There’s been a lot of updates to my game since my last post in January up until the release of the debut trailer. I wanted to share them, but I got caught up in getting my game ready for the IndiePub game competition, which was due the 18th of February. With that submission out of the way, I’ve got some more time to blog.
The biggest change by far would be the way the game flows. Oddly enough, I sort of went in circles when thinking about how the user would go from one puzzle to the next. When I originally started this game, I had planned the layout of the game to be similar to Picross DS. Levels consisted of puzzles A-O and each puzzle was its own stage. When I play tested this for Pixel Blocked!, it felt like there wasn’t enough substance having just one puzzle per stage, especially with the easy puzzles, where some of them could be completed in less than 3 seconds. It felt odd and annoying to force the user back to the puzzle selection screen so quickly after completing such a short puzzle.
I then made the decision to have 5 puzzles per stage. Each puzzle has the same overall shape, but with different foundation blocks. When you complete a puzzle, the next one flows to the center of the screen to be solved by the player. I really liked the way it felt, having one puzzle floating to the next, and being able to see a preview of the next puzzle on the left of the screen, as well as a completed puzzle floating on the right of the screen. For awhile this worked really well, as it lengthened the time a person would spend on a single stage and the way it floated from one puzzle to the next felt really natural. Each stage of 5 puzzles was given a target time to beat and allotted a certain amount of missiles. Even with 5 puzzles per stage, some of the stages could still be completed in less than a minute.
About 4 weeks ago, I started noticing problems, especially after I began having people play-test the harder stages. For example, levels 21-30 consist of increasingly difficult 9×9 puzzles. I noticed players burning through their allotted missiles before even reaching the 3rd or 4th puzzle of the stage and getting stuck or having to restart because of an error they made. I noticed players spending over 30 minutes on a single stage and ending up failing. I noticed frustration at having to start stages over again just to get to the 4th or 5th puzzle they were struggling to solve. Those were all unintentional design consequences of having 5 puzzles per stage. I wanted a more balanced usage of missiles and to also change the source of frustration. Frustration (the good kind) should come from players trying to wrap their head around solving a particular puzzle, not from having to re-do already completed puzzles.
What I had failed to notice initially was that the only reason it felt like having one puzzle per stage wasn’t enough substance was because I knew the solution to each puzzle so well that I had forgotten to calculate the thought process time duration of actually finding that solution. Design inspiration came in the form of a game called Glow Artisan that I picked up on the Windows Phone 7. It’s such a simple solution I’m surprised and embarrassed that I didn’t see it sooner. In Glow Artisan, the puzzles are just as short as they are in Pixel Blocked!. They are especially short if you already know the solution or are adept enough to quickly find the solution. Now instead of kicking the player back to the puzzle selection screen after each puzzle (especially in the early stages where this might’ve been annoying), the game allows you to simply play the next puzzle. So in short, you solve a puzzle, get your results, click next and start the next puzzle. It keeps the game flowing, and if the user wants, he or she can go to the puzzle gallery and manually select the puzzle they want to play.
I thought that was the perfect solution, so with 3 weeks to go until the IndiePub competition, I set out to make each puzzle its own stage, but still have the ability for puzzles to flow from one to the next. In the end, my solution came to be a hybrid of my first two attempts and I think the game plays better for it. I eliminated unintentional frustration, balanced out missile usage (3 per puzzle) and kept the puzzles flowing from one to the next. On one hand, I probably should’ve realized earlier that one puzzle per stage was the ideal way to go, but on the other hand, had I not made that mistake, I probably wouldn’t have the great puzzle transitions and animations I currently have now.