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  • Daniel J. King

Dissertation Blog #8

Citation of the Day

Adams, Ernest. Fundamentals of Puzzle and Casual Game Design. New Riders, 2014.


This book defines casual games as having the following features: easy and intuitive controls, short play sessions, a shallow difficulty curve and low frustration levels, hints and tips, the ability to auto-save or save anywhere, and uncomplicated mechanics. Additional features common to casual games are randomized levels for unlimited play, easy social play, a light tone, and an inexpensive cost.


Most significant for my project, this book also cites Scott Kim’s "Eight Steps for the Art of Puzzle Game Design" (1999 Game Developers’ Conference):

  1. Find inspiration: some particular subject matter or a play dynamic

  2. Simplify:

  3. Identify the tricky core skill

  4. Eliminate irrelevant details

  5. Standardize objects

  6. Simplify the controls

  7. Create a construction set: The rule designer can use the construction set to play with the prototype to tweak the rules, and later the level designer can use it to build levels. You can also code the construction set into the final game so that players can build puzzles for each other.

  8. Define the rules: Most puzzles are characterized in terms of four things

  9. The board

  10. The pieces

  11. The moves

  12. The victory condition

  13. Construct the puzzles: Every puzzle requires that the player make choices, some of which lead to dead ends. Good puzzles require insight from the player, the “Aha!” moment that occurs when the player realizes how the puzzle works and how to solve it.

  14. Test

  15. Devise a sequence: The most obvious arrangement is a linear or accelerating sequence going from easy to difficult, but in practice, that becomes tiring and discouraging. A better arrangement is a sawtooth shape, which gets difficult for a while, then goes back to an easy puzzle, over and over. You also need to think about transitions between puzzles. The player may be working on a metapuzzle, parts of which the player solves in between the regular puzzles, which motivates her to complete the whole game.

  16. Pay attention to presentation: With puzzle games, the puzzles are 90 percent of the battle. Get them right first, and the rest won’t be nearly as hard.

Design and Mechanics

Finding Scott Kim’s "Eight Steps for the Art of Puzzle Game Design" was a turning point in the design of my dissertation study. Step 3 is to create a "construction kit," which is basically a level editor for a game whose rules have not been solidified yet. The construction kit allows the game designer to explore how the game's mechanics could work without having to worry about the game's macro systems or narrative framing yet.


With version 0.3, I had been trying to simply create the first few levels of Field of Cures without actually knowing if the rules, mechanics, and interface worked well. Not only is Scott Kim's process a more logical approach to designing a puzzle game -- it also helps me resolve a paradox at the heart of my idea to do participatory design research.


In the participatory design methodology, the participants should have a say in what the rules of the game should be, so it is not appropriate to begin the workshop with a game prototype whose rules are already set. However, as Rilla Khaled and Asimina Vasalou point out in their 2014 paper "Bridging Serious Games and Participatory Design," brainstorming exercises are ineffective if participants are given only a blank drawing board and a vague goal to make a serious game about a certain topic.


Scott Kim's "construction kit" can be the compromise, allowing the participants to experience a working model of the game's concept while still giving them full freedom to suggest what the game's rules should be.


Current Events

I am still about a year away from formally starting my dissertation. My hope is that a year from now a COVID-19 vaccine will be commonly available and there will be no more need for social distancing on college campuses. If that is the case, then I will be able to conduct my participatory design study in person.


However, if I have to figure how how to do it remotely, I will. I am already able to project-manage my team at work fully remotely, so I am sure I could conduct my research that way as well. What will be, will be.

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