How to Design a Puzzle Level

Unfortunately I can’t give you a step by step guide for making a puzzle level because every puzzle game is different so the process will inherently be different. But what I can do is describe my process of designing a level for Getaway Garden and hopefully you can apply it while designing a puzzle for your game.

I start by drawing a level shape I like because I have to start somewhere and this way I can play with it, which is important to me for creating unique and interesting levels. That’s why I created a simple level editor, so it’s easier to make and change levels.

Then maybe I’ll add a start and a finish node and throw a few crates so you can actually finish the level. Of course, the level is too easy by this point so I start making changes to the puzzle, this is playing as much as it is creating and definitely a large part is iteration and exploration.

I always keep the number of crates to a minimum because it’s easy to make a hard level if you just add a lot of steps, but it’s hard to make a challenging level with a few steps. It’s all about exploring the mechanic and trying to think of new ways of using it.

Keep in mind that it’s impossible to make a good puzzle game if the main mechanic doesn’t create a large possibility space which allows a hard puzzle that is completed in only a few steps.

After finishing a level, it’s time to give it to someone else to play it. Usually what happens is someone finds a way to finish a level that you didn’t foresee and that’s great as long as it not some super easy shortcut that breaks the puzzle.

Sometimes, levels turn out completely different from what they were in their first iteration and that’s good because it usually means it led you to something more interesting.

This may seem as an easy level, but puzzles are like magic tricks. You can be stuck for hours thinking about how the trick is done, but when you see it, it seems easy and you’re left wondering how you didn’t see it before, all that was needed was a change of perspective.


Team Black Trumpet Games visits SGC 2017

Our team made it!

Wow! Where to start? We have so many cool stuff to report! Maja, Hrvoje, Karlo, Filip and yours truly, that is our whole team, made it in one piece. The goal, Slovenian Game Conference 2017 in Ljubljana. Read all about it here!

First of all, SGC is a constantly growing, friendly and intimate game development conference run by Črtomir Drofenik and his passionate team, every year in Ljubljana, Slovenia. SGC team were kind enough to let us in on their info expo based on a gameplay video for the 2D prototype of Getaway Garden and some pretty bold promises that we will show much cooler version when the day of the conference comes… how cool is that?! It means a lot for young teams like us. Once there, we were greeted by the quick responding team, who made sure we got everything we need to set up our little “booth”, and the show could start. So before we go into nitty gritty we must really recommend SGC to all game dev teams, big or small, that can get to Ljubljana. You will not be disappointed.

In between our shifts with the visitors playing Getaway Garden we also got the chance to see some cool talks by great speakers with a wide gamut of themes. Wise words are always worthwhile.

Here is a video report through the lens of Karlo Vuković our music composer on Getaway Garden:

The sprint

Phew! And what a sprint it was! We had a little bit over two weeks of our free post-daily-job hours to try and assemble a meaningful and presentable build of Getaway Garden. At the start of the sprint, all we had was Filip’s gameplay mechanics working in Unity3d and the custom built level editor. On the art asset side, we had a decent set of assets to represent the “Water World”, as we call it, to show the direction we were taking with art. We also gave our best when it came to producing basic promo materials, we had T-shirts printed for the team, some basic generic business cards with Black Trumpet Games website and email addresses.

All in all, we had decent foundations that gave us the confidence to take up the challenge, and we made it… sort of, read on.

The result

We managed to have a working demo of the game. Demo needed no menu, so there was none. The audio was not implemented whatsoever. That is why our gameplay video has Karlo’s custom music for the “Water world” simply playing over it.

We did our best to implement Blue’s test animations, with different levels of success. Setting up character animations in Unity, and designing final animations is something we will definitely have to reiterate.

Filip chose nine puzzles that represented the game mechanics well, but we had only about five or six treated with art assets properly.

That being said, we are super happy with the result. We successfully presented the core mechanics. The visitors seem to have understood them pretty well, pretty fast. We made our presence as a team visible and got the chance to get great and useful feedback.


The feedback

The feedback from the experienced colleagues is probably the most valuable takeaway from events like SGC. Here, you get to show your game to other professionals.

As we quickly prepared our demo, we were fully aware that there will be plenty to comment on once we show it and that is perfectly ok. We just did not solve some things in time for the conference. The team allocated more time to some important issues, therefore giving less time for some details.

Nitty, gritty

Almost all visitors noticed that the angle of the camera was not the most helpful one. For instance, cubes obscured some important features of the puzzles. We got great suggestions how to solve this cardinal problem but the consensus was that the view needs changing to a more top-down one.

Another thing most visitors commented was that although our camera view angle was cool looking it helped little or nothing to get the overview of the level. Most suggestions went in the direction of adding a feature that would one way or another allow the player to get an overview of the puzzle, probably binding a set of controls (or the stick on the gamepad) for a free camera look or at least a top-down overview of the whole puzzle area.

A couple of visitors were concerned that present core game mechanics could get old pretty fast. They suggested adding some twists in core mechanics or adding new mechanics to the game.

Generally, visitors received the art style very good. We will have to address animations and cube design much more seriously. We used animation and modeling test results as placeholders but they were sticking out enough to get noticed.

All in all, we are really happy that the feedback we gathered is in fact pretty uniform. Even better it consists mostly of the things we were conscious about even before we arrived. This gives a great boost to continue even harder, as it confirms that the direction we are taking is clear.

