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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.
 
 
 
Mikey Gemengee on January 25th, 2013 07:10 am (UTC)
I want to thank everybody who had anything kind to say about the hunt. Yes, we had massive issues. And yes, people should feel free to vent their frustration so long as they do it constructively. Anyone who is ever going to be constructing a Mystery Hunt should see and learn from these mistakes. But at the same time, there was so much effort that went into the hunt, a lot of good things came out of it, and it would be a shame to forget about those things.

I know that in previous years, many members of the Mystery Hunt community focused on trying to make new members feel welcome and making sure they had guidance and support. The thing that's disappointing to me is that there were many novice constructors (myself included) on the Sages who might someday grow into great constructors with the right guidance, who were truly excited that they got their first puzzle(s) into the Mystery Hunt, but who might be turned off from writing puzzles in the future because of all of the negative feedback we've been getting.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that there may be some solvers who are turned off from participating in future Mystery Hunts because so many puzzles in this hunt were just way too hard. And that's just as much of a shame. But the difference is that the Manic Sages worked hard and really tried to make the hunt as fun as possible (there were some great puzzle ideas, the obstacles were awesome, the art was beautiful, etc.). When things started to go bad, we did whatever we could to try and make the weekend as much fun as possible. For instance, at one point teams were struggling with the puzzle 11 Secret Herbs and Spices, the Sages organized an impromptu event for teams to work together on the puzzle, and we even sent some of our members in drag to perform as the Spice Girls. Yes, things were going wrong, but we tried our best to better everyone's experience. Some of the people posting purely negative comments online about how much they hated the hunt...well, they don't seem to be trying to better anyone's experience.

So again, thank you to anyone who took the time to write about something you liked about the hunt. Believe me, you've made someone's day, and probably at a time when they really needed it.
motrismotris on January 25th, 2013 07:24 am (UTC)
I remember feeling at my lowest as a puzzle constructor after 2009 when our Hunt similarly went into Monday and we had a bunch of errors and we expected lots of solver to be frustrated with us. Writing a Hunt is a mostly thankless task that even when it runs right doesn't give all the credit to all the people who make it possible. I left 2009 not wanting to ever solve at MIT again. This was my first year back and not just remote. And despite all the frustration, I would not have wanted to build a time machine and miss this Hunt even knowing what I know now. I found a lot of aspects of this Hunt really brilliant -- the runaround components and training certainly. And many puzzles were brilliant or quite original.

What I think this long thread shows clearly is that there were people who had fun, and people who were frustrated, and people who were frustrated and had fun (where I'd place myself). But I think all of us in this superset of solvers want to thank you for the effort you did take to make this Mystery Hunt. No project with tens of thousands of person-hours of work can be easy. While I can only offer thanks today at the same time that may ring hollow given all the critiques for the future, if I ever get a chance to write Hunt again, the countless hours I'll put into that will be my return of the gift of puzzles to Sages and all the other teams that have built a weekend of puzzles with the community of solvers, whether they were all the puzzles we wanted or not.

Edited at 2013-01-25 07:26 am (UTC)
Mike Selinkerselinker on January 25th, 2013 07:28 am (UTC)
Hear, hear. No one wants you to feel like you do today. In fact, I'd wager all of us want to make sure no team ever leaves Hunt feeling like you feel again. Apologies that it has to feel so bad to be a part of it.

Mike
MellowMelonMellowMelon [wordpress.com] on January 25th, 2013 07:55 am (UTC)
Personally, as a sage (albeit not an extremely involved one) devouring every comment this post receives, I find a lot of the feedback here enlightening and valuable, with the exception of a few of the purely negative comments that the top-level comment pointed out existed (and I thought I knew some of these people...). It is very good to know both what people liked and what people did not like, and I feel I understand a lot of the issues surrounding this hunt and others much better. The sheer amount of criticism that can be found here will probably do its part to ensure that the future hunt motris alludes to will indeed be a gift.

The comments that have been made about passing wisdom on between teams better are also worth highlighting, because a lot of the things I'm reading for the first time here are things that I'm really, really, really wishing I knew months ago. Especially since a lot of them I had pretty much deduced myself by the time the hunt had ended, which shows just how needless it was to make those mistakes.

(I'm probably quite biased saying all this, because I'm not among the group that threw their last few weeks away in Boston to make this happen. That's probably on a different level from the emotions I felt in post-mortem.)
Alisonlandofnowhere on January 25th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
Pretty much every word of this applies to me.

I do find it emotionally wearing reading through so much criticism, but also very worthwhile.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 05:59 pm (UTC)
2003's hunt also left the team in a down spot. We had a much less elegant means for getting the coin found, and a lot of people felt that we had (inadvertently) put our thumb on the scale and botched the competition.

2013 may have run long, but I haven't heard anyone complain that it was not fair. That's a significant accomplishment, in my book.
lunchboylunchboy on January 25th, 2013 10:59 pm (UTC)
I also regret that the 2003 Hunt was (I think) the earliest example of deciding, "Let's add one more level of answer extraction to a whole bunch of puzzles -- that'll be cool!"...which turned out to be more like "That'll add a day to the Hunt!", and which possibly started a trend of that seeming like a normal thing as opposed to a construction option to be used judiciously.

