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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 05:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I would argue simply that "combatting back solving is not a good goal".
motrismotris on January 24th, 2013 05:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
And I think if back solving is the worry, it is better addressed in the puzzle release side of things anyway. Every meta should be solvable with any 80% of the answers, and tested in this same way.
AJDdr_whom on January 24th, 2013 06:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
...I can't tell whether you're using "backsolving" to just mean 'solving a meta without all inputs'.
motrismotris on January 24th, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I mean that some people think a bug of metas that solve early is that then the teams also solve all the puzzles by backsolving to do massive unlocking. I mean forward but early meta solving with typical back solving benefits. And my phone keeps adding a space in the word back solve that I do not like.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 24th, 2013 06:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
Primarily. There doesn't seem to be much difference in practice. If you solve the meta, you will gain some information about the input puzzles. Whether this lets you back out the entire answer is often academic, since it's the solved meta which is important, not the puzzle.

When puzzles feed into multiple metas (as The Producers did), then solving one meta implicitly gives you information (a puzzle answer) which can help solve a different meta. That's just part of the price (or benefits) of a linked-meta structure.

Like I said, "combatting back solving is not a good goal". Just accept that metas should/will be solved without all their inputs and that solved metas will provide some insight into the component answers. It's easiest if you design your unlock streategy explicitly such that solving the meta is worth exactly as much as solving the component puzzles. Trying to prevent either form of backsolving is counterproductive.

In fact, if you view the primary goal of a hunt author as "preventing the hunt from becoming stuck" (as I do), then backsolving is a boon, since it allows ways around previously stuck puzzles. Linked metas then further that goal by allowing the solution to one meta puzzle to unstick another.
AJDdr_whom on January 25th, 2013 12:31 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I don't think I agree; it's easy to write a metapuzzle that can be solved with partial data but is hard to backsolve—e.g., the Wall Street meta from 2011, where once you've solved the meta, all you know about about the answers you don't have is that they have exactly one repeated letter, and that's not enough to infer what any of them are. If you want to combat backsolving per se, you could just write metas that have a lot of flexibility in this regard.

Although it's primarily the solved meta which is important, not the puzzle that feeds it, in many hunts backsolving the puzzle is still valuable—either because solving (or backsolving) puzzles wins you unlocking points, or because you'll be quizzed on puzzle answers during endgame. One or both of these is the case in most Hunts. (This is a system I favor, though more the former than the latter. Principle 1: solving a puzzle should always be helpful. But I like backsolving.)

I strongly agree that combatting solving metas with partial info is not a good goal, though. Solvability with partial info is a feature, not a bug, since it prevents the Hunt from getting hung up on one broken puzzle, as you not. (Principle 2: no one puzzle should be essential.)
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 12:38 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I think we basically agree. Certainly on principle 2, and more-or-less on principle 1---Producers overshot its release schedule because backsolved answers from metas opened up more puzzles. You could argue that means we shouldn't have made the metas so backsolvable. I could counter that we shouldn't have made it *quite* so worthwhile to backsolve the puzzles.

There were metas in the Producers hunt (my Charles Dodgson meta among them) where a correct solution to the meta gave you every letter in every answer in the round. I would have certainly preferred that not to be the case, but it didn't seem worth sacrificing other things for. I wouldn't have called it a *broken* meta.

AJDdr_whom on January 25th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
Certainly, I agree. It might be worth thinking about, in Hunts where Principle 1 is satisfied by unlock-points, making backsolved answers worth fewer points than forward-solved answers, to avoid such a rich-get-richer problem with puzzle unlocking. (Or making metas, or some richly backsolvable metas, themselves worth fewer points.) I wouldn't want to make backsolved answers worth nothing, though; backsolving is still puzzle-solving, of a slightly different order, and in my opinion deserves to be rewarded. Maybe things that, like the Dodgson round, make backsolving trivial should be an exception to that notion, though.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 01:10 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
We chose in the Producers hunt to make metas worth exactly the same as regular puzzles, IIRC. We felt this was a radical change, usually metas were worth significantly more than puzzles.
AJDdr_whom on January 25th, 2013 01:15 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I'm not sure that there is a "usually" there; how many Hunts have used an unlock-points system? I know they were worth more in Mario, though.
Doug Orleansdougo on January 25th, 2013 05:30 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
I think Zarf made a good point, that backsolving is solving:
After all, any given Hunt puzzle involves looking for patterns, and working both backwards and forwards between the clues and the answers. (If this makes no sense to you, think about crosswords. Of course you work back and forth between the clues and the grid. Looking at the crossing letters in the grid isn't cheating, it's the whole point.)
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 25th, 2013 07:31 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
Well, the problem is that it's one thing to work through a big, elegant, difficult construction that represents dozens of solver-hours (never mind writer-hours, editor-hours, and tester-hours) and another thing to plug _O_OO_ into your dictionary search. Emotionally I think people feel like the latter should not be able to ruin the former, even if good hunt design sometimes demands it.
Doug Orleansdougo on January 25th, 2013 07:43 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
Ideally, different teams will backsolve different puzzles, so those constructor-hours on the backsolved puzzle were still useful for the other teams who frontsolved it. And if every team backsolves the same puzzle, it's either bad meta design or a bad puzzle that stumped every team.

I also think it's sort of bad design to have superlong puzzles and supershort puzzles result in the same reward (one input to a meta). I felt a bit annoyed at having spent so many hours on the 20x20 cryptic when someone else did the entirety of the regexp crossword in an hour alone. Not to mention how easy it ended up being to just buy answers, but that's a different problem altogether...
受け継がれる意志: rubbish at thisdoctorskuld on January 25th, 2013 11:49 am (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
This is actually how we test-solved the metas in the 2012 with Codex. As a testsolver, I was usually given about half of the meta answers to start with, and if I got stumped, I'd ask the test-solving coordinator for another answer.

There are a lot of ways to make a solvable with 80% answers but make the puzzles individually un-backsolvable.
AJDdr_whom on January 25th, 2013 02:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Poor kids
That's certainly how meta testing worked for Plant as well (and was part of the inspiration for (and Meta testing!).