solving problems vs. solving puzzles

@Teila wrote:

This has stuck in my head and been rolling around for a while now, so I thought I'd bring it up for discussion.

Lots of games have you solving puzzles — some combination of levers that have to be activated in just the right way in order to get the door open (rather than the hail of arrows), etc. Solving problems is more rare, unless you consider every quest-dispenser to have a problem you're solving. But this doesn't really feel like solving a problem to me; the solution is already completely defined, and you're just implementing it.

I can imagine games with actual problems to figure out and solve. For example, maybe you run across an NPC drinking himself into oblivion, get him talking, and learn that he believes his wife is cheating on him. No quest is added to your journal, but if you try, you can find out who his wife is, investigate, and discover that she's doing no such thing, but is in fact sneaking off to learn a trade (I don't know, blacksmithing or something) but is afraid her husband won't approve. Then you go back and talk to the first NPC about all the benefits of being a dual-income family, and marital bliss is restored. You haven't really done much in the traditional sense (delivering goods, collecting squirrel pelts, etc.), but you've solved a problem.

( @Teila , is this the sort of thing you had in mind?)

But as I re-read that, it's not so different from quests found in many RPGs, except without a quest entry and marker. And, I suppose, without a reward of coins and XP at the end (but instead with the reward of a happier town, and new friends who perhaps will be able to do something for you someday).

Of course quest systems have evolved because otherwise, it's very easy to get lost in a sea of problems and obligations. You end up scribbling your to-do list and notes on paper, essentially doing the same thing but without any help from the game. It also requires players to slow down and really take the time to converse with NPCs, think about their problems and relationships, and come up with solutions — whereas many players really want to just run around and collect gold/gear/XP as quickly as possible (as leveling up is where they get their sense of accomplishment ). So a game like this would be a rather different sort of game, and require a different sort of player.

But now I'm rambling... what do you all think? How can games give players opportunities to solve problems (not puzzles), and what games have done this well?

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It's a good thought, but I think you should invest more time into thinking it through (more than you already did I mean).

I'd say any problem gets turned into a puzzle once you have the necessary tools to solve it.
Going from "oh god what do I do" to "how do I apply those tools to solve this".
It's a matter of analyzing the problem in detail, figuring out what you can do, what you can't do, and what you can't do right now but could become possible through some more work (a sub-problem!)

Isn't that what really makes the difference? Maybe you have a different opinion (and I'd like to hear it).

Now as for this NPC interaction stuff: In my personal opinion (keep that in mind) this is wayy to complicated and uninteresting. I don't want to talk to NPCs unless the game has thought me already that the dialogs are hilarious.
Anything else will be "hey, read the text someone in the studio wrote for this npc" (super boring).

It's not that I don't want to read text, it's that the text rarely makes a difference, so its not relevant to the game really.
But I'm not really the type of person who plays games for the story or to immerse myself in the world (I find that really difficult). I'm playing games for interesting mechanics and concepts, cool effects, exploring all the content that the developers put in (finding secrets etc).

So, question: what is the real difference between a puzzle and a problem? can you find more details and conditions that tell us if a given scenario is either a puzzle or a problem?

I posit that it is not possible to implement "problems" in games because that would mean the developers have not given you the needed tools (or they're not aware of them, which is 0/10 horrible design, ie "just let the player figure it out").
The devs must be aware of every possible way a quest can be solved and provide the tools (obviously). So in essence games can only contain puzzles, right?

First, rewards and meta-structures (quest log entries) can't be the criteria to define Problem solving. Thus we can pretty much ignore those aspects in discussing Problem solving.

I think your remark about "just implementing" a solution or actually solving a problem is interesting an spot-on.

I like to think of Problem solving as a three part endevour:
1. Assessing the Situation
2. Choosing a suitable tool
3. Sucessfully using the tool

Games can help the Player in or even take over any of those steps.

When thinking about games that are good example of Problem solving we should think about game that give a lot of freedom to the player in these areas.

The first game that come to my mind is Deus Ex (the original one; I'm not familiar with the other titles):
The game is full of obstacles to overcome, but relies on the Player to evaluate and identify the obstacles. Then the game offers a huge palete of Tools and the Player has to pick a subset that is suitable. Then, of Course there is often some amount of skill involved in actually implementing the solution. But the first two parts are where the game is really strong.
So, Deus Ex is an excellent example for a Problem solving game.

Another one would be Serpent in the Staglands:
In this game some challanges are in the dialogues. Why Serpent in the Staglands stands out to me in this depart is the fact that the game does not give the Player an indication how "correct" a specific Option is. Likewise the Player will not succeed with a simple rule like "always pick the nicest Option" or so. Instead the dialogues are structured in a way that the Player has to evaluate the Situation (the Speakers Disposition, the Players Goals) and then Show some rethoric skill in picking the right Option to drive the conversation in the desired direction.


