Homa Academy

The Art and Science of Crafting Engaging Puzzle Games

Crafting engaging puzzle games
Published:12 Dec 2023Author:HomaRead Time:12 min read

Derived from insights shared during the Homa Academy webinar with Homa's Studio Community Director, Kevin Wolstenholme, & our Ideation Expert, Jorge Mendes, this article sheds light on the techniques and data-driven strategies for creating & ideating captivating puzzle games.

Brief history of puzzle games and their timeless appeal

Puzzle games, by definition, are games, toys, or problems designed to test one's ingenuity or knowledge. Their roots trace back to the 18th century when John Spilsbury—a London cartographer and engraver, was believed to have created the first "jigsaw" puzzle.

Since then, puzzle games have evolved from tactile, 2D challenges to sophisticated digital platforms, demonstrating the adaptability and resilience of this genre through time.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, puzzle game downloads peaked to a staggering 5.7B downloads. Data shows that in 2022 alone, puzzle games were downloaded 4.5 billion times, maintaining their dominance in the mobile gaming landscape. But, how do these games continue to be appealing over time? Their lasting appeal comes not only from the intellectual challenges and deep satisfaction they offer players but also from increasingly competitive elements, such as guild mechanics, that add a new layer of engagement.

Global Puzzle Game Downloads

Who are puzzle players?

According to the Facebook Gaming report, females aged over 35 are the most common players in puzzle games. Other characteristics of the usual player include:

  • Puzzle players often turn to mobile games for stress relief, a quick pastime, and a sense of achievement.
  • They are not hardcore gamers. They play in short bursts, typically around 3 minutes, to complete a stage or level.
  • They prefer games that introduce new mechanics as they progress, and are more inclined to play alone than in groups.

3 Key Elements in Puzzle Game Design

The intricacies of puzzle design can be broadly categorized into three main pillars, each contributing to the player's experience and engagement level:

1. Rules & Limitations: The foundation of any puzzle game lies in its rules and limitations. These not only determine the framework within which the player operates but also set the stage for those intriguing challenges.
Rules and limitations act as catalysts, sparking the player's curiosity and leading them to those rewarding "aha!" moments of revelation. Importantly, these rules and limitations are key for monetization, such as through rewarded videos (RVs) or in-app purchases (IAPs). Setting the right rules from the start of ideation can lead to more effective monetization strategies. Otherwise, reliance on interstitial ads, typical in hardcore games, might become necessary.
The careful balance of a game's structure facilitates both the challenge for players and the potential for financial return. It's the fine balance of the game's structure that paves the way for players to experience both challenge and accomplishment.

2. Intuitive Controls: In the realm of digital games, the control mechanism plays a pivotal role. It must seamlessly align with the game's flow, offering an experience that feels both effortless and robust.
The hallmark of well-designed controls is their predictability; players should not be left guessing or grappling with the controls. Instead, the interface should resonate with their instincts, granting them full command and enhancing immersion.
Most puzzle games commonly use 'Tap & Drag' controls, which match players' instincts, giving them a sense of control and deepening their immersion in the game.

3. Clear Completion Goal: At the heart of every puzzle game, there is a clear objective. Players must understand, right from the outset, what their goal is. It's not about leaving them in the dark to figure out what needs to be done but guiding their focus on how to achieve it.
By ensuring a transparent end goal, game designers can foster a sense of purpose in players, driving them to strategize, adapt, and ultimately revel in their achievements.
Incorporating a thorough onboarding process is essential. It not only helps bring in more players but also ensures they clearly understand the game's objectives from the beginning. These core elements, when meticulously crafted, form the bedrock of a compelling puzzle game, ensuring both longevity and a dedicated player base.

Top Performing Puzzle Games: Trends and Mechanics

Puzzle games have cemented their place in the US gaming market. Nearly a third of the spots in the Top 100 Free Overall Games Chart in the US (sept 2023) are occupied by puzzle games.

