onigame (onigame) wrote,

The Black Letter Game: How NOT to create a new type of puzzle event

So Trisha and I have finally gotten around to playing The Black Letter Game (http://blacklettergame.com/). With some help from friends, we consider ourselves to be 40% done, which isn't bad for one day of work.

I have very ambivalent feelings about my experience with The Black Letter Game so far. On the plus side, the puzzles are interesting and unbroken, which is much harder to do than one might think, and generally to me that's the most important part of a puzzle event. On the minus side, the organizers have utterly and completely failed on one count, and that is "providing clear and useful expectations to participants at the start of the event."

I understand that they botched the start of the game, thinking they would be able to pull off the feat of having a successful game start while managing to stay in character. But because of all the confusion at the beginning, coupled with repeated grumblings from other players, our expectations for the event kept on getting lower and lower, the result being that it never seemed worthwhile to actually *start* the event when we had so much other fun things to do.

It was only until I heard that they were going to shut down this month that we decided that we should at least try to recoup some of our sunk costs. And to our surprise, the puzzles were actually fun. We're hitting all sorts of bugs with the website and the submission system is not ideal for rapid feedback and solving, but I understand that this is mostly because we're starting this at such a late date. And it's rather annoying needing to solve quickly puzzles that were clearly designed to take days.

Which comes back to the big problem with this event. All it would have taken is for the organizers to send a simple OUT-OF-CHARACTER e-mail to us, some time in July or so, saying "Hey, we're sorry we screwed up the opening of the game. But we're working on fixing the kinks, and there are now plenty of puzzlers solving stuff and having fun now. But we do plan on closing up shop in November, so we really do think you'll have a lot more fun if you actually start the game now." But instead of something clear and simple like that, we get a bunch of in-character cryptic messages that we don't understand because we haven't logged in and read your introductory material that you didn't make it clear that it was even there.

The lesson here should be simple. If you're(1) trying to create a different sort of entertaining experience, and you (2) want to maximize everyone's fun, you NEED TO SET EXPECTATIONS CLEARLY. Sure, you can be all cryptic and in-character and cool, and I'm sure some people will totally "get it" and have an awesome experience -- but there will also be others who will be disgusted and frustrated at you. Unlike an overnight experience like the Mystery Hunt or The Game, where I've set aside special time to enjoy your experience, I have plenty of other entertainment options clamoring for my free time and you have a higher confidence bar that you need to reach.

Anyway. I hear that they're planning to do Black Letter Game for another year, and seeing as if you're reading this you already have some idea of what to expect, I think that there's no chance you'll have the same crappy experience that we've had with the inaugural Black Letter Game.

But if any of you out there reading this are considering doing something new and unprecedented, heed this lesson of Black Letter Game well.

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