Puzzle Master’s Big Challenge: Keeping Pandora’s Box Simple

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 11, 1999 — Alexey Pajitnov knows what it takes to challenge the most hard-core puzzle players in the world. A Russian mathematician-turned-Microsoft game designer, Pajitnov created the puzzle game Tetris, regarded as the most successful computer game ever.

Not satisfied with that claim to fame, Pajitnov is seeking to draw an even wider audience to puzzle games with Pandora’s Box, a collection of 10 visually oriented puzzles that are easy to learn yet progressively challenging. The game retails for $34.95 and arrived in stores this month.

“Everybody likes puzzles, but they are scared a little bit that it’s like something from school,” said Pajitnov, lead designer of Pandora’s Box. “The idea is to make it so simple and accessible and good that everybody would be interested. I try to eliminate the complexity and just give the pure joy.”

As players proceed through the game, they travel around the world pursuing seven mythical tricksters who have escaped from Pandora’s Box. By solving puzzles created from images of famous artworks, players find the pieces to reassemble the box and recapture the tricksters.

Puzzles in Pandora’s Box are unlike typical word and logic puzzles in that they take advantage of computer technology to challenge players’ visual skills: recognition, observation, image composition, and spatial relationships. The idea is to provide a more relaxing challenge for those daunted by cerebral word or logic puzzles.

For Pajitnov, Pandora’s Box fulfills a goal of making puzzles something even the most casual player can enjoy.

Pajitnov joined Microsoft as a game designer in September 1996 to lead the development of a series of mind teasers and puzzle games. His first game for Microsoft, Mind Aerobics, is available on MSN’s Gaming Zone . He also worked on the CD-ROM Microsoft Entertainment Pack: The Puzzle Collection.

“Most Microsoft products are oriented to hard-core players, people who have particular interest in the more strategic games,” Pajitnov said. “I want my product to be in every house. That’s why I try to orient my puzzles for everybody, not just the traditional player.”

To scale down from complex word and logic puzzles, Pajitnov engaged his artistic sensibilities. He knew he wanted to make the puzzles in Pandora’s Box visual. “They are more appealing not to the heavy mind and logic, but to intuition and observation,” Pajitnov said.

Drawing on his experience creating visual puzzles for Mind Aerobics, Pajitnov developed 350 puzzle variations for Pandora’s Box. He searched catalogs of art images from all over the world, looking for interesting textures and colors.

Devising the puzzle types, the rules for how to solve them, and their configuration was the most interesting part of the design process, Pajitnov said. Simplifying the puzzles without making them trivial was more of a challenge.

“The most enjoyable thing is to do the hard configuration. You have more opportunity to show your stuff,” he said. For Pandora’s Box, Pajitnov started his designs at the medium- difficulty level and worked out from there. “That’s how I work,” he said. “And I spend lots of hours on it.”

To maintain player interest, Pajitnov and his team came up with a story that would pull players through the game. Writing just the right narrative proved a challenge.

“That was probably the hardest part of the project,” Pajitnov conceded.

Part of the problem was finding a story line simple enough that it would not detract from the puzzles themselves. Some early versions of the game feature stories that led players to believe they would be playing an action or adventure game. It was decided to keep the story light, simple, and straightforward.

“At the end, the pieces came together,” Pajitnov said.

Other lessons from the design of Pandora’s Box: Attracting casual users means keeping it simple and being willing to give up features that might impress more experienced players. Explanations on how to solve the different puzzles were abbreviated. Features that Pajitnov thought made the puzzles more challenging were nixed because they were too complicated.

“I lost feature after feature in order to simplify,” Pajitnov said, “but I know that’s my customer.”

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