Archives for posts with tag: difficulty

Morning all, hope you had a restful break over the holidays. But unfortunately it is the new year and that means getting back to it. And for me that means writing more devblogs.

So welcome to the Kana Quest devblog for January 2020.

trailerWIP2

If you’re new here, Kana Quest the game that I’m making. It’s a cross between dominoes and a match-3 puzzle game… but it teaches you how to read the Japanese alphabet. I designed over 300 levels for this game and because of that I feel as though I have some idea of what I’m doing when it comes to designing puzzles. So for this month’s devblog I am going to go over my Top 4 favourite bits of puzzle design advice.

4. Learn How to Manage Complexity

So within any game you are going to have complexity. Traditional game design says that you want to keep the game’s difficulty within the “flow channel”. Basically, don’t let the game be too easy or too hard, difficulty trends upwards as the player gets better, but you do have fluctuations of difficulty over time. I mostly use the word complexity over difficulty here because I find it is complexity that produces difficulty. However, there are different types of complexity to consider. The three main types of complexity are:

  • Complexity of given information
  • Complexity of “solution” or “win state”
  • Complexity of execution

Lets quickly define these in a bit more detail.

Complexity of given information, is the amount of information the player has to process. For an example. If you are playing Magic or Hearthstone, if your opponent has a 1/1 creature, no cards in hand, no trap effects and they have 1 life left. And then you have a spell in your hand that deals 1 damage to anything, you have very little complexity of given information. In this example, you have two possible actions. One will win you the game, the other postpones the end of the game. Its very easy process all the information. And as a result, that is not a very difficult game state. But if we gave both players a full board of creatures each that have different effects and both players have full hands and full life… now there is so much for information that the player has to parse. This makes the game harder.

Complexity of “solution” is based off how hard it is for the player to figure out what their “win state” looks like. Many games have very clear and consistent win states. For example, a platforming game your win state is to get to the end of the level. It’s very clearly defined for the player. Puzzle games are somewhat unique because often the player does not know what the “win state” is when they are going in. Part of the fun is figuring out what the win state is. For example, if you sat down and started a crossword and you knew all the answers, it would not be fun. However sometimes, especially in puzzle games you need to be able to figure out what some elements of the end state look like in order to progress. If your “solution” is so complicated that it is near impossible to figure out what the end state looks like, then that often means a puzzle is way too hard.

Finally Complexity of execution. This is how difficult it is to execute the actions the player needs to do in order to win. For example, in a Souls-like game, you can often see what you need to do quite well, but executing that plan is often where the difficulty comes in. In puzzle games, how complex the specific order of actions must take to win, determines the complexity of execution.

Here are some diagrams on the breakdowns on the different types of complexities between genres

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So, you might have noticed that for Kana Quest, the complexity of information is maxed out. This is because each game piece is a Japanese letter, and the player has to remember what each letter is in order to match the sounds between letters. Because of this, the average player has to mentally track what letter is what. What this means is that I cannot use complexity of information to up the game’s difficulty. If I were to try increase it, players simply would not be able to process what is going on in a given level. Because of this most of the time, when I am trying to make a more challenging level in Kana Quest, I usually increase the complexity of execution. Of course these complexity levels will fluctuate within a given game (turn 1 hearthstone has basically no complexity on any vector, but that ramps up significantly over a match).

The reason I’m bringing complexity up is that to make a good puzzle game, you need to know what vectors your game has a lot of naturally. And of course every puzzle game is different so you need to have a good understanding of the different types of complexity in order to properly manage it in your game. Puzzle games especially have the reputation of making the player feel stupid, if your players feel stupid, you probably haven’t properly managed complexity. And hopefully understanding these vectors will give you a better idea of where to start changing things.

