Puzzlehunts: Ghost Patrol Reconstructed

Ghost Patrol sites:

In October 2012, Brian Mendenhall of Team lowkey got in touch with me. He knew I wanted to re-use the Octothorpean puzzlehunt answer-checker web app for other games. Was I interested in using it for a Hallowe'en Ghost Patrol game? I sure was. I'd had fun helping out on the 2010 Ghost Patrol BANG, and figured that another hunt would be fun. But I did have a doubt: Wasn't Brian about to become a father? He said he was, but he was pretty sure the baby would sleep a lot for the first month, so as long as the game happened on Hallowe'en, we were good.

In July 2013, I heard from Brian again. It turned out that his first month of new-parenthood hadn't actually had so much free time. But was I still interested in working on a new Ghost Patrol? You bet I was. Since even as not-so-new parents, Brian and Jen didn't have a lot of free time, we'd run it as a straight-up online hunt instead of as a neighborho0d-walking-around game. So…getting the online answer checker right would be good.

Here's an easy way to make an answer checker web app for your puzzle hunt: just make some little tweaks to an existing answer checker you already have handy like, say, Octothorpean. Then tweak the UI to hide the parts you won't use. I already had a bunch of Ghost Patrol webapp-ish content from the 2010 BANG answer checker (itself a reworking of the 2-Tone Game answer checker).

I playtested the puzzles and was pretty amazed; this was shaping up into a darned impressive hunt. The puzzles were rather different from each other, but all thematically linked, tied together and fitting into a neat story.

Jen Mendenhall was involved; things got that designed look. I'd ask "hey, can I get a little icon for such-and-such thingy?" and that icon would show up in our cloud drive soon afterwards. As before, it was cool to work with artists and designers, to spend hours looking at stuff that was, y'know, nice to look at instead of just the usual obviously-engineer-provided-art.

There were playtests. There were changes. There wasn't always a lot of time to make those changes. One nasty side effect of so much hand-drawn art: I, the bachelor with free time, couldn't just waltz in and type up a new version of the puzzle. Much midnight oil was burned in the Mendenhall household.

I watched a playtest in which Desert Taxi folks tried out the game. I wondered if they'd have interesting feedback about this use of the Ghost Patrol "intellectual property." There wasn't so much of that—mostly we found out the hard way about printer issues; if your printer's low on ink, the contrast between theoretically-50%-gray and white isn't so much. Their feedback led to puzzle tweaks, but also the addition of a printer test page to the puzzle-intro materials.

I've worked at a game company. There, we had a sort of art pipeline. There were tools to help the artists get their assets into the game. The app I was working on... didn't have that. To get new art/content into the game, Brian and Jen had to get it to me and I'd copy it up to the server. I hadn't put together a pipeline that made sense to anyone who wasn't a crusty programmer, accustomed to command-line tools. For Octothorpean, this was fine. For Reconstructed… This made for harsher deadlines; have the art ready by such-and-such a time or Larry won't be able to upload it in time. Need to quickly patch something in? Well, it won't be that quick because you've got to get in contact with Larry. Not terrible, but it seemed like weak sauce when I remembered better systems.

Game day arrived. I took the day off work so I could watch over the online game server and make sure my tweaks didn't buckle under the strain of, y'know, more than one team. As it turned out, that was OK, but it was still a good thing I was handy. The game had changed a fair amount after the last playtest; our Hallowe'en deadline meant we didn't have a chance to test out all of our changes. Thus, during the game, we had to upload a couple of corrected puzzles. And we had to email teams who were working on un-corrected puzzles about typos that would lead them astray. I'd never set up an easy way to get the email addresses of all teams who currently had some puzzle open. It took several minutes to go through the database, gathering addresses. That might not seem like a long time, but multiply that time by N unhappy players, and I was feeling the pressure. (And thus Octothorpean now has an easy way for game control to get this information.) But it wasn't all nervous pressure; it was mostly the thrill of watching the logs, cheering for teams as they solved puzzles.

A bunch of teams played on Hallowe'en: it was nice to see names of some far-away teams that couldn't have attended a bay-area walking-around game. The game's still there, of course. A few teams are playing now as I type this, the Saturday after. I know some more planning to play next weekend. Future teams can play in the future… It feels good.


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