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.


GC/Designer Trust

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.


Player Trust

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!

6 comments on Trust

  • Larry Hosken

    “for new designers I suppose the only method is to work hard, playtest extensively, and make the very best experience you can.”

    Game designers can gain the trust of many players without playtesting. It’s happened. There’s a guy named Jayson Wechter in San Francisco who runs hunts that get hundreds of participants each year despite some broken puzzles. He doesn’t playtest. I don’t understand why so many folks show up year after year, but they do. So, uhm, maybe the advice should be “work kinda hard, make at least a half-hearted effort to create a fun experience.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of playtesting. But plenty of folks will trust you regardless.

    • Dan E.

      I feel like that’s unfair.

      Jayson Wechter’s Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt may not be your cup of tea, and it certainly isn’t mine. But Jayson does create a consistent experience which many people enjoy. (I think he’s also good at promotion, or accidentally found a popular niche.)

      The way the CNYTH is set up, it is totally possible to have a great time even if a clue or two is broken. I think we of the “Game” community tend to dislike the CNYTH, because it plays against our instincts to struggle tirelessly up Mount Puzzle expecting a big payoff at the summit.

      I think _consistency_ and _expectations_ are key. There is a vast space of mentally-engaging-puzzle-game-experience-thingies. Even if you like a lot of them, you have to know what you’re in for. If you play CNYTH like it’s the MITMH, or vice versa, you’re gonna have a bad time. If you play Black Letter like… yeah.

      The comment in the OP about a negative bias is interesting. I think it’s possible to approach a low-trust situation without negativity. I’ve certainly had a lot of great times in games where I went in with very low trust. It’s like seeing a bad movie — better go with easily entertained friends and a tub of popcorn.

      But that takes us to the whole question of game players’ emotional momentum, and how to manage that as players or designers…

  • Persona

    I couldn’t follow The Stone jump to ridiculous nonsense. I still remember when it jumped the shark (or should that be eagle?). But I shouldn’t complain too loudly, I’m replaying through the memorial and it’s still a lot of great unique puzzles. I’m a little sad that it’s so much harder to make good research puzzles nowadays.

    • clavicarius (author)

      I’m actually from the camp that *liked* MD, something totally new and different and strange and a little bit clever. But things started getting a little unreasonable toward the end =) Let me know if you need any nudges..

      The Stone is sort of like a little time capsule. It’s so apparent how much the internet has changed in the past 10 years.

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s very much harder to make a research puzzle as it is to maintain one since spoilers start getting posted so quickly, but I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the subject.

      • Persona

        So, MD. I didn’t feel great getting led through it. In the end it was a ‘see and say’ puzzle that used skills other than the ones we used up until then, when it felt like there -were- trails to follow using our prior knowledge (the numbers of arrows and leaves, etc.). I agree that I was expecting ‘lore-heavy’ puzzles to reward students of the black-on-black text and the like, but this didn’t feel like the direction I ‘expected’.

        As for research puzzles, I think my bias toward puzzle events showed in my comment. I’m used to writing (and solving) puzzles that are supposed to go stale after a day, so that spoiler postings aren’t a problem. Solving the social puzzle was part of The Stone (I did make a friend who I met on Mt. Tamalpias looking for the SF Shard, but never had a stonemate). Now, it doesn’t take friends to find spoilers. But it does take an adherence to The Spirit of The Game to avoid them.

        Are you familiar with Puzzle Boat? It’s a large (!) set of puzzles that basically remains unspoiled. I’m guessing it’s a matter of the scale of the audience and popularity. Funny Farm is probably spoiled somewhere, but by using it, what fun is left?

  • Robotguy

    As someone who’s single-handedly (for now) designing a puzzle hunt, I think there’s a lot to be for player trust also. At least as far as trusting the player to avoid meta-gaming, solve the puzzle instead of hacking the server etc. I think the “official” puzzle hunt community is very well behaved and it isn’t really an issue there, but could be for wider audiences. Maybe Larry has had some experiences like this with the Two-Tone Game? Anyone tried hacking the server?

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