I’ve played Puzzle Pirates for a couple of years now, and I’ve played Wizard101 since the open beta, though I’ll play both in fits and spurts. Both have puzzle minigames, and both are a ton of fun. There is one niggling little thing about W101 that bothers me, though. At least one of the minigames is machine solvable. (Yes, Tipa complained about busted minigames ages ago, and I actually started this article around then, but I’m just now polishing it off… since I forgot about it.)
The games in question are Diego’s Duel and Potion Motion. The part that made me think this are the score tables with obscenely high scores and even duplicate scores (see Tipa’s screenshot for Diego scores), as well as the perfect predictability of upcoming events.
As a Puzzle Pirate veteran (and one-time Tetris addict, and everything in between), I’m pretty good and fairly experienced with puzzle games. I had the second highest score for the Sorcery Stones W101 minigame for a while a month or two after release. This isn’t just sour grapes on my part, this is something that looks and feels like someone manipulating the game.
I also had the #5 score in Potion Motion until someone consistently filled the high scores with the exact same score of 12345. (Which has since been surpassed, of course, but I doubt those are legitimate either.) That was a very high score for the time, and I soon thereafter hit just over 10000, so I know that it’s possible to be legitimate, but to score exactly the same score seven times in a row, at the top of the charts, and with no clear outliers like a 12300 or 12450 just screams “hack” to me. (Oh, looky there, one of the hacks is documented.)
It’s been noted more than once that with online games, the client is “in the hands of the enemy”, who often can and will abuse it. Cheating in offline games doesn’t usually affect other players, but cheating online is a problem if competition is important. Thankfully, competition in W101 minigames is just for high scores (which do little), but they do act as currency and item fountains, which has effects on the interplayer economy.
W101’s minigames also differ from PP games in that at least some W101 minigames (Potion Motion and Diego’s Duel) are completely predictable. New pieces in Potion Motion always come in in the same order, so it’s possible to learn the pattern and set up obscene combos and optimized move routines. (At least, they used to be… I’ve not tried it in months, so please forgive me if this has since been changed.)
Sometimes, predictability is a good thing, as in Diego’s Duel, effectively a pattern recognition almost-platformer. NES players wouldn’t have ever finished Ninja Gaiden if it were random. Though notably, it’s possible to design a machine that plays Mario perfectly… the skill isn’t in learning to master a dynamic system and make good split second tactical decisions, it’s in memorizing the timing and patterns, then executing perfectly. Potion Motion, on the other hand, would benefit greatly from randomized piece generation.
Puzzle Pirate devs go to great lengths to design their minigames to avoid machine solvability. They are built on random piece generation and player choices, meant to maximize benefit within the constraints of an unpredictable system. Game pieces behave predictably, and the game mechanics themselves don’t change, but the pieces of the playing board change. Without foreknowledge of the pieces to come, the games are not machine solvable.
Of course, the puzzle minigames in PP are the backbone of the game, where in W101 they are little more than a diversion and health/mana refill. It’s understandable that their respective devs would have different priorities.
Still, if you’re designing a game in video format, and multiplayer competition is relevant to what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to avoid machine solvability. Someone will abuse it, and blow up the scoring curve. Random puzzle piece generation can be a pain sometimes if the game board is prone to locked positions (sanity checks help, but those can be expensive), but even that can be dodged with savvy design.
In other words, it’s good to give players choices. If their choices degenerate to locked boards with no moves, or One True Path that was devised by a computer (and executed best by one), you’ve destroyed player choice. Client hackery is one (bad) thing, but a game designed in such a way that machines can find the best way to play them in the first place isn’t much better.
Yes, players will always seek to optimize their play (like an optimal build and damage rotation in WoW, something that Elitist Jerks are dedicated to), but it’s not ideal to make it easy for the cheaters to ply their trade.