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Jigsaws vs RPGs

Die construction What, if anything, do jigsaw puzzles and computer role-playing games have in common? They both consist of a large pool of rewards.

I become increasingly interested in the parallels between different forms of games, especially between classic game styles and videogames, and the jigsaw puzzle is an interesting case. While many people reading this (being effectively addicted to videogames) have probably not played a jigsaw puzzle since childhood, my wife and I tackle a jigsaw together once or twice each year. Our approaches to the problem are complimentary, since I attack it as a giant search problem (locating pieces in respect of where the details match the picture on the box) while she views it as an experimental exercise (approximating a piece's location by colour, and then using trial and error to fit it).

While the play mechanics of jigsaws have nothing in common with a cRPG, the two forms of play are related by their reward structures. Computer role-playing games all contain a set of progress mechanics which deliver rewards e.g. levelling up to gain points to assign for advantages, acquiring new equipment to gain advantages and completing side quests which unlock further advantages. A typical cRPG will contain somewhere between 500 and 1,000 rewards (say 50 levels, 500+ items of equipment, 50+ side quests).

Jigsaws typically come in either 500 piece or 1,000 piece versions, and when solving a jigsaw puzzle each piece is a small reward. Initially, the edge pieces can be singled out allowing for rapid progress at the start (like a cRPG) after which a biting point is hit as the main body of the picture must be addressed. Progress is then slow in the second phase but accelerates towards the end of the puzzle as both the number of remaining pieces and the available slots to receive them decreases. This last observation is distinct from the end of a cRPG which invariably terminates with a boss – a super-hard finishing point – while the jigsaw finishes on an exciting rush to the finish.

Neurobiologically, the jigsaw pieces become more rewarding as the puzzle progresses because the released dopamine (the body's reward chemical) comes from effectively two sources – the small hit for the reward of fitting a piece (which can be increased if the player has been searching for a particular piece for ages), plus another small hit for the anticipation of future reward i.e. the next piece or, in the endgame, the end of the puzzle.

The cRPG also becomes more rewarding as the game progresses because the opportunity for rewards expands as the world expands, and like the jigsaw there are two sources of dopamine – achieving the rewards, and anticipating the future rewards (which may, depending on the players preferred play styles, increase as the end of the game becomes closer). The structure of the game – being both the way the game is organised and the way that rewards are delivered – is such that the player is effectively drawing from a pool of rewards (500-1000, say) until they are finished.

There may be a less clear end point than the jigsaw puzzle in terms of the available rewards, but the cRPG compensates with a boss which is intended to be the final reward. This, on the whole, may be a design error – since the boss rewards only one style of play, players who don't fit the Conqueror play style (or possibly Achiever) may suffer. Many, my player studies suggest, just give up at this point. (I can't help but wonder if it would be possible to design a cRPG which ended with the same frantic rush to finish as a jigsaw, instead of a boss, and I believe not only that it should be, but that this is how a mass market "casual" cRPG would be best structured).

Thus I conclude that there are structural parallels between the jigsaw puzzle and the cRPG – more so than between the jigsaw and other kinds of videogame. However, the two have nothing like the same play mechanics – in this regard, the jigsaw is closer in spirit to the hidden object game, which draws upon very similar skills. The RPG structure – the pool of rewards – is robust and addictive, and enjoys increasing commercial success as structural elements from RPGs appear in more and more genres with each passing year.

Do you play jigsaw puzzles? Please share your perspective on why you enjoy them in the comments.


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I haven't played a jigsaw in at least one decade, but when I remember correctly it was much more about social interaction than the thrill of completing sections, and I wouldn't compare it to a typical cRPG experience at all.

And btw I've never liked the idea of having boss encounters. And in most cases they are horribly designed, often even disabling game mechanics you relied on before.

Jigsaws and cRPGs also have something else in common: You're going to complete them both, eventually.

I play both, and it's an ongoing project for me to find something that encapsulates the jigsaw 'feeling' on a computer; Certainly not hidden object games, which drive me up the wall with their pointless tedium.

Ooh! Provoked thought! The closest so far actually is an adventure-cRPG. Each section of the puzzle is a quest, and pieces are the plot snippets revealed. Tackling several quests simultaneously throws up pieces, which slot into (ideally more than one) ongoing quest. When a quest is solved, it produces a similar feeling to completing a section of jigsaw puzzle.

