Can we really have puzzles in MMOs?

One of the strange things we have learned via the internet is that if you get a massive amount of people together and challenge them to solve a problem, the answer will circulate very very quickly. It’s because those dratted players will talk to each other and cooperate, or post up answers on websites, or write addons to tell you the answer. Who’d have thought that a massively multiplayer online game might end up with massive amounts of people communicating? Not early MMO developers, that’s for sure.

Of course, in the beginning it didn’t really matter because the main puzzle that people faced was how to grind seven zillion rats (in a group, naturally) without dying of boredom. But when games like WoW leaned more and more heavily on quests, then suddenly websites and databases sprung up to list all the answers to every quest and loot related question ever made.  In some ways, we should thank MMOs for leading the way with social networking, crowdsourced answers, and encouraging massive amounts of people to use the internet cooperatively to solve common problems. I find that quite a sobering thought.

Today, players are just as likely to look up the answer to an in-game puzzle as to actually try it themselves. Andrew @Of Teeth and Claws laments the rise of people looking up answers in games. And if you’re uncomfortable with that, the greatest torment of all is that it has become for many people the default way of handling online quests. Get lost or confused for more than a second? Just look it up. And if you can’t look it up then complain that the quest is unfair or too difficult! The only real puzzle left is where best to find the information.

A puzzle in this context can include strategies for beating new raids or instances. It can include optimal ways to level or to spec. It can include map addons. It can include answers to just about any problem that devs probably thought people might want to figure out on their own. In a milieu where guides to new 5 man instances are posted the day after they have been put up on a test server in another continent, where people data-mine new patches to inform the playerbase well in advance what’s on the horizon, it feels as though actually getting to solve a puzzle yourself is the ultimate luxury. Unless you are strong willed enough to avoid all the spoilers.

But even though we now understand that players will in fact talk to each other, I still see scope for puzzles in our MMOs. We can still have content that makes us think. It just requires a more lateral approach – MMOs need to ditch the debris of the old fashioned zork-alikes which depended so heavily on mazes and puzzle solving and embrace what they’re actually good at. We need devs to design massively, and players to think massively. Here’s some thoughts I had on puzzles that will entertain players just as well in MMOs as in single player games, if not better.

Puzzles that require collaboration

The easiest way to make a puzzle that needs a lot of people to work together to solve it is to give each of them a piece of the solution. Players enjoy working with others to create something or solve something, as long as they don’t have to be totally dependent on the other players. You can imagine mass collection quests where players can pool the information that they have collected or race against another team to complete mass scavenger hunts.

For example Mythic have run some fun PR events for Warhammer where they sent different clues to several different bloggers (who all blogged about it, naturally), letting all their readers in on trying to work out what was going on.

Working together doesn’t always require puzzle solving. For example, the Quel’Danas quests in TBC where all the daily quests done by every player helped to build the next stage of the city were very popular. People felt as though they were collaborating to unlock new content, without ever having to actually … collaborate. But it wouldn’t have been difficult to incorporate some kind of puzzle into the event.

The other form of collaboration of course is to incorporate the wowhead style databases into the game itself. Make filling out the answers and helping other players with information an actual part of the game.

Puzzles that no one will bother to spoil

If PvE is all about puzzles, then why hasn’t absolutely everything been broken down and posted? Because no one can be bothered to describe every single trash pull in an instance, or the minutae of how to get around an obstacle. Some puzzles are ignored, not because they are always trivial but because they aren’t directly attached to a quest or raid boss.

As a tank, every single pull in an instance is a sort of puzzle. The group needs to decide kill order, the puller needs to decide how to most safely bring the mobs to the players, and every other person in the group has to do some puzzle solving along the way. In some ways, pulling is the perfect MMO puzzle. It needs some situational awareness, can use line of sight or obstacles, needs the player to know a bit about the mob’s capabilities and their own capabilities, and can all go horribly wrong if it isn’t done properly.

This is the core of group play and it remains mostly unspoiled, at least for the first few times through. But it is true that current class design leaves a lot of this type of puzzle to the tank/ leader.

Puzzles that don’t really have one right answer

One of the problems I have with quests to model RL problems is the implication that all problems can be easily and neatly solved. But what about moral or ethical issues which have no single answer and where players will have to deal with the fallout of their own choices. We’re becoming more used to this type of problem in single player games as they become more sophisticated, but what about MMOs?

