Last weekend I went to San Francisco to participate in Shinteki: Untamed, a 12-hour Game event. This was explicitly for teams for 4 players, and I joined three of my fellow players from Justice Unlimited so that Team Briny Deep could set sail once more.
I'd heard nothing but raves about the organizers' two previous efforts, the full-length Jackpot and the beginner-level Shinteki: Aquarius, so my expections for this event were high. Unfortunately they were not met. I enjoyed the experience, but there were a number of very easy ways its flaws could have been eliminated and the experience improved dramatically.
We-- and thirty other teams of four-- gave up a big part of a weekend to participate. Fundamental to these kinds of events is trusting the organizers to be fair and keep player entertainment as their top priority. We put ourselves in their hands. The expectation was that Big Fun would ensue.
The opening was great-- a team scramble within the San Francisco Zoo to match clues to animals and locate the letters affixed to their exhibits. We got to see sleeping elephants and hyperactive birds and unflappable chimps and many other forms of wildlife, if we were willing to pause in our frenzy and appreciate them.
Things started going downhill from there. The biggest problem with the event was that it required too much Googling. The next clue had only a moderate amount-- we ultimately needed to identify eight professional athletes from their team and uniform number. With no Wi-Fi access at the golf course where this was needed, we had to rely on friends and family we had standing by at home. We'd been pre-warned to have phone support lined up, and it was simple to define the search terms over the phone and get the desired results without putting those helpers to too much trouble. One could argue, however, that it was completely unnecessary.
At the start of the event each team was issued a Palm device. Upon receiving each clue, teams entered an ID string into the Palm to start the clock. After a predetermined amount of time (which could be different for each puzzle), an alarm would sound and a new hint would become available on the device. When teams solved a puzzle, they entered the solution into the Palm and were told where to go next. The device worked flawlessly-- the first device in three Games I've played in to do so. And it would have been trivial to add to the device the ability to enter search terms and get pre-canned responses. So entering "Chargers 12" would give the name of player 12 on the Chargers, if that was the right player to ask for. Any other Chargers query would get no response or, if they wanted to be thorough, the entire roster of the team could have been available. Presto-- no Google, and teams get the satisfaction of solving the entire puzzle themselves without having to call out to friends for help.
A later puzzle couldn't be de-Googled so easily. Unless you're at a music store, identifying sixteen audio tracks and matching them to album covers will entail quite a bit of internet search. Distributing that CD atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific coast was not a terribly bright idea. While the organizers verified that there was ample cell coverage at the location, they completely missed the point. The four of us in the van are the players. Our friends and family at home should be used only for emergencies. Being tied up on the phone and the computer for an hour is not only above and beyond the call of duty for them, but a real drag for us. It is Not Fun. Forcing friends to gather large quantities of data for us is nothing close to fun. A puzzle where that gathering of data represents 95% of the solving time and no real creative thought is required is Not Fun. Planting a red herring message within the data-- intended to steer teams away from useless information but worded poorly enough to itself seem potentially meaningful-- was not smart design. This puzzle should simply have been axed.
But the most frustrating design gaffe had nothing to do with Google. The puzzle was a hard-boiled detective story with some very odd turns of phrase. My first thought upon seeing it was that there were cryptic crossword-style clues embedded in the text. But the content of the story also alluded to Gilligan's Island, with a margin annotation calling attention to that reference as well as two other parts of the story. That strongly suggested some kind of TV theme to the puzzle, but it was a complete red herring-- one that had us sidetracked for a long time. The real puzzle was actually quite clever-- the string "Shinteki Untamed" was anagrammed in multiple different ways and embedded throughout the text, and counting words between these markers yielded values in the 1-26 range. And while I came close to the correct approach right out of the gate, there were so many red herrings in the puzzle that it took a few hints before we got there. And the hints themselves were vague enough to send us on entirely new wild goose chases. The first one, "Hint: unmake edits" seemed to reinforce my cryptic theory, since "unmake" is a cryptic signal for anagramming. Anagramming EDITS yields, among other things, DIETS-- and the text contained an explicit reference to Atkins. "Aha!," we thought, "we're looking for names of diets in the text." Argh!
