Tuesday 9 March 2010

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.

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