Knightmare Stories IV. – The Secret of Secrets

In 2013, Knightmare took us on a literary journey through the process of creating lore, bringing it to the players and letting it evolve over time with the help of concepts such as ascension. This month, our journey will come to its end and Knightmare will let us in on the secret of designing secrets…

As a matter of fact, no secret and its solution can be as splendid as the mind of an imaginative investigator may envision it. After days or weeks of wondering how something might work and what rewards might await you, expectations have been built up that are hardly to match. However, this is only the most basic thought you have to keep in mind when designing a secret. The challenges start way earlier.

As simple as it may sound, it is truly hard to come up with a difficult riddle. This not only due to the fact that you are just one against a few hundreds if not thousands of creative minds, it is also difficult to come up with a riddle that makes remotely sense and is not solved within a day or two. For example, a certain tower (and I do not mean the Paradox Tower, by the way) had been there for quite a while before we could finally implement the quest connected to it. Still, it was better than having the tower just pop up out of nowhere and thereby making it obvious that there was a connection with a quest discovered in an update. Said quest is a good example of something that is extremely difficult to solve in theory but nowadays is often done with the help of instructions found online with minimal effort. Already the start of the quest was designed with the assumption that someone had to explore a bit and do unusual things to even find out about the quest in the first place. This made the quest well hidden but so unavailable to the masses that it was more likely to learn about it via browsing websites than by playing the game. That does not mean the quest was bad or boring, but it shows some of the most fundamental problems of designing riddles and secrets.

Also adding to these challenges is the fact that the ingame reward is the same for everyone, regardless if someone looked up the solution or found it out all on his or her own. Unfortunately, as a designer you cannot really address this problem without putting unhealthy competition into something that should be more of a common effort. If we tracked who solved it first and gave something special to this person only, it would not be fair in many cases and most likely very counter-productive since people would no longer share information and thoughts but rather keep them to themselves.

The more random and abstract a secret gets, the less entertaining, engaging and solvable it becomes. In Tibia's history, we tried out quite different approaches to that topic. The first quests were somewhat trivial. The world was incredibly small back then, there was nothing but Thais and some land around it. So with fairly few things to explore, quests relied on some more or less well hidden switches and keys. The loot was only available every few hours after a map refresh but eventually each of the few players on this single world had the same collection of items. Even in this very limited world it was already word of mouth that told people where to go and what to do. So the benefits and drawbacks of sharing information already existed back then, but on a much smaller scale, of course.

Then there was a time with a heavy reliance on first-time explorations. That was still back in the earliest days of Tibia when we only had one game world, mind you. The idea was to only reward the first player who reached a certain area while people getting there later would receive nothing - first come, first serve. However, this era was haunted by problems coming from another source: The server was quite unstable so there were numerous crashes. For instance, you could actually "kill" the server by using a distance weapon on a character that shared the same spot with you. A crashed server led to a reboot and the map was completely reloaded, too, so the treasures were obtainable once again despite the original idea of unique rewards. Only the unpredictability of when a reboot would take place (it could be days) prevented the worst. Yet, as you can probably imagine, the 'forced respawn' of treasures was quite commonplace - actually to an extent that people rather kept the bug a secret to abuse it. The implementation of the magic system made it even more flawed due to the imbalance between vocations, allowing certain vocations to get treasures with no risk at all by using invisibility to avoid monster fights.

As you can see there was more secrecy about some abuse in the end then about a quest itself. With the dawn of reward chests and the like things loosened up a bit. There was more room for us to experiment with rewards but the biggest problem remained: How to make it fair? You still had the reward disparity between those who did the hard research and the quest tourists who enjoyed their rewards with much less, if any effort at all. Over time, the challenges became more and more physical. You had to do certain things and fight certain bosses, spent some amount of time grinding for something and so on. With quests readily provided by NPCs and clear instructions there was less of a challenge in exploring. Although you could get some tips on how to beat a certain encounter you still had to manage that encounter on your own in the end. This was suited for a different play style, though, but at least it felt a bit more fair. It was a more gradual shift but it was felt over time. I think the Ankrahmun area and its tombs are a good example for this evolution. There, we see the mix of challenge and riddle for the first time. Certain things were not directly explained or referred to in books, and yes, if you looked it up somewhere it was way easier. Still, there were challenging fights and solvable riddles. The tombs came with enormous hunting grounds so that even if you were not into solving riddles, you found something to do. The dream challenge is an example of a quest of that era which heavily relies on secrets: It is quite difficult to be found and more of a self-contained riddle-only area without hunting grounds.

Now how often do players go there? They visit the secret areas once with each character and perhaps another time to guide someone. Now ask yourself: Have you done aforementioned quests on your own? How did you learn about them? How did you solve them? I guess very few of you did it without any help from someone or somewhere else. Many players were probably led there by friends who instructed them - and that is perfectly fine, that is what multiplayer games are about after all. So the problem here is not on the players' side. It took much time to create this content. In that time another hunting ground could have been created that would be visited by scores of players every day. So there is a point where we as developers have to ask ourselves: What justifies the effort and time?

Regardless of what you do, how complicated and tricky you design your riddles, they will be solved eventually. As the solution gets spread, they will more and more be seen as a kind of reward for reaching a certain level than a secret or a riddle at all.

Here is another thing to consider as a content designer: Even if you hide something well, you actually want people to see your stuff. If you look at the numerous so-called Easter eggs in popular games, it is quite obvious that not everyone can figure out a certain reference or gets the idea of hitting awkward button combinations while in a certain area of the game. Yet, these allusions are found by some people and then get tested by many – but without those posting about it, a great deal of content would simply be lost or remain undiscovered.

Even if you somehow manage to pull the trick and make something secret yet accessible, updates roll on and on, and the reward for solving a riddle might be outdated even before someone finds it. From a designer's point of view, it gets easier when it comes to secrets that are a reward on their own, like finding out why NPC X and NPC Y truly hate each other. Here, the reward is some kind of knowledge that is not readily available to everyone. Still, the reward is insignificant enough that you would not feel cheated when someone else looks it up because the joy and pride you felt when you found it out is something that no one can take from you. It holds a sentimental value which does not get spoiled by someone else who puts less or no effort at all into obtaining this information. However, something like that is (understandably) rarely seen as a reward at all.

Another problem that is easily overlooked: When a new update is launched with a new area or a new NPC gets added, it is hard to hide that. Players explore a new area expecting new quests and perhaps secrets. This makes it a lot easier for long-time players to find some moderately or even extremely secretive spot: They just search the whole new area and can focus on that. A new player, though, faces over 10 years of regularly added content. This is more than overwhelming, and admittedly, it makes it quite hard for new players to understand what to do, where to go and start. Not to mention that there might be some secret areas... Overwhelmed with all the possibilities that are already offered by the core game, it is easy to get lost, and a newcomer may just not have the time or patience to look for hidden content such as secrets. Well, there you have another dilemma…

I am not saying that I am currently all against riddles and secrets but it is for sure incredibly hard to balance them, and regardless of what you do, there are always drawbacks you have to accept.Well, I could probably go on and on, but you know, the most important thing with secrets is ... secrecy. ;o)

With these musings, our literary series "Knightmare Stories" comes to an end. What are your thoughts on riddles and mysteries in Tibia? Are you interested in them? Do you solve them on your own or together with others, or do you just look them up once a solution has been found? Let us know in our feedback thread!

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