How do we analyze the design space and waste of a game that's a bit like Tetris in that it features a single style of gameplay with relatively few complexities and that's also like Continuity in that it features a progression of levels of increasing difficulty? How do we analyze such a game when it features hundreds of levels? Is there a significant difference between how we assess one game that creates hundreds of different challenges in one mode (Tetris) and another game that provides hundreds of different challenges as a series of levels? The short answer is, yes, but explaining why is both obvious and nuanced.
Our first consideration is understanding how the game we're analyzing communicates ideas through gameplay. All gameplay exists in what we generally call "levels." This is where a set of rules, goals, and objectives are contained. So, it's best to use levels as the organizing structure to analyze gameplay. Though a level can be made up of several smaller mandatory challenges, we look to the levels as they are defined by the game creators as an important unit of distinction, measure, and meaning. I think a good analogy for levels is a paragraph. In this analogy the game is the book, and chapters are the overarching themes (e.g. desert world). Within each chapter are paragraphs that are analogous to levels. And in the same way that each paragraph is made up of sentences that are complete thoughts strung together to construct larger, more complex ideas so too are levels the assembly of smaller gameplay challenges that are designed to be experienced together to convey a more complex idea.
Keeping in mind the general rule of thumb that art communicates most clearly when distracting elements of any kind are excluded from the work, the level structure can be a kind of design space waste or at least reveal where the design is weak. We look to levels of a game to help us anticipate and organize the gameplay ideas that are communicated. Levels also give us a good idea of the portion size for consuming a game since the levels for most games are fairly uniform in size. It would be somewhat wasteful for developers to assign levels haphazardly and inconsistently for their game. Creating distinct levels has the same effect that section headings and table of contents do in a text book. You don't want to draw attention to unimportant ideas or a lack of coherent ideas by assigning "level labels" poorly. So if game has levels, we have to look closely at why.
Let's look at some examples.
The Puzzle Club
Picross, Picross 3D, ChuChu Rocket (video1 video2), Trajectile, and Pushmo are all handheld puzzle games that come packed with hundreds of puzzle levels. While each of these games feature pictorial elements that make can make the puzzles unique in non-gameplay ways, we're only interested in the conveyance of gameplay ideas. So, you might be thinking that all of the hundreds of levels in these games can't all be distinctly meaningful. Some of these levels have to detract from the core meaning of the game, right? Let's see.
All of these games, except Trajectile, stress only knowledge skills, which is typical for puzzle games. Trajectile stresses some dexterity skill when aiming in addition to a few other real-time skills, however playing on this level is mostly nuanced and optional. From my understanding Trajectile can be completed 100% playing in a turn-based fashion. Furthermore, Pushmo has a "undo-move" mechanic that completely takes away any penalty from messing up the real-time platforming execution thus removing the stress of skills created by the real-time platforming challenges. By stressing knowledge skills almost entirely, the meaning of the puzzle gameplay comes from engaging and overcoming the challenges using an increasingly deeper knowledge of the puzzle systems. In other words, being stumped by the puzzle levels in these games is generally a good thing because it's a clear sign that you must reevaluate and refine your solution methods.
At the end of part 6 I determined that considering the full range of gameplay from the skill floor to the skill ceiling is important. However, it's the skill floor that determines the lowest level of engagement, skill, and therefore meaning that can be conveyed to the player. As I explained before, the best artists account for the multiple options and interpretations their audience will likely have while engaging with their art. So, a game may choose to have a low skill floor, but that doesn't mean the experience is excused for being flat, static, or uninteresting in terms of the gameplay meaning it conveys. So, for the group of puzzle games we're analyzing, we need to assess the skill floor for a great indicator of the kind of meaning conveyed throughout the rest of the skill spectrum.
The core gameplay meaning of Picross involves understanding a solvable 2D coding system designed around deductive reasoning. Picross 3D carries the same kind of design yet uses a 3D puzzle object for an added element of complexity to the coding system. ChuChu Rocket uses the static motion of mouse and cat elements to create complex timings that must be read using the environmental structures and manipulated using the arrows. Trajectile uses a variety of missiles in set formations to force players to make the most out of limited ammo. Players read levels by accounting for the decaying blocks in the field, reflections off of hard surfaces, and other powerups. Finally, Pushmo carefully defines a 3D space according to platforms that can be dynamically adjusted. As players push and pull these platforms new pathways are organically created for an elegant puzzle system.
All the puzzle systems of these games are very efficient. Puzzle games tend to be this way because they typically focus on unique and difficult challenges simply by rearranging a few elements to showcase the versatility of the core puzzle system design. This is one reason I find puzzle games so interesting. Likewise, the meaning that the levels convey is not particularly complex. After all, how could the meanings conveyed be more complex than the system itself?
Besides a few tutorial segments, all of the meaning of these puzzle systems are communicated purely through level challenges. Each game in the puzzle club feature clear level groupings based on difficulty (or complexity because they go hand in hand in this case). Some have labels of normal, medium, hard. Others are labeled bronze, silver, gold, and so forth. Picross 3D, Trajectile, and Pushmo add new gameplay elements at different points to give the puzzle challenges more wrinkles, which also helps further differentiate the level groupings. For example, portal warps are first introduced in the platinum levels in Trajectile. Picross elegantly increases the difficulty of its puzzles simply by increasing the size of the levels and the complexity of the image to uncover.
As far as the skill floors go, there's no easy out for these games. The only way to reasonably progress is by developing your skills and learning the puzzle systems. If you intend on sweeping the skill floor of these games you'll get a great puzzle expereince. If you plan on getting all the medals in Trajectile, going for triple stars in Picros 3D, using fewer arrows than given in ChuChu Rocket, or shooting for low times in Picross all of these optional challenges of increased difficulty also allows for a great puzzle experience. The big takeaway here is, no matter how you decide to play, the meaning conveyed through the gameplay is clear, consistent, and deep.
There are two reasons why I don't consider the hundreds of levels in these puzzles games excessive or a design waste. The first reason put simply is, these puzzles games work best as art when they stump players. For a simple test, I generally play puzzle games on auto pilot until the challenge becomes great enough for me to stop and pay attention. The more times I have to stop and learn something new to progress the better the progression of level are in terms of difficulty. All of the games in the puzzle club feature levels that get more and more challenging. Though the difference between the levels may be subtle especially considering how many there are, the effect is clear. Having played through so many levels, I gained a really thorough understanding of each puzzle system, which is where the core meaning of the experience is. I don't remember each level distinctly, but this is normal. After all, we hardly memorize whole books, movies, or songs as we consume them.
Another reason why I think the numerous puzzles in these games don't quality as waste even when many of the levels have simliar meaning, design, and difficulty is because of the spoiler effect. Since repetition is an inherent part of learning, repeating puzzles would help to build our skills. However, because the solutions to puzzles can spoil the kind of mental work involved in any repeated attempt, it's important for many of these puzzle games to include multiple-similarly designed levels as a way to give the player another chance. Puzzle games aren't like other genres. Since the core meaning is mainly a matter of analyze knowledge skills, the design of the game must adjust for the particular quirks when learning the mostly linear, solvable, spoiler prone challenges.
So far I've only talked about puzzle games. I did it to give you a clear contrast to the games we'll look at next. In part 8, we'll consider more complex games of more emergent genres. Doing so will make the analysis much more complicated much faster than you think.