Here’s a look at some of the successful titles and what makes them stand out:

  • Happy Match Café: Leveraging the ever-popular matching mechanics, this ASMR - Simulation holds strong, reflecting the genre's versatility.
  • Royal Match and Chrome Valley Customs: These titles confirm the undiminished appeal of swap-and-match mechanics in the puzzle realm.
  • Block Blast Adventure Master: With its tap-and-blast dynamic, this game illustrates the expanding canvas for puzzle mechanics beyond the traditional.
  • Classics like Candy Crush Saga and Tetris® continue their legacy, reminding us that well-executed simple controls and mechanics remain players' favorites.
  • Newcomers like Bubble Buzz: Win Real Cash draw attention to the 'Bubble Shooter' sub-genres potential, while AMAZE!!! merges swiping controls with maze-solving, hinting at the industry's room for innovation.
Top 100 Overall Grossing Games Chart Position

We’ve also looked into the top grossing puzzle game mechanics:

Top Grossing Puzzle Game Mechanics
  • Matching Mechanics: Predominant among top-grossing puzzle games, with a 29.6% share.
  • Word mechanics: Holding 14.8% of the chart, is the second biggest puzzle mechanics.
  • Other engaging mechanics such as Sorting, Bubble Shooter and Tap & Blast though less prevalent individually (7.4%), collectively contribute to the genre's diversity and success.

Sequential Games and their strategic depth

Thanks to the analytics from our data-centered platform Homa Lab, Homa's team was able to spotlight a genre that warrants special recognition for its unique blend of foresight and strategy: sequential puzzles. As a sub-genre of the broader logic puzzle family, sequential puzzles are gaining notable popularity. Many trendy titles within this category follow a hypercasual framework, attracting a wide audience with their accessible yet deep gameplay.

In today's gaming environment, often saturated with fast-paced and action-centric experiences, sequential puzzles are carving out a niche, progressively captivating the mobile gaming audience. These games are distinctive for their calibrated balance between challenge and reward. Spearheaded by innovators like Popcore GMBH, sequential puzzles encourage players to think ahead. Their rise in popularity signals an increasing appetite for games that engage the mind and require cognitive involvement. Players are increasingly drawn to the mental workout provided by these puzzles, reveling in the process of predicting and understanding the outcomes of their strategic choices.

Distinct from games that prioritize quick reflexes or random chance, sequential puzzles are about deliberate and calculated play. They offer a straightforward design, a feature synonymous with Popcore's acclaimed titles, which allows players to delve into a series of moves and strategies that lead to gratifying solutions, all while free from the interference of complex rules or intricate mechanics. The next section will discuss what are the key elements to consider when designing a sequential puzzle game.

Sequential puzzle game examples

Design Simplicity Meets Cognitive Engagement

These puzzle games, distilled to their core, depend heavily on marketable themes blended with simple mechanics. This minimalist design philosophy is evident in their visual and interactive components. The typical top-down or fixed third-person perspective (TPS) offers a clear vantage point for players, while the cartoonish or minimal art style ensures a distraction-free environment.

Controls in these games are intentionally simplistic, requiring just a tap or a slide, allowing the cognitive challenges to take center stage. These mechanics are pivotal for keeping players engaged without overwhelming them with too many actions or choices. The progress is in sequences of moves, often encapsulated by one simple "Catch" or "Constraint" that acts as the linchpin for the puzzle's logic. And, staying true to their uncluttered nature, these games usually feature simple or no active consumables within the levels, further emphasizing the puzzles' pure problem-solving elements over item-dependent progression.

In the image below, Homa’s game Open the Box stands as an example of sequential puzzle games.

Open the box sequential puzzle

What makes it a sequential puzzle game?

  • The game's core mechanic — tap to unfold boxes until all layers are revealed without overlapping pieces — is simple yet mentally stimulating.
  • Players engage in tactile exploration, rotating objects to discover hidden parts, enhancing their spatial reasoning and cognitive skills.
  • The main objective, to uncover the item inside the box and collect objects for room decoration, offers a tangible reward for the mental workout.
  • Designed with clarity and ease, the game imposes constraints, such as not allowing movement if parts overlap or if a sticker or tear strip is in the way, which adds depth to the gameplay.
  • With no consumables to distract or complicate the experience, OPEN THE BOX exemplifies the uncluttered nature of sequential puzzles that captivate players' minds and keep them returning for the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of problem-solving.

The rise of sequential puzzles represents an exciting shift towards games that not only entertain but are also intellectually stimulating. These games prove that a solid cognitive challenge can be as compelling as any dynamic adventure, inviting players to indulge in the joy of strategic planning.

Sequential Puzzles: Core elements

Now, let's delve into the broader scope of sequential puzzle games.

  • Evolving Gameplay

Sequential puzzles thrive on a mix of challenges. Memory, timed tasks, and a gradient of difficulty provide a complex tapestry for players to navigate. A map system further stitches levels together, offering a grander sense of adventure and progression.

