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  • Writer's pictureReza Hassanzadeh

The Secret to Designing Killer Levels in Puzzle Games

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Have you ever deleted a game from your phone because it was too hard, and your friend remove the same game because it was too easy? Or have you ever quit a game in the middle of playing because you felt that it was unfair?

These experiences are common and highlight a major challenge in the game and level design, particularly in linear progression games based on levels and puzzle games. Creating levels that challenge and engage players is a delicate balance, as what is too easy for one person may be too difficult for another.

As level designers, it’s our job to strike a balance between difficulty and fun, ensuring that players are always engaged and on the brink of frustration without crossing over into frustration territory. In this article, we’ll explore some of the best practices for level design in different types of puzzle games, such as word games, casual games, or logic puzzles, and delve into the importance of the difficulty score and how it is used to balance levels. We’ll also discuss the impact of level design on monetization and revenue, providing you with the knowledge you need to create engaging, challenging, and profitable puzzle games. So, let’s get started! Let me tell you a story about my experience with level design. A few years ago, I was the game designer and level designer for a word puzzle game for mobile devices. As a start-up founder, I had several roles, including product lead. I designed levels with hard words that I thought would challenge players and impress them when they successfully guessed them. However, I soon learned that this wasn’t the case.

During a big event in Tehran, I had the opportunity to meet our players in person and realized that the hard words were frustrating them. They were playing our game for relaxation and didn’t care about learning new words. On the other hand, when they got stuck on levels with simple words, like “hello,” they blamed themselves, not the game, and became more interested in the game.

From this experience, I learned the importance of designing levels that make players blame themselves, not the game. However, this is easier said than done, as levels that are too easy for some players can be too hard for others. The key is to keep players on an engagement curve and maintain a balanced level.

To achieve this, we introduced a difficulty score for each level based on the number of letters and frequency of usage of words. We used this score to create a curve for the levels, ensuring that they were properly balanced. We also used player behavior from previous levels to determine the difficulty of the next level, making it easier, harder, or the same.

The results of our efforts were impressive. Our word game, Kalamatic, now has great retention rates, with D1 at 50%, D7 at 35%, and D30 at 18%. Our playtime is also among the highest in word games, at 2500 seconds. This has a positive impact on monetization and LTV of the game, which is why we decided to bring our experience to the global market and create another hit word game.

In conclusion, level design is crucial to the success of puzzle games. By keeping players on an engagement curve and creating balanced levels, you can increase retention rates and playtime. By making players blame themselves and not the game, you can ensure that your game is both enjoyable and successful. Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn from your players — it can lead to great things!

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