This puzzle would have been brilliant if only it had contained some internal clues to steer solvers to the right path. Perhaps all it needed was a title of "Shinteki Untamed" or an anagram thereof, and the elimination of that dreadful Gilligan's Island blind alley. As it stood, it was highly improbable that any team would have the necessary "aha" to solve the puzzle unhinted. And a puzzle that a) requires hints to be solvable, and b) so ofuscates the correct path with false trails that it's impossible to zero in on the right approach has significant design problems.
The last puzzle our team saw was essentially a crossword involving a mix of common and obscure facts. All players were required to wear nametags in plain sight throughout the event, and each tag contained a "secret word" assigned to that team. During the game, players were constantly trying to spy and record other teams' secret words. These words were answers to many of the clues in this puzzle. Since teams were spread out from the get-go, nobody was able to collect them all-- so even the best spies still wound up with obscure facts that needed researching. Which meant more Googling over the phone. Let me reiterate this for posterity and for the benefit of future puzzlemakers:
Googling is not fun. Calling a friend and having them Google for you is even less so.
If your puzzle in a mobile event relies on internet search to be solvable, it needs to be redesigned. Find a better way. Limited Googling is more acceptable in a stationary puzzle event where players have high-speed internet access, but even there it should be used sparingly.
Some might consider the above to be nitpicky. On a charitable day I might agree, but I spoke to some teams for whom this was their first Game-like event who were very turned off by the same issues I mentioned above, and are disinclined to participate in future events as a result. My feelings are less extreme. Except. There was one design decision the organizers made which, independent of any other problems, is sufficiently and egregiously wrong-headed as to make me seriously reconsider whether I'd ever be willing to trust them with my time and money again.
At some point during the day, the top two teams were given a puzzle that was completely unsolvable-- not through an error in design, but by intent. It was specifically designed to offer many intriguing avenues of approach, but to have no actual solution. After some time bashing their heads against this wall, these teams got the hint that "You're overthinking it." After over an hour of this for the top team and forty minutes for the team close behind, the Palm informed them that their time on that puzzle was up and simply directed them to the next location. As a result of this boondoggle, one of those teams missed a clue they otherwise would have seen because they ran out of time. The organizers called this "The Demoralizer." Having claimed that Shinteki's challenges were mental, physical, and psychological, this was their psychological challenge-- to give the leading teams the taste of frustration that trailing teams often experience.
Ok, class-- all those who think this is Fun, raise your hands.
Torturing the players who paid you money for a challenging, yet ultimately fair puzzle experience is so fundamentally wrong-headed I don't even know where to begin. The key here is that players did in fact pay an entry fee to participate. What might-- and I strongly emphasize the word might-- be acceptable in an event run at no cost is unforgivable when you're charging me for the privilege. The players aren't there to entertain the organizers-- they're there to be entertained. Being intentionally demoralized does not qualify.
There were some very good puzzles in Untamed. I loved the nighttime sound-sensitive Braille puzzle that had multiple teams gathered atop a hilly clearing screaming into the night at the top of their lungs (apparently the neighbors loved it quite a bit less, as the police shut the place down not long after our team left). Another puzzle involving threading a series of characters along a Celtic braid pattern was very well clued internally and was therefore satisfying to solve. The locations we passed through were terrific-- we had some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, we walked among giant redwoods in Muir Woods, and enjoyed passages along the coastline. Our team was dressed as pirates and our van decked out in full buccaneer regalia, and the hearty "Yarrrrr!"s we dished and received from passers-by (players and bystanders alike) were tremendous fun.
People whose opinions I respect loved Shinteki: Aquarius. But after Untamed, I'm far less likely to shlep down to the Bay area for another 12-hour event. It's not just the distrust I've developed for the organizers. Around 6 or 7 PM, our team finally started firing on all thrusters. When time ran out at 10, we were just getting revved up. We could have gone a few more hours easily, and were eager to do so. I think I prefer the more epic 24-hour experience, even with the spanking that awaits around 5 or 6 AM.
I'd love to hear comments from other Shinteki players about their view of the event.