Where Do Puzzles Come From?￼I’m an iOS and Mac OS game developer. My very (very) old claim-to-fame is that I wrote Eric’s Ultimate Solitaire for the Mac and the sample version shipped with every Mac up until Mac OS X came out. My new game, last year, was Eric’s Sudoku for iOS. After it shipped I brainstormed ideas for similar puzzles. Nothing I came up with seemed promising, though.￼I realized that high-quality puzzles that were hand-made, not randomly generated, would be ideal, have more character, and be so much more fun. There’s a lot of competition in the iOS App Store - I didn’t want another game with 1000 similar competing games! That’s when I knew I needed to find a professional puzzle game designer (or maybe two!).
But… where to find puzzle designers? It dawned on me that my favorite puzzles were found at the annual BGG.con Puzzle Hunt. If Aaron Weissblum and David Arnott could come up with creative, challenging, and funny puzzles each year then maybe they could help. I emailed Aaron and we started talking about our favorite games and more. We agreed to meet at the next BGG.con.
A Quick Chat
Aaron, Dave, and I met for a “quick” chat at BGG.con 2013. It lasted 3 ½ hours. We talked about our favorite games, ideas, and more. It was really fun and Aaron had lots of ideas. Here’s a picture of the inspiration for Noodle Doodle that he made while sitting in the "War Room" at the convention with Dave.￼
Aaron:I just started making crude sketches and telling Dave how many letters were in it.
As far as individual ideas, I started with things I already "knew" how to make a recognizable doodle of. Like a fish, for example. Dave came up with lots of puzzle ideas and sometimes did his own doodles. Adapting Dave's doodles to make them fit the look was pretty fun.
The single doodle that I put the most work into was the shower stall…David Arnott, Puzzle WranglerAaron Weissblum, Game Designer
The First Prototypes
At first Dave played in-person with Aaron at the convention (e.g.The snake above with the watch is a “TIMELY SNAKE”). I played with Aaron, via email, on my way to the airport.￼
Aaron made the next puzzles in Photoshop. He sent us specially-made files that had the answers hidden so we could reveal them for clues.
I got a playable iOS version working in a few days by reusing a lot of my existing Sudoku code. Our first design required the user to solve the puzzle by filling in all the missing letters correctly. It was an all or nothing experience. It was cumbersome but kind of fancy, with an insertion cursor so you could work on one word while leaving the other words alone. Instead of showing the entire alphabet we settled on 16 letters because they fit well in two rows and made the game easier.
Aaron identified an early, key problem: there was no sense of progress when solving a puzzle. It’s fun for players to see progress as they get closer to a solution, as there’s often that “Aha!” moment when they figure out the rest of the answer. So we moved from the “Guess the whole answer and see if you’re right” game mechanic to more of a Hangman-style one. Players tap a letter and if it’s in the puzzle, that letter is revealed. If not, the user loses a “Life.” Much simpler and easier-to-understand.
We didn’t originally call the user’s remaining guesses “Lives.” Originally, Aaron’s idea was to show the user’s remaining guesses with a long noodle image around the screen. It would get shorter as the player made incorrect guesses. I had existing code from Sudoku that referred to the user’s currency as “Coins” so we used that. It made sense since we were intending to sell hints to users, too. Players could spend Coins for hints to remove a bad letter or reveal part of the answer, or even skip a puzzle.
We talked, in detail, about charging and earning Coins. The goal was to have tension so players wouldn’t just guess too quickly, as they might get too mad to play more. We wanted it to feel fair. But if it was too easy they could just tap without being thoughtful and that wouldn’t reward experienced/careful play, and they’d rush through the content too fast. We settled on charging two Coins for a wrong answer. Solving a puzzle paid two Coins and a “Perfect” solve, with no mistakes, paid three. Ultimately, this simple system worked well with our test players and seemed solid.
We decided to simplify the game further and got rid of the hint items. Since players could always make progress towards a solution they weren’t necessary. But we found that players were confused about what the Coins were for. They didn’t even really notice they were losing them when they made a wrong guess. Dave came to an important realization –
“The reason people are confused (or uninterested) in the coins is because they're COINS. As in currency. As in... they don't get why the game even has coins.
