Friday, April 12, 2013

Accessible Puzzle Design in Pushmo

Pushmo is a puzzle game released in late 2011 on the Nintendo 3DS. After the 3DS suffered without a great exclusive game for the better part of the year, Nintendo's Pushmo came on the scene and seemed to succeed on every front: it was charming and accessible, had a lower barrier to entry than most 3DS games (it could be downloaded straight from the eShop for only $7), and its gameplay  nicely demonstrated the system's 3D screen. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Pushmo last year and played it on my commute for several months. While it's not perfect, I found it contains some important lessons about design puzzle games for a broad audience

Pushmo does a few things extremely well to achieve broad appeal. It selectively borrows from platformers while keeping the player's focus entirely on puzzle-solving. Its more challenging puzzles start off simple and accessible to avoid scaring off the player. Lastly, Pushmo enables players to develop advanced strategies for completing puzzles, by providing visual checkpoints to help break a puzzle into its component pieces. These elements come together to ease casual players into the game and encourage some to play though and complete its most difficult puzzles.

A puzzle game, not a platformer.
Pushmo appears to benefit from being designed as a puzzle game first, and everything else second. On its surface, the game controls like a platformer - players run, jump, and grab blocks in 3D space. However the game smartly avoids becoming a platformer by placing all of the challenge in its puzzles, and removing any pportunity for the "platforming" to cause unnecessary friction.

Whenever the player accidentally falls or makes a bad move in Pushmo, they can rewind time to undo, and a reset button allows the player a fresh start whenever they'd like. The game prevents players from accidentally walking off of ledges by pausing Mallow at the edge of a block. It even prevents the player from accidentally landing on the "reset" button when jumping from the puzzle. These details often go overlooked in puzzle-platformers, but Pushmo's developers knew they wanted to test a player's mastery of puzzles, not their manual dexterity. Pushmo successfully encourages experimentation by making sure players are never punished by the controls.

The first step is always the hardest, except in Pushmo.
Puzzle games can often seem impenetrable to players, especially when they are just starting out. Consider, for example, a Sudoku puzzle in its starting state:

There are 459 potential starting moves (51 squares x 9 digits) in this puzzle, and an inexperienced player has no frame of reference for which ones to prioritize. Advanced Sudoku players know how to quickly sort this information and focus on just a few potential moves. They know that the first or last columns are good places to start, because each has only four empty spaces. That narrows down the number starting of moves to a manageable 16 (4 squares x 4 digits), and they can iterate through them, eliminating options as they go. All of a sudden, they're on their way to solving the puzzle.

Similarly, Pushmo starts by showing the player a large grid of blocks to manipulate. Like in Sudoku, players have to keep making moves until they reach the goal (solving the puzzle). In Pushmo, each block has 4 possible states - pushed all the way in, or pulled out into the foreground up to 3 times. The Pushmo puzzle below contains 25 pieces. An inexperienced player might feel overwhelmed by the 100 possible starting moves and nearly infinite combinations of moves that can follow them. Without some encouragement, the player might even turn the game off or start playing a less confusing game.

However, Pushmo is kind to its players and lets them dip their toes in the water before taking the  plunge. As it turns out, the first step in most Pushmo puzzles - even the advanced puzzles later in the game - is usually very easy, gravity limits the options. Mallow starts at the bottom of the puzzle, and can only manipulate blocks that exist at his current elevation. In the example above, that means there are only 3 blocks that can be involved in the player's first move. Already, we've narrowed things down from 100 moves to 12. Since Mallow can only jump high enough to climb the lower-left block, the first decision is an easy one. In this puzzle and many others, the player's decision tree for their first few moves is fairly linear, as in the first figure below.

Later in the puzzle, things will not be so easy. The graph of possible moves becomes much more complex and nonlinear, as in the second figure above, often requiring players to backtrack or manipulate the same block multiple times. However, the player's "momentum" has already picked up by this point, and the game has rewarded them with enough forward progress that they are less likely to get frustrated and quit. By starting each puzzle with a few simple moves and ramping up the difficulty later, Pushmo avoids overwhelming the player before they're having fun.

