Designing Mini Games

by Alison McKenzie

2D adventure games tend to be a lot of games in one. You’ve got the overarching plot, but you’ve also got a ton of puzzles with varying mechanics. That’s where I come in.

Designing so many puzzles can be challenging. Each puzzle has to be complete and fresh. That can be creatively exhausting, but worth it when you have a polished, well-constructed end product. There are a number of points to keep in mind when tackling such a project.

Consider the difficulty.

Games shouldn’t be so hard that players lose interest. They also shouldn’t be too easy, or they’re not rewarding. Hitting that sweet spot in the middle requires trial and error, as well as a lot of forethought. The best thing to do is play a lot of games that feature the sorts of puzzles you’re planning to incorporate. The more familiar you are with the subject material, the stronger your decisions will be.

Games should be fun.

It amazes me how many adventure games seem to forget that mini-games should be fun. They try to trick you, stress you out, or frustrate you—none of which are features I would consider to be enjoyable. Work with the players, not against them. “Challenging” does not have to mean “frustrating”. They have to want to succeed.

Game design is collaboration.

Games are meant to be played. That means in order for the game to work, you need to know that it works for your audience. As soon as I scribble a concept down on notebook paper, I transfer it to an illustrated puzzle doc and put it out to the team for feedback. If you try to hold on to a “vision” and not let go, the game won’t turn out right. This is not your personal mark on the world, it’s a group effort. There was one mini-game that I came up with concept after concept for, and nothing worked. The current draft was conceived by someone else on the team, and I’m happy with that. It’s a solid idea. A strong team listens to each other.

How realistic should it be?

This is just a pet peeve of mine, but it bugs me when games don’t bother trying to make a comprehensive world. You can design fantastical things and still have them make sense. Sure, in the real world, there aren’t puzzles around every corner or intricate combination locks on every door. You have to stretch the imagination somewhat. But I like my puzzles to at least fit inside the context of the world. There isn’t a random magical jigsaw puzzle on the door to a safe unless we give it a reason to be there. We have puzzle boxes to open, machines to rig, and whatnot, but they belong there. They’re not just thrown into the game every which way. This is a stylistic preference, however, and not everyone agrees with me. It’s okay if you don’t.

And, of course, I have to break my own rules sometimes, or the games will start to get stale. But these are the things you should consider when taking your own approach.

What is important to you? What are your pet peeves? What would your ideal game be?

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