Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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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!
Tags: games, perplex city, puzzles
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