Sometimes the real puzzle is not how to solve the actual quest but to work out how to deal with the aftermath. Imagine you are sent to rescue some lost envoy and find that they are dead but their young son survived and needs to be brought home to safety. Up till now, games have thugged this type of quest out with unpopular escort missions but that’s because they haven’t really spent much time modelling what you’d have to do to look after a lost and frightened person and bring them safely home other than by fighting various spawns or patrols. And then … what do you do with them when you do get back to a place of safety?

I’m reminded of the various smart storytelling techniques we developed to solve the problem in tabletop games of: How can you run a mystery type scenario when there are player characters with telepathy? (It’s the same problem actually – if you assume PCs will instantly know the answer to any puzzle, how can you still make the game interesting and intriguing for them?)

Randomising Puzzles

What if players were each given different puzzles to solve? Or if one puzzle could have many different answers?

This is the category where randomised instances, randomised quests, and bosses that have several sets of random abilities come in. It isn’t possible for there to be one true answer because the question itself changes from day to day. Even if the only puzzle left is ‘which set of random abilities will we get today?’ that still requires some thought, adaptation, and preparation.

The drawback is that there can be balance issues – what if the randomised instance assumes abilities that the group doesn’t have? What if some classes or players adapt better to randomised content than others? And also the randomised content isn’t as polished as hand crafted instances and puzzles.  This may be a small price to pay for access to fresh puzzles, instances, and bosses.

Massive Amounts of Puzzles

There are so many puzzles that it just isn’t possible to keep up with them all, or at least it’s always possible to find something new. This would be where player created content enters the fray. Give players the ability to design scenarios, instances, levels or puzzles and they’ll come up with a vast array of content. Much of it will be rubbish but even sorting through the possibilities to find the gems will keep a lot of people happily occupied.

Constantly Evolving Puzzles

The puzzle is complex and chaotic in nature and it’s very sensitive to conditions which change either with player activity or with tweaks in every patch. Even though a player may have solved it once, there will probably be a different solution next week or next month.

For an example of this, look at the amount of work that goes into figuring out optimal dps rotations in WoW. This is a sensitive and chaotic problem. It can change when new gear is introduced. It can change when new abilities are introduced or existing abilities are tweaked. It can change when new encounters are introduced. It can change depending on which other players are in the group and what they are doing.

I hope and believe that at least some of these types of problem will make up a lot of future MMO gameplay. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether people actually like puzzles in their games or not? Or would they prefer a more predictable setting where no thinking is required beyond ‘what should I wear today?’

Chilling out with Osmos


Longasc recommended Osmos to me when I was writing about looking for chilled out games last weekend. So in a spare moment I downloaded the demo. Ten minutes later I was drinking herbal tea and decking the cat with flowers while lying in a darkened room with The Aphex Twin playing on Spotify.

Osmos is beautiful. You are a point in space, floating lazily on a sea of calm. A trippy ambient soundtrack complements the sense of immersion. If you enjoyed the first stage of Spore then you have already seen a similar concept. The goal is to propel your blob around the screen and to absorb or avoid other blobs. But out of this simple premise, a very elegant game has been built.

As you can see in the screenshot, your cursor grows a small tail in Osmos. When you left click, your blob is propelled briefly away from the cursor’s tail. It moves by ejecting a small amount of matter from itself. So you can choose to move very slowly and conserve matter, or more quickly at more cost. You can absorb any blob that is smaller than yourself. Larger blobs are dangerous and must be avoided. If left to their own devices, the other blobs will end up drifting into each other and forming larger and more dangerous blobs. So although the game is relaxing, you don’t want to hang around for too long.

The game plays as a series of challenges, each with its own screen. Some challenge you to grow and absorb a particular blob, others to become the largest blob on the screen, and others to avoid specific blobs. There are screens where all the blobs are orbiting a huge fiery ball, and others which include tides in space which affect how you manoeuvre.

A few of the screens I tried were almost stressful in comparison to others, and I find that a failing in a game that strives so hard for a chilled out vibe. Even there, you have some options to slow down the flow to give yourself more time to think and this is a game where taking things slowly is rarely a bad choice. But aside from that, you can’t really go wrong here for £7 if you enjoy this type of laid back puzzle game. (Thanks for the recommendation, Longasc.)