January 2013 Archives

Mystery Hunt 2013

The first round of the Hunt can be found here, and the rest of the Hunt here.

There's a lot of chatter about this year's MIT Mystery Hunt, which was the longest one on record at 73 hours.  They usually begin on Friday morning and wrap up on Sunday afternoon after the coin has been found.  This year, the coin wasn't found until Monday afternoon, and even then only after aggressive hinting, wholesale distribution of puzzle answers, and reduction of endgame requirements.  This has led to much hand-wringing about the Hunt being broken and despondent posts from Hunt organizers who are taking the outcome and backlash very hard.

If you've never run a puzzle event like this, you may not realize the toll it takes on the organizers.  People who put Hunts together pour their hearts and souls into it.  They give up not only all of their free time for the year leading up to the event, but they sacrifice other things to create more free time they can throw onto the Hunt pyre as well.  It takes an enormous toll on friendships, families, work-- every aspect of your life.

I absolutely understand the depth of sacrifice involved in stepping up to make a Hunt happen.  And that understanding makes it all the more painful when fundamental decisions at the core of the event seem predestined to undermine all that work by making players unhappy.  And it all comes back to one thing: make it fun.

As an event creator, you're not there to show how clever you are.  You're not there to outwit the players.  You're not, I'd argue, even there to make things fair.  You're there to make things fun for the hundreds of people who are trusting you with their leisure time (and in some cases vacation time, plane fares, hotel fees, etc).  When you sign up to run an event like this, you're agreeing to provide fun.

A problem is that fun is not absolute.  There's no Unified Fun Theory that satisfies everyone.  A physical obstacle course might be tremendous fun for some people and loathsome to others.  Some people like manipulating numbers, while others like manipulating words.  Some people like to stand hip-deep in running water holding a pole for hours at a time, others like aligning pixels to be just right.  Nobody's going to get everything right for everybody.  So you need to try to maximize the fun for the most people.  Which means you make some assumptions, put some stakes in the ground, and try to hew to those guiding principles as you create your event.

And if those principles turn out to be wrong... your event's in trouble.

This happened with Puzzle Hunt 123.  I still believe there's a viable model in having teams self-sort into competitive or recreational divisions.  The impact of that division was too stark in 123-- an all-or-nothing switch that made people feel like pulling it was crying uncle and dropping out of the competition.  We did that because if you can get unlimited hints-- even answers to puzzles-- how do you score things fairly?  How can you maintain a competition when anyone can decide to just get all the answers at will?  We prioritized fairness.  Our players prioritized competition.  The feeling of contending for something, of jockeying for position on the leaderboards, was an essential element of the fun for them.  Without it, they had no motivation.  Had we thrown fairness to the winds and just moved teams from one leaderboard to another, instead of dropping them from the leaderboard entirely, I think teams would have been perfectly fine with that.  So what if there would have been no way to tell the difference between a team that solved a puzzle on their own and one that got hinted all the way through it?  The teams' own pride at wanting to solve without hints would probably have provided all the regulation we needed.  Maybe we could have reduced the value of a puzzle a token amount for taking a hint.  There were any number of things we could have done.  But our assumption-- that people wanted to see puzzles and be unblocked more than they wanted to compete-- was wrong.  People wanted both.  And since we weren't aligned with our players, our event had trouble.

The Hunt this year was too hard.  That manifested in many ways.  There were too many puzzles to solve in the time allotted.  The puzzles got unlocked too quickly, by a failsafe timer rather than team achievement, so that teams were flooded with puzzles (making it hard to focus on what you had).  Many puzzles went one, two, or a few dozen steps too far, overstaying their welcome.

Here's an example of the latter case.  The idea of a fractal wordsearch is interesting.  Solving it through one or two levels is fun.  Solving it through three or four is pushing it.  Going WAY beyond that, beyond even the ability of most computers to solve the problem in the allotted time without superior programming skill, it going way beyond the fun.  There were probably a few people at the Hunt for whom writing an efficient fractal wordsearch solver was an enormously fun challenge.  But I think it's reasonable to assume that such a person won't be found on many teams, and therefore many teams won't find that puzzle fun.  Moreover, teams will probably expend quite a bit of work on the puzzle before getting to the point where they realize the need for a programming solution, and abandoning all of that work is a bitter pill.  Including such a puzzle in the hunt, therefore, sets your players up for unhappiness and un-fun.

