More on Riddles

In my previous post I made a few remarks on how riddles shouldn’t be viewed as inherently slowing and interrupting, how they should be part of the game world and the game experience as a whole. The comments made me realise that I should have emphasised that point much more.

The problem is that when we say “riddle”, what we imagine is having to stop and align a bunch of stones such that they light up or something like that. And all the time while figuring out how to align them, our gaming (levelling?) flow is kind of interrupted and we feel slowed down. Then there is an easy way to accelerate and bridge that interrupt, namely by looking up the solution. Which we promptly do. Here’s the thing: when I say “riddle”, I don’t mean the “align five rocks” sort of things, at least not exclusively.

What I mean is this. Usually, that is in an MMORPG you’re likely to play in 2011, you get a quest that tells you to do something. And how to do that something is laid out step by step: kill X, loot Y, apply to Z. A riddle, in the wider sense of the term, for me, is when you have a goal but no recipe how to achieve it – you need to figure out how to get there yourself.

This comes with a few issues attached. For one, if all goals in your game come with a recipe, except for some, which you consider your “riddles”, the reality is that the recipe-driven gameplay takes place at a particular speed, which is, by nature, higher than a riddle-based one can be. Thus when your players get to your “riddle”, they feel slowed down, their flow interrupted. For example in the early levelling game in RIFT, in Freemarch, there are a couple of (story related) quests that ask you to find something/someone, but don’t tell you where. That doesn’t add any sense of mystery, but only annoyance, because all other quests tell (or rather show) you pretty exactly where to go, so suddenly having to run around more or less blindly, suspecting that there is probably exactly one right spot to look in, but unless you end up standing on top of it, you won’t know, because there are no hits to work with, feels rather awkward. Which leads in nicely to the second point.

In the real world, figuring things out is fun (if you’re the inquisitive type, that is) and actually even just possible, because everything takes place in a highly consistent system: the laws of nature. Any knowledge you have about how a certain process works is universally applicable, everywhere and always – and you accumulate a lot of that knowledge. All those “brilliant heads” we watch in our favourite TV shows, solving crimes and difficult problems, are basically characters who are really good at connecting causes and effects. A game world doesn’t have this luxury. The laws of a game world are – inevitably and in significant parts also desirably – different from those of the real world and potentially arbitrary at that. Therefore, unless you make an active effort to relay the laws of your game world to the players and then stay rigorously consistent, the players won’t have a frame of reference to work with. This is the important difference between being able to figure something out gradually and trying things at random until something works.

To use an example from RIFT again, there is this awkward “puzzle” in Moonshade Highlands, the point of which is basically to open valves along a water pipe to fill target reservoirs with water. The reservoirs are aligned in a chain, filling up one after the other. You fill up all 10 – you win. Each valve, after being opened, stays open for about 10-12 seconds and cannot be interacted with until it closes again (so you can’t just keep them open continuously, they will inevitably close and you’ll have to reopen). So far so pretty evident from the arrangement you find – it should also be noted that there is no actual “puzzle” element at work here, unlike in the other puzzles we did so far there’s no actual secret to solve here, it’s basically a click-time game, which is bad in itself, but that’s not the point here. The point is that how the riddle, or shall I say the water behaves is not consistent with anything you could derive from real world or game world observation.

The water flows when all valves are open, through the pressure generated by the source – so far so good. We’ll also accept that the valves auto-close after a while, because that’s how they work, fair enough, such are the tools we’re given. But why is it that water already in the target canisters starts draining when there’s no fresh water being pumped in? Is there a leak somewhere? Possible, but I can’t observe it. All I can see is lights going on and off, and when one of them remains on while the previous ones turn off, I have no idea whether it’s just a bug in the game or actual information being relayed to me. I can’t tell because neither is consistent with any reference system I’d feel my actions and their consequences bound to. Also, while it’s understandable that the flow stops when any of the valves closes, because that cuts off the pressure of the source, it is entirely unclear why this causes all water that is already in the pipe but not in the target canisters yet to outright disappear. That doesn’t align with any law of physics or game world one would be aware of. Shouldn’t it remain in the pipe and be pumped forward once I reopen the previous valves again? It just disappears. This behaviour cannot be derived from any other process observed in the game, nor is it teaching me anything about “how water behaves in RIFT”. It is nothing more than an arbitrary mechanic of this particular riddle. No consistency whatsoever.

This example got a bit lengthy, but was important to explain what I mean when I call for consistent rule systems. If we want players to figure something out, we need to give them knowledge based on which they can make educated deductions. We can’t give that knowledge out all at once, at the moment when it’s required – that’s the recipe approach utilised by modern day quests. We need to introduce it gradually, letting the players (interactively) observe consistent and reoccurring processes and events, allowing them to learn about the game world and how it works. And then, when someone goes ahead and creates an online resource about the consistent laws governing our game, no harm is done at all. This is what community research should be all about, rather than providing players with scripts to success.

Besides, we need the game to take place at a slower pace, such that stopping to think doesn’t feel like an interruption. Of course solutions will still be discovered and gathered online, but here’s the thing, once again (cf. previous post): players don’t look up everything, they look up things they aren’t having fun doing on their own. When the players feel slowed down, they will look up the solution to accelerate back to their usual pace. When they’re used to a slower pace in general, the difference won’t be there to compensate for.

