Choice / Damn This Traffic Jam

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I didn’t participate in last week’s MIT Mystery Hunt, but I dropped in on my team’s Slack channel throughout the weekend to monitor my team’s progress. I also accessed the Hunt website to get a sense of this year’s puzzle structure and theme. The organizing team Death & Mayhem (rebranded as Life & Order) designed a Hunt that took place inside the head of fictional puzzle enthusiast Miss Terry Hunter, with liberal references to the Pixar film Inside Out. The puzzle rounds were themed around reigning in the five anthropomorphized emotions and then retrieving four core memories, ultimately enabling Terry to go on the final runaround. The hunt, titled Head Hunters, had an engaging story and polished puzzles and metas. I was very proud of my team completing the Hunt first in a close finish with several other talented teams.

L&O used an interesting gimmick for the core memory puzzle rounds. The memories represented four different stages of Terry’s youth and adolescence. Rather than present these rounds in a uniform order for all teams, L&O allowed individual teams to choose the order. A team becoming eligible to unlock a new core memory round received cursory information on the available options and then made a selection. The structure was innovative, but also controversial. “Choose-you-own-adventure” supporters appreciated having more agency in the Hunt experience and L&O mentioned during the wrap-up meeting that the structure allowed them early vetting of the core memory rounds. Opponents of the choice system pointed out that the core memory rounds included scavenger hunts, physical puzzles, and other specialty items that are more manageable when timed with particular solving shifts. A team discovering that the chosen round is not suited to the current contingent of awake puzzlers would likely feel screwed by poor luck of the draw.

The controversy was good food for thought in my explorations of immersion and escape room design. Immersive artists would applaud the introduction of choice, but the stakes are different when the experience is a theatrical experiment or art installation such as House of Eternal Return. The Pastore home was designed to illustrate how experience is non-commutative. Impressions depend on the order in which we perceive the data. On the other hand, Pine and Gilmore in The Experience Economy warn that too much variety can be harmful in a business context because the participants become overwhelmed with choices and consequences. Business owners should strive for customization and personalize experiences with a combination of moderate client interaction and empirical research. I suspect that the Pine and Gilmore approach would have benefited Mystery Hunt teams, but it would be a dealbreaking effort for the organizing team to customize solving trajectories for a hundred participating teams.

All current Puzzah! adventures feature a strictly linear narrative. Teams must solve puzzle A before solving puzzle B. In some cases a team making good time can unlock a bonus puzzle between two puzzles on the schedule. This is an example of customization based on automated assessment of a team’s skill level. But teams still recognize that they are being leash-led down a singular path and request having more control over their journey. I have some ideas on introducing more agency in our next room, but I must keep choices manageable and benign. At the end of the day, it’s all about providing the experience of success.

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Mystery Hunt solving team Palindrome was one of the top finishers this year. Members of Palindrome constructed a practice Hunt called Damn This Traffic Jam. The Hunt was distributed among teammates earlier this month and now is publicly available on The P&A website. I finished the Hunt yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. It contains several puzzles that are suitable for beginning solvers. Check it out!

 

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House of Eternal Return / 19 Crimes

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Immersion is one of my new topics of interest. I want to learn more about immersion and apply that knowledge to my puzzle room design work. I want to participate in immersive experiences to broaden my aesthetic sensibilities. It’s a little bit daunting, but I’ll post my insights and journeys, starting with my recent trip to House of Eternal Return.

DISCLAIMER: My description will include some mild spoilers. These will only be harmful to purists who want to visit House of Eternal Return with no advance knowledge. Most readers will be fine.

Two years ago the art collective Meow Wolf purchased an abandoned bowling alley in northern Santa Fe. A group investors, including George R. R. Martin, commissioned dozens of artists to collaborate on a massive immersive installation for the new space. I heard about the project from two Denver-based Meow Wolf organizers who are friends of Puzzah! I also got some details from other friends who visited the installation shortly after it opened. My colleagues and I agreed on the business research benefits of the site, so we planned a road trip and made our way down to New Mexico in early December.

The Meow Wolf installation, titled House of Eternal Return, begins in the front yard of a Victorian house constructed inside the former bowling alley building. A mailbox reveals that the house belongs to the Pastore family. Visitors find no prescribed route and wander through the house in the manner they choose. The house interior features pleasant furnishings and walls decked with family photos, but no sign of the actual Pastore clan. There is evidence of supernatural disturbance that beset the home sometime in the recent past. Visitors can explore the living room, dining room, kitchen, and climb the stairs to the second-story bedrooms, but the doors and hallways eventually lead to areas that … one would not expect to find in a Victorian house.

