Group Puzzle Content

Puzzles have a long and proud tradition in single-player computer games. Quality has varied dramatically, but then Sturgeon’s Law applies. (Feel free to commiserate in the comments about your favorite horrible guesswork “puzzles.”) Puzzle bosses are a classic implementation, although these are often a thin candy coating over the BIG RED GLOWING EYE that you shoot.

We seem to want to replicate this in MMOs, and I do not think it has gone well. Problems are both because you expect to fight the bosses multiple times and because you will not be bringing the same people.

Puzzles are fun the first time you solve them. I suppose they can be fun again if your memory is poor, but you either remember how the puzzle boss works or muddle through in about the same way you did before. If your game has the detestable “he’s randomly behind one of these 5 doors” type of puzzle, hey, it won’t be any worse the eighth time you brute-force “solve” it.

Most of us are familiar with MMO bosses in this fashion. They have set scripts, maybe with some random elements, ready go. Many of you have watched videos about raid bosses before meeting them in-game. The fight is the same, and the developers expect people to fight them several times, so it just becomes synchronized dancing at best. We will come back to the “watch a video” issue in a moment.

The best games use a puzzle template rather than a single puzzle. For example, Kingdom of Loathing requires a code to get through a door to the final boss; it is not a set code, or even a perfectly fixed template, but you can figure it out through roughly the same process each time. It is like solving sudoku: same structure, different details. Making a fun, re-usable template is harder than making a single puzzle; doing that with a puzzle rather than a puzzle boss is easier, too.

Repetition also re-creates a problem we have with scaling content. Do you assume that the players have X? It is not a certain gear score in this case, rather whether they know how the fight mechanics work. The fight might give you all the information you need each time but not nearly enough time to process it unless you already know all the pieces. You have heard rage against LotRO icons; those few pixels can stand for several sentences of game rules, and you need to know what they say and how they impact the game in five seconds or less while doing your normal role in a boss fight, and you need everyone in the group to know because some of them are “detonate and kill your group” icons.

This is why we watch videos: to get that information ahead of time, rather than wiping because there was no way to figure out at the time that you needed to have people with certain items run to certain spots when the boss used various phrases, and not knowing each phrase meant a group wipe (and possible dungeon reset). (This is an actual LotRO boss fight.)

And again there is the balancing of whether the fight is impossible without knowing the trick, trivial once you do, etc. There are too many bosses where the trick is to know one or two spots on the floor to stand.

And all that is just the difficulty from the perspective of a single player. What happens when we add a group?

Do you like puzzles? If so, you might want to puzzle out the answer. Tough, the group wants to get through this fight, and we don’t want to wipe five times while you read icons. Just stand over there, shoot it, and use the water bottle when we tell you to. Or, if it is not life-or-death, sure, why not have half the group stand around while the other half re-figures it out. That sounds like fun. Whenever we go to LotRO’s Hall of Mirrors, we can ask: do you want to puzzle this out, new guy, or do you want us to pull the levers so we can move on? No pressure, but on the last set of levers, enemies re-spawn while you work on that.

If you play with a static group, great, you can all work it out at once. Assuming this is the first time any of you have done this content. When our static group hit content that I had run four times, we eventually leashed me so that I did not immediately head to the solution. It is kind of like playing with the game guide next to you, opened to the right page just in case, but unread.

Actually figuring it out for yourself seems to be a minority position. We rely on someone who has run the dungeon before, we Google it, we watch the video. Someone must suffer through learning possibly absurd gyrations, but it will not be you unless you are Hardcore Brother. Even if you wanted to, you are not going to ask a 25-person raid to wipe a few times so you can have the thrill of learning Arthas’s phases on your own. Not that they would invite you or ever have you back. Heck, you might get guild-kicked just for asking in some places.

With single-group content, this might be sane. I can get together a group of people who have never run this dungeon before. If I am the only one who has run it, I can let them learn it apart from warning them about anything that is instant death (“don’t touch the green water”). Finding a full raid willing to run anything while completely ignorant is an organizational miracle if the content has been out a few weeks.

Millions and millions of players. A few hundred work out most of the dance steps. It seems like a lot of design work for a puzzle that 99.x% of your players will not have a reasonable opportunity to solve for themselves. But your players also seem to be content with the notion of telling everyone to hit YouTube before raid time.

Oh, and there is always someone new or who needs a refresher, so you must explain it every time. They’re annoyed about being led by the nose, you’re annoyed about the need to explain the dungeon for the third time that week, but you both know the entire group wipes if we let the new guy bumble through. Those of you in raid guilds will have seen less of that; those of us who PUG frequently see a lot more.

: Zubon

12 thoughts on “Group Puzzle Content”

  1. Some creative, but not entirely satisfactory, ways out of this dilemma might be…

    1) multiple solutions possible to group puzzle content
    You’d still have train people out of the ‘one true way’ mindset, but the flexibility allows for some acceptance of variation. The Imperious Task Force from City of Heroes comes to mind, some range-kill the nicti, some pull the nicti away, others just charge and do a multiple beat-down, etc.

    However, one runs the risk of it becoming too generic and easy-mode and no longer a challenge if just about anything works to solve the puzzle.