Collectibles play a crucial role as well, transforming mere gameplay into a journey of gathering pieces that resonate with personal achievements and storytelling.

  • Meta Features - A Layer Deeper

Beyond the surface, the power of customization in sequential puzzles is crucial. Changing gameplay elements—like the background or core interface—allows players to imprint their personalities onto the game world.

It's not just about solving puzzles; it's about creating a space that reflects the player's identity. Additionally, collecting puzzle pieces to unlock premium features introduces a meta-game of acquisition and strategy, while in-game currencies and house-building features craft a home within the game, an ever-evolving reward for the player's dedication.

  • Monetisation - The Subtle Art

In terms of monetization, sequential puzzle games adopt a subtle approach. The focus is less on outright purchases and more on integrating the store into the game's world. Skins, accessories, and backgrounds that players can buy, sell, or trade become parts of the game's ecosystem.

This methodology doesn't disrupt the gameplay; it complements it, enhancing the experience and encouraging players to invest not just their time but their creativity. The monetization loops are directly tied to the thematic elements, ensuring that spending money feels like a natural extension of gameplay rather than an external requirement.

Sequential puzzle games represent an intricate blend of narrative, challenge, and personalization, and their monetization strategies reflect an understanding of player motivation that transcends mere profit, aiming instead to enrich the overall experience.

What to focus on when ideating sequential puzzle games?

The game ideation process for puzzles requires a focus on core mechanics that keep players returning, level design that rewards strategic thinking and sequential problem-solving, and satisfaction in both the journey and achievement of clearing levels.

  • Designing Stickiness: A core mechanic that resonates with your target audience is crucial. It should be easy to learn but hard to master, fostering a 'sticky' engagement where players feel compelled to return. Whether it's the tactile sensation of sliding tiles into place or the intellectual reward of cracking a particularly tough puzzle, the core gameplay loop must be intrinsically rewarding.

  • Sequential Strategy: Puzzle games shine in their ability to layer complexity through sequence. Each level acts as a chapter in a larger story, with the player as the protagonist navigating through challenges that grow with them. This sequential removal of obstacles not only advances the game but also instills a sense of progress and evolution in the player's skills.

  • The Reward Factor: Feeling rewarded is paramount. Clearing levels should trigger more than just a progression to the next stage; it should give a sense of accomplishment. This could be through in-game celebrations, unlockables, or even story revelations. The key is to make the moment of success as memorable as the journey to get there.

  • In-Depth Design Considerations: Delving into game design specifics, we look at challenges, level races, 'Gacha' style mechanics, and world-building.

  • Challenges: Introducing increasingly difficult levels keeps players engaged. These levels often require daily play or progression to unlock, which not only maintains interest but also habituates the player to return to the game.

  • Level Races: Adding a competitive edge, such as racing against other players to complete levels, introduces a social and competitive aspect to the game. This player vs. player (PvP) element can foster community and drive engagement as players strive not just to progress but to outdo one another.

  • Gacha Mechanics: Taking inspiration from 'Gacha' systems, random rewards add an element of chance and anticipation. By receiving randomized rewards from machines or events within the game, players experience the thrill of gambling without actual monetary risk, which can be highly engaging.

  • World Building: Lastly, the game environment itself is crucial. Creating intricate worlds or maps for players to explore adds depth to the gameplay. As players unlock new locations or build out areas like houses, they connect deeper to the game world. This not only serves as a visual reward but also as a marker of progression and personal investment in the game.

Homa's Take on the Art of Puzzle Games

In mobile gaming, the creation of puzzle games is an intricate mix of creativity and systematic thinking. As detailed in the article, the evolution of these games showcases the careful balance between lasting design principles and emerging trends that captivate players.

Homa stands at the forefront of arming developers with the necessary tools and data to craft successful games. The insights from Kevin and  Jorge, shared during their webinar, are a testament to the company's role in matching analytics with creative innovation.

With Homa Lab, game creators can access extensive analytics and community support, essential for transforming innovative concepts into engaging gaming experiences. Also, game devs can now use our AI-powered tool Game Idea Generator, to generate and explore innovative data-backed game ideas for all type of games, including puzzle.

For those interested in the complexities of game creation, the entire webinar by Homa Academy offers a deep dive into the strategies for puzzle game development, including sources of inspiration for ideas. If you’re already a Homa Lab user, you can access the entire PDF presentation inside Homa Academy. And if you’re not, we invite you to join!

Character Test
Guessing Game Over

Start building games with data, insight and tested hit potential built right in.