God of War Series and even the very first Legend of Zelda often had puzzles to solve - that required the player to solve problems along the way. In both games the problems came in the form of using the correct tools/weapons to defeat enemies in order to progress further - in order to work on and solve the puzzles.

I'm not sure about this - I think with the examples mentioned above, well done action/adventure type games have commonly provided problems and puzzles to be solved at the same time. Possibly the problems you are thinking about are more overt but to be honest - if you don't have max hearts in LoZ when fighting the Darknuts - the player was pretty much screwed and couldn't progress through the dungeon (puzzle). The problem was getting to the room with the Darknuts without loosing any hearts.
I might be simplifying the differences between puzzles and problems - or possibly some damn good designers have provided actual gameplay examples of the differences that just make sense and can be broken down into essential elements that are easy to understand.

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It's the difference between finding a solution versus finding the solution.

A puzzle is only interested in asking the player how they solve it. Take any room in a Zelda dungeon, and you can break down the necessary skills and equipment the player has to demonstrate proficiency with.

A problem, while also asking the player how, is asking the player why. Consider a city building game where every action comes at a cost somewhere else. Why build farms for local consumption when using that land for export industries and importing food would be more cost efficient?

Both of these ostensibly are conflicts, but how both of them are experienced is rarely similar. A puzzle is more often than not going to tell the player to do X, and in the process of that they'll have to do Y to keep doing X. It's giving the player an end point to work toward. A problem gives you a starting point. A player should come to understand the conflict, understand the actions he can take, and choose a course of action that he agrees with.

Keep in mind these are also polar opposites in design philosophy. Puzzles can lean heavily on mastery as a core aesthetic, while problems are more expressive. Problems heavily favor systemic designs (and chances are most fully formed systems do emphasize problem solving), while puzzles benefit greatly from strongly groomed levels and mechanics.


If I'm not mistaken. A lot of JRPG had already did this before like Persona series ペルソナ / Sen no Kiseki 英雄伝説 閃の軌跡 and the game I'm just finished last month - Tokyo Xanadu 東亰ザナドゥ + Nights of Azure 2 よるのないくに 2 新月の花嫁.

For example in Persona 4 and Nights of Azure 2. Every chapter the game give you a limited of days to do anything you like before doomsday (Game Over)(Defeat the chapter boss to clear the doomsday countdown) including extra quests which is not related to the story but you gain some extra rewards after completing. Some NPC will start selling random items too each days so remember to check them out everyday. Maybe they might help you on something. You need to plan either you want to go leveling as priority, or collect materials first, or complete some quests first then use the quest rewards in order to make next move more easier, or just quickly defeat the dungeon boss first if you have guts then play the remaining days of the chapter like holidays. Is this the problem solving you are talking about?

Sometimes after you completing a quest. A new random quest will appear in a random location and you need to think if you really can complete this in time. If yes, do those rewards will help you on next journey? A careful planning strategy. Plus, sometimes you will accidentally unlocked a quests after talking to a NPC. That is secret quest. This type of quests appear in Persona series, Sen no Kiseki series and Tokyo Xanadu. For example after you completed some man's quest. He tell you in additional that his child recently come back home very lately and would like you to help him to investigate. No new quest was added during this conversation but he just inform you only. You go around the town and keep talking to some random people and you slowly found out clues about the boy and finally you found him and understand why he come back home so lately recently then unlocked a new secret quest. Before unlocking the secret quest, is this the problem solving you are talking about during the investigation for the boy?


@Teila%20,%20is%20this%20the%20sort%20of%20thing%20you%20had%20in%20mind?">quote=", post:1, topic:684433"

I had in mind a multiplayer game or MMO where players work together as a team to solve problems rather than simply be a party who kills stuff together.

Most of the discussion here has been about single player games. There are plenty of good single player games where you solve problems, either through collecting items and putting them together and solving mechanical problems like how to get across the river, or interviewing NPCs to figure out the solutions to more social/psychological problems. Those used to be much more popular in my


Grand Strategy games include a lot of problem solving, while little puzzle solving.

For example, take Crusader Kings II. Your kingdom's laws say the first born male will be the heir to your kingdom. Your first born though ends up being an imbecile lunatic that will probably destroy your kingdom if allowed to take power, plus you've discovered he fancy's your horse Glitterhoof as a lover. Your next oldest son is a genius homosexual, this will make it less likely he has his own sons but overall his stats are far preferred over the imbecile so you need to take action to see that your younger son takes power.

Do you try to change your kingdom's laws so your youngest son takes power? You'll have to check with your council to see if they would even approve of it, and then you run the risk of your wife birthing another imbecile who then takes power anyway. You could still move ahead though and simply throw your wife in prison, or plot to have her murdered, but that may make the members of your court unhappy with you.