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The people exploring House of Eternal Return seemed to fall into two categories. First-time visitors, like me, and groups with young children were drawn to the exotic environments. The installation contains over 50 “rooms” with amazing visuals and sophisticated technological interactions. People who had presumably been to House before took a more investigative attitude. They stayed in the house proper and combed through newspapers, desktop computer files, and diaries looking for clues. Who left this business card for a self-help cult? Why was the government surveilling the house? These carefully placed bits of data are meant to fuel speculations over the fundamental mystery of the experience: What happened to the Pastore family?

The road trip group compared notes as we drove back to Colorado. The installation contains a lot of authentic detail, but the use of fragile materials (paper, glass, textiles) in a hands-on space with thousands of weekly visitors must be a maintenance nightmare. Several of the technology elements are worth incorporating in future escape rooms. The installation contains a couple of “puzzles” but most of the experience was passive. The narrative structure is not perfect but the immersive qualities of the space are definitely memorable. I would enjoy a return visit, and I’m excited that Meow Wolf announced a new immersive installation will open in Denver in 2020!

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And on the subject of immersive technology: A friend game me a bottle of 19 Crimes wine as a holiday gift. I learned from a recent post in the escape room technology Facebook group that 19 Crimes wine bottles have a fun augmented reality feature, which you can see in this video. As a possible escape room element, it sure beats blacklights and ultraviolet paint.

Next

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Yesterday I kicked off the new year by joining some friends at Clueology in Loveland. The independent escape room business features three adventures. Our foursome explored the cabin of a retired intelligence office in The Fallout Room and then saved a nuclear power plant in Quake, an adventure reminiscent of a classic 1970s disaster film. Both offerings were well staged with immersive sets and sophisticated technology. The Fallout Room was particularly dense with puzzles and narrative elements, and we later learned that it was  designed for team-building groups of six or more. We held our own but required occasional nudges from the game master, generally in the form of “Take a look at the box in the front yard,” or “That desk is important.” We never needed a hint on how to solve a puzzle, rather what puzzle to solve next.

I shared the observation with my friends during lunch. They nodded in an unsurprised manner, adding that object-finding and puzzle-ordering are the escape room elements most likely to cause them difficulty. I reflected on past escape room experienced and recalled many times in which I focused less on individual puzzles and more on structural narrative. There’s an old saying that defines skill as knowing what to do and wisdom as knowing what to do next. One of my college professors adapted that saying to postmodern academics. After playing and creating a lot of escape rooms, I find it enjoyable to get into another room designer’s head and anticipate the intended solving path. I wasn’t a masterful pathfinder in The Fallout Room, but the amount of nudges from the game master suggest that the experience might have too many nonintuitive transitions. When we completed one of the puzzles, the game master, who was also the business owner and room designer, immediately jumped on the address system and suggested that we look for something that changed in another area of the room. When we completed the mission I asked about the abruptness of that clue. The game master admitted that the transition was designed to be an observational room-search challenge, but few solving groups made the connection without help. He was in the process of installing a better in-room clue for the transition.

I don’t want to come down too hard on the narrative structure at Clueology. I hear similar criticisms of my Puzzah! rooms, though in the opposite direction. Several guests have complained that the narrative path is too clearly marked, and wish they had more opportunities to discover the next puzzle rather than being told where to look. This explicitly linear narrative is a traditional requirement of Puzzah! design specifications, but I’m racking my brain for a work-around that will fit our parameters. Our next room will have a narrative structure somewhere between classic Puzzah! and Clueology, in which players can guide themselves through the story using reasonable intuition. My puzzle is to create an experience in which a team uses skill and wisdom in the right balance.

 

2017 Las Vegas Minicon Notes

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The Embassy Suites on Swenson had undergone a renovation in decor since 2016. The changes were initially jarring but the basic amenities of our mincon hotel ultimately hung to tradition: same swans, same Elvis statue, same Sin in the Desrt cocktails at the complimentary happy hour. Bartender Dey is still slinging alcopop at the Suites and greeted our return with only slight confusion that we were not there on our usual Labor Day weekend.

