Immerse in the world of Escape Rooms and Real Life Gaming

H.E.L Shooter, a Real Life Action Shooter Experience

When we approached the unspectacular looking office building and saw the darkened windows were sure that this must be the place. To get into the mood we tried to sneak onto the terrace on the first floor and sneak around unnoticed… as even though we were still unarmed, this is what it would soon be all about. Scouting the enemies and profiting from the element of surprise to take them out.

H.E.L Shooter is the real life version of famous tactical squad based shooter games such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six.


After a short welcome chat we were handed a ‘one-day’ members forms for a shooting sport club as soft-air as a personal hobby is illegal in the Netherlands. Additionally we had to confirm that we are here entirely for fun and aren’t members of an organization with extremist violent world-views. Former special force member Marc Pollen elaborates that he is less worried of encountering stereotypical religious fundamentalist from the middle east, but doesn’t want militaristic right-wing neo nazi groups to use his experience as training grounds. After reaffirming our identity as harmless geeks we were handed our gear. Protective gloves, a cool vest and a face mask that forces you to recognize your friends by body shape or the sounds it makes when they shriek out in pain… because the enemy also holds what might be the most important part, the very realistic looking fully automatic soft-air gun. After some practice shots and a simple briefing, basically – ‘go! get the bad guys dead or alive’, we storm the first hallway where we are welcomed by rapid gunfire. The first encounter left me with a head shot and the realization that this plastic bullets will probably leave a marks. From then on it’s pure adrenaline, opening each door is another kick as you don’t know how and where the enemy will wait for you. We keep on shooting and after the first painful encounters we become more careful, but also more courageous as we tasted our first blood.

H.E.L Shooter picture

Still one starts to imagine how scary it must be to be in an actual firefight. Fortunately we don’t have to worry for our lives as we are only punished by the slightly painful shock of being hit. The enemy on the other hand, when being hit, drops dead. We fought ourselves all the way to the top, encountered an infiltrator, chased the evil mastermind and sometimes I stop and investigate with surprise how much marks and damage soft-air bullets left to the interior of the building.

The ending came a bit as a surprise and as usual with experiences like this, the time felt way too short. For around one hour I was fully focused thinking of anything else but rushing around, sneaking towards the enemy and enjoying the guilty pleasure of taking them out.

H.E.L shooter practice

Afterwards we were sitting with Marc Pollen and his partner Thijs Huijsman, reflecting on the most exciting moments of the game, fantasizing about future possibilities. Turns out that some people in our team very much enjoyed the thrill of the action while others would have preferred some more theatrical story elements. While we agreed that there is always room for improvement we all had to admit that even this early version of H.E.L Shooter was a unique experience and it is truly impressive what these guys realized.

Especially these days we see more and more virtual reality action experiences in the making, however I find it difficult to imagine that a VR game can compete with the immersiveness of storming an actual building and having firefights with real people. For instance the encounter with an unarmed supporter of the enemies who we had to threaten and interrogate to receive information was one of my favorite moments and can not be compared to anything I have experienced in a video game.

Anyway, I am looking forward to see more of these experiences and to all the VR-game designers out there, I encourage you to convince me of the opposite 😉
BTW. You can meet Marc Pollen and Thijs Huijsman  when they present the H.E.L Shooter at Up The Game this April in Amsterdam.


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Escape Rooms and the Puzzle Drive

Escape Rooms use one of the oldest motivation of human kind, the desire to solve puzzles. We find in puzzles one of the most popular leisure activity of all times. When the first crossword puzzle appeared in the New York World in 1913 it became an instant hit and soon the whole USA was infected by crossword mania. Rubic Cubes, Sudokus, Word Riddles almost everybody knows the feeling of being absorbed by such an artificially created mystery. Even games such as chess are basically an ever changing version of one and the same puzzle. ‘What pieces do I have to move to end up in a more powerful position then my opponent?’ One can easily claim that most board games present to the player a dynamic puzzle that can never be solved perfectly.

Puzzle trigger an innate human trait to structure, classify, order the world in the pursue to understand it. While science has become the highest profession of puzzle solving, everybody is his own little scientist when testing what works and what doesn’t. On my last vacation I again experienced the detrimental effect it can have to a conversationwhen one throws a riddle in the room. For the time being till it is solved or the answer is released there seems to be no way back and people can’t stop thinking about and analyzing the problem. Sometimes in between, one comes up with the worried question if there really is an answer. Of course I confirm this and secretly wonder if there are really people out there listening with sadistic pleasure to their friends cracking their skulls about a puzzle that has no solution.

I wrote my Thesis in Psychology about the detrimental effects of perception of chaos and lack of control and it seems that solving puzzles is a perfect illustration of bringing order into chaotic structures. This is one of the great attributes of Escape Rooms. They don’t need much explanation. Lock people in a room and present them with puzzles they will automatically try to solve them and innate human curiosity will drive people crazy to look into boxes or try to access hidden chambers. Humans are natural born puzzle solvers and we also seem to find great pleasure in creating them for others.