Another puzzle consisted, in its entirety, of 263 MP3 files.  It's hard for me to imagine that listening to 263 MP3 files-- even at only a few seconds each-- sounds like fun to anyone.

The difficulty problem is foreseeable and solvable.  It usually requires a trusted editor (or editorial board) empowered to make decisions about whether or not something makes it to the final event, and a team that agrees to trust their judgement (or at least abide by their decisions).  That's a very difficult thing in a volunteer event.  People get disappointed or disgruntled.  Egos get bruised.  But if it's done in the best interest of the event, it's the right thing to do.  At the end of the day, if you're running the event to serve your own ego, you're there for the wrong reason.  It's not about you.  It's about your players.

I think the principle that wasn't aligned with players here was that the Hunt had to be longer and not end as early as it did last year (late Saturday night).  But I'm not sure that's true.  If the Hunt continues even after the coin is found, giving more teams the chance to see all the goodness, then you actually want an event that ends earlier for the top teams so that other teams-- slower, smaller teams-- still have a chance to finish.  Worrying overmuch about length means you're focused on a small percentage of your players.  There's no cap on team size.  If a team finishes too early for their taste, that's not the organizers' fault-- it's the team's problem.  If winning is most important to you, join a big team that races to the end.  If puzzling into Sunday is more important to you, join a smaller team.  The event can hardly be expected to gracefully scale up along with the sizes of the teams.  That just isn't tenable long-term.  Players have to take some responsibility themselves and self-organize into teams that align with their interests.  Don't join a team of 150 people and then complain that the event ended too soon.

Comments (151) | last by register company cyprus, Feb 12, 10:45 AM

What's on Your iPad?

In the past 3 months, aside from playing through the campaign of Halo 4, I haven't held a game controller once.  The holiday season is always busy with lots of traveling, preparing for traveling, recovering from traveling, and moaning about all the traveling, and dedicated console time is rare.  Honestly, though, I haven't missed it, because the iPad has ably filled the gap, and with mostly free content.  I thought I'd share a quick rundown of some of the games that have filled my spare moments lately.  All are free unless otherwise noted.  Many of the non-free apps I got for free anyway by adding them to AppShopper and pouncing when they temporarily dropped to free for a day or two, which is a common practice on the App Store.