 

3. Avoid Red Herrings

This tip is related to Number 4, but do not include red herrings. What I mean by red herring is that you include an element within a puzzle that confuses the player of the solution. Red herrings massively increase the amount of solution complexity. The reason is that they stop the player from being able to understand what the end state is.  If you include a element, it needs to be clear to the player what function that element is supposed to do. Lets look at some examples from Kana Quest.

redherring1

First Iteration of World 5 Level 5 in Kana Quest

So lets break down whats going on here. In Kana Quest you match sounds between letters, when all the Kana are connected, that’s when the level is complete. In this level there are Slime Kana (The green ones). They cannot match, but they can change the vowel sound of any movable Kana (So not the Stone Kana). So here the player has to use slime kana to make two chains of three Kana that connect to stone Kana. One of the core “questions” of this level is that you have to figure out how to the Slime Kana next to the Stone Kana. Do you use them on the top row, or the bottom row? Pretty simple right? But, in playtesting we found that players correctly used the two い (i) correctly, but used the え (e) wrong and it was causing frustration. The problem was that because the く(ku) was immediately above え (e). For some reason, player’s kept interpreting it as, oh going up is correct because they are next to each other (but somehow ignored the な (na) that was also next to the え (e)) Our solution?

redherring2.png

We just moved the く(ku) over one spot.  It keeps the “question” of the level in tact, but it removed the “red herring”. The red herring in this situation is using the え (e)on the く(ku).

It is incredibly easy to make a red herring by accident, and the only real way to catch them is to playtest and see where players get hung up. And of course, maybe you have a puzzle game that is about getting lost or being obtuse then maybe you can be a bit more forgiving of red herrings. But if you leave them in make sure your players don’t feel like they wasted their time for following a red herring.

2. Try to distil a puzzle into a single element.

I mentioned this briefly when I was talking about red herrings. But you should be able to distil a level down to a singe element or “question”. Lets look at some levels to see what I mean.

GoodLevel1

World 1 Level 3

This is one of first levels that stumps players. This level asks the player “can you correctly order these three Kana, while positioning them in a way that connects to the Stone Kana”.

 

redherring3.png

World 3 Level 15

This level asks the player “can you figure out the correct order you need to move the three normal Kana on the top into the four One Way Kana on the bottom”.

 

redherring4.png

World 8 Level 6

The core question of this level is “which one of these three Kana do you slime with う?”

So, the reason I think this is helpful is that it allows you as the designer to hone in to what is important to the level. If you find a level has LOTS of red herrings, properly understanding what you are trying to ask your players in a given level will allow you to get rid of unneeded information, and ask the question you are asking in a more easily understood manner.

Now of course, you don’t need to have only “one” core question in a level. You will often offer the player two core questions, especially as levels get more complex. But when you are introducing new mechanics, or introducing new ways to use old mechanics it is really important to hone in on one very clearly asked question and cut all unneeded information. In other words; only include the information complexity you need, and cut all that you don’t.

One last thing before we move on. When you use this technique to introduce a new element or question I find following a three act structure is helpful.

  1. Introduce the question in its most basic form
  2. Ask the same question in a more complex form
  3. Ask the same question but with a curve-ball this time.

Number 2 is pretty heavily inspired by two episodes of the game maker’s toolkit. Please give them a watch as they explain what I’m talking about VERY well.

1. Give Your Players Small Wins

We are going to finish with something I wish I thought about more at early stages of Kana Quest. And unfortunately for me its a little too late for me to go back and solve this now. But why is this important?

  • It allows you to make more complex levels as the small wins can guide the player to the solution in way that doesn’t feel like giving them the answer.
  • When you make longer levels, it helps your motivate your players.
  • It stops your players getting bored.

Now I did add a mechanic that attempted so solve this problem: Ghost Kana. Lets go over why they work and why they don’t, so you can learn from my failures.

redherring5.png

World 6 Level 10

So Ghost Kana are immovable, and They always have a number on their head. When the player creates a chain of Kana the length of the number on their head they come back from the dead and the player can move them as per normal. Sometimes they come back as blank tiles (if they have green flames) sometimes they come back as actual Kana (blue flames). So the attempt with this mechanic was to allow the players to have some small victories along the way. Like “hey you get a chain of three kana!! Good job, have a cookie” type thing. The problem is that while Ghost Kana do a good job of guiding the player down the correct path they don’t feel like much of an achievement. They don’t make the player go “yes, one down one to go”. Instead they make the player go well crap now I have more Kana to worry about.

