The first time I ever wrote for a puzzlehunt was Mystery Hunt 2013. I had joined Manic Sages in 2012 out of the Canada/USA Mathcamp pipeline. They won that year, and I figured, hey, I’ll help write, why not. Writing sounds fun! I helped out on two puzzles. One was good and the other was bad.
I did about zero work outside of those puzzles, aside from testsolving Infinite Cryptogram. It took me 9 hours over the course of a week. I remember leaving feedback that it seemed long, but I had fun, and figured it would take a “real programmer” a lot less time. I had just started college and wasn’t even 18 yet. Surely the real hunters would do better!
During MLK weekend, I didn’t fly into HQ (convincing my parents to let me do that didn’t seem possible), but I helped man answer callbacks from my dorm room. As I called back with more “your answer is incorrect” calls, I could tell things were not going as planned.
People didn’t really realize what social media was in 2013, including me. I remember refreshing the #MysteryHunt hashtag a lot. In those days, the norm was not to avoid social media during a puzzlehunt. There were many live tweets during Hunt, almost never spoilery, but getting grumpier over time. Of course, some people were nice, and most acknowledged that Manic Sages did not intend to create a Hunt that went into Monday, but, well, you get one guess about which tweets I spent the most time reading.
Suffice it to say my first puzzle writing experience was not a fun one.
By the time I did my last answer callback (around 30 minutes before wrap-up), I was apologizing to the team that was calling, for decisions that I had little responsibility in making, but which I felt responsible for anyways. The person I called was a bit taken aback, but assured me that their team simply liked to call in guesses with low odds of success, and they were sure they’d feel dumb when the solution came out.
Ten years later, teammate wrote another Mystery Hunt that went into Monday, with a similarly large number of free answers as MH 2013. (I don’t remember exactly how many MH 2013 offered, but an article from the time suggests at least 24.)
I don’t think there was any single reason that Mystery Hunt was so hard this year, but there was definitely a systematic underestimation of difficulty and length. Drawing a comparison to the 2018 Mystery Hunt, the original theme document proposed a Museum of easy-ish puzzles like the Emotions rounds, a simultaneous Factory of medium puzzles, and then AI-gimmicked rounds with intricate structures that could go to eleven. This would have been fewer puzzles than last year, with a larger fraction of feeders at the level of The Investigation / The Ministry.
We ended up with a Museum of medium puzzles, a Factory of medium-to-hard puzzles, and AI-gimmicked rounds that went to thirteen. So, yeah.
(Well, at least next year’s job of writing a shorter Hunt will be easier!)
I’m better at managing myself than I was 10 years ago, so I’ll be fine. I restarted writing puzzles three years ago, and since then I’ve written enough stinkers and highlights to know what I can do as a puzzle constructor. My body of work is long enough that any individual puzzle isn’t as big a deal.
However, there are some first-time constructors on teammate this year, where their Hunt puzzles are their first puzzles for the public. Just, try not to be too mean? I’ve been pleasantly surprised the response to Hunt so far is not as vitriolic as it was in 2013. Maybe the Internet is nicer these days. It’s a bit more obvious that online discourse has real-life impact and vice versa.
It’s very important that people submit feedback about Hunt, and explain their lived experience. It’s a key part of how we keep improving Hunt each year. At the same time, avoid making too many assumptions about teammate’s lived experience.
As for my play-by-play construction story, that’ll come later. I signed on aiming to do around 10 hrs/week of work for Hunt, and ended up averaging 20 hrs/week, including some 100 hour weeks towards the end. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more time on Hunt this year than I spent in all my past puzzle writing combined. There’ll be a lot to talk about.