Careful observation and planning.
In Pushmo's advanced puzzles, things start getting hairy. Not only are the later levels bigger and more complex, but they introduce new elements like switches that pull every block of a certain color to the foreground, or ladders that act as portals to their twin elsewhere in the puzzle. These elements do more than add variety: they serve as visual checkpoints that the player can use to plan their strategy for completing the game's largest puzzles.

The puzzle above - one of the last in the game - is visually complex and contains many small, hard-to-reach blocks. There are also two pairs of ladders - stepping onto a red ladder teleports the player to the other red ladder as long as both blocks are pulled into the foreground. Finally, there are red an dark green switches, each of which will pull all blocks of that color to the foreground - helpful for blocks like the lizard's red tongue, which have no nearby footholds. Using all of these visual landmarks, the player can break the puzzle up into stages, as in the image below.

There are five stages to this puzzle, starting at the bottom and ending with the goal at the top. The player can mentally break the puzzle down into these stages by working their way backwards from the goal. To reach the goal, the player can use the blue ladder. For the blue ladder to work, the player needs the red blocks to be pulled out, so they need to hit the red switch, and so on. Players can recognize the "critical path" by following the placement of switches and ladders. Having these short-term goals helps make Pushmo's puzzles more feasible as they scale up, allowing the designers the freedom to create puzzles from larger, more complex images.

Every puzzle has multiple solutions.
These are the three elements of Pushmo's design that I feel gave it the biggest opportunity for success, by making the game more accessible while still containing many challenging puzzles. The game focused on puzzling, not platforming, and removed any unneeded friction. The puzzles start off easy and ramp up as the player moves through them, which helps get the player acclimated to each space without feeling overwhelmed. As the puzzles get larger, the game introduces new elements that help guide the player and turn large challenges into sets of smaller ones.

However, I suspect there may be those who disagree with my assessment. On the flip side of the coin, there are at least two good arguments to these points that I can think of (and there are probably many more):
  1. Pushmo gives the player the information necessary to form a plan and strategically work their way through the puzzle. Many "casual" puzzle games, however, employ the opposite strategy. Some of the most popular puzzle video games, such as Tetris and Bejeweled, make it relatively difficult to plan too far ahead. The player has a limited understanding of what the board will look like two turns from now, and even advanced players often make moves based on current information instead of looking forward. Often, but not always, these games have no "win" state - the challenge is to see how long you can "survive" or how many matches you can make. By using the "keep trying until you succeed" model, Pushmo avoids failing the player but also delays positive feedback to the player until they've completed the puzzle. There is no "partial credit." It's possible this is more alienating to casual players.
  2. Because the first few moves are usually fairly straightforward, every puzzle starts off the same way. It is very rare for there to be an alternate strategy at the beginning of a puzzle - the best move is usually to pull all of the bottom row all the way out. It's possible that Pushmo becomes less interesting for players as time goes on because this strategy doesn't evolve much even in the later stages.
Have you played Pushmo? Have you played its sequel, Crashmo, which I am yet to check out? Do you have examples of any of the above from other puzzle games? I would love to keep the conversation going in the comments.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Catching Up

It has been over nine months since the last post was published on Thumbstruck! As my excuse, here's a quick update on what I've accomplished in nine months:

  • Completed 14 more games, including Rayman Origins, Pushmo, and The Walking Dead (all highly recommended). This brings my grand total to 42 games completed since I started tracking them (September 2010).
  • I proposed to the woman of my dreams, and against all odds, she said yes. We our planning our wedding and getting married later this year.
  • I helped launch a lot of new stuff at work. If you own a Windows 8 computer/tablet, there's a decent chance there's a game on your computer with my name in the credits. Hooray!
  • I helped run a game with Arkadium at the Come Out and Play festival on Governor's Island. The game is called Super Secret Spies, and despite the sneakiness, there are tons of photos online.
  • I attended Practice, a game design conference hosted by NYU Game Center, and heard talks from some truly remarkable people. No single event has reinvigorated my resolve to create great games more than this conference. If you're interested in hearing about any of the talks, let me know!
  • Got my first smartphone! I am now the proud owner of a Nexus 4 running the latest version of Android, which also means I have new free-to-play games to try out. My commute is Triple Town, and Triple Town is my commute.
  • I returned to TCNJ for the Global Game Jam 2013. With my good friends (and dream team) Bryan Mayer, Ryan Epp, Chris Hallberg, and Nicole Pieri, I built _scope, a psychadelic game of Set-meets-Spirographs, with just a hint of childbirth. For real.
  • My writing has appeared around the net a bit recently, including this opinion piece on iMedia Connection about the then-new Facebook App Center.
  • I wrote a  feature story on Gamasutra covering five tips for better playtesting. This was recently re-published in the March issue of Game Developer Magazine, which was distributed to subscribers and at GDC. Let me know what you think!
And that's it! If you're interested in chatting about some months-old news, I'm happy to take a trip down memory lane. Leave a comment!

