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 ( 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.

The Daily Puzzle

I totally forgot to mention this when it happened a month ago. One puzzle I helped design is now available for sale on the mass-market! It's called the Daily Puzzle because it doubles as a desk calendar -- if you can solve the puzzle of how to make the date show up.,111,9.htm
Oskar van Deventer came up with the idea, but I was the one who actually found an arrangement to make it work.

Musings on Doctor When, making good products, and the Five-Man Band

I found myself thinking the other day about Doctor When, and on how well the meeting team (by which I mean the four people that came to almost every meeting) tended to work together and take on "spokesperson" roles. Basically, we had four people who had these four focus areas:

* Attention to the Big Picture: Allen was always very mindful of the overall story and vision behind the game, and would speak up if we seemed to stray too far from that vision.
* Attention to Details: Wei-Hwa was focused on small imperfections and ways to improve things, working on backup plans and wanting to make sure that there'd be as few unexpected surprises as possible.
* Attention to Customers: Sean was always conscious of how our game would be perceived by the players, on whether certain things would be fun or not fun.
* Attention to Reality: Erik tended to be the sanity check, who would make sure that what the others wanted to do was feasible, whether we had time to do things. This person often tended to be the "swing vote" in cases where we disagreed.

Of course, all four of us shared some aspects of each of the four focus areas; it wasn't a fight between viewpoints since we all appreciated each other's viewpoints.

What I was thinking is that this applies to making almost all products, and not just a weekend-long puzzle hunt. A good product is made by someone who can pay attention to all four aspects. Often there's a reason why a small product tends to suffer -- it's because it was designed by one person or a small team, and they failed to pay attention to one or more of those four aspects.

I also wonder if there is a mapping between the four aspects and the four classical temperaments (you know, the stuff that covers everything from Ninja Turtles to Greek philosophy). Something like:
* Attention to Big Picture = Choleric (Raphael)
* Attention to Details = Melancholic (Leonardo)
* Attention to Customers = Sanguine (Michaelangelo)
* Attention to Reality = Phlegmatic (Donatello)

Ah, but later on the Phlegmatic gets separated into the Leukine and Phlegmatic II. Perhaps not coincidentally, we actually have five members of the core team -- Melissa, Erik's wife, didn't participate actively in the meetings but did a lot of work for us and gave opinions when necessary. Although I wouldn't consider her temperament to be the classic Leukine, I certainly can see it matching her level and style of participation.

So that sets a mapping from our group to the Five Man Band trope:
* Allen = The Lancer
* Wei-Hwa = The Smart Guy
* Sean = The Big Guy
* Erik = The Hero
* Melissa = The Chick

Back to thinking about making good products, I wonder what the missing fifth element (analogue to the Leukine) would be?

Thoughts on Privacy (no puzzle here)

Some of the ensuing discussion over one of my previous rants has made me think some more about the nature of making one's posts public.

Generally, there's a rule of thumb going around, saying "Don't post anything in public on the Internet that you wouldn't want to have your mother read on the front page of the New York Times."

While a reasonable rule of thumb, it's not a cut-and-dried answer. Take, hypothetically, this very post I'm typing right now, which I'm sending to "Public". Suppose it shows up on the front page of the NYT and my mother reads it. I don't have a problem with her realizing that I'm writing this, nor about the content of this. But if such a scenario were actually to happen, my mother would ask a bunch of follow-up questions, such as:

"Why did the New York Times decide to print your post? Are you considered very important for some reason? Did you get paid for writing it? Should you be? Did you give them permission? How come none of your other friends got front-page articles in the New York Times? Why are you portraying me like a nagger in your post? You are really embarrassing me by talking about me in the New York Times."

Now those questions, I would find very annoying. (Okay, the last one isn't a question.) So to answer the original rule-of-thumb, I'd have to say, yeah, I don't want my mother reading this post on the front page of the New York Times. But that seems like a very poor reason to stop the post from being public. What matters is profile and context -- my post may be very innocuous, but by placing it on the front page of the NYT, it introduces connotations that aren't in the post itself, namely that somehow I'm more important than all the other ranters on the Internet or that what I have to say is more important somehow.

If, say, the front page of the NYT was in the general habit of printing a random blog entry every day on their front page, then things are different. I can just say "Hey Mom, it was just random, I'm not anyone special." She'll still have annoying questions but I can deal with those.

So, what I'm trying to illustrate with this is that, when making a decision on whether to make something public, context and profile matter. Privacy is not a binary decision. There is plenty of technically publicly-available information that is de facto private.

But everyone knows that. What is more subtle is that this distinction works at smaller scales. My e-mail address is public -- anyone who is dedicated enough can easily find it and send me an e-mail. I don't mind that someone who honestly wants to send me a message can. But I do mind if my e-mail shows up on top of everybody's radar, saying "hey I think you should e-mail Wei-Hwa". Or, for another example, if you dig hard enough you can make some pretty accurate estimates about my wealth. I don't care enough to hide it, but I don't want it broadcasted either to make me an easy target for spammers or worse.

I'm not sure how much people who are worried about privacy issues are thinking about these shades of gray. From all their discourse I sure get the feeling that everyone prefers to see privacy issues in black-and-white.