The main new restaurant experience of this minicon was Carmine’s at Caesar’s Palace. The family style-Italian joint was our choice for a Friday group dinner. The cold antipasti was excellent, featuring small sandwiches and a seafood salad. The saltimobocca was an interesting new experience but I preferred the simpler angel hair with tomatoes. The dessert cannoli was average and the ambience a bit stadium-like but I enjoyed the meal overall. The Sunday night hangers-on tried dim sum at the off-Strip Yum Cha. We shared some nice small plates including a tasty duck, but I had some heartburn that dampened the experience.  I tried drinks at the Peach Bar at Cosmopolitan’s Momofuku. I had an awkward start with the bartender but he made me a personal cocktail with honey, ginger, and tequila that I was find of. TMI alert: The real highlight of of Momofuku was trying out the bidet in the men’s room. The Venetian’s Bouchon was our Saturday night choice. During dinner, a kitchen staffer suggested in a slightly scolding manner that I should eat the skin of my trout. Aside from that minor hiccup the meal was a delightful array of friendship and French cuisine. I enjoyed returning to B&B in the Venetian, where I had an exceptional Italian mule and a peach-and-mint bartender’s choice that I called a Chantilly after my childhood home.

Minicon games were lean this year. I had a clipboard full of NOL convention handouts so I wasn’t worried about the lack of a Mark Halpin extravaganza (slated for the end of August). Dave Shukan recently introduced me to Escape This Podcast, and I was reminded of an interactive fiction game that I wrote in college called Rat Trap. I presented it to some of the other attendees and it provided a short diversion. I also wrote an Only Connect game using the web infrastructure written by Andrew Greene. It proved to be a convenient amusement that could be played during a restaurant lunch by those with smartphones. Darren Rigby had the Only Connect games he presented a few weeks earlier in Boston. We played the “puzzle” set and I was awestruck by the Wall rounds. We played Codenames, Sporculation, and tested a drawing game called Fake Artist Goes to New York.

We scheduled the minicon in early August this year to sync with the Trivia Championship of North America. TCONA, now held in the Tropicana, is celebrating its seventh year drew about 250 trivia fans including several friends from the crossword community. The event features ample content and somewhat wonky scheduling so we didn’t attract too many of the registered members off-site for minicon activities. We did visit the Tropicana one afternoon to audit the game show marathon (I saw a few rounds of Tic Tac Dough) and play the trivia escape room devised by John Chaneski. The challenge comprised nine trivia questions each hidden in puzzle form in some item or location associated with most hotel rooms. We found and solved the puzzles, answered the questions, and then discovered a code that would allow us to escape the room. The setup was better designed than many commercial escape rooms I’ve attended, but the highlight for me was seeing John after an absence of nearly a decade, He’s a treasure. Our minicon did visit a commercial escape room in Vegas: Lost Games. The nascent business offered the first in a planned series of three serialized horror-suspense rooms with an insane asylum theme. The three owners were very personable and all participated in the preliminary skit that landed us in a medical study looking for the antidote to a poison we had ingested as a presumed prescription drug. The experience included good puzzles, a rich immersive environment, and well designed technical effects. It was easily the best escape room I’ve played in Las Vegas.

Only eleven months and change to minicon 10!

Life as a Puzzle in 2016

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I attended my first NPL convention in 1998, where I first met and initiated friendships with people who earned a full-time living from creating puzzles. I worked in publishing at the time and enjoyed a corporate structure with predictable work hours and benefits, but was curious about a life in which my career and primary hobby would be the same. Over the years I received opportunities for puzzle-related side gigs but held onto the security of my corporate “day job.” I got laid off in 2015 and in a few months found work at a Denver-based puzzle room called Puzzah! 2016 marks my first full year in which my income was solely based on puzzle work. Now that my 18-year-old curiosity has been appeased, I find it difficult, and perhaps unimportant, to call my life as a puzzler good or bad. It is simply what I have.

My job as a game designer at Puzzah! is bit like being a tightrope walker. I risk my life every day to entertain spectators, only to watch them leave and be replaced by new spectators who don’t know or care about my past accomplishments. The added challenge is that I am walking a tightrope by teaching myself. Puzzah! has philosophical and technical specifications unlike any other puzzle or escape room company I know. The formula produces a successful product, based on the on-site reactions and online reviews of a majority of our patrons. We do get the occasional unhappy customer. Some negative reviews come from escape room enthusiasts who prefer a more traditional approach to puzzle design. But first timers who don’t click with the concept can also register a bad experience. They leave the room defeated and rue the time and money invested. I take in all the reviews and assess the feedback for possible avenues to improvement. For every bad review I read, I need ten good reviews to restore my balance.

Puzzah! opened a second location this fall at a local shopping mall. The high-rent location represents a big risk for the company. We have benefited so far from the heavy foot traffic associated with the holiday season and hope that the trend continues into the new year. I was tasked with designing two rooms to be operational at the time of the store’s opening. I’m proud of these room adventures — Specimen and The Curse — but feel that both rooms could have been more polished on opening day if I had a bit more time for idea development and testing. All of the puzzle are solid but several called for adjustments based on observations of the rooms in action. My colleagues understand that I am learning but they cannot afford a lengthy education.