You could make your imbecile son a commander of a small army and just throw him into hopeless battle after hopeless battle and cross your fingers he dies in combat... but how many of your people really need to die so that your hands in your son's death appear clean? You could throw him in prison on trumped up charges and then have him executed, but that could lead to revolts across your lands. You could wait until smallpox comes to your lands, refuse to close your castle gates, and just hope he catches it (along with other members of your court), and then refuse to allow your court physician to treat him. Could be risky, as you're old and might catch it yourself.

You could just allow the imbecile to take power and hope you can ride out his reign without your kingdom imploding.

Decisions decisions...

(yes everything above is actually in the game)


A few weeks ago I got Oxygen Not Included on sale. I kept it unplayed for a while, partly because I was busy and partly because I didn't expect it to be anything special.

Boy, was I wrong. I'm actually really glad I didn't start playing it two weeks ago, when I was finishing a thesis, or a week ago, when I was preparing a defense presentation. Because I absolutely would not have been able to focus.

Anyway. The game is basically a colony managing sim. You have several different gases you have to manage (carbon dioxide, chlorine, natural gas, oxygen, polluted oxygen, hydrogen), power sources, water sources, lots of stuff.

Anyway, there's a natural gas generator. I found a source of natural gas so I intended to use this generator. Unfortunately, however, the generator produces carbon dioxide.

Well, hmm. I guess I can deal with that. There are also carbon skimmers that pull carbon from the air (not replacing it with anything), so I figure I can use that to get rid of the produced CO2.

So I build my generator, and for a while everything's going great. After a short while, however, I get an "error" saying that the pressure in the cavern is too high for the gas to properly exhaust.

So how should I reduce the pressure in the cavern?

Answer: Don't. Instead, build a sealed room, place a carbon skimmer in the room to draw out carbon (thereby creating a vacuum), and then place the vent in that room.

I think that counts as problem-solving.


Apologies for the double post. But, to address the issue directly rather than with an anecdote, I think problem-solving in games requires two things.

  • A problem. Kind of obvious. But the experience has to present challenges to the player in some way. Maintain my lineage on the throne in Joe-Censored's case. Pump CO2 into a pressurized room in my case. "Go to the top of the tower" in Assassin's Creed 1 (that changed for pretty much every sequel). "Reach the good ending" in Steins;Gate's case.

  • Systems. This one is a bit more unique. You already mention that following a quest is kind of like problem solving, without the creative component (and often without the puzzle component nowadays). However, the thing that really allows a player to approach a challenge and find their own solution is of course systems which allow for varied gameplay. To describe it a bit better, the systems need to be able to interact with the area one has the problem in.

In Joe-Censored's example, all of those various mechanics the player can use are the systems, the tools.

In my case it's just what I described, the ability to build things and essentially simulate their real-world effect (I'm finding it difficult to describe in general terms, but I'm sure it's clear intuitively that the building tools present in the game allow you great freedom).

In Assassin's Creed, the climbing system combined with the placement of "climbable" locations on a tower formed the essence of the ability to "solve" that problem. You'll notice that I'm starting to strain to justify it in this case, which is somewhat related to the understanding that climbing a tower in AC 1 is only kind of problem solving. It is very simplistic.

And in Steins;Gate, I wouldn't call what the player does "problem-solving" at all. There's a somewhat systemic element that leads the player to their solution (the true ending), that being the cell phone email conversations, but it's completely scripted as far as the ending is concerned (you have to make 10 or so specific responses to trigger the flags).

To describe it in a sentence, I would say this: Problem-solving in games involves the player being presented with a challenge, then being given multiple tools which interact with the "problem area," which can then be used in various ways to complete the challenge.

You'll notice that the main examples which truly have problem-solving have little to no developer-driven "story" element to them. It's not impossible, but it seems difficult to have the focus on these robust systems which allow for such player control AND on authored content. One possible approach to this is to make the authored content more systemic, which is where some text adventures tend to lie along with a few visual novels (and is in part the focus of my thread about Dialogue here in Game Design).

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There is only one problem in all existence. This one problem masquerades as many problems, all seeming to be separate and different based on their form or appearance. Typically the problem presents an “illusion” that something is something it is not, or that the truth is obscured. Solving the problem always entails seeing through the illusion and recognizing it for what it is not for what it pretends to be. This applies to all puzzles and all problems. The only way puzzles may seem to differ from other problems is only in their form. Not seeing how to solve a Rubix cube is a puzzle/problem, finally “seeing” what you weren’t seeing before is the solution. Problems are always to do with perception being obscured by illusions. Learning not to believe the illusion and to see through it to the truth, provides the answer.