A good “small victory” mechanic I think signals to the player that the level has just gotten a little bit easier, and they did good (even if it is an incredibly small victory). And you want to know what game is the undisputed KING of this idea? I already gave you a hint but writing the dev’s name…

Its Candy Crush.

Simply making a move in that game feels like a small win. It makes you want to keep going. But a lot of the more advanced mechanics are just more “small win” mechanics. The locked squares that become unlocked when you match something next to them are great small win mechanics because when you unlock them, it feels like an achievement AND it makes the level just a tinier bit more easy. I know it’s not the answer you wanted to hear, but you can learn SO much from Candy Crush and any aspiring puzzle designer would be a fool to ignore the lessons you can learn from it. Like think about it, the most common criticism levelled at puzzle games as a genre is they make the player feel stupid. Candy Crush is a puzzle game and no one has ever accused it of making you feel dumb, and it a widespread mainstream hit in a genre that often is seen as niche. And I feel like a lot of its success comes from this principle of giving the player lots of small incremental victories on the path to beating a level. I wish I payed more attention to this because while I think Kana Quest is a great puzzle game… if I had learned this lesson it could have been an amazing puzzle game.

 

Wrapping Up

So that’s the devblog for this month. I hope you liked it and that maybe you learned a thing or two along the way. If you did like this, please consider giving me a like or subscribing to the Kana Quest mailing list at http://www.kanaquestgame.com to get all the Kana Quest devblogs when they come out.

If you think Kana Quest is neat, you can wishlist it now at: https://store.steampowered.com/app/725850/Kana_Quest/

Or you can follow the social medias at

Until next time, take care and have a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First thing’s first, I know I missed the January devblog. I’m sorry it wont happen again. But… it’s here now, and it’s a new year, which means this is the first devblog for 2019! This is going to be a big year for Kana Quest as this is the year we are going to release! Knowing the end is in sight is a strange feeling as I’ve been working on Kana Quest for the last two years of my life. But I hope you all will be there with me as we run headlong down this final stretch!

So what does this “final stretch” look like in terms of development? Well for me personally that means making all the levels. I had spent most of 2018 finishing the art and making all the visual assets, but in terms of gameplay, very little was being made. But now that I’ve finished all the visual assets and Reuben my programmer has finished programming in each mechanic, I am able to churn out levels very quickly. How quickly is that? Well since last month’s devblog, world 5, 6, and 7 now have all their levels made. Of course these levels still need play testing before they are 100% good to go, but they are playable, and reasonably balanced.

So, seeing as levels are all I have been doing this past month, I’m gonna tell you how I have been making them. And some of the weird things I have to pay attention to when I’m making levels.

The first thing I do when I start making a level is I figure out, how hard I want this level to be, and what kana I want the player to see.

flowchannel

Sorry if this is a bit too game design 101 here buuut… This is the flow channel. Flow is that feeling where you are in the zone. But getting the player into the zone requires very careful balance from the game designer. So something I’m sure you will notice when you play Kana Quest is that every three to five levels will build in difficulty, only to drop back a bit and then continue ramping up in difficulty.  The reason you do this, is that it’s just more fun for the player.

In Kana Quest there are a few different ways you can control the difficulty of any given level. They are:

  • The amount of Kana in a level
  • Size of the level.
  • Potential board state permutations
  • Number of potential solutions
  • Complexity of solution.

So lets go through each of them. And first up is the amount of Kana. So in my experience, you have a hard cap of about 14 -16 different Kana in a level. Why is this? This is because past this number, there is too much information for the player to comprehend. And personally, even I can’t process levels with this many Kana. It’s also a difficulty that isn’t a lot of fun for the player. Solving the puzzles is fun, recognising kana… not so much.