On that note, I hope that anything I've said in this thread that sounds critical is taken as intended, which is from the perspective of someone who has been there, suffered that, and wishes that Sages could have been saved from the fate that befell Acme and Kappa Sig in the past.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
I wasn't involved in editing the 2003 hunt, so I can't speak for certain, but I don't think "let's add one more level" was our problem that year.

As I remember it, the killer was the hypercube grid-oriented unlock we used for the "Facility R" puzzles, combined with a few puzzles toward the entrance of "facility R" which broke. (This led to the modern abandonment of grid-structured unlock, and good riddance.) We had a really hard time getting teams through the hypercube of puzzle: there was no time-based unlock, and unlocking two-three puzzles for every answer was not sufficient to prevent teams from getting stuck near the entrance to the cube.

Bad unlock design -> not enough open puzzles + a final runaround solution that really required you to have unlocked or answered a majority of the facility R puzzles.

But maybe those with clearer memories of the authoring/editing process (Lance? Francis?) can chime in. My involvement with the 2003 hunt was primarily on the tech side.
AJDdr_whom on January 25th, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC)
That's what led to the modern abandonment of grid-structured unlock? I mean, all three Hunts immediately following the Matrix used it.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 26th, 2013 12:14 am (UTC)
As you may have noticed this year, teams don't really listen to lessons learned by other teams.

However, team members individually learn their lessons, and apply them the next time they are involved in writing the hunt.
(no subject) - brokenwndw on January 26th, 2013 12:23 am (UTC) (Expand)
rlangmit on January 26th, 2013 12:43 am (UTC)
Just out of curiosity:

I thought that was the beginning of the grid-structured unlock, unless I don't understand the term. Before that, puzzles came in full rounds (even your puzzles in the Matrix). Then Time Bandits, Normalville, and SPIES all used some sort of map/grid-based unlock.

I agree that this system doesn't always work. As a much more inexperienced team back in those days, we didn't like having only a tiny number of puzzles, most of which we couldn't solve. I do like the feeling of "exploring" such a system gives, though, if only it could be tweaked a bit.
rlangmit on January 26th, 2013 12:46 am (UTC)
Uh...never mind. This time ordering of the thread is not entirely optimal...

Still, I don't think any Hunt structure should be ruled out entirely, or we risk having every year look alike.
(no subject) - cananian on January 26th, 2013 02:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
Mike Selinkerselinker on January 25th, 2013 07:25 am (UTC)
Repeating my comment from above: I think this was the prettiest Hunt I've ever seen. Karen and the team did a phenomenal job. The website was particularly well designed, and the physical layouts of the stations were also quite nice.
(Anonymous) on January 25th, 2013 02:04 pm (UTC)
Just in case my previous comment came off a little bitchy, which I feel it did in places, let me say I did enjoy the puzzles and the variety of topics that were covered. The one obstacle we got to try, the safe, was freaking awesome, and I wish we got to try some of the other obstacles while we were there. It was my first on-campus hunt, and I had a blast working there.

I just feel like some of the puzzles were made by a large team and were meant for solving by large teams. Looking at the answers, the complexity of some of the puzzle solves seems to confirm that. I get the initial round was made for smaller teams, and that is a nice touch. The later round puzzles would require a lot more people than my team, Duck Soup, had.

Thank you to everyone on the sages for putting this together, and I hope my point isn't too harsh.
(Anonymous) on January 25th, 2013 02:06 pm (UTC)
Ack, and just to be clear, I wrote my previous comment under the name "Giovanni P.". Just so you have a comment to match to a name. Also, I speak only for myself; my comments do not reflect how my other teammates feel.
leech on January 25th, 2013 05:07 pm (UTC)
If an inexperienced puzzle author receives negative feedback, their editor is the one who needs to read it.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 25th, 2013 06:40 pm (UTC)
A thousand times this.

That said, on a team like Codex or Sages you also have to account for the fact that some fraction of the editors will be new, too. My editors ranged in experience from have-probably-seen-enough-puzzles-before all the way to is-Francis-Heaney. I've heard from at least one friend who was basically told "here, edit this!", and I feel as bad for her as I do for all of the novice constructors whose puzzles needed a little (okay, a lot) of tough love.
Alisonlandofnowhere on January 25th, 2013 08:09 pm (UTC)
That friend was me. I wish I'd done more to try to learn how to be an editor (and in specific to understand more about the ways in which Mystery Hunt is and is not like other hunts I've been involved with), and I'm glad for the assistance of the other, more experienced editors I worked with on these puzzles.

But I want to learn more, and the reason I've been reading these threads is because I /want/ to get feedback, particularly on specific puzzles (though I know that some of the puzzles I edited weren't worked on by many people; the only one I've seen major complaints on was the one that was inadequately fact-checked). It's more the pile-on of anti-Sage complaints that I find wearing to read through, but that's more because I spent five days volunteering for hunt (mostly as a minion) than because I was an editor.

