So, you want to be a ‘Puzzle Game Designer’?

Mairi Nolan
10 min readMay 19, 2023

I am a puzzle game designer. Yep, my family have no idea what that means.

“Is that jigsaws? I love jigsaws!” my grandma affectionately says across the dinner table every time it comes up in conversation. I don’t correct her. But for the sake of this article, I’d love to dive into the definition:

Wikipedia defines them as:

A puzzle is a game, problem, or toy that tests a person’s ingenuity or knowledge. In a puzzle, the solver is expected to put pieces together (or take them apart) in a logical way, in order to arrive at the correct or fun solution of the puzzle. There are different genres of puzzles, such as crossword puzzles, word-search puzzles, number puzzles, relational puzzles, and logic puzzles. The academic study of puzzles is called enigmatology.

The Oxford English dictionary calls puzzles: “a perplexing problem”

I like that one.

But from having done talks and been a mentor, I’m always surprised by how few graduates know about this niche, how to get into it, or what to focus on. It is for those people I write this article. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question: “How do you get into the industry” or “I want to be a puzzle designer, where should I get started?”. This is for you!

There are many different traditional, and less traditional routes to becoming a ‘puzzle designer’, and even more debates raging as to what exactly is a puzzle designer and who gets to call themselves one (spoiler alert, if you design puzzles, even if it’s on the back of a napkin and never show anyone then ta-da, you are a puzzle designer!)

Danger in the Deep, a Play at Home Escape Room by Professor Puzzle

‘Puzzle Design’ Jobs & How to Get Them

When someone says they are a ‘puzzle designer’, they might just be talking about one of the following ‘traditional’ roles. Of course, they might not be — but if you’re just starting out in your career and wondering where to specialise, the following distinctions might be useful!​

Escape Room Designer

Escape Room Designers​ are people involved in the creation of physical, in-person escape rooms. This is everything from the physical construction of an escape room, to designing the player gameplay flow — how and when will they discover clues, or writing the narrative of a room or programming the technical props.

​Many people get into escape room design by starting work at an escape room (typically as a GM), or by opening up their own escape rooms. However, it’s also possible to move into escape room design from another industry, or to begin your career by working with an escape room supplier.​

Useful Degrees: Set Design, Stage Design, Theatre Design, Game Design, Interactive Entertainment.​

Average Salary: Unknown (too variable by region to comment!)

Video Game Designer

A popular route, and perhaps the one with the clearest ‘career path’ is to go into video game design. Due to the seniority of the industry, video game design has been around as a viable career path since at least the 1980s — long before I was even born!​

Game designers who specialise in puzzle games typically fall into the categories of: Level Designer, Content Designer, or Narrative Designer. Aspiring game designers may also wish to consider which medium they’d like to create in, be it virtual reality, mixed reality, point-and-click, first person. Which engine a game is built in also plays a part, such as Unity, or Unreal Engine.​

A common route into video game design is to begin with an internship, or begin in QA. However, many game studios specialise in puzzle games, and as such puzzle designers are in high demand.​

Useful Degrees: Game Design, Video Game Programming, Computer Science, Computer Animation, Interactive Entertainment.​

Average Salary: Variable! Check out this spreadsheet.

Tabletop Game Designer

Tabletop, or board game design, is another industry which has been around for donkey’s years. In fact, probably since around 2,400 BC. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that puzzle board games, or even “escape room board games” (think Unlock! and Exit: The Game) became as popular as they are.​

Few board game publishers employ full time designers. A more traditional route is to create your own games then pitch them to publishers, similar to the book publishing industry. That’s not to say it never happens, but tabletop design is a competitive industry, so it’s a good idea to brush up on your portfolio!​

Useful Degrees: Game Design, Game Development, Graphic Design, Computer Science, Business.​

Average Salary: $42,000-$113,000 (Source: My Kind of Meeple / Glassdoor)

Creating a Portfolio

For some organisations, a portfolio will count for more than past experience. Especially if you’re applying to a newer niche, like escape room design (remember, escape rooms have only been around since about 2007!)

A portfolio is used to:​

  • Show that you understand the process of puzzle or game design
  • Showcase your skills in a team, solo, or leadership environment in a particular tool, medium, or programming language
  • Show what makes you unique and what value you’ll bring to that company​

What to put in your portfolio, and why:​

  • Easy Navigation — Make sure the person reading your portfolio can find what they’re looking for!
  • At least 1 well documented project in which you played a significant role. This could be commercial, or personal!

Talk about the game design process:

  • What tools did you use?
  • What challenges did you face?
  • What decisions did you make?
  • How did this fit the brief?
  • Include marketing materials
  • ​Videos, Screenshots
  • How many copies has the game sold?
  • What nice things have people said about it?
  • At least 1 link, a demo, or a downloadable puzzle or game — Don’t tell, show! So you’ve made a puzzle, or a game? Show it off.
  • Your CV — Even if it’s not strictly relevant, every good portfolio should include a CV (or resume, for my readers across the pond)! In this day and age, your LinkedIn profile could double as this, but it’s handy to have a downloadable one too.​
  • Most Importantly: Contact Information!​​

As a final note:

Make sure whatever you include in your portfolio you have permission to use.

There’s nothing worse than having your hands tied by an NDA, believe me, some of my favourite ever (and biggest name) projects I can’t talk about because I don’t have permission to.

If you don’t have permission to use a specific project, what you can do instead is use what you learned on that project to apply to a personal project. That way, you still get to showcase the same skills, but don’t land in any hot water.

