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February 13th, 2007


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03:38 pm - Looking in on Perplex City
Some of you might recall I mentioned Perplex City about a year or so ago; I know that at least rhysara, wordplay, xnera and xorsyst have been playing ever since, possibly alongside other people with usernames towards the end of the alphabet. Time to look again at what's going on there. Caution: INCLUDES SPOILERS, though nothing that at least xnera doesn't know.

As discussed, the Perplex City puzzle trading card alternate reality game is made up of both an ongoing quest to solve puzzle cards (and participate in other competitions) to win points and climb a leaderboard and a treasure hunt to retrieve a buried cube for a UK£100,000/US$200,000 reward. The Receda Cube was recently found and returned, concluding the first season of the game.

Though I never played Perplex City, I have become more interested in it ever since I read that somebody won. The story of how the cube was found is still emerging and is quite interesting; essentially, this card (which is a relatively common one, but not released until the final quarter of the first season) tells you how to find the cube if you can get to the right geographical location and interpret it correctly. Finding the right geographical location is the tricky part.

Some of the cards had amorphous blobs printed on them. If you assemble these in the right order, they match the distribution in England of a geological feature known as the Jurassic Strata. A within-game web site called the Library of Babel seemed to hint at "strata", too, to confirm this lead. At the end of January, the gamemasters made press releases suggesting that the Library of Babel really was the place to look for the crucial information as to how to find the cube, which may have relatively recently been updated with pictures suggesting "it's hidden in a forest, near a wooden object with this collection of knobbles and markings, in soil of this colour".

Now I may well be missing an essential bit of logic here, but somehow people narrowed things down to one of two forests, one of which has a set of trails which can be taken to match up with the flavourtext on the card with a bit of creative interpretation. (It helps to know some character names for confirmation, and also you need to have more in-game information than I do to interpret the game's unit of length.) Follow the instructions - easier said than done, as they're deliberately not the clearest - dig a bit and find the cube.

The winner, Andy Darley, is a popular one, having been a genuine contender (as opposed to a pretender) throughout the duration of the game and a reasonably frequent community participant. He is gradually writing up his tale of finding the cube, which is an entertaining read, and suggests that at least a few other sets of players were thinking along the same lines as him and might well have beaten him to finding the actual cube. To me, these are all signs of a fairly- and well-run game. (Also, the winner has style - he took the cube on a trip to Ampthill for no other reason than that was where the Masquerade golden hare was buried. Kudos!)

It's interesting to note the timing of things, and at least one person has made slightly disparaging noises that too generous a hint was given towards the end. Presumably there's quite an involved process towards the production and release of new Perplex City cards, and the gamemasters will have known for some time that the first wave (release of new cards) of Season Two is scheduled for March 1st, with a relaunch of the web site scheduled for February 14th, presumably with a considerable change of emphasis from "find the cube" to, er, whatever the goal of the second season is. Accordingly, it may well have been a business requirement to have the first season neatly tied up before the second season begins. I note that there will still be a lot of people out there selling Season One puzzle cards, advertised as "Win £100,000!", when the prize has already been won. Practically unavoidable, and still solveable for leaderboard points, but not right.

At this point I should probably qualify that my opinion on Perplex City is probably highly tainted because I have deliberately never tried to get into it, much as I have deliberately never tried to get into any ARG, let alone any MMORPG... well, any game, really. I prefer to be a dilettante and spend my time on a variety of different things at the expense of attaining any worthwhile degree of mastery at any of them. If there is anything I spend my time on, it's enjoying living with Meg and following LiveJournal - more keeping up with my Flist than posting, and not even doing a good job at that. (Damn need to feel that I haven't missed anything!) Sometimes I slightly regret missing out on shrineofdoves, but I don't have the time, the money, the attention span or the inclination to let anything take over my life. Puzzle games with finite timescales are cool, though even the MIT Mystery Hunt is proving too much like a marathon for me in practice these days, no matter how much I've been looking forward to it. I've also never got the fascination of collecting cards.