(Thanks to Vinny for pushing me to start writing again.)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Philly Game Jam victory once again for TCNJ alumni and students!

Two weeks ago, on the weekend of July 15-17, a team of TCNJ alumni, students, and friends took home two awards at the 2012 Philly Game Jam, part of the Too Many Games festival at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center.

The Philly Game Jam is a 48-hour game development competition in which teams of professional, hobbyist, and student game developers compete to build a game with very little time (and even less sleep). All teams are given a theme at the start - an image, quote, or idea to help prompt their creativity - and then they have only their own equipment, skills, and resources to complete a working prototype of a game idea before the weekend is over.

A team of five game developers organized by TCNJ alum Alexander Cap took home two awards: "Judges' Choice" and "Most Innovative", for their game Kairos. Alex was joined by fellow alumni Brett Taylor and Nathan Wailes, TCNJ student Martin Bayer, and friend of the group Arnab Jahangir.

Kairos is a platforming game with puzzles that let the player age (and take years off) their environment in order to reach their goal.

This year marked the third Philly Game Jam in a row that the TCNJ game development community has participated in, starting with the event in Fall 2009 and continuing again at the last event in Summer 2011. Since the tradition began, TCNJ's game development community has continued to grow - in April 2010 the school's first game design club in many years, The Magic Circle, began holding meetings. In January 2011 the group organized a student/alumni trip to the NJIT Global Game Jam site, and in January 2012 The Magic Circle organized a public Global Game Jam site at The College of New Jersey.

This post is my sincere congratulations to the team for not only pooling their talents to create an impressive game, but for strengthening the spirit of community among TCNJ students and alum interested in game design and development. Go Team Kairos! See you at the next Game Jam!

If you are interested in playing Kairos or learning more about the team, please check out the Kairos wiki page.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Just Want to Be Noticed!

How is it that in the time since I last posted, I've completed the likes of Psychonauts, Bastion, and Professor Layton and the Curious Village, with nary a post discussing them? Three excellent, very diverse games, these: play them when you can.

Recently I was published in MediaPost's Gaming Insider for pointing out a dirty secret of pop entertainment: every story we love convinces us we're special, if only someone would notice. That point is augmented for the brands-and-advertising crowd with some follow ups for how content creators can use that truth to manipulate us all for their own dark purposes.

Is it true? Do we really play games because we're all narcissists? Am I ignoring the very real possibility that I'm the only one who thinks like this? Let me know with a comment - it's the only way I know that anybody notices me, after all, and that makes me feel special.

Now Playing:

Rayman Origins (Xbox 360)
Breath of Fire II (Game Boy Advance)

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Let's walk through a conversation I have on a regular basis.

Gamer Friend: "Have you beaten Mass Effect 3 yet?"
Me: "No, I started the first one, but haven't gotten very far."
Gamer Friend: "You haven't beaten Mass Effect yet?
Me: "Nope, but I just beat Psychonauts!"
Gamer Friend: "I thought you play a lot of video games?"

This is a recent example, but the games are interchangeable with so many others. While you were playing Skyrim, I was playing Pikmin 2. Why? I love old games, dated graphics and all. As much as I'd love being more involved in the zeitgeist immediately after a major release, I love playing games that I've heard good things about for years, knowing I'm in for a treat. Yet, there is always one major force pulling me away, and that's the feeling of isolation that comes from an offline single-player experience.

There is a world of difference between playing a Virtual Console game on my Wii, and playing a retro game re-released on Xbox Live Arcade. If I want to play a 40-hour 90s JRPG alone in my apartment on a weekend afternoon, I can go to either platform. Play on the Wii and I'll have spent the entire day eyeballs-deep in a compelling-if-antiquated fantasy world with nothing to show for it but some carpal tunnel. Play on Xbox Live, and that experience becomes a connected one. My friends see what I'm playing. I can share my achievements. I can see who else has played this game, how far they've gotten, and find out what else they recommend.

