After finishing his Word Crush Mania game, Tom Kier, the founder of Endless Wave Software, wanted to create a simple casual puzzle game. Being a solo indie developer with no budget meant that the project had to be simple enough for one person to do all the work, yet he wanted the game to be challenging and entertaining, Tom recalls.
Puzzles with Multiple Solutions that Keep Players Engaged
The original idea was to create a simple casual game about untangling lines. The gameplay would be twisting and turning a set of tiles so that a path gets connected between two dots on the game board. Each tile would contain path segments, and once all the tiles are rotated in to the proper position, the path through the tiles connecting the dots would reveal itself.
Inspired by other popular puzzle games like Flow, Strata, and Lyne, I wanted my game to be easy to pick up and learn, yet provide challenging puzzles. It had to be casual enough that most puzzles could be solved in a couple of minutes or less, yet be challenging enough to keep users coming back for more. Most importantly, I wanted each puzzle to generate that “aha! moment” when the pieces finally rotate into place and the solution reveals itself. This meant each puzzle’s solution needed to be unique and challenging. I did not want to have dozens of similar puzzles that have little variation.
Another important design goal was that I didn’t want users to feel stuck and get frustrated if they were having a hard time solving a particular puzzle. I wanted to make sure it was enjoyable for players of all different skill levels. So I decided that each puzzle would have multiple solutions, with some easier than others. I settled on the typical three-star scoring system. Solving the puzzle with a simple solution would only be awarded one star, two stars for more difficult solutions, and three stars for the most difficult and challenging solutions.
Balancing Complexity and Simplicity for Casual Players
The original prototype used square tiles, with four path segments running through each tile. I built a puzzle generator tool that allowed me to create custom board layouts for the tiles, and then the program itself randomly made the path segments for them. The first playtest showed a couple of problems.
First of all, generating random tiles was not working as desired. Sometimes the puzzle had too many solutions and was too easy or, on the contrary, only a single one or very few that were overly difficult and challenging for some casual gamers. I understood that in order to get that “aha!” effect for each puzzle, and also enable multiple solutions, I’d better craft the puzzles by hand and tune each to make sure it has a unique and challenging set of solutions. So I modified the tool to allow more manual control over the tile generation.
The other problem was with the tiles themselves. A square tile had two path connectors on each side, which meant there were four path segments on one tile. This produced lots of interesting and varied path designs, but again, made the puzzles too complicated and overwhelming. I experimented with using only one path connector per side, which meant only two path segments per tile. That did reduce the complexity, but also made the puzzles too simplistic. I needed a way to get three path segments on a tile. Using a hexagon tile with one path connector per side solved the problem.
If the game catches on and there’s demand for more puzzles, I may do a puzzle pack with square tiles for those looking for more challenge.
Design Makes Players Sleepy, Gameplay Keeps Them Awake
Once the switch to hexagon tiles was completed and the updated puzzle generator started working, it was time for several weeks of long evenings building the 120 different puzzles in the game. Turns out that creating puzzles with multiple solutions is harder than I originally anticipated, so it took longer than planned.
Along the way, I introduced new elements such as path teleporters, which transport your path to another tile, and puzzles with multiple dots to connect. This allowed for increasing challenge and variety for the higher levels.
Once the puzzles were done and tested, the whole thing became a matter of completing and polishing the visual design. This is where I made my biggest mistake. Being a solo indie developer with no budget to hire external helpers, I have to wear numerous hats: game designer, developer, graphic artist, and sound designer. I am a much better developer than graphic artist. I wanted to go with a minimalist look, inspired by the new iOS 7 visual design and the style of games such as Letterpress and Dots. But unfortunately, this didn’t work. As Jordan Minor at 148apps.com wrote, “Simply Twisted‘s looks could probably put a player to sleep. Fortunately, its smart gameplay will keep them engaged and alert.”
An updated version of Simply Twisted has recently hit the Apple AppStore. It includes a new updated visual design that hopefully won’t put people to sleep, the developer says.
“I thoroughly enjoyed creating Simply Twisted,” he recalls. “Each new game I create comes with its own unique challenges. Simply Twisted was no exception. Even with my missteps, I believe it is one the best games I have created to date. I am currently exploring different ideas for my next game.”