Thursday, June 21, 2007

Clues Postmortem

Sorry for the lag between my last postmortem post and now--I was taking time to get re-acquainted with *my life*.

Today I'll be talking about my favorite part of the game, the clues. We've talked about it a lot, and while good plotting and good sites are certainly appreciated, what coed astronomy tends to remember most about games and judge them upon is clues. So, when making a game of our own, our focus from the very beginning was on puzzles.

Answer Words

The use of palms, phones, magic wands, and word to location mappings a la BANG has really changed the nature of clues that can be used in games. In particular, there's a wider variety of encodings possible when the answer can be more arbitrary--things like encodings that require all answer letters to begin with a dash in morse or encodings where the answer has to have certain substrings.

But, even more importantly for NMS, it allows the clues to be completely divorced from the route. We *really* like writing clues. Scouting sites and planning a route... not so much. In fact, I would be willing to bet we had at least 15 clues written and playtested before we even began to talk about a route. On top of that, if clues came out poorly on the playtest because they were in the middle of the night, as long as they didn't have heavy site or plotting requirements, it wasn't too hard to swap them with other clues before the real game.

I realize that some teams don't like the weird disconnect between solving to an arbitrary word and having to do some sort of lookup to figure out where to go next. I also realize that our game made it even worse with first a phone entry followed by a laptop lookup. But for us, the clues are so much more important that we made an easy decision early on and never looked back.

Clue Types

We tried very hard to have a wide range of clue types represented in NMS. All teams have their likes and dislikes (we like word puzzles and hate data collection), and to create only a few types of clues would be to create a game that lacked broad appeal. We realized that this would be a problem pretty early on, when Jan, Yar, and myself compared notes and noticed we were all working on at least one word puzzle and had others in mind.

After that, we made a concerted effort to broaden the types of clues we made. Our big fear was that most of our clues would be paper clues, and teams would complain that they could have done all of our puzzles from the comfort of their own living rooms.

In several cases, we simply took clues that could have been done on paper and tried to translate them to a different format. For me, both Blinkenlights and Bugged (the No Morse Egrets) clue started out on paper and made the transition away from paper at various stages of their development.

As it turns out, we wound up being surprised with the number of non-paper clues we were able to put on our route. And doing the field offices means we had somewhere to put all of the extra paper clues we wrote. We hoped it wouldn't be too much of a letdown to get *another paper clue* at a field office, given that they were bonus clues meant for teams in the lead.


Playtesting is actually surprisingly hard to do, but it's something we got a lot of practice with while making our game. In particular, the difficulty lies in picking the optimal number of people to show the clue to. If you show it to a large group, you get great feedback, but you limit the number of playtest runs you can do because you quickly run out of people.

Given the number of core GC members and the number of people we could pull into helping us playtest, we found the optimal number of people to playtest a clue at once was often 2-3. Having a single person test is usually pretty rough, especially if the clue requires an "aha! moment". For any clue we were unsure on or thought might need a number of revisions, the creator would usually run it past their roommate/significant other with copious hints and then some subset of GC to test it on. This would hopefully save a couple of people for additional feedback or to test a revision on. Obviously some clues, particularly those where it's obvious what to do but takes some time to do it are better tested in larger groups.

We also had a sit-down playtest and a full route playtest, as well as roping in a few friends to test a final version of a couple clues. Thus, any clue that really needed it probably could have gotten 6 tests/revisions if need be. Of course, the clue that really needed it, the elements data collection clue, didn't get such treatment. Unfortunately, the clue went through multiple major revisions, and we simply weren't able to get enough testing. Eh, you win some, you lose some, I guess.

The one thing playtesting really didn't get us was accurate times for clues. When we were playtesting on ourselves, we didn't have a full 6. And as we found out, even the full route playtest didn't get us accurate times. For example, all of our playtest teams took a good hour longer on the Cellular Automata clue than the average team during the real game.

Route Clues vs. Bonus Clues

Going with the whole bonus site thing means we had a lot of clues to write, which was great. It also meant that we got to select the best clues to be on the route, which probably made the game a better experience for most teams, even if it meant that the top teams had to slog through some tedious puzzles.

Our decision process for whether to put a clue on the route or in the bonus queue was as follows:

  • If it's way cool, it goes on the route
  • If it's non paper or could be made into something non-paper, it goes on the route
  • If it requires the internet (the countries clue), knowledge the average gamer may not have (cryptics), or if it's a long grind (wordsearch), it goes into bonus land
  • For everything else, high spread clues go in the bonus queue, and low spread clues go on route

So that's more or less what we did in the way of clues for our game. This post has seriously been at least 2 weeks in the making, and while I was really excited to finally be able to talk about all of the stuff we did for our game, the effect has kinda worn off by now. I loved running the game, but it was a lot of work, and it's nice to not have to come home with it hanging over my head. So, I think this may have inadvertently become the last post in my NMS postmortem, at least until I can look back on it with more nostalgia and less *oh my god I'm so glad it's finally over*.

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