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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.
(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.