Behind the Scenes, Part 3: Engaging Players Through Puzzles

Ever wondered how we design our games? This is the third post in a blog series about how we approach the challenge.

If Escape New Haven has a “secret sauce,” in my opinion it’s our ability to keep a full team engaged in the discovery/problem-solving process as they play. We accomplish that by paying close attention to a few factors:

  1. Puzzle quantity. Our original rule of thumb was that in a game rated for (N) players, there should be (N x 3) opportunities to make a major contribution to a solution throughout the game. (I.e., either solving a puzzle, or clearing a major hurdle in a multi-part challenge.) Hunt-and-find puzzles count for half. These days, we’ve upped our game to “N x 4” — so, for the 8-player game we’re designing right now, we’re expecting to end up with at least 32 “puzzles” (loosely defined) before we map out the game flow. We’ll probably aim for 40; we expect some attrition because of unanticipated practical constraints. (During production, we try to “de-risk” the puzzles we’re least sure of first, but inevitably a few things will slip past us and we’ll have to abandon a few puzzles at the last minute.)
  2. Puzzle access. Some people call this “gating.” Basically, what it boils down to is this: what puzzles (or what interactive elements / means of progress) does the team have access to at any given point in time? In general, there should be enough to work on so that players aren’t wandering around aimlessly, but there shouldn’t be so much available that it’s completely overwhelming (e.g., because nobody knows which pieces are meant to interact with which other pieces, or what the rest of their team has accomplished or needs). My personal philosophy is that the number of accessible items should fluctuate, to create variety and interest. In my experience, puzzle access should fluctuate around a “sweet spot” of (N / 2), meaning that if there are 6 players in a game, they should have access to an average of 3 puzzles at any given time. This might range from a high of 6 accessible features (e.g., at or near the beginning of the game), all the way down to a single option.We like to sprinkle a few “choke points” throughout the game — stages where the entire team has to focus on one thing in order to move on. Choke points are very difficult to determine fully, because the designer can’t control which of the available puzzles a team will solve first or last, but ideally choke points should be set up in such a way that they require (or benefit from) the entire team’s input/cooperation, so that everyone stays engaged. We often tie choke points to major rewards, like access to a new room or several new puzzles / pieces of information.We map puzzle access (which we call the “puzzle flow” or “game flow”) into two types of flowcharts. One is object-based: you can look at it and see everything in the room/game, including major furnishings, smaller (handheld or portable) objects, and abstract objects (information, combinations, etc). This helps us conceive of each room, and of the whole game, as a physical space that players move through or access. I use a free program called yEd to do this. The other is purely abstract: it shows only the puzzles, their inputs, their outputs, and how they relate to each other. This allows us to get a good handle on gameplay / puzzle flow without the distraction of objects and the spatial piece of things. This document ends up being a little simpler, so we usually make it in PowerPoint, which is a little easier for everyone to access, edit, and print. Here’s the yEd puzzle flow from the beta of our very first game, The Workshop:
  3. Puzzle diversity. If I had to choose the single most important thing that I do during game design, it would be making sure that we’re including puzzles that appeal to different types of people, different ways of thinking, and even different senses. (Except taste! Never taste.) In a really satisfying escape game, everyone will have their moment (ideally, a few moments) to shine. Escape games tend to lean pretty heavily on visual puzzles… but not everyone is a visual person, and there are so many other ways to use your brain! Some of us are better with verbal puzzles; some of us like logic or math; others are good with their hands, or have an intuitive grasp of how things are meant to work mechanically. And some people (e.g., younger kids; also, me) really like finding hidden stuff. Either way — even if everyone on a given team thinks in the same way — we all benefit from being pushed to use our brain in ways we’re not accustomed to.At Escape New Haven, during the puzzle pitch process, I encourage everyone to think about the type of each puzzle, and the puzzle diversity of the game we’re building. We break them down into very rough categories: visual, mechanical, strategy, dexterity, sensory (audio, olfactory, etc), verbal/logical, and hunt-and-find. (We use the highly technical term “find-o,” as in, “We can definitely make that piece into a find-o.”) Here’s our (heavily redacted) brainstorming board from last night’s all-staff meeting about the New Game (TM) we’re working on:

    Plenty of puzzles fit into multiple categories, but we try to stick to placing things in their dominant category unless it’s a fairly even split. (Also because I have no idea how to create a useful 7-circle Venn diagram in two-dimensional space. Did I mention I’m not a visual person?) In this case, we’re only about halfway to the number of puzzles we really want in this 8-player game, so the category table gives us a sense of the direction we should look in for new material.

So there you have it — the secret sauce! Next post, I’ll probably be talking about puzzle practicality and fabrication considerations (maybe I can get Max to write a guest post? we shall see…), but right now I need to go help David debrief a set of Space Station crews.

Until next time!