With this in mind, I'm not thrilled about the business model that the Perplex City game uses. If you're trying to climb the leaderboard, you need to buy a lot of cards (and/or get into trading) and the commercial success of the game depends upon heavy repeat business. Sure, you can follow the narrative aspects of the game without the cards, and there's no reason why someone who had never bought a card couldn't have been the one to find the cube simply through following all the online speculation and community. I don't know how well the solving-puzzles half of the game and the finding-the-cube half of the game interact and would be curious to hear from insiders how well it all holds together in practice.

The quality of the puzzles is highly variable; there are some crackers, but an awful lot of old standards and seen-it-befores, and £2.50 is a lot to spend on a pack of six repeats or six disappointments. Either 252 of the first 256 or 253 of the first 257 puzzles have been solved by the world so far, which is satisfyingly many and satisfyingly incomplete. I'm particularly amused by the card that's effectively "j0, solve the Riemann hypothesis!" - not a great puzzle as far as puzzle games are concerned (and I wonder how the answer-checking mechanism knows whether or not a submitted answer is correct!) but if you got it in your pack then you would at least be happy that you have a valuable trading commodity for which you could get a lot in exchange. Arguably it's a concrete example of an idea future as the card has a different value before and after the solution of said conjecture. Currently the markets consider it ~56% likely that we'll get a solution by the end of 2020, so I'd broadly be inclined to go short on Riemann cards.

On the other hand, I'm impressed with the way that the gamemasters are embracing the fact that solving the clues really is a community effort in practice, even if not in theory. I was tickled by the card which is spawning a group brute-force cypher decryption distributed computing effort in the style of the RC5 challenges, and the Find Satoshi practical test of the "six degrees of separation" theory is also a lot of fun. If you have any contacts in Japan, particularly ones who work for Sony or Ricoh, then perhaps you can help find Satoshi. That's clever and cute!

So to season two which is starting soon. It is to be noted that the cube, when it was found, was engraved with "cube 2/3" among other things. It is also to be noted that Mind Candy are selling a helluva lot of cards in the US and it is believed that 45% of players are in the UK, 45% in the US and 10% in the rest of the world. I would not be terribly surprised to see Season Two be a search for another hidden object, quite possibly one buried in the US somewhere, quite possibly one whose location relies on an awful lot of clues which haven't fully been puzzled out in Season One. (Maybe another cube, with the third cube somewhere else on the planet for a third season?) It would be surprising if there were a prize fund smaller than that of the first season, too, though prize funds don't come from nowhere.

I do wonder what the profitability, or otherwise, of the whole Mind Candy project is - whether this could all be a giant happily money-losing tax dodge folly by a nice-mad gamer who did rather well out of the .com bubble, whether this could be a very long-term play that someone will eventually find the right business model and Mind Candy will have proved themselves the obvious content providers once such a model is found, or whether the people working on the project are just working for relative peanuts and a whole lot of satisfaction. I once met Mind Candy's Director of Play, Adrian Hon and consider him a nice bloke so I hope that they can find a way to make this work and keep producing their distinctive and pleasant brand of mayhem, though I would be even more favourably inclined toward them if they had employed more of my friends :-) As it is, my own recommendation remains "follow from afar and spend your money on some good puzzle books to get a better ratio of neat ideas per pound" - or there's always something like the Puzzle Boat.

If you're curious, though, Season Two starts soon and apparently there are some special season two preview cards that can be obtained from Hamley's in London. If comments to this post can match up people who might like to obtain such cards with people who could obtain them in practice then so much the better. Have at!
Current Location: Earth
Current Mood: impressedimpressed

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


From:songmonk
Date:February 13th, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I was never very good at this kind of stuff, but I still miss it!
From:mr_babbage
Date:February 13th, 2007 07:38 pm (UTC)
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I may be biased but after much thought about this subject, I'm still largely of the opinion that these things are too damn bloody complicated to get excited about. They fail the My Mum Could Do It test and, as you say, suck all the life blood out of you trying to follow all the trailheads.

It's very difficult to see how or why the puzzle was solved, and how the cards aided the solve. I also agree with those who complain that the answer was almost given away at the end, because a newspaper printed the URL of the Tower of Babel Library in rebus form just a few days before the find.

