game (aiming for $2.99)
Now I need to turn my weaknesses into opportunities. The visuals, UX and overall “juice” (Game Maker’s Toolkit) can address the dull visuals and excitement. Steep learning curve will hopefully be solved by slowly building difficulty and complexity with individual puzzle designs. What worries me are the weaknesses left over: easily copied, low value proposition and low diversity of puzzles.
Before I go about addressing these weaknesses, I need to take a step back and understand my goals for developing this game. This is where realistic monetary ROI, market penetration and studio/developer branding conversations need to happen (since I am a solo-dev they happen with myself). My goal for this game isn’t monetary but more of a first pass as a game director, my low budget art that I hope breaks the indie barrier and enters the mainstream conversations.
- Ship a finished premium project
- Get nominated/win an indie game award (IndieCade, IGF, etc.)
- Gross $30,000
With my goals in mind, let me walk through the process on how I thought about addressing the weaknesses in my core experience.
Mobile games, especially ones with novel gameplay and low development cost, can be easily copied or cloned. The most common ways to put up barriers to fight cloning, i.e. introducing network effects into gameplay or racing to inject sunken cost fallacy into the FTUE (first time user experience), are not available to the scope and overall goals of this game. So I choose to accept that the low-level logical gate puzzles can be easily copied. This is why it is important for me to answer the next weakness.
How do I design the game in a way that will help the goals, wall off clones from taking potential users and make the premium game proposition work? I think the core experience of solving logical gate puzzles, no matter how well I handcraft the puzzles or containerize level progression, will never be enough to address the value proposition weakness.
The game needed to go beyond a game as a series of puzzles and instead, have the series of puzzles be the interaction in an overall game. The overall game could be anything: invest & express, competitive leaderboards, anything that adds progression to solving puzzle after puzzle. I arrived on framing the entire game through a narrative. The narrative would give reasons for the player to complete puzzle after puzzle while digging a trench around the game in the form of a unique story that can’t be easily cloned. I personally like narratives as a tool to ground the abstract gameplay into something all players can related to and thus make the game appealing to all players; similar to how Pixar tells stories that break through gender, race, religion and culture. Finally, a well executed narrative will help differentiate my game not only from clones or other puzzle games, but all the other indie games I will be competing with for eyeballs in both the app stores and indie game festivals.
Diversity of gameplay
The last piece I need to solve is diversity of gameplay. At this point I have a core experience (logical gate puzzle) and container to tie all the core experiences together (narrative). As I mentioned before, the core experience itself does not support much diversity. I can put constraints on the puzzles such as time limits, turn limits, etc. but I can’t easily add the diversity you see in Match-3 obstacles or Tetris derivatives.
Using the narrative world space, I can introduce additional logical gate puzzles in the world. This would give each section of the narrative more flavor and personality, similar to The Legend of Zelda series where each dungeon is themed and has mechanics unique to it.
Intertwining world space puzzles with the narrative segments elevates this game design from what was previously a complex, yet unexciting, incremental series of puzzles that was easily clone-able to something that has a chance to be remembered.