February 2007 Archives

A Puzzlemaker's Dilemma

In the past ten years or so, I've participated in a LOT of puzzle events: 9 MS Puzzle Hunts, 5 Puzzle Days, 3 Puzzle Safaris, 1 Iron Puzzler, 6 full-length Games, 4 half-day Games, 1 SNAP and a couple other local walking hunts, at least 7 other treasure hunts at various places, and probably some things I'm forgetting. That body of experience has given me a certain adeptness at recognizing how a puzzle will deliver its final answer. Once upon a time, realizing that a message was in Braille or Semaphore was a deeply rewarding insight. Now it's second-nature. Any matrix with a 2x3 aspect ratio suggests Braille now, and any angular configuration screams Semaphore. Likewise with all the other standard encoding systems-- Morse, binary, ASCII, etc. It's old hat, and recognizing these schemes is second nature to most players of similar experience unless they're craftily obfuscated. Shinteki: Decathlon II had a particularly fresh encoding of 5-bit binary, mapping colors in national flags to the corresponding Olympic rings, and making that connection was satisfying. But that's the exception more than the rule these days.

This represents a big dilemma for puzzle event designers. The Game and Puzzle Hunt communities both have a core group of dedicated, experienced teams and a large field of less experienced ones. How do you create a satisfying event for both groups? How do you use the familiar language of puzzle encodings in a fresh enough way that it's challenging and satisfying for veterans while still approachable to newbies?

Innovation in puzzle design is one answer. But creating entirely new paradigms is hard, and a lot to ask of people who put together an event in their spare time. Perhaps the answer is to change what we think of as a puzzle. More physical manipulation puzzles, interactive locations, computerized challenges. Puzzles where you're given the answer in exchange for accomplishing a task. Maybe we need to shift out thinking away from the traditional paper-and-pencil puzzle mold.

Maybe there is no answer. Perhaps it's a natural life cycle and eventually veterans become so well-versed in the language of event puzzles that their interest in the entire genre dies, extinguished in a kind of puzzler's Carousel ("Renew! Renew!").

I'll be reflecting on these and other mysteries, particularly those of the ancient Maya, for the next two weeks on the sunny Yucatan peninsula.

Comments (3) | last by Ian, Feb 26, 8:39 PM


I am a philistine.

After wading knee-deep through the lavish praise being heaped upon Pedro Almodovar's Volver, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Either that, or I saw a completely different movie.

Volver is a movie in which nothing happens. Things are set up and then never paid off. The movie is all backstory and no story. It's a character study in which we're given no reason to care about the characters. It asks us to believe that grown adults, when faced with their mother who they thought had died four years earlier, would actually believe she's a ghost-- despite her physicality.

I spent much of the movie oscillating between abject confusion at the characters' behavior and impatient incredulity that none of the many promising plot threads were getting developed for a payoff.

Naturally, the gf loved it.

Comments (3) | last by Jack, Feb 20, 12:58 PM

Puzzle Hunt A

This weekend was the tenth Microsoft Puzzle Hunt (Puzzle Hunt A. A is 10 in hexadecimal. Oh, those crazy computer geeks!), the theme this time around being Atlantis (although the hunt was essentially unthemed, as aside from a beginning-, mid-, and closing-game skit, there was no Atlantean flavor anywhere in the body of the hunt). The puzzles were generally good, including some very nice metas and a nifty structure which, when assembled properly, caused a message to appear when quinoa was poured into it. The organizers did a fine job and produced a smooth, error-free event. Our team finished second, six minutes behind the winning team, with the third-place team a scant few minutes behind us.

Fifteen hours after the hunt began.

In fact, as I type this the hunt is still going on. I've had time to get a good night's sleep and eat a leisurely breakfast, and I'll be heading back to MS for the closing ceremonies in a few hours.

But I had a hard time getting to sleep last night, because I was a little depressed. Not because we finished second-- it was a close, good finish. In fact, throughout the hunt the top four teams kept flip-flopping positions, which is always more exciting than when a team pulls out to an unassailable lead. I was depressed because it was over so quickly.

