Level Progression and Pacing in Puzzle Games


When designing any game it is incredibly important to consider and maintain the right pacing. Players don't want to feel rushed but they also don't want to feel like the game is slowing them down, either. The right pacing for a game varies wildly on the core mechanics of the game and how players progress from the game's "beginning" to its "end".

The original IGEO was built around the very standard model that I'll refer to as arcade progression - players complete a succession of levels with difficulty increasing over time, only progressing when they have cleared a level. This style of level progression is not just standard to many puzzle games - it is the bread and butter of most level-oriented game designs.

In its current state, IGEO DX uses this same scheme. Let's explore the approach and contrast it with another, less linear approach as we take a look at how IGEO DXs current progression will evolve before Version 1.0.


Arcade Progression

Arcade progression works. It wouldn't be such a staple in game design if it didn't. It clearly outlines progression in the form of new challenges and ramping difficulty. In puzzle and various platforming games this is often all we need - it is simple to illustrate and even simpler to implement in code. Whether its Level 1, 2, 3, etc. or World 1-1, 1-2, etc. - players know exactly how they are progressing through the game.

This linear approach is not always perfect, however. What do we do with players who get stuck? During the early days this arcade progression mechanic reigned supreme - and so did player friction. Friction is a term commonly used in design that illustrates the point at which users become frustrated with an experience and begin to abandon it. 

Until the adoption of less linear progression designs became more popular, it wasn't uncommon for players to completely abandon games because they could not progress any further (like Aladdin on Genesis - like seriously, who actually beat that game without cheat codes?).

It can be tricky to design for this. 

In some cases, this is what we want - and that's totally acceptable. As the level of difficulty increases in the arcade progression scheme, typically player friction does, as well. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can strengthen the feeling of reward when a player finally beats that one level that has been giving them a headache for a few hours or days. We don't want to completely rid our games of those moments - they are pivotal.

In games with linear stories this progression is a great fit, as the levels and narrative can be synced. Overcoming those challenging moments has a pay off of story advancement. However, in the case where level progression is somewhat arbitrary, hitting a roadblock with little incentive other than beating the level can lead to abandonment. 

So here we are with a balancing act (of which game design is full of). How do we balance these moments of frustration and victory to achieve the pacing a game needs? 


Resource Progression

We can lessen the friction leading up to these moments by adopting a level progression scheme that is more open-ended. I will refer to this as resource progression - but you could more abstractly define it as economic or prerequisite progression. This is progression that is semi-linear, where players gain access to different levels by meeting some sort of material or abstract requirement other than just completing the previous level.

A good example of this is Banjo-Kazooie a semi-linear, level-based puzzle platforming game. Players need to collect the golden Jiggy pieces to unlock these levels and they each contain a handful of them - some of which might be too difficult to collect with the player's current skill or ability set. In this case, players can take the Jiggies they do have and unlock newer levels that might teach or help them with something in other levels.


This approach gently subverts friction by allowing players to go do something else when they get stuck. There are a couple reasons this works - one is mechanical and the other is psychological.

Mechanically, this keeps players from shutting off the game by keeping them engaged and allows us to continue reinforcing the game's reward loop. Players will feel more inclined to keep pushing if there is some other challenge that awaits them.

This ties directly into the psychological component of this approach. The human mind can become hyper-focused when challenged with the same problem over and over. This focus causes players to not see "the forest for the trees" and they might miss some really simple part of the solution. By removing ourselves from problems, we are psychologically catching our breath - which is usually the perfect remedy for getting stuck.

With an arcade progression, this is when players get up and walk away from the game.

However, if they know there are other challenges to complete in the game, they may just keep playing and forget they were ever stuck in the first place. Once they come back to where they were stuck, chances are they will be able to look at the problem in a new light and solving it will be a piece of cake.


The Balancing Act Illustrated

Let's compare arcade and resource progression by looking at two first-person puzzle games, Portal and The Talos Principle.

Mechanically, these games are very similar. Players of each game both move through 3D space interacting with objects in the world that allow them to solve puzzles. Portal has a linear narrative and an arcade level progression scheme - as you complete and begin each level more story is given to you in the form of dialogue and the environment. Inversely, The Talos Principle uses a resource progression where players are given handfuls of levels to complete at a time. Doing so grants puzzle pieces which are then used as keys to unlock more content.

The narrative is central to Portal's gameplay experience. Because it drives the game, so to speak, it is important that story and level progression are in sync. Wanting to further the story is the prime factor for reducing player friction - you just have to beat this level to see what crazy shit GLaDoS does next!

Talos' narrative is looser, allowing the player to get most of it on their own accord (or not at all). This puts its gameplay in the spotlight. With more focus on gameplay, the game needs to manage player friction differently. Puzzles in Talos are ranked by difficulty and the harder puzzles grant the keys to even harder puzzles. If a player gets stuck on a Red puzzle, they can go back and hit some of the Green or Yellow ones instead.


