Online Puzzle Games

Notes on a Roundtable Discussion hosted by Scott Kim
At Post Linear Entertainment, San Francisco
As part of the CGDCommunity event, September 9, 1997


CGDC held its first nonannual event on Sep 9, 1997 at PostLinear Entertainment in San Francisco. (The annual conference, although still wonderful, has gotten big enough that this sort of comraderie has gotten swamped.) About 50 people showed for an unusually fresh, invigorating event with very high signal to noise ratio. First pizza and beer. Then a short lively panel on online gaming. Alan Yu chose the topic as something broad enough to include everyone in the community.

Afterward we split into three roundtables: Dave Menconi on persistent objects, Amy Jo Kim on community, myself on puzzles. We each got 6-8 people, the remainder conversed or gathered around the sponsor NANI's arcade PC, which promises to be an easy to write for game platform for arcades since it runs Win95 software.

Session Summary

My session had an interesting group of six attendees, from experienced online game designer to complete beginner (ex teacher) and everywhere inbetween. Here is a transcript of what happened.

I handed out notes. Started with a short talk:

The five types of puzzle games. Most types mix puzzles with something else:

  • action (Tetris)
  • story (Myst)
  • construction (The Incredible Machine)
  • multiplayer (Scrabble, You Don't Know Jack)
  • pure puzzle (SmartGames)
The advantages of Puzzle games for the online medium:
  • works well with high latency
  • small download size
  • inexpensive and quick to build
  • can be presented as a daily or weekly series, which draws back repeat customers
The advantages of puzzles in general over other forms of gaming:
  • appeals to women as well as men
  • appeals to all ages, including young children and older adults
  • uses your intellect, has educational value
  • nonviolent

Question and Answer

Then we listed questions from everyone, and tried answering them.

What's the hook that keeps you playing?

  • For Tetris, it's the time pressure. Also, Tetris can be played completely mindlessly, which makes it a good casual distraction while you're doing something else like talking on the phone.
Demographics? Who are we writing for?
  • Puzzle games are very effective at reaching the large audience of people who don't otherwise buy computer games, as the makers of Myst and Tetris have discovered.
  • SmartGames confirms that a clear majority of their players are women. The National Puzzlers League, the oldest league of puzzle doers and makers in the country, is something like 70% women.
How do you integrate story and puzzle?

What are the new potential genres? What is beyond Tetris clones?

  • Period puzzles based on historical settings.
  • Perception puzzles that involve noticing connections between things in the environment (Myst sound puzzle).
  • Perception puzzles that involve changing how you perceive something, is an endless source of inspiration for my work.

  • Puzzles that are about where the experience takes your mind, not about the end result. Jigsaw puzzles, which are about the picture, do this. The puzzle acts as an excuse to explore something of inherent interest.
What works on the computer?

  • What's easy on the computer. Especially whatever has a really simple user interface.
  • Types of games that are possible on the computer that are difficult otherwise.
Simple user interface.
  • Tetris requires just 3 buttons. That's great cuz you never have to move your hand.
  • A comparison of two online game shows based on TV game shows revealed that although both are popular on TV, the one that was popular online was the one that had the simpler interface. Typing answers online and having a computer judge them doesn't work well.
  • A major online game publisher I'm working with found out in user studies that games that involve typing, e.g. crossword puzzles, failed because many people do not tpe well.
  • In contrast, crosswords are the most popular game on Newtons, cuz of pen input devices! Makes the point beautifully that ease of control matters.
New types of games unique to the computer medium.
  • Sound (SmartGames Collection 2: sonic jigsaws)
  • Animation (Obsidian: rearrange frames of a movie to animate a flapping bird)
  • 3d (Endorfun: rolling a cube on a square grid).
  • Multiplayer.
  • Authoring by players.
  • But isn't Endorfun become just memorizing combinations, which get memorized in your hand? That's true of Virtua Fighter too. Virtua Fighter becomes about reflexes. And also anticipating the opponent.
  • A better 3d example: Blockout, which is a 3d Tetris with fully 3d controls.
  • But we all observe that Blockout, Welltris etc. all fail to improve on Tetris. Why? Cuz they add complexity without adding gameplay. No longer mindless fun. Becomes more frustrating. That suggests that Tetris clones, which are a large part of current puzzle games, may be a bad direction. James worked with Alexey at Spectrum.
  • 3d is hard on computer. Rubik's cube works as a physical puzzle because I can put my thunb on a face as reference point, but it works poorly on computer.
Multiplayer puzzles
  • Treasure hunts
  • Team play
  • Cooperative puzzles. Castle Infinity includes multiplayer experiences (too simple really to be called puzzles), in order to encourage social interaction.
  • Two cooperative players competing against two other cooperative players. Like Bridge. A common way to mix competition and cooperation.
  • Then there's the cooperation squares, a classic noncomputer game often used as a team-building exercise. Several players are each given a few polygonal pieces. The cooperative goal is for every person to make a square. But no one starts out with the right pieces. Interesting rule is that you cannot take pieces from another player, you can only give pieces to another player. And you cannot talk or otherwise communicate.
Authoring by players
  • Battleship involves two players making up puzzles for the other to solve. Note that the two puzzles are essentially independent. The only connection is that they are played in alternating moves.
  • Black Box. A fairly recent new board game, is clearly a game where one player sets up a puzzle for the other player to solve. Quite a bit of strategy in setting up a hard puzzle. Note that the puzzle maker participates during the game by figuring out what feedback to give the puzzle solver, just as in Battleship.
Reaching the masses
  • The audience is young kids. Or my Mom.
  • We kept joking about Killer Scrabble and other ways to introduce violence into puzzle games.
  • To really reach a mass audience, perhaps we need to do something controversial and timely like Politically incorrect, so it makes the headlines.
  • Different goals at different ages. For young kids: no losing is extremely important.
  • Things in a game that attract Terry: good graphics, no blood.
  • Multi-age games. National Parenting Association recommends The Incredible Machine as a game that adults and kids can play together.
  • Many ways to win. Playing for graphic reward is valid too, not just for points.

  • Computer games usually have levels that get harder and harder.
  • Rush Hour as an example of a ramped physical puzzle: forty game cards show how to set up the pieces to make puzzles that range from beginner to expert.
  • But isn't Tetris ramping too monotonous? All that changes is the speed. Oh, and there's the height of the well.
  • A less monotonous alternative: In Heaven & Earth each game is divided into four ramps. Within a ramp puzzles get harder and harder. From ramp to ramp the rules change slightly, so the game doesn't just get harder, it gets different. In the new ramp the difficulty level starts over at beginner.

What to focus on as a designer
  • To invent a new game takes focus. It's true that we're going after a bigger demographic, but that by itself is not a productive way of thinking when it comes to inventing a game.
  • Instead, think about what you know you enjoy. Then think about how to open it up to a wider audience. That's what Will Wright did with SimCity. He liked making cities, so he worked hard to give that activity a good user interface.

  • It's hard to get companies to do puzzle games. No market, they say. What a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • My strategy: start small, so you don't have to sell big companies on expensive projects. Don't even try to compete head on with current games; find a different way in.

Copyright 2000 Scott Kim.
All rights reserved.