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Under The Hood: Puzzling Developments

James Murff

There's an interesting counterpoint to the increasing amount of games following the traditional MMO mechanics layout. No, I'm not talking about space MMOs and the mechanics they follow. We covered those last week! I'm talking about the gradual seepage of puzzlers into the genre. It's a budding paradigm, and has both failings and virtues. Naturally, it's time to dissect them.

Let's face it, puzzle games have been around forever. From the simplest such as tic-tac-toe, down to the utmost complex, such as Puzzle Quest, puzzles and, in a more subtle way, puzzles with competitive elements have been with us since we were banging rocks together to make knives. They are a part of the human psyche in the sense that they are how we train our innate ability to recognize patterns. So why don't MMOs include them very often?

Time, mostly. That time is better spent, at least in the eyes of the developer, on improving the core gameplay. If more time was spent making little minigames for crafting in World of Warcraft (something which I wholly support!) instead of balancing and adding new raids, would you really play it? Didn't think so. It's pretty rare for developers to put in minigames for this sort of thing anymore, although as Zenke laments in his Top 10 Features list, this shouldn't be the case.

Puzzle Pirates is a rarity in this case. All of the game's major elements, besides bartering, are governed by a puzzle. Drinking rum, swordfighting, sailing, carpentry, all of them are puzzles, and a lot of them based on classic puzzles. Carpentry is merely a pentomino puzzle. Sailing is a Dr. Mario clone (with slightly different win conditions). Bilging is a Bejeweled clone. Swordfighting is a Super Puzzle Fighter 2 (Turbo Hyper Fighting HD Rev. 42) clone. This isn't bad, because they are good clones and the unique puzzles are very entertaining. I've never seen puzzles like blacksmithing or shipwrightery before in any medium. So it mixes things up.

What Puzzle Pirates does right is doing these puzzles gives you a tangible benefit other than a score. You gain experience in the puzzle (which allows you do start at a higher difficulty and do things like own a ship or a store), money, and in competitive puzzles, ranking. What it does wrong, though, is not giving the solo player an avenue in which to play. It's practically impossible to attain captainhood of a pirate ship (which is why you are playing a pirate game, right?) without being in a crew for quite a while. It feels very much like progress dies out and you are stuck playing the same puzzles over and over.

Thankfully, though, Puzzle Pirates isn't the only puzzle MMO, nor the only MMO with puzzles. Warlords Online, a free browser puzzle MMO brought to us by the magnificant minds behind Puzzle Quest, is in beta. DDO has an infamous Pipe Dream-esque minigame. There is the crafting minigame for EQ2. Puzzles in MMOs are here to stay. Here's just hoping more developers start using them

Each week James Murff writes Under The Hood, a deeper look at MMO game mechanics and how they affect players, games, and the industry

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