The story and style of design left me cold, although as objects the cards are by and large pleasing enough.

With some $7million in venture capital behind them, I dare say the intention is to make pots and pots of cash. I'm not convinced that the registered base of 50,000 players (of which I'd estimate only a 20% of which, at best, are regularly still playing) is enough to keep them ticking over. However, the fact they're now in 700-odd game shops in the US thanks to a new deal will be very very handy and may be enough to keep the wolf from the door.

I think a prize book of 100 crosswords with a £100,000 prize for the first person to solve them all would be a better commercial success (i.e. medium gain for lower outlay).
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 13th, 2007 08:36 pm (UTC)
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O if only the philosophy behind the staffing decisions had turned out differently, eh?

I think a prize book of 100 crosswords with a £100,000 prize for the first person to solve them all would be a better commercial success (i.e. medium gain for lower outlay).

I can remember you had a really good (and, as far as I can tell, original) twist on this and am having to restrain myself from posting what it was for discussion. You may well get mail. :-D
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From:jvvw
Date:February 13th, 2007 08:38 pm (UTC)
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I didn't realise the Masquerade hare was buried in Ampthill (which is within walking distance of where we live). Must look up exactly where it was.

The thing that's always deterred me from getting into Perplex City is that you probably don't stand a chance of getting anywhere unless you put an awful lot of time into it - there's not much point in trying to be involved 'casually'.
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 13th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC)
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Can't help you beyond "close by Ampthill" from memory, but:

The last photo in the set of the guy finding the cube probably suggests where as well as anything else... oh no, there's a concise explanation in the Wikipedia page.

I think there are a lot of people for whom it does work perfectly well at the level of "get cards, solve puzzles, score points, climb the leaderboard", as well as people who are really into the story with all its twists and turns. Perhaps it's just that I'm far less of a fan of stories than most, really.
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From:xnera
Date:February 14th, 2007 04:54 am (UTC)
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Accordingly, it may well have been a business requirement to have the first season neatly tied up before the second season begins.

Mind Candy had said before that there'd be two "ends" to Season One: the wrapping up of the story, and the finding of the cube. They seemed to indicate that Season Two would start regardless of whether or not the Cube was found. It's hard to say for certain because Season Two hasn't started yet and we don't know what it's going to be like, but I'm betting Operation Bayonet would have worked pretty well as a Season One ender, and perhaps was designed as such.

But yes, it DID seem that they were dropping heavy clues at the end, and it was annoying. It was even annoying to me, and I've long since given up working any of the puzzles and am just following it for the story. Actually, maybe that's why it DID annoy me; it felt a little too artificial, story-wise. Meh.

I don't know how well the solving-puzzles half of the game and the finding-the-cube half of the game interact and would be curious to hear from insiders how well it all holds together in practice.

Hmm. I would say that the vast majority of players are interested both in the story and in the puzzles, with a subset of those being serious Cube Hunters. I don't get the sense that there's a large contigency of people who are just there for the puzzles, but that could be because these people would be less likely to interact in the more social "spec" threads on the various fora. Probably wouldn't come into IRC, either. So there just may possibly be folks who care only of climbing up the leaderboard. But really, my sense is that even the people who are at the top of the leaderboard are heavy into following the story and speccing about what it all means.

The quality of the puzzles is highly variable; there are some crackers, but an awful lot of old standards and seen-it-befores, and £2.50 is a lot to spend on a pack of six repeats or six disappointments.

I've heard two things about Season Two card packs that may interest you. One: the packs will include a seventh "warm up" puzzle card that aren't worth leaderboard points but will include traditional puzzles such as Sudoku. The second, which I can't seem to find a reference to now but I'm sure I read it on Unforums somewhere, is that card packs will be priced lower this season. I don't know how much lower, but rumor is that they will be lower. That may help with the sting of getting a pack of repeats.

I was tickled by the card which is spawning a group brute-force cypher decryption distributed computing effort in the style of the RC5 challenges, and the Find Satoshi practical test of the "six degrees of separation" theory is also a lot of fun.