Cogito, ergo sum

Or in English: I think, therefore I am.

Whilst all of the above ‘traditional career routes’ are fantastic things to aim for (especially if you’re looking for a permanent, full time position somewhere), the real ‘best way’ to become a puzzle designer is quite simple:

Just design puzzles!

I’m a big believer that you don’t need a fancy degree, accolades, or even a job title to call yourself a puzzle designer. There are no requirements you have to go through, or boxes you have to tick before you can call yourself one, you can get started right now. Yep, seriously. Right this second.​

Puzzle Design Tools

Every project starts somewhere! Use these tools to get started…​

Ideas

Codes & Ciphers

  • dCode — a collection of over 800 tools to help solve games, riddles, ciphers, mathematics, puzzles, and so on. It’s probably my most used website on the whole internet.​
  • Rubber Band Code — Does what it says on the tin​

Logic Puzzle Makers & Solvers

Word Puzzles

  • Nutrimatic — Matches patterns against a dictionary of words and phrases mined from Wikipedia.
  • Rebus Generator — Generate any rebus puzzle​
  • Jumble Finder — Find jumbled words in strings of text.​ Great for writing (and solving) cryptic crosswords and ARGs.​

Cool things that don’t really fit into my other headings

Master Lists of Puzzles & Tools

Puzzle Design Communities and Events​

It’s dangerous to go alone! Here, join these…

Platforms to Design Digital Puzzle Games

So, you’ve got your tools, and you’ve joined the communities. Now what?

  • Telescape — Originally created as a tool for ​escape rooms to digitise their physical spaces, Telescape is now used by puzzle designers from all fields, including in universities. No coding knowledge is required.
  • Flowlab.io — A game studio in your browser, Flowlab is an easy to learn visual logic builder that doesn’t require programming.​
  • Unity Tutorials — Getting started learning something like Unity is actually a lot easier than it sounds. They have a fantastic library of tutorials here.​
  • Game Maker Studio Tutorials — As above, but if you want something slightly more user friendly than Unity, try Game Maker Studio.​
  • Escape Simulator Workshop — The escape room video game ‘Escape Simulator’ has an in-game workshop to design your own escape rooms. Furthermore, ​Pine Studio regularly hosts ‘build-a-thon’ events, offering prizes for community favourite escape rooms.
  • Game Builder Garage on Nintendo Switch — Game Builder Garage is another game which allows you to create your own games within it, including extensive tutorials on puzzle games.
  • Minecraft — Yeah, I’m really putting Minecraft on this list. It’s free to use and some of my absolute favourite puzzle games ever have been built with it. It’s an amazing tool, with an amazing community.​
  • VRChat — So I’m a big fan of VRChat, and I’ve used this tutorial to create plenty of puzzle games and escape rooms over the years. If you want to try something in VR, I highly recommend it.​​

Joining a Game Jam

Once you’ve got the hang of this whole ‘puzzle design’ thing, it’s time to put your skills to the test. Game Jams bring people from different backgrounds together to build games from scratch. The best part? They’re great fun and invaluable networking.

Puzzle Specific

  • Escape Jam LA — I don’t know if this one is still active but I wanted to include it as an example of how to do an escape room game jam right!​

How to get Funding for your Puzzle Game

Maybe you have a finished game, or maybe it’s just an idea? Here’s some ways you can secure funding for your project.

Further Reading

Here’s what the experts think…

​​Alastair Aitchison:

Johnathan Blow & Marc Ten Boch: Designing the Universe

Richard Burns: Tasks Help Players Connect with Characters in Escape Rooms

Josh Bycer: The Philosophy of Puzzle Design

Liz Cable:

Adam Clare: Escape the Game: How to make puzzle and escape rooms

Daniel Cook: A practical definition of innovation in game design

Haley ER Cooper:

Joel Couture: Pursuing the “Aha!” moment with deductive reasoning game The Case of the Golden Idol

Marsh Davies: Designing a good puzzle game is hard

Errol Elumir:

Mink Ette: Escape Room Puzzles Lecture

Ira Fay: Well Played

Game Maker’s Toolkit Puzzle Design Playlist

Elyot Grant: 30 Puzzle Design Lessons, Extended Director’s Cut

Laura E. Hall:

Tom Hermans: How to make a good puzzle

Ellyssa Kroski: Escape Rooms and Other Immersive Experiences in the Library

Jesse McGatha: Ten Secrets of Interactive Event Design

Scott Nicholson: Ask Why: Creating a Better Player Experience through Environmental Storytelling and Consistency in Escape Room Design

Mairi Nolan: Building communication into the heart of a puzzle game

Rita Orlov:

Rachel Pendergrass: How to Send Your Most Dedicated Audience Members On A Puzzle-filled Quest!

Alex Rosenthal: The joyful, perplexing world of puzzle hunts

Toni Sala: Game Theory Applied: the puzzle of designing a puzzle game

Scarpia: Application of Puzzle Theory

David Spira:

Matthew Stein: How to Build a Multiplayer Web App [Code Lab with Mad Genius Escapes]

Manda Whitney:

David Wilson: Introduction to Writing Good Puzzle Hunt Puzzles

That’s all for now!

There’s one thing left to do, and that’s go out there and make good puzzles.

This ‘article’ was originally published as a living, breathing document I edit whenever I find new resources on my portfolio here.​ If anybody has any questions or concerns, I can be reached by email or DM!

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