Asynchronous Play:
  • SongPop: Available on most major platforms now including Facebook.  The latest update on iPad tanked performance, making it painful to play right now, but identifying song clips is still fun.
  • You Don't Know Jack: The Facebook game brought to the iPad.  Brilliantly done.  A daily addiction.
  • Letterpress: Reported on previously.
Card Games:
  • Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013: The most I've spent for any app ($9.99, + $4.99 for the expansion-- haven't yet bought the next two deck packs, but probably will), but also probably the app I've played the most.  Well worth it-- a truly fantastic rendition of the game.
  • Fairway Solitaire: Loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  The iOS version (also on iPhone) is completely redesigned from the one on the PC, with a modified structure, new challenges, etc.  Try it free, then buy the full version for a pittance.
  • Lost Cities: The system of goals held my interest longer than expected.  To better fit the mobile attention span, each game is only one round instead of three.  Very nicely done.  Not free, and at $3.99 I'd say it's overpriced, but worth it if you can catch it on sale.
  • SolForge: This is only a preview of a demo, with a limited card set and no extraneous features, but it's already slick and polished and does a great job of proving the promise of the underlying system.  I'm fully prepared to fall down this rabbit hole when the full game is released.
  • Logos QuizName the brand that matches the (sometimes Photoshopped) logos.  Oddly addictive, with plenty of logos to keep you busy.
  • Badly Drawn Faces: Identify the pre-drawn, cartooned faces as they're scribbled in for you piecemeal.  Has that potato chip quality and is a surprisingly good group game-- first to touch the screen gets to ID the face for a point.
Board Games:
  • Le Havre: A 2+ hour game that compresses to... well, still at least 30 minutes for me, even against AI opponents, but none of that time is spent waiting-- it's all game.  Excellent version of the board game that keeps me engaged even though the AI isn't as strong as I'd like.  $4.99.
  • Drop7: I prefer the original Flash game, Chain Factor, but this simpler mobile version is still elegant and addictive.
  • Orbital HD: The snazzier mobile version of Flash game Gimme Friction Baby, which won the Casual Games Design Competition on jayisgames.com.  Try the original for free, and if you like the underlying gameplay, you'll love Orbital.
  • QatQi: I've wanted to write a standalone post about this game for a while now, but held off because I keep hoping in vain that the creator will change his monetization model.  Create words crossword-style to explore hidden chambers in search of gold coins and big points.  The game is brilliantly designed, from the visuals to the soundscape.  It packs in lots of great data-crunching and rewards replay.  But... charging users to use Undo makes it impossible to play properly without forking over cash.  That might not be so bad, except that to really enjoy the game, I think you need to be able to Undo your move with reckless abandon.  And when each one essentially costs you money, that's difficult.  You get a batch of undos for free, so it's still well worth checking out.  And if he ever offers one reasonable price for unlimited undo, I'll jump on it in a heartbeat.  In a way I'm glad he hasn't, because otherwise this would be an all-encompassing obsession.
  • Wordament: Boggle against the internet.  Played the hell out of this on Windows Phone, but it's actually even better on iOS-- smoother, with more consistent, reliable, and less laggy feedback.
RPG:  (this category encompasses any game with RPG elements, many of which might also be listed in other genres)
  • Solomon's Keep / Solomon's Boneyard: Dual-stick run-around-and-kill-monsters games.  The first is a dungeon crawl with an ending, the second is an endless arena where you're trying to survive as long as possible.  Both are well executed and scratch that Diablo itch.
  • Dungeon Raid: The ability to level up between games, unlock new classes, and customize your skills makes for a compelling variation on the match-3 genre.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.
  • 10,000,000: A different match-3 mechanic than Dungeon Raid, with a very different feel and a nifty real-time component that amps up the tension.  $1.99
  • King Cashing: An RPG slot machine.  Unexpectedly fun.  $1.99, with a free "lite" version available.

Tower Defense:
  • Kingdom Rush HD: Ok, this is cheating a little since I haven't played this in a while, but I played it heavily for a long time and will undoubtedly go back to it soon.  The only tower defense game you need.  Impeccably executed.  $2.99
Endless Run:
  • Extreme Road Trip 2: Use tilt or button controls to do aerial flips and land intact, earning turbo and traveling as far as possible. The goals system takes a page from the Jetpack Joyride playbook, with coins to pick up, upgrades to buy, and friend records to beat providing replay incentives.
  • Punch Quest: Frenetic runner with lots of punching and 16-bit graphics.  Imagine a Castlevania where you're always moving to the right, quickly.  
  • Flick Home Run HD: By all rights I should disdain this game, which after all requires the same single action-- swiping to hit a ball-- over and over again.  But I find it oddly compelling.  I'm using the iPhone version instead of the iPad one, since I got it while it was free.  $.99
  • Puzzle Craft: Named one of the best apps of 2012 by Apple, this is a very well-execute game that I spent quite a bit of time with before concluding it was a hollow, joyless experience.  The core mechanic is identical to Dungeon Raid, but with a kind of Farmville crafting and building layer on top of it that I ultimately found unsatisfying, but YMMV.
  • Spectromancer HD: I'm not sure if this is an RPG, card game, board game, or what-- but I loved it on the PC, and it's a perfect fit for the iPad.  $3.99 and well worth it.

Comments (332) | last by xxx, Feb 12, 5:37 PM

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