The MS Puzzle Hunt used to be designed so that the winning team would finish in the late afternoon on Sunday. In truth, the first few hunts took things to the wire. Then things started to change. We reached the final meta of hunt five 8 hours before the event ended (and then banged our head against its inscrutable ambiguities for the next 7 hours and forty-five minutes). But nobody else was even close to us. When we ran hunt 6, the winning team was also far ahead of their closest competition, restoring the timestream early Sunday morning, but a few other teams also finished before the hunt was over. Hunt 7 had issues, and the winning team had to be pushed to the finish even as all the other teams were coming in for the wrap-up.

With PH8, hunt design took a turn for the easier. We won PH8 at 4:30 AM on Sunday morning (with other teams coming in throughout the day). The disappointment of finishing the hunt so soon was mitigated by the euphoria of, well, finishing the hunt so soon-- and by the superb quality of the hunt. We won PH9 around 11 AM, and that seemed about right to me. Other teams also finished before the 6 PM deadline, and we still got a full 24 hours of puzzle-solving in.

Fifteen hours, however, is just too short. I'm sure a lot of other teams will get to finish this hunt, which will be great for them. But it feels to me like we've reached the end of an era, and it saddens me.

I recognize the problem. The disparity between the top teams and the next tier continues to grow, which presents a genuine dilemma for hunt organizers. If they create a hunt that will keep top teams occupied for 24 hours or more, the rest of the pack will not get to experience the full event. It will continue to overwhelm the lower teams. Organizers don't want to spend time creating and testing puzzles that a small number of people will get to see. And the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few ("...or the one"). It's hard to argue with the notion that the right place to target is closer to the center (or right of center) of the bell curve. And so future hunts will likely continue to be shorter events for the top teams.

Top teams can shrug and say, "That's the way it is," adjusting their expectations. If I'd known it was to be a fifteen-hour event ahead of time, I'd have come into it with a different mind-set and reacted more favorably to its conclusion. Instead, I spent the past 15 months anticipating this event, and while it was qualitatively good, in the end if wound up being quantitatively less than I'd hoped for. To be fair, the organizers didn't expect it to be so short. Their playtests, with experienced solvers, bigger teams, and no loss of time for running around campus, still came up against the 6 PM deadline-- so even after streamlining further, we shattered their expectations. The timing of something like this is very hard to get right. The old-school philosophy was that if you make it hard, you can always make it easier on-the-fly by providing hints, but if you make it too easy there's nothing you do about it. That philosophy seems to have changed.

Perhaps the problem is that the top teams are just too good. Maybe we should just break ourselves up and form new teams with less experienced solvers. If the goal is to spend more time puzzling, that would probably do the trick. With fewer top players on the same team, each of them would also get to see and participate in more of the event's puzzles. But of course, people like to play with their friends, and they also like to play with people of comparable skill. If you're the superstar of your team, your experience of the hunt will change. You might spend most of your time helping other people instead of solving things yourself. You might get frustrated by slower progress. You might offend teammates by swooping in to help. Most of the people I'd want to play happen to be good puzzle solvers, and I suspect the same is true for many other top players. Breaking up the lead teams would just shuffle the top players around without leveling the playing field.

Am I in it to win it, or am I there to have fun? As long as the hunt remains a competition, I want to be on a competitive team (that's "competitive" in the sense of being of the same caliber as other top teams, not in the sense of being win-at-all-costs). The adrenaline rush of trying to outsolve other teams is one thing separating the hunt from a weekend with P and A Magazine. But I always want to be satisfied. I want to be materially involved in solving as many puzzles as possible. I want to collaborate with teammates and share the thrill of a great insight. I want to work through the night and rally the team at 4 AM to come together over a tough puzzle and push through the invisible wall. As the top teams become more experienced and adept, I want the event itself to grow with us and challenge us further.

But I'm not sure how that can happen. There are people like me who solve a Monday NY Times crossword in under 5 minutes (hell, there are people in the world who solve them in under two), and there are people who finish them in an hour. How do you accommodate both groups in the same event? How can you possibly slow a 5-minute solver down without being unjustly inscrutable, or speed a one-hour solver up without feeding him answers and taking away his fun? You could give the 5-minute solver Thursday-level clues, but now you're almost making two different puzzles, which of course takes much longer. Beginners could be given full instructions for every puzzle (which often come without any at all), or more hints.

The truth is, little is likely to change. This is only an issue for a fairly small percentage of players. The needs of the many. The real goal is to find simple, easily-made changes that create a better experience for the top teams while keeping the event accessible to the rest of the pack.

Comments (33) | last by LD, Feb 21, 12:33 PM

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