For me, the game is over when all the plots/quests and sub-plots/side-quests are neatly resolved. There's nothing worse than getting to the end of the main quest, and having several 'holes' remaining in the sub-plots.
Plot and revelation are also the terms in which I define advancement, not levels and equipment.

This makes Fallout 3 An Excellence.

Dirk: it's interesting you flag the social aspect of jigsaws; while I don't doubt a jigsaw does support this kind of play, when my wife and I play at jigsaws it is anything of the kind! In fact, we hoard our pieces jealously and are faintly miffed when the other places a piece we were hoping to find ourselves. ;) And it's not that we don't co-operate in other games, as my we love to work as a team in PixelJunk Eden and Monsters (for instance).

Also, I think it's important to remember that I'm talking about the *structure* and not the whole experience of RPGs in this comparison.

As for bosses, yes, I share your experience in this regard - I still can't believe the final boss in Turok 2 is immune to the mega-weapon you get shortly before meeting it (rendering the mega-weapon wholly pointless).

I'm not against them in toto, but a serious rethink of how they are used would be a good idea at this point.

Andy: "Jigsaws and cRPGs also have something else in common: You're going to complete them both, eventually."

It's a fair point. Although a bad save could strand you in some cRPGs... the equivalent of losing a jigsaw piece, perhaps. ;)

As for the adventure-RPG as a correlate to the jigsaw - this is an interesting perspective! There is indeed something of a find-what-goes-where vibe in such a game that does have an air of jigsaw about it.

Thanks for the comments!

I would agree with the reward structure, to a degree. Except that I find Jigsaws dangerously tedious (even while experiencing the rewards, and to a small degree the addiction) while I tend to find RPGs less rewarding but far more attention consuming.

My wife likes Jigsaws, and our play styles tend to compliment each other. She will hunt for piece types (edge, colour, pattern, shape) and assemble sections by carefully looking for matches or trial and error depending on the amount of time spent on the area and the similarity of neighbouring pieces. When frustrated, she calls on my intuitive knack for pattern-matching to place pieces or hunt out ones she has missed.

I will occasionally add unsolicited help, but not for very long. I find that the rewards diminish quickly when they are too repetitive. Which is why I like the hit from matching a difficult piece out of the blue.

An RPG without a final boss? Ever the heretic, I see ;) they're one of the best parts!

I haven't touched a jigsaw since I was like 5. All I remember is the ridiculous 2000 piece ones with the microscopic pieces being so daunting it made me sad :(

The social factor is a good point though, I mean, who would actually play a jigsaw alone just for the sake of the jigsaw itself? Seriously. That's right, just about nobody. So maybe it's more similar to MMORPGs?

"Jigsaws and cRPGs also have something else in common: You're going to complete them both, eventually."

That's true for all games though, not just RPGs. You're going to complete any game, eventually, unless you stop. Just like a jigsaw.

Also, if your mega weapon worked on bosses then they wouldn't be any fun. They'd just be one big disappointment. Take Final Fantasy VII for instance (a criminally easy game). You can beat the final boss in 2 hits because all mega weapons are fair game. That's not very fun. Funny, sure, but not fun.

Duncan: thanks for your account here! Definitely interested in people's accounts of playing jigsaws from a point of view of comparison. I like the characterisation of "dangerously tedious"! :)

Sirc: I'm not saying all cRPGs should do without bosses, but please, could we have one that tries it without bosses as an experiment? There might be interesting new mechanics to be found! :p

"That's true for all games though, not just RPGs. You're going to complete any game, eventually, unless you stop. Just like a jigsaw."

Well it's not true in the spirit that the point was raised, is it? For a start (A) not all games have an end and more importantly (B) the point here is that there is no proposed barrier of *skill* in either the jigsaw or the cRPG i.e. no challenge that you might be physiologically/pragmatically unable to complete.

Case in point, imagine an 70 year old player who was taught to play Pokemon, say. They could muddle through the cRPG (or the jigsaw, dexterity not withstanding!) given sufficient time. But you wouldn't seriously expect such a player to finish, say, Zuma or Call of Duty Modern Warfare, would you? The reflex requirements are just too high, not to mention the control complexity in the case of CoD. Similarly, an old school text adventure will not be solved simply by investing additional time - you are required to solve puzzles, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to do so.

This, I believe, was the point being made. Both a jigsaw and a cRPG fall to patience i.e. continued investment of time; but many videogames produce barriers of skill which *not* all players are going to be able to pass, and thus it is not simply the case that continuing to invest time will eventually result in a victory.


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