The Voxel Agents are developers of original handcrafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide.
How Puzzle Retreat Started
Puzzle Retreat has gone through many iterations and has changed a lot from it’s inception 21 months ago. Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. The player had to fell trees in a forest, bring them home and make furniture.
Henrik Pettersson, one of our former designers, was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest. His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down like dominoes. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. There must be enough space to stand behind the tree to push it down and there must be space for the tree to fall into. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.
The team really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction in the very first playable prototype. The theme of cutting down trees in a forest on the other hand, did not rest well. We decided to explore over 20+ designs in art styles and themes and finally decided to stick to the original forest theme, but instead of cutting down the forest, the player was saving it by cutting down evil degenerative trees.
We’re BIG on Playtesting!
Our development process has always had a significant emphasis on playtesting, whether it be in-house within the studio, taking our tablets out on to to the friendly people of Melbourne in the city streets, or even amongst other local game developers. Playtesting can be heartbreaking at times, because it can reveal the hard truth that your design does not work. Being mobile players ourselves, we understand the importance of designing games that are easy to pick up and play straight away and playtesting let us verify this.
Early on, players struggled with understanding the objective and how to interact with the game. Some players were able to work out what the objective was and how to progress. However, some players weren’t able to without any assistance during playtests.
Players were also getting confused between what they could and couldn’t interact with on screen. For example, the affordance of non-interactable wooden logs, produced after cutting down a tree, made players try to pick them up and move them. We discovered that wood cutting wasn’t a great metaphor for the game mechanics and that the third-person character was a major distraction from the actual logical puzzle solving.
A Minimalist Design Approach
In the end, we adopted a minimalist design approach and stripped the game back:
– We removed the third-person character.
– We replaced the core mechanic with one of it’s variations, where trees were covered in ice and could slide over icy logs.
– We removed the ‘stand behind rule’ to cut down trees, this helped with opening up a larger space for puzzle designs.
– We reworked the theme into something much more simple and understandable.
The game received a much more positive response from playtesters after removing rules and making the game much more simple.
We managed to get the game down to two simple rules:
1 Slide the blocks to fill the holes.
2 Use all the blocks.
Relax, Unwind and Focus
While we were stripping back the design, we took the opportunity to look broader at who plays these types of ultra-minimal, logical puzzle games. We found that the audience of these games is more mature and predominantly female. The majority of logical puzzle game players solve puzzles to relax, unwind, de-stress and get some “me time,” the same reasons why we play. With this in mind, we crafted a world free of stress and distraction. By letting the gameplay be the focus, and pushing the art into the background, the game could really shine.
Through our journey, we have learned that the very best logical puzzle games leave very little in between the player and the core problem. All the information to solve the puzzle is directly in front of you, and you just have to solve it. By carefully handcrafting each puzzle and cleverly pacing out the puzzles in each pack, we have been able to give players a great euphoric feeling and make players feel really smart after solving each puzzle.
Puzzle Retreat is available on the AppStore and Google Play. The Voxel Agents still have a dedicated team adding more content and features to the game. The plan is to bring Puzzle Retreat to more platforms in the future. The Voxel Agents also have another game in development that is planned for release later this year.