The size of the level like the amount of kana, also has a hard cap. This time its not so much about overwhelming the player though. The largest you can make a level in Kana Quest is 7×4. This is simply because if you make the level any bigger, it will not fit on the screen. I know that sounds silly, but due to the way pixel art works, there is no easy way to just “zoom out” without also causing a lot of pixels to bunch and stretch. But honestly, most of the time this is plenty to work with. If you are smart about how you construct things this is not actually as bigger constraint as one might think it is.

What I mean by “potential board state permutations” is how many possible unique configurations can be made in any given level. So for example.

These two levels have the same kana, and the same starting positions but the first level is significantly easier than the second because the number of possible configurations of kana has been significantly reduced. Forgive me if my maths is wrong but the level on the left has only 120 unique board positions, whereas the level on the right has 362880 unique board positions. And while an advanced player can see through all the unnecessary information in the second level, it doesn’t actually make the puzzle any more fun for the advanced player because in both scenarios, the solution only requires two moves. So while you are giving advanced players a disappointing level, you are giving new players a level that is so information dense they will almost always solve the level by brute forcing the solution. What I’m trying to convey here is that when designing puzzles you need to control the amount of possible states so that you can guide the player to the solution. Now for more advanced levels its fine to offer levels that are more open ended, but you do need to be very sparing with how you do so.

Next up is the number of potential solutions. This category is a tricky one as personally I feel as though levels with multiple solutions make the level harder, not easier. Why you might ask? Well because it means that your players are less guided towards the optimal solution. It means they are more likely to get caught on unintentional red herrings. It also means that if the player wants to get a gold medal for a level, but they have only ever completed the level using an alternate solution that is more move intensive than the planned solution, they could spend way too long trying variations on the “wrong” solution. Really this is a side effect of having too many potential board state permutations, but every now and again its fun to have levels that offer multiple answers. Lots of levels in Kana Quest only have one solution, and lots of levels have multiple, the important thing is using this technique intentionally.

The final technique that I can use to control the difficulty for the player is probably the most important one. And that is complexity of solution. If the solution only requires two or three moves, its not a particularly complex solution. This usually means that the level isn’t super difficult. However, completion critical moves increase the complexity. A completion critical move is a move that if not made, the level cannot be completed.  Of coarse this can then be balanced with previous techniques. For example.example3

This is a level from world 1. And is in my opinion one of the best levels in that world. This has a very low complexity of solution, but in contrast to the all the levels before it, it has a slightly higher difficulty. But that difficulty comes from a larger number of potential configurations, multiple solutions, and a larger level size. The result is a level that isn’t too difficult, but does force the player to stop and think about the solution. But as the game ramps up in difficulty, ramping up the complexity of the solution is usually the safest way of doing so. Why is that? Well, it means you can control the amount of information you throw at the player to a far greater extent. Remember, you don’t want to overload the player with information, if they do they just start brute forcing the puzzles and have a bad time.  So an example of a good level made by giving the player a complex solution is this level.examplesolution

The reason this level is good is because it requires a good amount of moves to complete, and there are only two completion critical moves required (using the Slime Kana on the correct Kana), and those moves can be executed by the player at any point. Whereas, here is a level that has gone way too far on the complexity of solution.example3

This level is way too hard and is to date the most difficult level I have made. And the reason is, that every singe move in this level is a completion critical move that requires being done in the exact right order. If you make one wrong move, you cannot complete this level. The fact that this level has a relatively constrained number of possible configurations is its only saving grace. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I remove, or rework this level before the launch of the game.

I think the real take away from this blog if you are making, or thinking of making your own game is; What are the different vectors for making a game difficult? Are there enough? Are there too many? What are the implications of using one of those vectors? What are the implications of using multiple of those vectors at once? How far can one push any and all of those vectors before a game becomes impossible? And most importantly, at any point in a game, what vectors of difficulty does the situation call for?

Anyway, these are the things that I’ve been thinking about for the last month or so. I’ll see you next month. If you have any questions about game difficulty or you disagree and you want to start a discussion, feel free to leave me a comment and we can have a chat. Until next month, take care.