Ultimately, these games use these methods to control pacing. Portal follows a strict Three Act narrative structure and uses the game's challenge and pacing to amp up the tension of the story. Talos has a more whimsical story where the player character's agency is questioned - and they can choose to pursue different endings to the game.

Both of these games struck that balance very well. I'd like to do the same with IGEO DX.


Striking That Balance With IGEO DX

In the current Alpha Phase of the game, IGEO DX has 30 levels that one must complete one after the other in order to beat the game. Once a level has been completed it can be replayed. However, if you get stuck on Level 23 - you're stuck. In a puzzle game like this, things can get pretty challenging, very fast. So, I'd like to redesign the level progression scheme to make things a little more open-ended.

How do I want to achieve this and what are the expected outcomes?

I'd like to achieve this by introducing a resource economy to the game. Much like The Talos Principle, completing levels will reward players with a resource I am calling N-Gons. Depending on the difficulty of the level, players will be rewarded with 1 to 5 N-Gons.

 Levels will be categorized by the type of puzzle elements they include and their relative difficulty and these "Packs" of levels are purchased with N-Gons. Early and easier packs of levels will cost 3 or 5 N-Gons, whilst later and harder levels will cost 10, 15, 20+ N-Gons to unlock.

Now, I am going to have to find the right mathematic balance so all levels can be completed. This could prove tricky, so some thoughtful design will have to be put into how "Packs" are grouped and how their difficulty is quantified. Typically, difficulty in a level can be represented by the amount of different puzzle elements and the lack of differing solutions. 

As long as I get that balance in a good spot then the outcome should be less player drop-off and friction. If a player cannot beat one of the harder levels in one "Pack", they can spend some of their N-Gons to unlock another and keep on earning more N-Gons. This is not the only benefit of employing this progression scheme in IGEO DX, either.

Resource progression also makes the game more open-ended, giving players a degree of choice over the levels they want to tackle first. This kind of agency makes the game less stressful and more approachable. Additionally, taking the categorical approach allows us to design instruction into the game and illustrate that in a more effective manner.

In the arcade progression scheme we're using currently, new concepts and challenges are introduced arbitrarily. When I introduce a new mechanic or puzzle element to the game I carefully scale back that level's density and design the level to help the player to learn the new mechanic. While this does create a sort of ebb and flow to the game's pace, I think the lack of context and relation between the mechanics makes difficulty tuning more difficult.

I ask myself, "Should I really be introducing Heavy Shapes before Virus Tiles? Are these concepts really all that more or less difficult than one another?"

The answer I come to is not really. Conceptually, there is no difference. It's really the mixture of mechanics and the complexity of puzzles that determines that. If I group levels according to those facets I can group them in a way that introduces concepts with more context. The first "Pack" in the game would contain levels that focus in on Normal Shapes and the core mechanics of pushing, making bridges, and various effects shapes have when they combine. This pack would grant enough N-Gons to unlock several more packs that introduce new states or puzzle elements to the player that are going to be prevalent in later packs that combine a bunch of mechanics.

With this change there is the necessity to update how we display levels in the interface and how we communicate the collection of N-Gons to the player. I am going to have to overhaul the entire level management system to account for it - which comes with a lot of work but a lot of benefits that I will be discussing in a future article.

I hope this look at the overarching level progression schemes was beneficial for your game designing! These are by and large the more prevailing approaches - but are by no means the only ones. Truly open-world games often have completely different approaches or combine elements of both in their progression schemes.

I'm excited to start developing IGEO DXs level builder and adopting this progression scheme will also make handling and displaying those levels way better.

Thanks for the read! Until next time.

Files

Windows 7, 8, 10+ (64-bit only) 61 MB
Version alpha-0.1.1b 91 days ago
MacOS Catalina+ 61 MB
Version alpha-0.1.1b 91 days ago
Windows 7, 8, 10+ (32-bit) 58 MB
Version alpha-0.1.1b 91 days ago

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Comments

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(+1)

Very insightful post! One of the biggest take-aways, for me personally, was how you laid out level progression as it related to narrative. Linear puzzle progression does lend itself well to a narrative driven game. Great point that I never really thought about before.

Regarding the N-Gon idea, I love it! It's a really good idea and will be a nice reward after each level. It could be a good opportunity for some juicy animation too (maybe not mobile-game levels of juice, but something fun and exciting).

Out of curiosity, do you plan on having the N-Gon amount rewarded at the end of each level be variable, for instance if you beat the level in fewer moves you get a higher reward? I know there is some debate about "move counters" in puzzle games and how they can detract from the point of the game. I'm curious if you've thought about this for IGEO though.

Thanks again for the post, looking forward to more!

(+1)

Glad you enjoyed it!

I'm currently working through a couple different ideas for how N-Gons are awarded and one of the concepts I'm leaning towards involves variable rewards. Speed and less moves would be the determining factors, most likely.

It is definitely an opportunity for juice! I've already begun to come up with a shiney look for the N-Gon "icon". Can't wait to get into more graphical polish in the coming months!

Thanks for the comments, Nick!