But… If we called them LIVES instead, they'd understand it 100% from the get-go.
Because that’s really what they are, right? They're lives in the true time-clock sense. Remember Aaron's original idea was that you had a NOODLE that would wrap around the edge of the game, like a snake or a... well... noodle And that it would be in little segments. And every time you clicked a wrong letter, you'd lose a piece of your noodle. And when you ran out of your noodle, the game stopped... until you got some more noodle back.”￼
We never did give Aaron his noodle, but we did change to the idea of “Lives” instead of “Coins.” In addition I added extra animations and sound effects to really show the user when they lost a Life. Users were happier and understood what was going on.
What About Napkins?
Doodles and napkins… they go together like salt and pepper, right? I was pretty sure they did so I kept pushing for interface designs where the doodles appeared on napkins. I was pretty excited to fly those napkins around too. I like flying things around. We all put together layout and design ideas and I implemented a few (usually my favorites…) to try them.￼￼
The problem with the napkins, though, was that it killed us, space-wise. Aaron ultimately didn’t like the doodles being on the ridges of the napkin, and that made the doodles smaller. Without the ridges the napkin didn’t really look like a napkin. While Dave liked the thematic value of the napkin, he always felt the primary focus of the layout needed to be the doodles. We tried a lot of ideas and then Aaron came up with an idea for a flat & super-clean design. I was sold. It made things so clear and made the doodles the center of attention, too.
Oodles of Doodles!
Aaron drew and drew and redrew doodles. So many doodles. Here’s a glimpse of what Aaron’s desk looked like along the way.
What about Music and Sound Effects?
We hired Josh Darlington (aka Prince Charming) to come up with a Noodle Doodle theme and matching sound effects. Josh came up with fantastic music and sound effects for a pop culture game that Robb Vest and I did called PopFU! He was the first person I thought of when I knew we needed great audio for Noodle Doodle.Once Josh had played the prototype and had an idea of what kind of music we were interested in he got to work. He set me up with a dozen short music clips that could be randomly linked together, mixed and matched depending on the puzzle, keeping the music less repetitive. I loved the idea, and that some clips would fit with certain doodles was appealing, too. We did some experiments but weren’t able to smoothly transition between the clips. It would require more work than we had budgeted for so we went with just one full song for the game.￼
I’m still interested in using game music that’s played dynamically like that in the future. Music that responds to the player’s actions is cool.
Josh set me up with a big set of sound effects to go with doodle animations. I added silly and simple animations to reward the users when they solved each puzzle. So the Pandaroo jumps up and down and the jet plane flies across the screen, etc. Josh’s sound effects really sell the animations and make them more fun.
Can the Jet Land? Please?
I was so happy about the animations that I set them up to loop forever until the user tapped the button to go to the next puzzle. Aaron suggested, and then kept asking if we could have the animations stop after a second or two. I kept putting it off but eventually made the animations shorter, and then shorter again. He was right. Although the animations are fun, it’s a better experience to see them briefly and then have the puzzle return to normal. That way the user can see the doodle and the solution and survey their excellent puzzle-solving work.
Refining, Re-refining and I Love Google Docs
We used, and continue to use, Google Docs a lot while making Noodle Doodle. Centralizing saved us a lot of time. Aaron shared doodle images with us there and we kept all the puzzle info in a fancy spreadsheet. At Dave’s request I added some extra fields to show which letters each puzzle used in its answer.
Later, I learned how much Dave cares about the quality of puzzles. For each puzzle we would display the letters that are part of the solution and then the game would automatically fill in the others by randomly picking “Bad” letters. Dave asked if I could add a field in the spreadsheet where he could hand pick those “Bad” letters for some of the puzzles. I did, and then he proceeded to tune every puzzle. His attention to detail really shows.
It was easy for me to get the latest puzzle revisions and put them into the game. I could export the master puzzle list from Google Docs as a CSV (comma separated values) file and replace the old file. In our newer game prototypes the games just download their puzzles and info directly from Google Docs and the new puzzles just appear in the game. It’s much faster to iterate on the puzzles and try things out. I’m also always excited to fire up the game to see if Aaron and Dave have more puzzles ready.
