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21 January 2013 @ 02:40 pm
Too Big to Solve?  
Not my tagline, but a good description for the Mystery Hunt that just happened. One line of dialogue after last year's Hunt that I led with in my wrap-up was a question of when is too soon for a Hunt to end. I said, in this era of a few competitive teams trying to grow to get over the winning hurdle, constructors aiming bigger was a mistake. The Hunt ending after 36 hours (Midnight Saturday) is fine if that makes the solving experience stretch over the weekend for everyone else. I won't comment generally on this year's effort but it seems a great example to point back to of too much ambition by too many people towards the further militarization of the size of Hunt so that by 2025 the team "The whole of new USA" can go after the coin against "USSReunited" for at least a month. The sense of "puzzle" versus "grindy work" is also a discussion I have every year and I don't choose to repeat myself. I've felt since 2008 that the Mystery Hunt is far from an event I'd regularly attend in person although I'm glad to have finally been onsite to play with Team Luck with whom I've been a "free agent" now for three years.

I had a good solving year as things go relatively, but it was mostly demoralizing personally. I soloed Palmer's Portals, for example, but spent many hours after basically solving 8/10ths with a need to tweak a very small and underconstrained set of things to get from that hard work state to a finished state. At some stage I told the team "I'm going to solve Portals and the Feynman meta and then go sleep" and I met this goal but in many times the expected time when I gave the statement. I led the solve of both Danny Ocean (with zebraboy stating the most necessary last bit to get my work over the cliff) and Richard Feynman (with Jasters). I obviously co-solved lots of the logic puzzles and other puzzles, and gave various finishing help to a range of things too. I think I did this best for "Kid Crossword" once when he had spent a lot of timing mastering the hard steps of a crossword/scrabble puzzle -- and could quite impressively fast rewrite out the set of steps I wanted him to do about the puzzle -- and the follow-up steps were not obvious but I led the killing of the beast. This was too often the feel for these puzzles, and my assassination rate was far lower than I wanted. My Sunday was spent earning 3 puzzle answers by actually going to an event, and then falsely believing the power to buy some answers would let me finish solving the Indiana Jones mini-metas -- where I had already mostly soloed Adventure 2's snakes with 5/8 answers, but then killed myself dead on #1/Ouroboros for the rest of the day for so long solving, as many solvers will say in hindsight, the puzzle that was meant to be in one of a dozen ways and not the puzzle it was. Let me state here as I did for hours with my team, the phrase "I'm not cut out for this" is horrible flavor. It implies both cut this out and, in a different way, also don't cut this out. This makes you want to cut it out, which takes a lot of time, but also to not invest too much time in cutting it out, so as to save the wasted time of doing a task you are being told not to do. Other wordings are far safer, and implied negatives within positives is one of the five worst flavor failure modes in my opinion. Puzzle editing and flavor text is an art and is certainly the biggest variable from year to year and constructing team to constructing team.

So yeah, Mystery Hunt happened. And there were the usual share of overwhelmingly incredible Aha moments. Endgame seemed very fun and I wish all teams could do just that for the weekend or at least a lot more things like that. More of that, and more sleep, would have both been some good choices this year. If only the puzzles solved on schedule.

ETA: And as I added far below around comment #300, as a solver who was both frustrated yet had fun in this Hunt, I do want to thank everyone on Sages for the incredible effort they put in. Making a Mystery Hunt is a gift for all solvers whether it matches expectations or not, and as a mostly thankless job I do want the constructors and editors and software engineers and graphic designers and cooks and phone center workers and everyone else to know I appreciated all you did over the last weekend to give us several days together for puzzling.

Further, as I was asked to write a larger piece elsewhere that has given me personally a lot more attention as the face of the criticism, and as I use the phrase "My team" a lot in general as solving forms this kind of bond, I want to be very clear: since Bombers broke up after 2009 I have been a free agent. I have solved recently with Team Luck but am not a core part of their leadership and these opinions I state are my own. I intend to form my own team next year to go after the coin again, and if you have a problem with what I have said anywhere on the internets, please hate me for it. I believe in my posts I have been offering constructive criticism, but even what I have said is without all the facts of what went on inside Sages so I could easily be speaking from ignorance a lot of the time.

EFTA: Thanks to tablesaw for pointing out this chronologic feature of posts. If you want to see all the additions to this post in time sorted order, go here http://motris.livejournal.com/181790.html?view=flat. We're on page 14 at the moment.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 24th, 2013 04:05 am (UTC)
But software can stop us from repeating to call in answers for a puzzle which has been marked correct.

Software can also display that the answer is correct on the call-in screen (all correct answers were just listed as "proposed answer").

I disagree with completely automating the system, I think the human contact is important (and fun). There are known ways of making this work well and insulating it from human error... those mechanisms were not implemented in 2013 -- probably the hunt-running team ran out of time?
 Catherinecmouse on January 24th, 2013 04:07 am (UTC)
The software folks certainly ran out of time. ;)
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 24th, 2013 04:52 am (UTC)
(We actually anticipated this being a problem, based on when your tech guys asked us for a copy of our hunt-running software.) We had issues getting the hunt-running code done in time, too, but novalis is a wild hacker man and saved our bacon.

[Atlas Shrugged]: another note from past constructors -- get that hunt-running code done early! We actually wanted to do all our test solving using the final hunt-running code, and would have been much less stressed if we could have made that happen. (But as it was both novalis and I were doing a lot of puzzle editing and writing and I was concentrating on the post-prod code, which we *did* get done in time to use for all the test-solving, and somehow the hunt-running code kept slipping through the cracks...)

Little known fact: all our puzzles had code names which were names of My Little Ponies, since we needed placeholder names when doing meta testing and website design. The My Little Pony names *almost* made it into the hunter-visible javascript for doing answer submission... but we thought that was going to be too much of a red herring (sigh) so we substituted md5sums of the pony names at the last moment.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 24th, 2013 07:52 am (UTC)
I would say that future "best practices" would include: start writing and testing hunt running code as soon as your structure is well enough known to know what the kinks are. You'll have to do it eventually, and being able to blindsolve (for example) on final code seems like a great idea.

Also, we would have done better to have CScott win the hunt the day before...

(cscott was the name of the testing account we used during the hunt to drive ahead of the leading teams and check for bugs. We failed to do this diligently and thus didn't smoke out a critical bug having to do with releasing the final round. Whoops!)
Jessicajessicala on January 27th, 2013 03:29 am (UTC)
Speaking as someone who's hosted a number of Microsoft events using auto-response software: there's still plenty of human contact happening. During PuzzleHunt 11.0 I remember spending a lot of time in personal contact (both phone and email) with members of various teams.

Having the software pick up a lot of the auto-answering gave us (hosts I mean) more time for one-on-one interaction, to help when midrange teams needed a nudge or some guidance to help them keep having fun.