Future plans

Next, comes Reboot Infogamer expo in our hometown Zagreb. An enormous gaming expo event. We are hoping that the Reboot team will continue their great tradition and support small indie teams. They did it last year by making expo spots for them VERY accessible.

We will try to bring Getaway Garden demo on another level, and do more to promote it.

Be sure to check us in the meantime, as there will surely be some updates.

Until then,

Cheers, and don’t forget to comment!


So far, so good

A quick review of the first steps and lessons learned in assembling the “Black Trumpet Games” team and the pre-production and production of the game “Getaway Garden”.

The charge begins

This dev blog post is really long overdue. But fret not, things are moving in the right direction, and right direction only. Lessons we learned so far are speeding up the process.

The fact that Filip has made a small but smart little game called SokoJump that got greenlit on Steam that triggered me to offer my help to him. More than one year, and many local game dev drink-ups later. We are resembling a real team. Maja is helping with community manager apart from being our character designer and artist. Filip is iterating his game design ideas by writing scripts for Unity. Hrvoje and Karlo are respectively making sounds and music happen, and yours truly is slowly making new 3d assets. The small game from the beginning of these lines is growing into the “Getaway Garden” our very first independent game. A spatial puzzle game meant to bring you soothing and relaxing experience in your precious free time.

Dispelling the evil eye

One of the first challenges our team faced was the not so romantic fact that day has only twenty-four hours, and that contrary to the popular gossip we are not robots (yet).

If anything that Indie game development community is not lacking it is enthusiasm. However, we all know that working on your own project faces you with the lack of many different things other than enthusiasm. Things like expertise in specific fields of the production or business, things like the absence of extra funds and therefore the absence of any workable budgeting, and depending on the situation, the dreadful lack of free time that stems from the fact that even visionaries have to eat.

But visionaries we are, from the triple-A executives all the way to people like us, making their first slow steps into the independent game development. Locked and loaded with plenty of enthusiasm and visions we set out on our journey of creating games that we deem worthy of our free time and when this “slowdown buff” of reality struck us, what we found as a remedy was the fact that all of us were professionals with rich experience in different fields, and we knew that no matter what, if done with clear vision and professional approach every project comes to its end. It is only matter of time or money when will this moment come. Long before this endeavor, we all learned that clear vision, good organization, self-esteem and sheer perseverance will yield results and this knowledge keeps us going forward still.

The procedure

At this moment our first game Getaway Garden is well underway in its production phase. After the initial chaotic brainstorming phase, we choose to enter a thorough pre-production phase and define the fundamental user experience loops and moments. This also gave us the opportunity to rethink everything, sometimes even going far away into complexity only to return to the starting position, but this time armed with confidence. Along the way, through the production, we have learned a lot.

Digital games, being such a complex synthetic medium that readily accepts other media in itself also constantly stage new surprises during the production process. Older media have the advantage of a rich theoretical coverage. These media can be also used for fresh new results, but their processes and processing are pretty well understood. It is so simply because of the long period they have been in use. New technical possibilities enter game-making process much faster than the we can really learn to use all the possibilities we already have. Therefore, using the practical knowledge in organizing, for instance, film production, can help a lot, but also leaves loads of practical issues unaddressed. Still, a good understanding of the reasons for certain processes in the production in other media does make the game production process more easily navigable.

Lessons learned until now

There might be a more appropriate moment in the future to go into greater details of the lessons we already learned. A moment that will grant us the benefit of hindsight, but this is what we know now nonetheless.

It is good to let your creativity rage…

…but without losing the bigger picture, without losing sight of the general goal, and of the scope of the element being creatively addressed at that moment. This brings us to the second point.

The good solution comes at the cost of addressing lesser solutions too

As a rule, if some detail does not seem just right, rethinking it freely, asking all the uncomfortable questions is still cheaper than spending precious time on producing a substandard solution. That being said here comes another point:

Even good can be better, sometimes

Scrutinizing a solution during the design phase can still result in a substandard solution. It should take us less time to solve the problem now. Our understanding of it is better, and as better solutions generally tend to be simpler ones too.

Choose your battles

Some aspects of game production can be designed beforehand in a traditional pre-production way really nicely. For example, some art elements, some more general user experience solutions, visual identity, some writing, basic gameplay loop etc. can easily be designed in advance. However, some aspects prove themselves to be very resistant to traditional pre-production designing. These mostly come from the area of game design. Game rules balancing being obvious one, but also the final choice of camera view, inclusion, or exclusion of some game mechanics etc.

Some aspects of the game such as art elements and direction can be conceptualized successfully during the pre-production phase.

You should spend an appropriate amount of time and effort into prototyping. It is a must.

Show your colors

Identity is very important! Well thought out game title, game logo, likable main character, etc. Producing symbols that everybody on the team can identify with is a great way to keep the vision and enthusiasm going. Do it as early as possible. It is easier to fight for the cause when there are a bugle and the battle standard to rally to.

Don’t over-design

It is possible to over-design, especially on a smaller project.

Better safe than sorry

You can always streamline an over-designed project, with too many details, during the production. Removing the excess can create a more exciting product. An under-designed project can easily exit production under-delivering, and unexciting.

That’s it for now

A Little bit of this, a little bit of that, and you have been brought up to date. On both the state of our team growth and our ongoing game production. Stay tuned, as things are going to get more interesting with the end of this year. We will slowly start to take our first public steps. Start showing the state of Getaway Garden on specialized events gathering some valuable feedback.

Until then, please tell us what do you think about all this in the comments section underneath!