The modern raiding game is a good example of a bad riddle, in fact. Why does everyone look up strategies (and then follow them with a ridiculous rigour, not understanding why something may or may not be applicable)? Because the pace set by the rest of the game doesn’t align with the notion of stopping to think, attempting to observe and find a solution. At the same time, the raid encounters themselves don’t make much of an effort to provide observable cues, to allow you to grasp what’s going on without already knowing in advance. As Telwyn commented on the previous post, the developers pretty much expect us to know. We’re very rarely provided with analogies to established knowledge, because there’s very little consistent knowledge that could be referenced to begin with. Except, you know, don’t stand in the stuff on the floor. Unless it’s good stuff. Naturally.

13 thoughts on “More on Riddles

  1. Nils

    Great post! Every game requires a specific attitude to be fun. For example, Fallout isn’t fun if you want to play a fps and vice versa.

    Even the strangest things can actually be fun if the player has the correct attitude. The creation of this attitude is the duty of the game designers.

    1. Rem Post author

      *nods* Very much agreed. Although it can be hard for the designers sometimes when players seem to default to certain ways of thinking. In other words, it may be hard to design something that is not WoW knowing that a significant part of your target audience will redundantly observe “hey, this is not WoW” and leave. However, in the end, I think/guess/hope the only reliable rule is “make it awesome, then people will like it”.

  2. Kring

    There’s another problem with raiding. A raid is a team which has to work together. Therefore only one person (or maybe 2 or 3 “raid officers”) can solve the “riddle”. The others have to follow direction.

    It’s not very much fun to think about possible solutions to a problem only to not get a chance to try that.

    On the other side the raid leader cannot listen to all 25 people in a raid and try everything out. if everyone would get a chance, that would be 25 wipes… probably without a pattern for improvement.

    1. Rem Post author

      True, that’s a problem. Unless you start thinking about a different raid encounter design.

      You can split the raid in smaller sub-teams working on different objectives for parts of the encounter. And I don’t mean in a trivial “1,3,5,7 left, 2,4,6,8 right” sense. More like the gauntlet / arena split on Thorim. Only more. Small teams with tangible goals can coordinate and improvise better.

      Make more generic goals and sub-goals. The less specific something is, the more ways there are to reach it. Of course it still needs to be meaningful.

      Randomise. And not in a “1 out of 5 options” sense, because that only leads people to feel they need to memorise all 5, but, as described in the post, have a consistent world with consistent rules where various events can take place and handled in various ways which are consistent with the laws of the world. I know I’m asking for a fundamentally different direction here, but that’s the point.

      Slow it down, drag it out. Give groups time to react to events during the fights. Create points in the encounters where events unfold and groups are given the opportunity to coordinate their efforts in reacting to them. Instead of a short fight you attempt over and over until you figure it out (and once you have, that’s pretty much it), have long fights that you figure out while you’re in them, and which present themselves somewhat differently (yet still significantly recognisably – I know I ask a lot) next time.

      Don’t turn boss fights into Halloween candy. Have them be meaningful. Don’t work on the assumption that the average players chugs raid boss fights (or at least attempts) down like popcorn. Integrate raid encounters in your systems (advancement, reward etc) aiming for the players to say things like “yesterday we won an epic fight against X and another against Y” rather than “we did A, B, C, D and E and had a few wipes on F”. Mass dilutes.

      …and other things I doubt anyone would pay me to design full time, so I’ll just keep writing up vague ideas 😉

    2. Kring

      The most difficult part with Thorim was to figure out how to split the raid. After that the fight was “trivial” and didn’t allow for a lot of variation. Maybe in the gauntlet but even there it’s hard to solve a riddle yourself if the group changes after every few wipes. 🙂

      I can’t see your suggestion working. Compare that with RL. If you have a problem/issue/task in a company, only some people work on this “riddle”, not the whole staff. The difference is that companies have people with different skills for different “riddles”. In a raid everyone has the same skill: “mashing buttons”.

    3. Rem Post author

      Uh, Thorim was merely an example of splitting the raid to do entirely different tasks, not an example for riddles or anything.

      With all due respect, you can’t see my suggestions working, because you’re picturing them in a game that has the exact same activity-, goal- and reward-structure as WoW. That’s not the point. Or rather it is the point, the point being to think about a game design that is decidedly different.

      You know perfectly well – in fact, I seem to remember you commenting it yourself before – that, just like in real life, not all members of a raid actually want to be making decisions or solving riddles. Some are happy to be given a task and to try to fulfil it as well as possible. So, you send 5 people to fend off the zombies, while the other 3 figure out how to disable the zombie generator. Or something. Of course, it can’t be static, or it’ll just be a matter of learning the solutions.

      You can have millions of ideas like that (not all of them from me, of course :P), or you can say that it “probably won’t work”. Sadly, the latter options means that we’ll have to play WoW (or something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike WoW) until our brains melt.

    4. Kring

      Actually, I think people in a raid group will always have conflicting interests.