    2) group puzzle content dependent on an individual puzzle-solving
    I think of the tech in Alien Swarm doing their unique puzzle schtick while the rest have a role to play to keep him from being alien chow.

    Or perhaps Puzzle Pirates, where each individual performs in a separate puzzle scenario, with their performance contributing to the whole.

    3) adding some ‘fudge’ factor, or not causing an immediate group wipe on one member screwing up
    Raid bosses in certain popular games seem notorious for doing this. It’s a cheap artificial difficulty gimmick. It stresses out newbies and beginners simply because they haven’t seen the ‘puzzle’ before. It stresses out vets because they’re worried about the new guy screwing it up, and essentially forcing a ‘save and restore’ or wipe-and-restart on everyone.

    see The Art of Puzzle Design
    http://www.scottkim.com/thinkinggames/GDC00/bates.html

    Ramping up difficulty as people die is fine, but why not give the survivors a chance of winning if they’re good? That adds layers of ‘epic’ feeling to be the last man standing and to have saved your party from doom. Instead, hurried boss designers railroad players with arbitrary boss skills that guarantee a wipe if the boss is not danced with a certain way.

  2. This made me recall a fun time in ATITD playing I think the Ritual puzzle where each party member would get one piece of the puzzle. Good times.

    1. Does anyone on the KTR staff still play this? I saw they were starting a “new tale” and now I’m curious.

      1. I don’t have time. My MMO playstyle is very much “dabbling” (except GW). I play a quest of DDO, see a LOTRO sunset, vanquish a GW area, and call it a night.

        ATITD really requires dedication.

      2. As he says, ATitD is the most hardcore PvP game ever made. You can play it casually and/or PvE, but you get the most out of it by pushing hard. Or maybe that’s why I burned out; there were long gaps in Teppy Time when development was slow early on.

        Ultimately I stopped because of one shake of the ant farm too many. I don’t know how it goes these days, but the lead developer was always fond of shaking things up and conducting social experiments. Some will rub you the wrong way, and you decide if they add up to enough for you to pass.

  3. I honestly think that you don’t see puzzle examples like that you describe in Kingdom of Loathing because most people wouldn’t care to run that dungeon/raid or wouldn’t run it often. They would skip it or intead of “must have 5.5kGS/80 rad” in trade/lff, you’d see, “must understand puzzle”. More and more people want to do things as easily as possible. Or maybe this was always the case, and the “puzzle/dance bosses” have just highlighted the fact.

    I do enjoy the puzzle nature of the bosses and them not being just straight dps. The people who are demanding high gear score for many of these fights are those who are hoping to use a higher dps/healing to negate some of the puzzle/tactic qualities in the game.

    It hasn’t gone well because *most* people don’t seem to like a puzzle. They just want to be able to stand there and hit/shoot/tank/heal. Maybe this is due to the subscriber base getting older. Who wants to work all day, then go home and log into a game that uses just as many or more brain cells than their job does (because even work becomes less of a puzzle and more routine as you do it)?

  4. IN DDO, I have found that around level 8 or 9 you start running into a lot of quests with heavy puzzle solving involved. Sometimes I’m in the mood for it, and it’s fine (even fun). Sometimes I just want to log in, kill stuff, and make progress. When I’m in the latter mood, I find the puzzle elements annoying. Scale my individual fickleness up to a 40 player raid, and I can see why very few players ever get into raiding.

  5. I agree with Bariwyn, the demographic may be people who want to kill stuff, not crank up the brain cells to solve a puzzle. If I want a puzzle, I’ll go to PopCap. If I want to mindless kill things, solo or with a group, I go to WoW.

    Puzzles do have their place in MMO’s. “Quests” are a great place to puzzle something out. You can do it solo or with a group, watch the video, read the solution or work it out for yourself. Since it’s a quest, there isn’t a fear of the dreaded “wipe”!

    When it comes down to group activities, I think the puzzle takes a backseat to the achievement of killing the boss and looting the gear. Sometimes just staying alive with a crazed tank can be more of a puzzle than anything the game can throw at you.

    Thanks for the article. I had fun reading it.

  6. I think Both adages from Mr Sturgeon apply. The idea of puzzle solving was exciting at first but soon gave way to, “eh..not so much.” My early years in EQ2 and the first time running through Nektulos Castle was fantastic.

    There were several hours of puzzle solving invested, it was fun and memorable but once was enough. Soon after you end up being a tour guide. It was either let the group work it through or run them through. Most of the time the groups just wanted to complete the zone.

    “Puzzle for party of twelve, Puzzle for party of twelve.” …yeah, probably not.

    I do like the first time challenges if it’s just the wife and I, and a couple of Sherlock Holmes loving Guildies.

    All in all, I agree with TopherD “Sometimes just staying alive with a crazed tank can be more of a puzzle than anything the game can throw at you.”

  7. It might do to flip the equation – make the puzzle about getting a bonus reward on top of the reward for just beating the boss in a dull, straight forward way, rather than avoiding a penalty.

    Of course some people would complain as hard on missing out on the bonus reward as suffering a penalty. But hey, is that a problem with the design, or is that the hive of scum and villainy that is the mmo population?

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