In all respects, Puzzah! is an astoundingly good fit for my skill set. I am thrilled to be a part of the company but recognize that its less than healthy aspects. I have trouble limiting work to 40 hours a week when I see unfinished projects or puzzles in need of fixing. I endure a lot of stress based on the aforementioned customer reviews and company expectations. Still, I believe that I will overcome these issues with time and eventually find comfortable footing with this current line.

Crossword puzzle construction represents a significant secondary income. The release of my book Fresh Freestyle Crosswords was my major crossword headline of 2016, though the work on the book was completed over a year ago. I had a handful crosswords published by CrosSynergy this year, but those puzzle were also constructed in 2015. The Wall Street Journal and Fireball Crosswords gave me a few chances to showcase meta crosswords. I continued as a contributor for Daily Celebrity Crosswords. The development team there is a fantastic group of people, but the task of finding new, acceptable themes remains a challenge. I regret the fact that I did not attend any crossword tournaments in 2016. I don’t care about the competitive solving per se, but I enjoy seeing puzzle friends who attend a crossword events in lieu of the NPL convention. That convention, held in Salt Lake City in July, produced several happy memories, particularly ones associated with my nephew who uses the puzzle moniker, or “nom,” Whovian. I didn’t mention this in my convention report, but Whovian asked during the drive home if he could present a game at the next convention.

My MIT Mystery Hunt team Setec Astronomy was first to find the hidden coin at the event presented over MLK weekend. Our prize was to organize the hunt that will be presented in about two weeks from this posting. My involvement was intially active, but once my responsibilities for the new Puzzah! location kicked in I found it necessary to reduce my Hunt participation drastically. I am very impressed with what my teammates have come up with for the Hunt, and I will be on campus to help run the event. Perhaps I will be on an organizing team in the future and circumstances will allow be to be more of a contributor.

As a full-time puzzler in 2016 I have often spread myself too thin, and my work for Puzzah!, crossword outlets, and the Mystery Hunt has suffered. I have a tendency to rush a puzzle idea to editorial review before spending adequate time exploring alternatives and consequences. As a result, I spend twice as much time as necessary on puzzle development due to revisions and rejections. Some amount of editorial adjustment is expected in this industry, but I need to work on better first drafts or else I’m not going to have much of a life outside of puzzles. My first resolution for 2017 is to be a stronger puzzler. I want to exercise better forethought and higher standards, and not be distracted by pride or impatience. My second resolution is to maintain better relationships with my friends. Work has been isolating in 2016 and I need to strengthen my social bonds in order to preserve my sanity. Any suggestions or general support on these resolutions will be appreciated.

Courage and comfort to you all in 2017.

 

 

 

 

Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing: The Final Pieces

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I haven’t shaved my face since Halloween. No-Shave November is an opportunity to raise cancer awareness and check on the gray and patchiness in one’s potential goatee but that’s only part of the reason why I decided to put aside the razor for a few weeks. I’m also indulging in the superstition of a “playoff beard” to bring good luck to my team, and in this case the team is Puzzah! My puzzle room employer is scheduled to open its second location on Black Friday and we’ve been working hard this week to get our space in Flatiron Crossing mall ready for patrons who may want a puzzle break during their post-Thanksgiving  shopping sprees. This new location is a significant financial risk for the company and if scruffy face will bring us success then I’m willing to do what I can.

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Puzzah! Flatiron Crossing in Broomfield, Colorado, has spaces for four adventures. Two adventures will be available on opening day: the science fiction-themed Specimen and archaeology-themed The Curse. The adventures for the other two spaces are in development and will be installed early next year. Our general contractor has been prepping the space for the last few months. This week the drywall, flooring, ceiling tiles, wiring, fire inspections, and lease paperwork were all completed, and we began loading in all the things that will turn this blank canvas into a set of live-action puzzle adventures.

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The load-in went smoothly. I was reminded of hauling set pieces from the workshop to the auditorium during tech week of college theater productions. As we started organizing things at Flatiron Crossing we encountered the typical laundry list of installation snags. A prebuilt piece turned out to be a hair to wide for a doorway it needed to go through. An electrical outlet was not at the right wall height for a display. A light fixture transformer was faulty. The team addressed these issues one by one and gradually the rooms looked less like construction zones and more like spaceship interiors and Mesoamerican chambers.