If playing on Xbox Live is like seeing a movie in the theater with your friends, playing on the Wii (or an older system like the PS2) is like watching that same movie on an airplane, with the airline's proprietary $3 headphones on, and the overweight guy next to you leaning on your shoulder while he sleeps. The content's the same, but one case is a catalyst for conversation, while the other is a way to keep from feeling dead inside for two hours.

It's these experiences that convince me that Facebook et. al. are onto something with the mantra that social games are better games. I'm excited for a future where every game gives me the option to share my experience with my friends. I won't force it on anybody else, but I'm going to take that option every time.

In the meantime, I'll have to justify my more disconnected gaming sessions in some other way... like writing a blog post about it.

Now Playing:
Chrono Cross (Playstation)
Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Nintendo DS)
Rayman Origins (Xbox 360)
The Witcher (PC)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Building on Success

The Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn California's violent video game law was a huge success for the games industry and First Amendment proponents. However, I can't feel like the purity of our message has been lost in the celebration that has followed. The video games industry is far from perfect, and there are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about kids (and even adults) playing violent games. Just because I don't think California should be deciding what's too violent and what isn't doesn't mean I don't think they're right to be concerned. In MediaPost's Gaming Insider I said I hope our industry builds on this victory, instead of sitting back now that we feel safe. Read it, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ready for Social

If there was one thing that every major developer and platform provider at E3 agreed on this year (and there were many things on which they did not agree), it was that they simply could not ignore the emerging possibilities offered by social networks anymore.

This admission is an important first step for the video game industry, currently roughly divided into companies that are DTF ("down to Facebook") and those that ain't. The current state of things is really sad because it limits the marketplace in artificial ways - there are not many options out there right now for the Street Fighter IV player who likes finding matchmaking opportunities with his Facebook friends, nor are there many ways for me to share my Halo 3 user videos to a place where people are actually going to see them. I can't tweet comments about my favorite user-generated Portal 2 levels as I play them because the Steam community is very averse to the idea of the invasion of external social networks, which incidentally is the same reason that popular "casual" destinations like Pogo and Big Fish Games avoid Facebook like the plague, for fear that their change-averse communities will rise up against them.

But why all this fear? Are we as gamers all really so limited in our world view, despite comprising such a large and diverse portion of the world's population? Do we really lack the collective clarity of judgment to realize that just because 99% of the games currently using Facebook's platform are imitations of one cleverly designed farming game in their marketing tactics, business model, and simple gameplay, that their simple connection to the Facebook platform makes them so? Are we truly so blind to the diversity of games already available on Xbox Live, Steam, and on the iPhone that we believe a game's mere use of a social networking API could actually communicate anything meaningful about its quality or substance?

I'd like to think, "no," but so far my experience is that many gamers and internet-savvy users, aware of the popularity and success of Facebook and of the amount of "real information" it asks of its users, are loathe to accept any implementation of its API in their games, no matter how harmless, option, or beneficial, and that's extremely disappointing, because it limits my options. I'll have to save my diatribe about internet privacy for another post, but I completely agree with anyone that doesn't think Facebook should be a mandatory component of a game that could be played without it (i.e., most games, including the ones in the top 10 apps on Facebook). I'll be the first to tell anyone considering opening a Facebook account to take a long hard look at their Terms of Use, their privacy settings, and their track record, and make an informed decision about how they do and don't use the service. And I'm not a big proponent of the perceivable desperation baked into any game that has access to your news feed. But I do feel the opportunities for good far outweigh the potential downsides.

Fact: Facebook currently has over 500 million users. If you live in the United States or one of the many other countries with a high adoption rate for the site, then you are more likely to have friends using Facebook than any other social network, including AIM, Steam,, Meebo, Myspace, Xbox Live, Playstation Network, GameCenter, Twitter, Second Life, Flickr, LiveJournal, or your bizarrely-specific-to-your-cultural-nice online dating site.

All of that being said, here is my hypothetical evidence to support my theory that the [transparent, optional, secure, game-appropriate] use of social networks like Facebook can only make our favorite games better.

