On Pixels, and Puzzles, and Pi

Has anyone in your community tried any of my games at play.net? GemStone III, DragonRealms, Modus Operandi, Hercules & Xena: Alliance of Heroes—those are all "puzzle/story" types of MMORPGs.

I honestly don't know. Are those all text-based adventures still?

The ones I mentioned are all text-based, yes.

I'm sure they would appeal to a lot of the community.

We also have a 3D graphical game called "CyberStrike 2". That's more of a mech "teams of robots take over the cybercity" kind of game. And of course we have a few other games in the pipeline as well, such as "Hero's Journey", which will be a 3D graphical massively multiplayer game.

You mentioned earlier that GemStone III has been running since 1989, how does that work out story-wise? I mean, is it an open-ended story or is it more like say, EverQuest, where story isn't the issue rather than open-ended gameplay.

There's much more of a roleplaying focus in GemStone III. Now, if someone wants to just come in and go on a "hunt monster / gather treasure / buy stuff / hunt more monsters" cycle, they definitely can. We routinely have thousands of people playing, so not everyone is going to be doing the exact same thing. One thing that our customers tend to remark upon though, when comparing our games to others on the internet, is that though we don't have the graphical experience, we definitely have the deepest storyline with a well-thought-out and balanced world—multiple character classes, each with their own unique abilities. We do our best to provide storylines that encourage players to cooperate together, each contributing their own skills, in order to achieve cooperative goals. It's not a "player vs. player" kind of game.

In terms of your own community's interest…for example, there's a mountain in the world of GemStone III. At the top of the mountain is a magical altar. To get there though, you have to solve various puzzles to proceed. In our game DragonRealms, you are presented with various tasks and puzzles to solve, in order to earn favors from the gods, which help your character's longevity if you run into a nasty patch in combat. In Modus Operandi, it's more of a murder mystery kind of game, where you have to solve various "whodunnits." In that game, different "professions" are things such as "detective," "forensic specialist," "paranormal investigator," and so forth. Along with the murder mysteries, there's also some "X-Files" mixed in.

I personally think with any kind of thinking game, that story is the absolute most important element. Arcade-style games like FPS or RTS games don't really require a story and when they do have one it gets ragged on by the players as being superfluous. It sounds like that's what you're going for with your game suite.

Do you encourage or discourage people from ganging up to solve the in-game puzzles?

Anything that gets people working together in our games, we encourage. That's really the whole point of "multiplayer." Otherwise you might as well be playing a shelf-based game by yourself. In fact, many of our customers say that after having been involved with the multiplayer arena for awhile, it just wasn't the same to go back and try a single-player game. It felt kind of empty!

I've written many puzzles over the years that required cooperation to solve, ranging from things as simple as switches that needed to be pulled simultaneously in different parts of a building to areas where skills from multiple professions were required to get through a certain door. We try to avoid things like "key" puzzles though…where there'll be one key to open a certain door. Because then everything becomes dependent on the cooperation of that one particular player. And if they have to logoff or get disconnected, everyone else is suddenly stuck!

It seems like you must be limited somewhat in the types of puzzles you can employ though. For instance, steganography is right out in a text-based game. Do you use forms of ciphers in your puzzles?

Yes, definitely…which might range from a substitution cipher to "deducing" the structure of an orc language. We have hundreds of contractors now who are constantly working on new puzzles and quests and areas.

Do you have some guidelines for balancing the difficulty or obscurity of a particular puzzle solution with ensuring that the players can continue to advance the storyline?

The #1 guideline that I have for balance is to make sure that someone else besides the designer/programmer, tests something before it goes live. The most common problem, is where a puzzle solution is "obvious" to the designer, and it doesn't occur to them that players are going to try methods Y, Z, and Q to solve a puzzle, rather than the "X" that the designer intended.

So I believe that those Y/Z/Q methods should give some sort of feedback to the player, rather than a "nothing happens" message.

But the developer alone may not know all those methods that will be tried because the correct solution seems so obvious.

Which is why it's essential to get other eyes into the process. Even in the crypto scene, I've lost track of the number of codes I've solved, where I didn't solve it because of my crypto knowledge, but more because I'd figure out that the writer made a typo in the original code. Then once I was looking for (and usually finding) the typo, the rest would fall into place.

For example, playfair ciphers use a grid that goes in a certain direction, but it's easy for a cryptographer to get confused and do it backwards. So the "uncrackable" code might come apart by assuming that the writer was an error-prone human, and not a god.

Accursed Where.gif

This problem has come up for us in a few instances… one infamous one is the Where.gif puzzle in the LockJaw game. To the puppetmasters, it was an obvious solution. When we couldn't get it, they started to give us hints. But the hints all pointed to basically the same thing, leading to more frustration. UrbanZombie wrote an hilarious account of it.

One puzzle I wrote had to do with a player being trapped in a cell. The solution was that they needed to dismantle the cot inside the cell, to fashion a lockpick with which to pick open the door. However, it was non-intuitive for players to figure out that the cot needed to be dismantled, piece by piece. We tried giving hints to one of the testers, but they just got frustrated, and were kicking the cot.

So I rewrote the code, such that when you looked at the cot, you got the message, "It's pretty ramshackle, and looks like it would come apart with one swift kick." Then if they kicked it, I arranged that the cot would dissolve into several parts, including some intriguing looking wires that looked like they could be turned into "makeshift lockpicks." The players found that a much more enjoyable puzzle.

That's a very interesting point for ARG puppetmasters to take note of. If players get frustrated with a puzzle that is key to advancing the storyline, it would be a great benefit to add hints in that not only point to the solution, but also to point out when the players are on the wrong track. So that they don't continue beating their heads against the wrong brick wall.

Or if they do, add stuff to the brick wall to make it more helpful. Like banging your head against it breaks through to a secret passage on the other side!


Ultimately, my advice is this: GET A BETA-TESTER. I've heard people say, "My code was beta-tested," but they think that means that they tested it. Wrong. Alpha testing is when the designer/programmer(s) go through it, Beta testing is when someone else who had NOTHING to do with the design goes through it. And it's essential.

Also it doesn't help to tell your beta-tester how to solve the puzzle or to give them hints that the players can't get.

If you noticed on the "Elonka Code" page, I listed not only the official solvers, but also my beta-tester. Technically, he solved it before any of the others.

There are a lot of similarities between ARGs and the types of online multiplayer games that Simutronics produces. Key elements are story, puzzles, community interaction, and player interaction with the game-world. I think the one big difference is that ARGs are games played in the real-world rather than in an encapsulated, manufactured game-world. They utilize existing infrastructure like the internet, voicemail, postal service etcetera. Do you think Simutronics would be interested in developing an ARG at some point?

(I think somebody would probably have to find a profit-making business model for it before it will become more than a niche genre.)

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