Yes, I really love these cards, too! :) There's a large sense of community amongst the players, and I think there would be even without these cards, but it's very cool to have puzzles that can't be solve on their own.

Someone got a few Season Two cards at a promo event today, and posted scans of the Season Two card backs. I find the phrase "claim fantastic prizes as you accumulate points" really interesting. This sounds like something more than leitmarks to me. I'm wondering if they are going to have smaller cash prizes available, like perhaps first to solve particular cards, or reach a particular number of points, etc. It'll be interesting to see how that effects the popularity of the puzzle cards. I hadn't been planning on buying Season Two packs at all, but perhaps I'll buy one or two just to see what the cards are like.
From:xorsyst
Date:February 14th, 2007 07:30 am (UTC)
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>Hmm. I would say that the vast majority of players are interested both in
>the story and in the puzzles, with a subset of those being serious Cube
>Hunters. I don't get the sense that there's a large contigency of people
>who are just there for the puzzles, but that could be because these
>people would be less likely to interact in the more social "spec" threads
>on the various fora. Probably wouldn't come into IRC, either.

Well, I'd probably count myself in this set. I like (some/most) of the puzzles, but find the story artificial and boring. I was hoping that to find the cube one would actually have to solve some of the cards, but it seems not to be the case.

I think overall the quality of the cards was dissapointing. Many of them, although solved, still people aren't sure quite how :). There were some absolutely great cards, but I don't think I'm likely to spend anywhere near as much money on season 2. For one, actually getting all the cards requires enormous investment, so you might as well not bother. Couple that with the fact that almost all of the silver (really hard/rare) cards are too hard for my liking. I'll probably get a few mix packs, trade a bit, and solve what I've got.
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From:xnera
Date:February 14th, 2007 06:42 pm (UTC)
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I think overall the quality of the cards was dissapointing.

I would agree. Many of the cards were ridiculously easy (or easily google-able), and thus were boring. And then you have the silvers, which are too hard. I have a handle of silvers, and I don't even know how to start solving some of them. So either you're bored with easy puzzles, or frustrated with incredibly difficult ones. There's not a good middle ground there at all. I don't know much about puzzle design, but I would think that you'd want a majority of the puzzles in a given set to be of medium difficulty--i.e., would take the average person some work to solve, but they COULD solve it.

I also think the so-called "meta" puzzles were way too hard as well. I did skim the threads for most of them, and then backed away because they made my brain hurt.
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:February 15th, 2007 12:08 am (UTC)
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Serious reply to come when I don't have to go to work in a few hours, but if someone who is as into it as hard as you are (thank you for the PXC wiki - fascinating stuff!) has reservations despite all the time, effort and love you've put into it then they clearly are doing something wrong.

That said, perhaps Season Two will have a better structure. We shall see... er, today, perhaps. :-)
From:xorsyst
Date:February 15th, 2007 08:29 am (UTC)
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Yep, I think the puzzle quality is not up to the cost. I've recently discovered a puzzle mag in WHSmiths - Davinci Puzzles that's quite a good mix of puzzles for only £2. You've got standard Sudoku/crossword/etc puzzles with answers in the back, and they give you the 'key' to decoding the big puzzle in the middle, a bit treasure hunt like. I've not done the second part yet :)
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From:jiggery_pokery
Date:April 12th, 2007 07:37 am (UTC)
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It would be interesting to know just how crucial the instruction coming at the end of Operation Bayonet was in finding the location of the cube; its meaning can be retrospectively deduced, but it's not clear whether it was actually used by the cube-finding front-runners or whether they happened to do the right things without doing so directly as a result of those instructions. A puzzle is far more satisfying when the information hidden within was actually used in its solution, but very often it's the case that people find the answer through an unintended route.

As you know and have seen, PXC Stories has been delayed to June. Let's hope that the results really will be spectacular. I'm not sure how compelling the proposition of playing the game is without a big prize - indeed, without any prizes that have been announced so far. Then again, many ARGs seem to do OK without it, but I think PXC need to do substantially better than most ARGs in order to flourish as a long-term concern.

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