· 6 min read

Making a puzzle game? Avoid these 5 common mistakes

What makes a great puzzle game? Better yet, what makes a bad puzzle game? In this post, Jupiter Hadley explores what common pitfuls developers should avoid when designing these games.

The puzzle game genre is arguably one of the most popular genres on the market, and has been around since the first smartphone was created (remember Cut the Rope?). There are hundreds, if not thousands of puzzle-like games on the app stores, all of which offer their own unique take on the genre.

We’ve previously released articles on mistakes to avoid when you are creating a F2P game, but this time I want to focus my attention to puzzle. What makes a good puzzle? How can you make your game stand out? And most importantly, what mistakes should you avoid when working on yours? Here’s what I found…

1. Avoid breaking natural progression

Progression tactics are a great way to get your player up to speed without overwhelming them. (Afterall, you wouldn’t start a newbie on a grandmaster level of Soduku.) Usually, this means developers showing new mechanics, features, or ideas across a range of levels, rather than just one, so the player has a chance to figure it out and learn it.

But some games offer microtransaction in exchange for skipping a level. So yes, a frustrated player could pay a bit of $$$ and skip a level, making them less likely to rage quit. But by doing this, they haven’t actually learned how to solve that puzzle. This also removes the drive to progress in the game, as any challenging part can just be easily skipped if you’re willing to pay a little bit of money.

Bart Bonte games has a good solution to this. I’ll give you a hint…

You can get hints (not fully skipping the level or even finding the complete solutions) by watching an advert, or by paying a one-off fee to get unlimited hints (and remove ads). Using subtle hints can point players in the right direction, but most importantly it doesn’t break that natural progression that a player needs.

2. Avoid overusing the mechanics

Sometimes, developers will show off a variety of different mechanics to keep their puzzle games interesting and fresh. This is usually OK, but there’s a fine line of how many you can use, when you can use them, and when you should introduce them.

One thing I’ve noticed is developers introducing a bunch of mechanics early on in the game, and then not use them again for ages. By that point, I would have completely forgotten about it and would either google it, or just give up.

SNIKS is a great example of a puzzle game that is able to give the player a bunch of mechanics quickly, but then uses them in each level. This deepens the gameplay through level design, and just feels so much more organized.

A good rule to follow: if the player isn’t going to use that mechanic within the next 5 levels, don’t bother showing it to them. Save it for later.

3. Avoid getting familiar with your own puzzles

This issue is common across both puzzle games on PC and mobile alike. Often, developers get really good at their own puzzles. I mean, really, really good. They can quickly play through levels, which can sometimes blind them to how easy or difficult the level truly is – and this can be a big issue.

Often, even if levels are easy for the developer, they can be challenging for people who haven’t been playing and working on the game themselves. This can often result in the first puzzle being too challenging, which can cause players to leave the game.

The best way to combat this is to have playtesters – lots of different playtesters.

4. Avoid being too minimal

When it comes to puzzle games, you don’t need amazing aesthetics to make your game brilliant, especially if you are focused more on the puzzles. It helps, but ultimately it comes down to your game, not just how it looks. That being said, players will judge a game by its cover, so if you’re going to spend any money on design, make sure it’s on the app store icon! I’ve glanced over countless great games because the icon just didn’t stick out for me.

When it comes to an icon that has made me download a brilliant puzzle game that’s actually quite simple in looks, is Monorama. The icon for Monorama is a black and white board, put on an angle, with a small red square in the middle. This is striking and does use assets from the game, however, the game itself is a grid of black and white tiles with tiles themselves turning red when in play.

Minimalist icons can often be overlooked, so developers will need to find a different angle or create something striking that represents their game more so than being an image of the game. The simple twisting of the board to be more interesting, taking away the busy looking numbers and adding a small red square is more catching then a simple bit of the game.

5. Lastly, don’t limit your players to what they can do

There are a lot of ‘puzzle box’ games out there (simply having a 3D space with a bunch of different objects that you need to move around). And these are probably one of my favorite puzzle types.

But puzzle games can be complicated, and it’s easy for things to be overlooked. I recently played a game like this, and while I was playing, one of the items fell behind another. Which is fine, except I could no longer reach this item, and the game wouldn’t let me change the perspective to find it.

Simple solution? Let me change the perspective to reach the item I need. Simple.

My point for this section is don’t limit your players to what they can do. This may require a bunch of testing to find these problems, but let them use their creativity to figure out your puzzles. It may even make the game more interesting.

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