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Weekly Musings #12 - Regarding Puzzles and Multiplayer Gaming
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: August 29th 2004

Even before video games existed, puzzle games did. There are of course myriad varieties inside of puzzle names as well, from the standard jigsaw puzzle to extremely complex games like the Battletech table-top games, and the newly revived Dungeons & Dragons tabletop/miniatures gaming as well. In these, of course, we can see the staying power of multiplayer versus single-player gaming. Standard jigsaws are constantly remade to keep the game interesting, and are rarely completed by a "player" more than once. By contrast, some D&D campaigns and other roleplaying games have gone on for decades, and Battletech campaigns and gaming likewise continues to this day. The missing element between the two is obviously the randomness factor that other humans bring to the table.

Strictly speaking, all video games - even the multiplayer variants like Street Figher clones or Xbox Live titles such as MechAssault - are puzzle games. Players are given a ruleset, options, a set of goals, and are told to find a solution. In this sense, even physical sports are like a puzzle game in many ways, as the players on the field rely upon strategy and cunning as much as physical brute strength to win. 

Some games are more open-ended than others. In traditional puzzle titles like Zork, there is one solution and only one way to achieve that solution. In fencing, there are only a few possible solutions for each touch scored, but an endless or near-endless variety of possibilities as to how that touch will be achieved. In platform or action titles likewise, there is a general solution that the gamer will play through - but within that solution, there is hopefully a decent amount of leeway. In more open-ended titles, there are more options, and the end-all and be-all is multiplayer combat online. In some, it is possible to declare the game "solved", just as Checkers, Othello, and jigsaw puzzles can be said to be "solved." In fact, Chess comes closer and closer to being solved every day, and if it ever is (when computers that can analyze the game 60-70 moves ahead are available) it's possible that the fate of Chess's "Grand Master" players may shift closer to that of Checkers champions who arrive in places and wind up playing against all comers for $20/game. If so, the new game of choice for tabletop strategists may be the Oriental title Go, which is orders of magnitude more complex than Chess. On the other hand, they may also attempt to move to card games like Poker, where strategy is as much about out-bluffing the other player as it is about strictly outmaneuvering them; the mathematical complexity of the game replaced by the relative randomness of the human element.

Likewise, many of the console and PC games are solved, and most of them released today are solved before they are even released, as the programmers construct them much more like a story than an open-ended and difficult to master title. True "unsolvable" titles that go on forever, as most original arcade games (Ms. Pac-Man, Star Wars, Defender, etc) did, are less likely to appear on consoles than they will on smaller platforms like mobile phones or portable game systems, where the lenght of gameplay is generally no more than a couple of hours at a time and repetetive gameplay can be forgiven. On consoles, even the single-player titles have begun to adopt "enhanced difficulty" modes and lengthy side-quests in attempts to create new challenges for the player once the game has been solved, often no easy task. Unlockable new characters are but one aspect of this quest to keep the gamer occupied.

So what makes online play so great and addictive? Ultimately, it's the relative unsolvability of the play. Playing against other humans ensures a random element not found in the preloaded mission settings of a single-player game; no matter how many unlockable elements are programmed in, no matter how complex a "random mission generator" is developed, eventually the gamer will begin to feel they are solving the title.

With online competitive play, there's none of that. Instead, the challenge is outmaneuvering, outgunning, out-thinking another human opponent on the other end of the wire. And the satisfaction of solving the jigsaw puzzle is replaced with the satisfaction of having won or lost against a more worthy opponent able to respond to our own maneuvers, instead of lying limply on the board waiting to be paired to the neighboring piece.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
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Musings 12: Regarding Puzzles and Multiplayer Gaming


Added:  Sunday, August 29, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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