Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 January, 2007

Designing puzzles (and other content)

Finally, here come the answers to the most recent Weekend Design Challenge.

The puzzle was solved by Red, who posted, “It’s post 2^8 :)”

But, there’s some things we can learn from this, so time for another design lesson!

Having a programming background, the fact that it was post 256 amused me. Kinda like demonic Damion was amused by this post’s number. As I was thinking about what to do for the post, I began to wonder if other people would notice the number. This got me thinking about games, of course, and thinking about puzzles. Here’s one of the big problems with designing puzzles: it’s hard to really gauge how long it will take the player to figure out the problem. For some people, it might be a really easy puzzle. For others, it could be hard; but it could be hard for different reasons.

Some people are looking too hard:

My brain tells me it’s something like the number of syllables per paragrah or pentameter being used.

Others don’t quite have the necessary knowledge:

It’s ?p=256 so I guess maybe there’s some strange computing relationship (256 bits, bytes, etc)
- Jpoku

Sometimes people make programming mistakes:

Post FF!
-Scott Jennings

(BAD PROGRAMMER! 0xFF = 255. You get a NULL pointer for your birthday! I’ll just get one from my enormous collection….)
Still others are a bit silly:

I see no tigers around here.

Clearly this post is special because it wards off tigers.

And some see patterns where there are none. For the record, I tend to overuse smilies in chat and I often go through and edit out the smilies before making a post. ;)

To be honest, I didn’t think it would be solved quite so quickly. I was also surprised how quickly people posted, given that it usually takes a while for comments to show up in my other posts. So, I was wrong in my estimations, demonstrating how hard it is to predict these things! ;)

Of course, once you recognize a winner in a puzzle posted online. No further guesses are legitimate, really, so the challenge is now gone. In online games, this means that once someone has “solved” a quest, the information will likely be posted for everyone to use in the very near future. Something most experienced online developers already know, I am sure, but it bears repeating for the aspiring designers reading the lessons.

But, Paul Barnett pointed out a lesson that I didn’t originally intend:

It is amazing how people will find links, details, truth, excitment and other such things in the mundane. If you tell them it is clever then it is clever. It’s the reason you do not have to load your desing with meaning, the players will geenrate meaning for you. In fact the more you tell them it is clever the the more clever it will become. Your post is a fine and reasonable example of this exact design idea. And Even if it is not the answer you thought it is most certainly the same as an example I do in my job.

And, he’s exactly right. Even if there were nothing special about the post, people would look for meaning. People are excellent at recognizing patterns even when there are no patterns intended; this is where we get superstitions from, usually. Since he brought this up, let me share a bit of information from Meridian 59

One example I sometimes talk about is a quest we implemented as a precursor to a big update to the game when I was at 3DO; we were introducing a third political faction to the game, and one of the major political NPCs was murdered. One of the most efficient ways we stirred up interest was a quest we implemented that was a pretty standard courier quest. However, the items being sent were letters that the players could read. Although we did do some intentional selection of the two NPCs involved, the content of the letters weren’t developed for any particular NPCs. We left the meanings as ambiguous as possible so that players could put in their own meanings.

In the letters below, the “%s” text would be replaced with NPC names for who sent and was receiving the letter.

For example, one letter read:

Dear %s,

I could not agree more with your last letter. It was almost as if you were reading my mind as you penned it.

Who else but the nephew could have known so much and could have reaped such a huge benefit from the murder? No one, I say. I realize you were merely speculating on the limited information we had, but if you think about the whole scenario logically, only one answer remains in any sane person’s mind. Only someone like Ran er’Hoth could believe otherwise.

Well, I must attend to other matters. I will send this letter via a courier as soon as I can locate one. I await your quick response.


(Ran er’Hoth is a crazy NPC elder of a farming village.)

Notice how the letter implies previous correspondence, and hints at the topics covered. Nothing is said clearly, but a sharp player could draw some conclusions, and someone reading hard between the lines could come up with multiple conclusions. :)

Another letter read:


Do not send me correspondence of that type ever again through such public channels. We must make sure we use people we trust in order to communicate our ideas.

Keep this in mind. Hail to the Third!


Again, notice that things are left unsaid, can a lot be inferred. Also notice how the letter draws the player into the plot, implying that he or she is trusted? And, “Hail to the Third” has a strong possible meaning, but what if there’s further meaning from this….

Overall, the players loved these quests, and were posting information up on the globes inside the world. People put some stock into who was sending or receiving the letter, and how that matched with their expectations about who supported which faction. However, some players did quickly grow disillusioned when they figured out there was no master strategy behind the letters. So, if you do imply there’s something special about a feature, you need to follow it up with something tangible.


  1. I also noticed that the numeral elements of the date of your weekend challenge (21, 2007, 3, 39) were all divisible by 3. The sum of all the individual numbers (2+1+2+0+0+7+3+3+9=27) is also divisible by 3.

    Somehow, I don’t think this was intended.

    Comment by Dragon — 23 January, 2007 @ 6:12 AM

  2. Come on… I was halfway there ;op

    I like the letters idea – something that WoW also does well. Though not really as mysterious. It’s good to feel like you are picking up on sub-plots that you might only come accross once.

    Comment by Jpoku — 23 January, 2007 @ 7:14 AM

  3. Deus Ex is one of the examples that I always like to use when it comes down to Attention to detail. If you took the time out to explore, there were all sorts of hidden extras which added to the game – the books lying around, emails on peoples computers, and jsut silly little things such as if you wonder around the UNATCO headquarters and have a look in the ladies toilet, your boss will reprimand you for going in there. Another one (my favourite) is in the Paris level. There’s lots of buildings and rooms you can go into but don’t need to. If you go into one particular room, a phone rings. If you answer it, you here the voice of the Icarus AI taunting you. It’s just a little detail that really adds to the atmosphere of the game.

    Comment by Dragon — 23 January, 2007 @ 7:41 AM

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