Dan Egnor left a comment last week mentioning “GC trust,” which is a great topic that deserves a post of its own. It’s definitely a thought that has come up a lot since I’ve gotten into puzzle hunts and game design.
Trust is a two-way street when it comes to puzzles and games. One side is the trust that players give to the designer or game control, and the other side is the trust that the designers give to their potential players.
What Dan brought up is the first type, GC/designer trust from the player’s perspective. This starts off with the basic trust that the designer knows what they’re doing and have built an entertaining enough experience for you to feel comfortable giving them your time and money. Trust can play a huge role in your active experience of the game as well, especially at points where you’re stuck or something seems off. If you trust the designer, you’ll probably assume everything is in order and you just need to try a little harder. Without that trust, you might just assume the game is broken and get frustrated or give up.
In video game design, I had never really heard any discussion of designer trust from the player’s perspective until a conversation with a friend last week. I don’t play a lot of games, and I’ve had positive experiences with most of the games I have played. A friend of mine, on the other hand, plays tons of games and feels strongly that you have to beat the game in order for your opinion or review to be valid. I’m sure his trust in designers has been broken many times as he struggled to make it through crappy games. Last week, he mentioned the concept of making an effort, as a player, to go into a new game with a “pure heart,” free of bias and fully trusting that the designer has made a great game for you to play.
On the other side of the coin is player trust. This is a topic that comes up in video game design discussions a lot. Games with lengthy tutorials and excessive hand-holding give the impression that the designers don’t trust the players to be smart enough to figure things out, while games that present mechanics and narrative in a subtle way and allow the player to explore show respect for the player and trust them to be mature, observant, active, and aware.
Puzzle hunts are interesting because they are, by nature, intellectual challenges. I’m not sure that the issue of player trust really comes up that much for puzzle hunt designers, since there is such an inherently high level of expectation of the players to begin with. Designers obviously have to put themselves in the players’ shoes and ask “would I actually think to do this or look there, logically?” but I don’t think those are issues of trust.
Gaining and Keeping Trust
How do you gain a player’s trust? Established designers and companies obviously have their previous body of work and clients to establish their reputation, but for new designers I suppose the only method is to work hard, playtest extensively, and make the very best experience you can.
Keeping trust can be hard. One slip-up is all it takes to lose some players, and it can be difficult, or even impossible to regain that trust. Being open to criticism, actively and visibly utilizing feedback, and offering compensation to slighted players are all good ways to rebuild player trust. And transparency is huge. Admitting that you messed up and you’re sorry, and showing how you plan to improve can help make your mistake feel less offensive to the player. Remember that they’ve trusted you with their time, money, energy, and enthusiasm. Whatever you do, if it was your mistake, don’t try to convince the player it was their fault.
Being Trustworthy / Playing with a Pure Heart
From the player’s perspective, I’m not sure there is much that can be done to gain the trust of designers (except to be vocal about enjoying experiences where the designer clearly respected and trusted players). But I think we can make our own experiences more enjoyable by giving trust more freely.
I’ve had at least one experience where I went into a puzzle hunt with a negative bias, not trusting the designer (and without good cause). It turned out to be a pretty bad experience, which was almost entirely my fault. I was quick to give up, and my anger clouded my vision. The clues were solid, I just failed to push myself (and even forgot to do some basic things that really would have helped along the way).
I can understand being hesitant to give your trust, especially if a previous bad experience is coloring your perspective, but I would still recommend erring on the side of too much trust rather than too little. Turning a potentially great experience into a bad one because of your negative bias definitely outweighs whatever potential disappointment you might be protecting yourself from by being cautious.
(That being said, it’s definitely possible for the player to learn to “trust” that the designer will be consistent in a certain way, even if it’s a bad way. For example, I learned to trust that sometimes, answers to The Stone would be absolutely ridiculous pieces of nonsense! Once I established that trust, it made it easier to stick with puzzles that might have actually been poorly-designed. Tyler, maybe this concept fits somewhere into your recent experience.)
I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot of instances of broken trust and frustration lately, so I’d love to hear any other thoughts you all might have on the subject, from either side of the fence!