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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.
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.
Andrewbrokenwndw on January 26th, 2013 12:23 am (UTC)
How would we have grid-unlocked anything anyway? Our structure was fundamentally linear. :-P
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.
Dr. C. Scott Ananiancananian on January 26th, 2013 02:01 am (UTC)
Oh, sure. In another comment in this monstrous thread I said, "go ahead and break the rules" -- just pick a few rules to break and know what the dangers are.

For example, people keep complaining that the hunt is written to favor large teams. There's a simple way to change that: bring back slow releases. Structure unlock so that there are only ~5 puzzles open at any given time. Large teams will be very unhappy (but presumably you're okay with that).

Danger: the hunt will get stuck as soon as those 5 open puzzles are all broken in some way. So add some other mechanism to ensure the hunt doesn't get stuck -- free answers, or open a new puzzle once a given puzzle has been open for N hours, or whatever.

I don't think anyone's arguing that the hunt should not innovate. I'm just hoping that we can communicate our lessons learned more effectively between teams/years so that people can innovate intelligently and a little more safely.