The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.

I really like the fact that DDO includes various puzzle games as part of the dungeon running experience. The primary puzzle that I’ve encountered is a tile-based test where each tile has one of a number of pipe shapes drawn upon it and where you rotate the tiles in place to align the various pipe shapes, thus forming a path between two objectives and allowing a glowing blue power source to light said path. It’s basically the strange love child of Pipemania and a slide puzzle, but it works well enough within the Eberron setting at representing the game’s equivalent of a magical lock.

Turbine doesn’t abuse the device either because although I’ve run quite a few dungeons in DDO now, I would say that I’ve encountered the tile puzzle in less than a quarter of them. It’s certainly ripe for abuse however, one could see it surreptitiously slipping its way into daily life, where poor adventurers are forced, in cross-legged desperation, to rotate ceramic floor tiles between themselves and the toilet in order to unlock the lid and be able to relieve themselves, and where many a divorce proceeding in Stormreach was begun after a toilet seat was discovered locked in the up position.

I wonder why we don’t see more of these sorts of puzzles in MMOs, is it simply a case that they’re too cumbersome and time consuming to implement with respect to the amount of content that they provide, or is it more the fact that the generic MMO player is not really interested in such distractions and would prefer to just get on with grinding away at various NPCs, unimpeded by the need for any real cognitive exercise beyond that which muscle memory alone can quite happily provide? Judging from the general reaction to the mini-games present in Mass Effect 2, which I thought were harmless entertainment where many others seemed to perceive them as the fiery soiled undergarments of Satan, these basic mini-games are seen by a great many players as being vapid at best. I can’t help but feel that there’s something to them though, that perhaps more puzzles can be incorporated into MMO games in order to tax the player in more ways than the, admittedly tried and tested, option of pressing hot bar keys in response to various external triggers during combat; in fact I feel that MMOs, with their ponderous and often drawn-out style of play, lend themselves quite well to the incorporation of such diversions.

I expect part of the problem is the fact that the puzzles need to be kept simple so that the maximum number of players will stand a chance of being able to complete them, but perhaps a shift in how the puzzles are used to ‘block’ content could be undertaken such that more complex and advanced puzzles could be used without unduly punishing those players who don’t care for them. For example, a locked door to an optional treasure room could be pickable by a Rogue, but the same door could also be opened by solving a complex puzzle game. A basic example, of course, but it also opens up some interesting lines of thought, such as the fact that the player’s presence in the game would then be represented not only by a set of numbers that define various abilities, but also by the abilities of the player, where a player’s character within the game would then be an amalgam of both their in-game skills and those of their real-world self. There’s also the fact that puzzles are often used in team building exercises because they are a good way to foster communication and cooperation between strangers, so having group based puzzles within an MMO might be one way in which to encourage people to play as a team, rather than the more usual social phenomenon found in MMOs where they play together as individuals.

Anyway, I’ll have to leave you with those thoughts as I’m rather desperate for a wee and there’s a bugger of a Pipemania puzzle to complete before I can get into the men’s restroom; I’d claim that they’re taking the piss, but more accurately they’re diverting it through a network of interconnected rotatable tiles.

7 thoughts on “The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.

  1. Pardoz

    I also really enjoy DDO’s inclusion of puzzles – it goes a long way to recreating the “real” D&D experience ca. 1975. The main problem I see with the mechanic is that it generally isn’t terribly group-friendly unless people are discussing how to solve the puzzle over voice chat. It’s also difficult for all the members of the group to be involved in the actual puzzle solving. Perhaps a mechanic something like the one used in the Temple puzzle in Dragon Age? (For those unfamiliar, you needed to have people stand on different tiles, moving them around as you unlocked pieces of the puzzle.)

  2. FraidOfTheLight

    Or they could go for the Crystal Maze approach, whereby one person is locked in a room, and stares around in panic crying, “What do I do? What do I do?”, while the others all stand outside shouting contradictory instructions to him at the same time.

    Now, if they could incorporate Richard O’Brien into it, to deliver cryptic hints and moral support, that would be pretty cool…

  3. Tesh

    Psychic captcha fail: “hellostabs”

    Or maybe that just means it’s not my turn to speak…

    Anyway, I do love the puzzles in DDO, but then, Puzzle Pirates is my MMO “home”. I think that puzzles are naturally divisive because they require player skill, not avatar skill. Some players simply do not want to develop thinking skills, they want to be told they are heroes, even if it takes months of grinding on weak critters to get to that point.

    That divide between avatar and player skill will never be bridged. They serve different audiences and impulses, and that’s OK. I do like the notion of making the solution to a particular puzzle use either approach, though. Those who love player skill can solve the puzzle, and those who love avatar skill can let their avatar handle it. (And I could use my puzzle fixation to bypass puzzles and locks that I don’t want to grind up a Rogue for…)

    Of course, I’m prejudiced, since I’ve longed for player skill (especially logical, tactical and spatial) to be more important in these MMO things.

  4. Melmoth Post author

    @Pardoz, @FraidOfTheLight: A Crystal Maze approach would be most splendid, although it definitely would require voice communications to be effective. I don’t think such puzzles would be impossible using only text-based chat, but you would probably have to rule out any particularly harsh timing based puzzles, obviously.

    @Tesh: I’d never say never, but I agree that it would be difficult and possibly not worth the effort to bridge such a gap, but certainly – as with many other MMO elements – it could be possible to offer alternative paths of advancement and give players the choice in how they want to play the game.

    ‘hellostabs’ is just the way our Captcha system likes to greet people: ‘Hello’ then *stabs*; it’s one of the many disadvantages of having a deranged sentient AI as the doorman to your website, alas. Body armour is available on application at reception.

  5. Zoso

    I would totally subscribe to a Crystal Maze MMO. Presumably each group of five would consist of one Hapless Blunderer, three Contradictory And Unintelligible Advice Shouters and one Cryptic Hint Dropper And Sarcastic Commentator…

    “Stand on one leg! Stand on one leg!”
    “Balance the crossbow on the locked chest!”

  6. Melmoth Post author

    “Sarcastic Commentator”

    My perfect MMO class.

    I would like to subscribe to your exciting new MMO and or newsletter.

  7. Tesh

    I say never because the dichotomy between player skill and avatar skill is a fundamental difference of design, with each serving different player tastes. Trying to merge them is like trying to make chocolate covered chicken nuggets work in Happy Meals.

    Not everything has to be merged, though, which is why parallel alternate tracks are great. Players might jump between tracks here and there, but trying to ride them both at the same time just won’t work. Player skill is intrinsically different from avatar skill. Both are valuable, to be sure, but they aren’t the same.

    It’s like the fundamental differences between PvP and PvE. Any one player might jump between them without breaking the MMO, but they are effectively two different games. Trying to force them together is just a recipe for trouble because they pull design in different directions, and if you try to satisfy both with the same design, neither audience will be happy.

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