      Now there are two possibilities. The game offers various different “tasks” during an encounter.

      Possibility one: Everyone gets the chance to do exactly the task he prefers to do this evening. That’ll be an amazing game.

      Possibility two: There will always be “tasks” which no one likes to do this evening or there are people who would prefer to do another task then the one they get assigned to. That will cause tension in the group because various people think they have less fun the they could have.

      I think possibility two is the only one that would happen. We see that in some way with the trinity roles today. No one wants to heal and people are forced to play a healing alt or a healing spec although they would prefer to do damage. And the same thing happens IRL. I doubt that most people are happy with their job.

      My view might be pessimistic. Unfortunately that means I’m right most of the time. 🙂

      But yes, you’re idea sounds like the fun we had in TBC when we played a heroic for the first time. Where everyone in the group had to think how to survive the next pull and how the strength of the various characters could be used to overcome a challenge.

      Maybe we should just end the raiding end game and replace it with equal challenging 5 man content?

    5. Rem Post author

      I wonder how much of that is down to that contract I mentioned a few posts ago, that there are “fun” roles and “needed” roles. I wonder how much of it could be solved by making various fun roles instead; giving tanks a more interactive gameplay instead of turning them into low-output damage sponges; not turning healers into healbots; having a tangible functional difference between a dps-warrior and a dps-rogue as well as real opportunities for both to capitalise on that difference; generally making classes that stay true to what the verbal description at the creation screen promises them to be.

      I honestly think that everything being distilled down to the Holy Trinity combined with the game mechanics treating players as entities of the Holy Trinity, rather than as a unique class with unique abilities, is a big reason why current MMOfferings tend to feel so dry. I could think of class systems that diversify by function rather than by fun. Of course, most of it also based around fundamental paradigm shifts. Isn’t that half the fun? 😉

      You’re touching on another interesting subject too, and while I wouldn’t want to get rid of the raiding game, because raiding is fun, I do think that the strictly staggered succession of soloing –> 5-mans –> raiding is another element that we came to accept as law, which is actually harmful. There is no good reason to treat everything but raiding as a mere stepping stone to raiding, especially not single-group content (whatever the group size may be).

      And yes, being pessimistic is usually the safer bet for being right. But then again, there’s not much to win in it either 😉

    6. Kring

      Yes, every role should be fun and that’s not the case at the moment.

      But even if every role would be fun it doesn’t mean that every role is fun for everyone and it might even depend on your mood which role is fun for you today.

      Playing soccer is fun for some people and they join a soccer club.
      Playing hockey is fun for other people and they join a hockey club.

      And then, there are people who like to play soccer on one evening and hockey on another depending on their mood. But there’s no such club which plays soccer when you would like to play soccer and plays hockey when you would like to play hockey.

      That was my argument. You’re idea is great and would be even better if implemented in RL. 🙂

    7. Rem Post author

      I think RL has an inherent edge here, actually. Assignments that are not fun still yield a persistent reward – pay – which enables you to increase the joy of the time spent outside that assignment – starting with the most basic joy of not starving to death! In games, on the other hand, the rewards are entirely self-contained, meaning, frankly, that if it’s not fun, it’s not fun. Now we’re off on a tangent 😉

  3. Telwyn

    I’ll give an example for comparison: the newish Forsaken Inn instance in LoTRO. Without going into specifics/spoilers it has a mixture of riddles (the word game type) and traps (pressure pads to avoid).

    Compared to most instances in WoW/LoTRO/Rift or anything other than DDO this is something new. There’s even some built-in re-playability as the riddles are randomised from a large set. Now the riddles have nothing to do with Middle Earth or LoTRO’s version of that world, which is the pitfall you mention above.

    However Turbine have coded in for this, in so far as if you get a riddle wrong so many times it’ll reset the puzzle with a new random riddle from the set. Does this encourage people to ‘have a go’ rather than work it out? Will it make any difference to the programmed-in reaction to reach for the browser?

    I have to say it’s a step in the right direction myself, even if not perfect.

    1. Rem Post author

      From your description it sounds interesting. The key question is, I guess, whether it’s actually fun to be figuring it out. If “working on it” constitutes staring at it for a while with your head tilted slightly to the side rather than doing something constructive in the game world, I’d expect most people to stare a bit, try something, and if it doesn’t work, tab out and look up the solution.

      Then again, LotRO tends to – or at least used to – be a good bit slower paced overall than, say, WoW, so I’d expect the percentage of people actively trying to figure it out themselves to be quite a bit higher.

      I agree it’s a step in the right direction, but I always fear that such a step could be tripped up by the lacking context and then, basically, buried by correlation. AoC for example had what I think was an awesome combat system, which could have shaken things up and gotten us away from the dullness that is autoattack-plus-GCD-combat, but since the game was – metaphorically – killed by the unpolished state it was released in, the combat system got buried with it.

      So, I hope for a good step that leads to more good steps, not a shy stumble that then gets dismissed as “no, no, that didn’t work”.

  4. Telwyn

    oh and by ‘programmed-in’ I don’t mean Turbine as game designer, rather the habit so many gamers have of just looking up solutions to anything remotely challenging online….


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