In this guest post, Eleven Puzzles Lead Game Designer Mairi Nolan shares how the team built communication into their latest release, Unsolved Case, and the importance of verbal interaction in the game.
Communication is a vital component of… well… everything – whether it’s communication between friends, building bridges across communities, or meeting a stranger for the first time. This is particularly true in the virtual world, where a person on the other side of the screen may be from any background, anywhere in the world. Whatever unites us as people, we’re better when we’re working together, and the world of video games is the perfect forum to connect people – and players – through powerful games.
At Eleven Puzzles, we recognize the importance of verbal communication in video games and have decided to make it a central component of our game design philosophy, especially when it comes to puzzle games. Cast your mind back to 2020, when the world plunged into a lockdown, leaving many people alone without their friends, family, or colleagues around them. With fewer in-person interactions, we wanted to give players a way to communicate with each other, despite physical distances.
From our start creating a series of browser-based games, we pivoted our skills into Unity, and, in 2022, released Unsolved Case, a free, two-player puzzle co-op game. Our second game built with Unity, Unboxing the Cryptic Killer, is due to launch later this year.
In both games, players take on the role of detectives, where each sleuth is given one side of a puzzle and must communicate verbally with the other in order to solve an evolving set of problems. Since every step of the game and every puzzle along the way requires collaboration, communication is an essential part of the games we’ve created. In this article, I’ll explore what this looks like, and why building verbal communication into our games is so important to us.
Let’s dive into Unsolved Case, where players discover the crucial role of verbal communication through the first puzzle, a broken walkie-talkie.
After loading Unsolved Case, each player is positioned as a detective on a mission to solve a cold case. The duo’s first task is to repair their broken walkie-talkies and establish a clear line of communication to crack the case. This step outlines rules for the rest of the game that follows, without the need for a lengthy instructions manual or a how-to guide, while also setting the tone for the puzzle adventure ahead.
We built communication into the heart of the puzzles by challenging players with out-of-the-box thinking. For example, there’s a maze that only one player can see their way through, cryptic objects whose contents only make sense to the other player, and puzzles where players must sort data in order to spot patterns. In each case, having only half of the puzzle is where the true challenge lies.
For any puzzle game, designing and developing for balance becomes the real challenge. A good partnership is built on the foundation of collaboration, so it’s important to ensure that both players have an equal and engaging role to play in the game. In Unsolved Case, both players are equally important and responsible for the outcome of each puzzle. To achieve this, we made sure each player has:
To do this, the tradeoff meant that our team had to build everything twice, once for each player. Each sees different visual assets, explores different environments, hears a different voiceover, and has a very different experience. For us as game developers, this meant twice the work and twice the playtesting – but we believe the extra effort was worth it.
One of the most valuable tools we used for building and testing this was ParrelSync, an open-source Unity Editor extension that allowed us to test the multiplayer gameplay without needing to build the project each time. With this extension, we’re able to view both player’s screens simultaneously and see how the puzzles interact with each other. We also used Odin Inspector to modify Unity Inspector so it could mimic player behavior while testing internally. For example, in Unsolved Case, we added buttons for one player to move a vehicle around the maze, in the inspector, so we could watch how this appeared on the other player’s screen.
Together, these tools have been useful not just for design and QA, but for the whole team. It’s effective to work in real time and be able to test and iterate as we go in order to ensure the overall experience is cohesive and, most importantly, fun.
Once we’d balanced the puzzles, the next challenge our developers overcame was the issue of how the gameplay would work when players described things differently. This is a common problem in co-op games, where one player’s description of a clue or an item can differ significantly from the other player’s perception.
To address this, we incorporated universal shapes and symbols that would be straightforward to describe – think squares, rectangles, circles, and, of course, numbers. Abstract, yes, but these forms are accessible to every player in every context, without the need for lengthy descriptions and complex language.
Using universal visual cues also helped with information overload. We know that players can quickly get overwhelmed if there are too many items within a level. To combat this, we limited the number of items that appeared on screen at any given time, making each easy to describe and clearly accessible from the start.
We also made sure that players didn’t have to search the environment for items, since all necessary information was presented on the screen in front of them. By doing this, we were able to keep players focused on the task at hand and avoid information overload, while still providing them with enough clues to solve the puzzle. The result was a more streamlined, enjoyable co-op puzzle experience that kept players engaged and working together towards a common goal.
With challenges for players came a very unique challenge for us game developers: The question of how to measure difficulty level. The average puzzle game is upfront about its difficulty level. Being able to clearly explain if a game is on the easier or more challenging side allows the marketing team to do their magic and attract the right audience: Is the game for escape room enthusiasts? Is the game more suitable for beginners?
Unsolved Case is not your average puzzle game. Communication is more than just important, it is quite literally the key to cracking the case. The difficulty of each puzzle hinges on the words spoken between players. Sharing details and clues is crucial for success, so quick thinkers who describe everything in detail will excel, and keeping information to yourself is a one-way ticket to a tough time.
What we observed from our playtesting was that no two players communicate to solve puzzles in exactly the same way, so we didn’t want to limit teams to communicating via just one communication style. In this way, teams can choose how they communicate – whether playing in the same room verbally, via instant messaging, or in a collaborative forum like Discord. Presently, we’re working on an integration with Voice and Text Chat (Vivox) in response to requests for an in-game communication system.
At Eleven Puzzles, we are passionate about creating games that are not only fun to play, but that also have a positive impact on the world. We believe that video games can be a force for good, and we’re committed to using our platform to promote positivity and inclusivity.
We hope that by building communication into the heart of Unsolved Case, Unboxing the Cryptic Killer, and all games we have planned for the future, we can encourage players to work together toward a common goal. We also hope that we’re able to inspire other game developers to consider designing positive communication into the heart of your games.
The puzzle game genre may be smaller than others, but those of us who develop games in this category have a unique opportunity to promote positivity and inclusivity in the gaming community.
Eleven Puzzle’s free two-player co-op puzzle game Unsolved Case is available on Android, iOS, and PC. The studio’s newest game, Unboxing the Cryptic Killer, launches soon. Check out more blogs from Made with Unity developers here.