After about a year to observe the Grand Crafting Puzzle Project where numerous designs have been proposed, refined, put together in play-test versions, further refined, and finally submitted for consideration from the developers, I believe I have finally reached the point where I am able to give some critical consideration to not just what makes a good puzzle design, but what makes a good Puzzle Pirates puzzle design.
What separates Puzzle Pirates from puzzle game collection sites is the degree of immersion. Every major activity has a puzzle, and every puzzle has a defined activity. As a standalone game, a puzzle may be or do anything. It does not need to represent anything at all. Indeed, some of the most invigorating puzzle games I have played are little more than a manipulation of lights and sounds with no connection to the world we inhabit.
Likewise, other MMORPGs may have similar activities, but rarely is every instance going to be defined by playing a game within the game. (Very often, when a friend or acquaintance has espoused the virtues of another game, I silently ask "What is it that you do when you fight something else?")
The critical point for Puzzle Pirates is the analogy of the puzzle. Every puzzle has elements to represent the activity it implies. The degree may vary significantly, from gunnery's nearly accurate depiction of the activity process to the subtle presence of the elements of wind, water, and rope in the sailing puzzle.
Within the crafting puzzles, the importance of the analogy is perhaps even stronger than in the rest of the game. Because the crafting puzzles are for a distinctly material activity, the sense of manipulating the components of the craft to make a finished product needs to be there. Because these puzzles are often intended to be more relaxing, the player will often have the chance to observe the analogy more easily and more critically.
Because of this, the analogy for a crafting puzzle must be quite strong to retain the sense of world. We could not, for instance, make a Tetris clone where the pieces were cloth cut-outs and call it tailoring. Well, we could, and it may make a fun puzzle, but it would not be a good tailoring puzzle. There is a need for the analogies to step further.
However, these are analogies, not simulations. I remember early on in the GCPP there were some designs submitted that seemed to cover the activity in question quite well. They were often quite elaborate, however upon a deeper consideration the question of what the puzzle elements would come forth. Despite mimicking the activity well, the designs were not true puzzles, but simulations. Within the context of a puzzle game they would not have worked.
Striking the balance in the analogy can be quite difficult. Go too far towards a simulation, and the puzzle aspect is lost, go too generic, and the feeling world placement is lost. I am not sure every puzzle within Puzzle Pirates have done the analogy perfectly, but they all do it rather well. As within the narrower context of the GCPP, so is it with the design of the game overall. There is a learning process for what does and does not work.
If this post is an overview of the style of design, next time I shall try to delve into the substance: the mechanics of design.