For two weeks the remastered “The Longing” is now up on Holodeck. I used some early feedback for the final release trailer for the mission. This is probably going to be the last PR-stunt I’ll pull before turning to newer and better things (STO related, of course).

On a more serious note, I got a lot of critical feedback that I value as much as the praise. Especially the review of Starbase UGC got me thinking: If two out of three foundry pros have serious trouble figuring out a puzzle, with one quitting out of frustration, then there is something really, really wrong. I got several reviews of the kind. Although the big majority is obviously able to figure it out, it is a big bummer for the rest. Today I’ll give you a write up of how this became a serious problem and how I initially failed to solve it.

The Setup
If you havn’t played the mission yet (and you should!), here is the problem the player is faced with: The Borg board your starship and isolate Main Engineering with a force field. Your only means of deactivating it, is to use a nearly dead drone and hack the Collective consciousness. Of course, the command to lower the force field is protected by a series of lockouts. The player must enter a series of four passphrases, and pick one out of four options each time. So there is a total of 4x4x4x4 = 256 possible combinations and only one will lower the force field.

In order to find the correct code, the player is told to search for other defeated Borg drones lying elsewhere in the level and extract their final orders from the Collective. The player will get garbled data like:

Dir.ctiv. 00405
..arl.. 0.0. ..e..te .e.a…

The information is enough to deduct, that the first pass-phrase is “Charlie” and the last one is “Hexagon” (by counting letters and comparing the known characters with the four possible options for each pass-phrase). Also, there are only two options that match the known information for the second and third part of the code each. That reduces the total number of possible combinations to 1x2x2x1 = 4.

Obviously, the player must use information from another drone to get the correct answer, or try the possible four codes. Now here comes the challenging part: Of the two remaining drones, one is a red herring. And although this possibility is hinted at by BOff dialog, many player’s don’t get it. To make is more obvious, the there are directive numbers associated with the code. The force field has code 00405, and that is how the player can be sure, that the code fragment from the above sample is actually part of the solution. This directive number is also shown wen the player attempts to hack the hive mind.

The Problem

So intentionally, one of the two other remaining drones have incomplete directive numbers to make the player suspicious of these drones. In my design this detail would be noticed as soon the player detected conflicting information from the three drones. I tried to give the player a hint: When the code is entered incorrectly, one BOff explicitly reminds the player that not all Borg on the deck must have been working on the force field when they died. But here is what happened instead:

  • Player’s didn’t want to enter the code before they had figured out the data from the drones and therefore never failed at the puzzle and therefore never saw the hint
  • Even after reading the hint, players would not take notice of the directive numbers or realize their meaning

Salvaging What We Can

When the first frustrated reviews emerged, I realized that the puzzle might do more harm than good when it came to the popularity of the mission. Since the puzzle consists of a branching dialog it would be an easy way out to offer players a shortcut, some RP-justification to bypass the puzzle. But my pride was in the way.

So in a first step, I increased the number of visible letters for each of the fallen Borg. Also, I revealed the hint to the player before the puzzle could be attempted the first time. That helped a little bit.

However, this setup was reviewed by Starbase UGC and again, the puzzle didn’t work as expected. Only NemesisChicken saw right through it, while I managed to lock out Altexist. Well, let’s say that this does not make for a good impression. Luckily, the guys were completely fair and knew the mission from way back. So the review didn’t became the disaster it could have rightfully gotten.

I reacted on the reviews by adding yet another set of hints. After reading the information from each Borg drone, the player may get an analysis from the Science BOff. In that the Boff is pointing out if the drone had been working on the force field for sure, or if it must be considered unreliable information because the directive number is missing.

But again, this was ignored by some people, and others began to complain about the confusing amount of information related to the puzzle.

Final Act: I implemented a way to bypass the puzzle after failing it once.

What You Should Do Differently

The biggest problem with the puzzle is that is forces players to discover two mechanics:

  1. The code may be reconstructed using fragments from other drones
  2. Not all fragments are useful, the directive number will tell you which information is trustworthy

Mechanic one is obvious, and most players stopped there. The second hurdle was simply unexpected and being a Foundry mission it seemed more likely that the mission author was not careful enough in designing the puzzle than that the player was missing something. Don’t repeat that mistake. Think of ONE original mechanic for your puzzle and don’t side track your players. They don’t like that.