In order to avoid any problems that might come from a Google doc being accessed a lot, all at once, when we ship the game we move those files to Amazon web services. While we’re in development it’s fantastic to be able to make those puzzle changes on-the-fly.
We launched the game on July 9th, 2014. I emailed Apple three weeks earlier with a three sentence message explaining the game, who we were, and included the gameplay video that’s here. I’d done this many times before and had never heard back from them. But this time, I actually heard back from them. The next day Apple featured Noodle Doodle as a “Best New Game” on iPad. Their email was so short that I wondered if my friends were playing a joke on me. We went from 200 downloads our first day to 3,000+ a day for the next week. It was fantastic to reach so many users so quickly.
Congratulations! Noodle Doodle is being featured under Best New Games!
Flappy Bird Millionaires?￼
It turns out that even though Apple featured Noodle Doodle we’re not, so far, App Store millionaires. We loved reaching so many users so quickly. We didn’t make $50,000 a day, though; more like $400/day for a week and then it plummeted down when the feature ended. We made $6,500 total in two months with 25,000 downloads. We all put in a lot of hours making the game and have definitely made less than minimum wage so far. It’s been making around $20/day now. Meanwhile, we’re super grateful for being featured and really happy with the great reviews and support from players. It’s fun to make people think and smile and make some money along the way, too.
We launched early in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, and the Philippines to gauge how things would go and see if there were any crazy problems before releasing to the rest of
the world. It seemed to go okay, but we reached so few users in those countries that there were some things we didn’t catch. But they came up all at once when the game was featured by Apple.1. It was really difficult for average users. We had balanced the game for players who were REALLY good at word games.
2. Players thought they could only get more Lives by paying money or watching ads. We didn’t communicate to players that they earned extra Lives over time, for free.
3. Players expected to lose one Life for a wrong answer, but we charged two Lives for a wrong answer. That wasn’t totally crazy sounding when they were called “Coins.” It turns out that losing two Lives at once is unexpected and made some players really angry. Months earlier, Dave had mentioned this might look weird to players, but the math looked like it worked well for game balance so we didn’t change it. Now we know the answer to that question was “YES, IT’S WEIRD!” We’re going to pay closer attention to Dave from now on.
When I went to change the game settings to fix this, I found out that the company we had partnered with had some issues in their latest SDK (Software Development Kit). Ugh. We didn’t catch it in testing and the result was that we had no way to update the game settings without submitting a new build to Apple. I had put so much time into using this solution, to solve the exact kinds of problems we ran into, but hadn’t caught this last minute SDK problem.
Lots of users ran out of Lives quickly. They didn’t know they could earn more Lives for free, and were frustrated and mad - at us. D’oh! I rushed out a build to address most of the problems but it took a week until Apple approved it. (This is normal – it usually takes 5-7 days for an app to be approved.) It was exciting to reach so many users and most of the reviews/ratings were great. But it was disappointing to read the reviews of the frustrated users and tough waiting for that new fixed build to arrive in the App Store.
The solutions to the problems were straightforward:Quote:• Changed the cost of a wrong answer to one Life instead of twoWhat’s Next?
• Increased the number of Lives awarded for watching an ad
• Increased the number of Lives included in the “Life packs” for sale
• Added an on-screen display to show when the next free Life would be awarded
• Added a news pop-up to make it easy to send out announcements
• Moved the game variables to our own more reliable server
We’re working on three or four more game ideas now and I swear a day doesn’t go by without another game idea from Aaron. It’s been super fun to work with Dave and Aaron and I’m excited to keep making more games together. Check out Noodle Doodle if you have an iOS device. (I’m working on an Android version...) And if you’re at BGG.con you should absolutely play in Aaron & Dave’s puzzle hunt. It’s awesome.
Download Noodle Doodle in the App Store here – It’s fun and free, for iOS.
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I will be attending GenCon 2013 and seeking interviews on iOS and digital board games and the like.
If you are a publisher/developer:
- We want to meet with you.
- You can book an appointment by geekmailing me or emailing brad(at)boardgamegeek.com
If you are a reader/game player:
- We need your help!
- We will be bound to miss something, so if you see something be sure to tweet or geekmail me about it.
- I want to meet you and hangout. Please say hello if you see me!
I hope to see you there and we will try to gather some great news!
- [+] Dice rolls