The development team was smart enough not to entrust me with any power tools, and I kept out of the way during the heavy-duty installation. When the equipment was in place I began primary alpha-testing, which was essentially making sure that players could access the puzzle elements comfortably and envisioning the solving process of teams. Later I worked with team members to test the light and sound systems in the room. The systems allow us to implement some theatrical effects for the first time, and it was fun to play around with light and sound cues for the various parts of the puzzle room narratives. One of the highlights of the A/V review was my initial glimpse of a light effect that our engineers have fondly named the “furtle.”

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The origin of its name is reasonably easy to deduce. If you’re curious why we have a furtle then I recommend you make a reservation to play our room adventures once we’re open.

Alpha testing resumes on Saturday and beta testing begins on Sunday. If everything continues in a positive trajectory then I anticipate have much to be thankful for next Thursday. And, with the holiday season underway, I can relax a bit and start counting the days until I can shave.

 

 

 

Puzzle Pieces (August 2016)

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Puzzle Room Adventures
My second year at Puzzah! is underway and my role the Denver-based puzzle room company is shifting from corporate marketing to content development. Up until now I have been contributing ideas and sweat equity for our puzzle adventures as a side activity, but in September if will be my full-time job. Puzzle room development is an exciting new challenge but it has caused me a lot of stress over the last few months. The life-puzzle I am discovering is that this job may be the right choice for me — a “calling” if I fully subscribed to that concept — but that doesn’t mean that the job is easy or a source of instant success. Many of my concepts are rejected based on difficulty, variance, or budget. I generate puzzles with upsetting flaws that are discovered in peer review and testing. I want to perform well in this new role and every misstep crushes me. I’m gradually recovering from period of insomnia and anxiety attacks by reminding myself that it’s okay to fail. Regardless of my background in the puzzle world, I am in new territory with this line of work and I need time and practice before finding my stride.

My experience with puzzle rooms as a consumer has been moderate, at least compared to my friends in Southern California who seem to plan escape room outings every other weekend. In Salt Lake City I played two experiences at Mystery Escape Room: Entwained has a cute literary theme and Mystery Impossible is … er … well named. In Denver I tested the Mission Improbable experience at Sprightly Escapes. I had a nice time and really enjoyed the enthusiasm of the two business owners, but can see that they have a lot of work ahead of them to make the rooms suitable for mass consumption. Cody Borst has done some excellent work since taking over as manager and lead designer for Denver Escape Room. His Pipe Works experience has an intriguing multi-room structure inspired by the competitive dynamic of the Science Channel’s Race to Escape. Friends have asked if I follow escape room-related blogs or podcasts. I look at the Escape Room Enthusiasts forum on Facebook but haven’t found the discussions very compelling. If you have other media suggestion please post them in the comments.

Crossword Puzzles
Fresh Freestyle Crosswords drops in about three months. I’ll promote the collection of themeless crosswords more heavily closer to the release date. My main constructing venue is Daily Celebrity Crosswords available on Facebook. The puzzles are targeted for beginners but are produced by an immensely talented stable of crossword pros. My next Daily Celebrity Crossword puzzles are scheduled for September 2 and September 24. Beyond that, my time and interest in making crossword puzzles is limited. I am not actively producing content for any other commercial venues and the time I once spent constructing Unthemely puzzles for the blog is now consumed by work for Puzzah! and other projects. I may find the opportunity to make and upload the occasional puzzle but I am not adhering to the same level of commitment or regular schedules as my crossword blog colleagues.

Puzzle Events
I was gratified to read the positive reviews of the 2016 National Puzzlers’ League convention inasmuch my work on the program committee may have contributed to the happiness of the reviewers. My Dictionary Triathlon game helped round out the offerings of the main program and I was pleased that more players got to sample my latest Coordination game in the after-hours.

Setec Astronomy is making good progress on the MIT Mystery Hunt to be presented in January 2017. My contributions have been modest so far, due to the priorities of Puzzah! and Daily Celebrity Crosswords. I haven’t been involved in the construction of individual puzzles so much as brainstorming ideas for events and narrative. I am excited to be in Cambridge next year and join in the presentation of a Hunt for the first time.

My big trip of the year is a two-week tour of Ireland in September. The money and vacation days allocated for the trip have prohibited my on-site participation of several destination puzzle events this year. I did enjoy the home-solving packets provided by Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments and look forward to participating in the Washington Post Hunt in the future. I am holding true to my annual engagement in Las Vegas for the Labor Day weekend minicon. The puzzle suite by Mark Halpin combined with good food, some escape rooms, and the company of extraordinary friends will be just the tonic I need to get all my puzzle pieces in place!