Super Mario Galaxy 2: "Super Guide Ghosts"

I just finished playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 (at least, the "first quest") and loved the game to pieces. Here's a game more challenging than its predecessor, yet more accessible than ever before - a wonderful example of smart game design that's fun for players of all types. The game has a few very clever built-in hint systems, one of which Nintendo likes to refer to as the "Super Guide." This is an in-game movie that will play through a level for you if you're stuck - letting you intervene when you feel comfortable taking the reigns again. The game also has a "co-star" mode where a second player can take on a helping role as an in-game pointer for collecting items, stunning enemies, and pointing out secrets.

What if I was stuck on a level, and the Super Guide was able to tell me that I have 5 friends with this game, 4 of whom have all beaten this level already? I can select my friend Andrew, and the game will download a 'ghost data' file of his playthrough. In seconds, I'm following a jump-for-jump copy of Andrew's path through the level, missteps and all. When I'm done, I'm able to send him a one-up as a thank you for sharing his play-through data with me, and Andrew's rating as a Super Mario Galaxy 2 Super Guide increases, meaning others are more likely to select his play-throughs later. Andrew might even take it upon himself to make his play-throughs completely public, and gain such a reputation that his user profile becomes the de facto replacement for the Super Mario Galaxy 2 GameFAQs page.

Furthermore, when I see him later that week, I can tell him that not only did I beat the level, but I also caught a glimpse of his trouble avoiding fireballs - something I'm sure he'd be quick to defend.

Portal 2: Co-Op
Did I say Portal 2 Co-op? Let me re-phrase that. I meant "Steam."

I'm sick of having four Steam friends, despite my overwhelming confidence that I know more than four people using the service. Steam has so many great tools for players and developers - great communication tools (chat, messages, groups), a great client and storefront - but Steam is not a dedicated social network. It exists for a fringe purpose (gaming) and because of that it's never going to be as frequent a stop for casual gamers and fringe gamers (like many of my friends) as a site like Facebook.

If Steam had a Facebook app with a decent adoption rate, however, I'd have a lot more real Steam friends. I'd know the instant one of my friends started playing Portal 2 and I'd be able to be the first one to swoop in and offer to walk them through the first few levels of co-op. I'd see that girl I knew in high school that I thought I had nothing in common with, who actually has more achievements than me in my obscure indie puzzle game, and I'd consider reconnecting (and asking what she thought of the game).

Moreover, I'd have an achievement for every friend that wrote "Spaaaaace." as their status at some point in the last two months. But then again, maybe that's what the nay-sayers are worried about.

Grand Theft Auto IV: my wildcard idea
I figured it would be fun to come up with something really out-there for my last suggestion. Here goes!

Fans of Rockstar's pioneering, envelope-pushing Grand Theft Auto IV (can you tell I'm one of them?) often cite the in-game television as one of its brightest spots - a trivial bit of detail that goes a long way toward building the world (and being hilarious satire).

Picture playing GTA IV while connected to the internet, when all of a sudden, you walk past a TV in a storefront playing a news story with an image of your friend Garrett on the screen: 

Newscaster: Police say they are still on the lookout for their suspect, who they believe could still be hiding in the vicinity. Witnesses are encouraged to call a toll-free number if they have any information, for a reward of up to $200,000.

You recognize Garrett's Facebook picture instantly, of course. You know that Garrett must have caused some serious mayhem in his game in order to rack up that kind of bounty on his head - and you also know he'd turn you in in a heartbeat. You dial the in-game number and correctly select Garrett from a multiple-choice list of friends. Your character is rewarded in-game money, while Garrett's is fined. But Garrett's informants tell him you were the rat, and now you're a marked man - good luck next time you need a favor from that guy.

Looking Forward
Consoles and "hardcore" gaming have a long way to go towards acceptance of the "social networking" trend, but I'm confident that someday we'll all be used to the idea enough to be accepting of the good ideas and shielded from the bad. All it takes is a little bit of imagination on our part (the players!) to see that there's good there (and to understand the nature of the potential evils) so that we can protect our interests and seek out new experiences. I'm excited to rat out my friends in GTA and count my "Spaaaaaace"-related statuses. I just hope everyone else gets excited soon, too.

If you think I've said something worth repeating, try Re-Tweeting! I'm DTF, too - share a link to this post and get a discussion going in the comments!