It's not the most fun to work on a puzzle and have people complain about it, but it's also disappointing to work on a puzzle and feel like nobody noticed or cared about it. So please give us specific feedback! (by whatever channel you feel is most appropriate)

(Also, if I were a teenager reading the "Poor kids" thread, I might feel patronized. But, then, it's hard to be perfectly sensitive on a topic that a lot of us care strongly about.)
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 25th, 2013 08:26 pm (UTC)
I'm working on a reply for your protected entry; it's just got more parts than the little odds and ends I post here. :-)
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 25th, 2013 08:29 pm (UTC)
I apologize for the patronizing sound of "poor kids", since I'm the one who started that thread. At the time I felt it was important to redirect the conversation and remind participants that some of the puzzlesmiths were not 10-year hunt veterans, and to have them consider the idea behind the puzzle separate from its execution and larger-scale issues (metas, etc).

If you list some specific puzzles, I'm pretty sure people would be very interested in giving specific feedback. The puzzles I worked on at listed at http://cananian.livejournal.com/68543.html although I've formed some opinions of a number of others based on reading through solutions.
Alisonlandofnowhere on January 25th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I mainly meant this as a general comment, but may do so later.
Mikey Gemengee on January 26th, 2013 06:12 am (UTC)
My First Puzzles
I would love any feedback anyone would like to contribute about the puzzles I authored:

Season Changes; No One Ages
I Left My Stomach in Salt Lake City
A Streetcar Named...

Aside from Season Changes, I don't even know if people forward solved, back solved, or used options. So I'd love to hear anything about these!

Thanks,

- Mike (A first-time constructor hoping to learn more for next time, which hopefully won't be for many years)
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 26th, 2013 06:21 am (UTC)
Re: My First Puzzles
Codex forward-solved A Streetcar Named... after some false leads. I only saw it after the initial aha had been obtained (correctly) and a bunch of data had been gathered (incorrectly); I found the number of segments / length of country match, exhorted people to fix their data, and went back to being stuck on Loss By Compression. :-)

We ran into the slight hiccup that the website has the front of the car on one end and the puzzle has it on the other end, but after I pointed out that undoubtedly this was the purpose of having the streetcars actually march across the screen we all agreed that any misunderstanding there was entirely our fault.

In the end I find it a reasonable, colorful (literally :-)) puzzle with a good internal confirmation milestone and a clean extraction. These puzzles are the bread and butter of a working hunt-- they glue together all of the big extravagant crazy puzzles and (if necessary) help smooth over the gaps left by the unsolvables. So kudos!
Re: My First Puzzles - ppaladin on January 26th, 2013 02:45 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - emengee on January 26th, 2013 05:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - ppaladin on January 26th, 2013 07:49 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - Prestemon on January 26th, 2013 09:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - emengee on January 26th, 2013 05:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - motris on January 26th, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - doctorskuld on January 26th, 2013 10:38 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - emengee on January 26th, 2013 05:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Re: My First Puzzles - jennyelfenmass on January 27th, 2013 06:47 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Anonymous) on January 25th, 2013 08:47 pm (UTC)
"The thing that's disappointing to me is that there were many novice constructors (myself included) on the Sages who might someday grow into great constructors with the right guidance, who were truly excited that they got their first puzzle(s) into the Mystery Hunt ..."

My message to Sage's novice constructors is: You did the right thing! You came up with lots of puzzle ideas and made puzzles out of them, in huge numbers! Many of the puzzles were awesome! Many of the puzzles were *one edit* away from being awesome! Sometimes that edit might have been as simple as clearer flavortext, or some blanks at the end to confirm the answer enumeration, or straight-up downsizing of the data-collection task, or something along those lines that preserved your idea. (Sometimes there really wasn't a puzzle there and the right thing to do was discard it and publish your *other* puzzle idea. Don't feel bad for having had a bad idea---everyone has a mix of good and bad, which is what editing is for.)

So, constructors: I'm really glad I got to see and play with your puzzle ideas. I'm sorry I had to see some of them in, not the amazing-puzzle state they might have reached, but rather the needs-another-edit state in which they were released. I'm sorry that a handful of your worse drafts got released, mixed in (in proportions the solvers didn't know) with excellent, fun, clever, polished puzzles. I'm sorry I had to see 100+ of your ideas all at once, attached to so many difficult metas that I didn't think most answers would ever get used.
Mike Selinkerselinker on January 26th, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
>Many of the puzzles were *one edit* away from being awesome!

This is the point where I'm going to part company. At least half of this Hunt's puzzles weren't one edit away from being awesome. They were several extremely hard edits away from being good.

In general: gigantic and intimidating is not good. Start from the principle, "What can one person finish in 15 minutes?" Then consider how many people you want to be involved in that 15 minute solve. If your number is "more than four," you are starting from a bad design point. Mystery Hunt puzzles aren't so much different from regular puzzles just because teams are bigger. And if you have a lot of puzzles, you want a lot more 15 minute puzzles.

The best time our team had, I think, was solving Till You Make It. We figured out what to do, then several of us contributed to knocking it down, and we were done in 15 minutes. We loved that puzzle. Not all puzzles need to be like that, but a whole lot of them do.

Mike