Lewis Caroll on Puzzle Drive

Lewis Carroll on the greatest Puzzle

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Real-life Games in London – Time travel, Nazis and Detectives

London, the so called theatre capital of the world  had been regularly on my radar due to immersive experience such as the punch drunk theater, or plenty real-life games with zombie themes (see for instance, nazi-zombie adventure, SWAT zombie adventures or fightin through a zombie invested shopping mall  [if you haven’t noticed, they all are!…] and of course Lodnon also shines as an early age adapter of escape games. Thus it was about time that we would finally cross the canal. We managed take four days off for a short trip to the UK – initially intended to head all the way west to visit Banksy’s Dismaland, but ended up staying the entire time in London playing a different game each day.

The first day our most anticipated exploration led us to Time Run. In the middle of a strange neighborhood of car garages and wrecked buildings, there is a mysterious bronze colored gate to another world.

time-run picture

Time Run is one of the most elaborate escape game I have played so far. Not only are scenario and the decoration very advanced (you can see that it is a high budget project), the in-character introduction by a talented actor is very well scripted and professionally performed. Right after entering you find yourself in the middle of a great experience with plenty of room to joke around with the actors and enjoy the details of the experience. The mission – a dangerous exploration through space and time for which two groups are send out simultaneously to find a powerful object lost in the midst of time. Moving through different time zones you can see that professional stage builders were involved to build convincing and atmospheric structures. The amount of spaces and props were truly impressive, however some aspects here and there made me feel a bit like in an amusement park (I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but so far I have to see a tomb or cave structure that looks believable ;). It also appeared that it must have been difficult to plan such a large structure of rooms and still keep it flexible. It seems to me that the amount of puzzles were a bit too much, which led to the effect that we were spammed with hints and sometimes felt a bit rushed and almost ‘pushed’ through the game. However, it could of course be that we were just a bit slow, but anyway I don’t really appreciate hints when I already know what to do and are in the middle of the execution. Anyway – I had a splendid time, especially during the last part of the game – surprisingly this part was the most closest to more usual escape room experiences, but the puzzles were smart and the design elegant. After the game there is a bit of theater as well and even the ‘debriefing’ area is more beautiful than most escape rooms I have seen so far. We talked a bit with the head designer and it turns out that logistically time run does a couple of things very differently than most escape rooms. They have a team of up to seven people operating two simultaneous games which consists of different parts and manage to set it up in a way that two groups can already start playing while the other two groups are in the final phase of the game.

All in one, Time Run was an amazing experience and even though we have played many escape rooms by now, we felt excited for the whole day, still feeding on the energy inspiring ideas that we got from it.

Another game we played was Escape Plan again a great fun experience but conceptually very far from the Time Run approach. While Time Run seems like a professional high budget endeavor Escape Plan gives the impression of a lovely hobby project. It nicely illustrates the spectrum that Escape Games have to offer. Escape Plan obviously operates with a much smaller team and smaller budget, but it still convinces through great puzzle design and impressive authentic props. Smaller budget does certainly not mean cheap here. Everything fits great in the theme and some of the objects are hard to get originals. Escape Plan has the charm of a perfectly crafted little germ that was made by a dedicated hobbyist. Some of the puzzles are so well build that it is clear someone didn’t do it for the money that could be earned, but with the fun and excitement to design something great. The puzzles are plenty and simultaneous, so no one of our team ever seemed inactive for a second. One of the very few rooms I have played so far in which I didn’t directly had anything to criticize! Again we had a very uplifting and throughout enjoyable experience. Thank you Escape Plan for the great time!

our team for the mission

Agent November met us in a bar where we first had to find various objects. Not quite sure what to look for, the first ‘curious’ object I found on the floor was a box that said ‘rat poison, don’t touch!’ hmm – guess that was certainly not part of the game. Agent November offers (under more) real-life (escape) games in public spaces. The main game takes place in a park where we had to run around and collect keys, solve codes and stop an evil genius from blowing up the city. Agent November is one man puzzle machine and all by himself has designed three games in one year. The games was clearly designed for more people so we had a hard time with only two (one of our team members had to drop out for the day), but the Agent himself became part of the team and helped us out a lot. A great guy and innovative concept. If you want to know more check the recent interview with him on the excellent escape game blog Exit Games. Seems like in the near future we will hear more of Agent November as he took over “2.8 hours later” a zombie survival game which he is going to re-animate. We wish you good luck and hope to see you soon again!


The last day we played City Dash, as hide and seek real-life game played in the city and organized by Fire Hazard organizers of various great city games. The concept was relatively simple but hugely entertaining. We had to absolve a couple of mini challenges all over a certain area of a certain city part. The part was split in various regions and each region had guards patrolling through them. The guards were of different characters, some were slow, some fast, some short-sighted, but all of them tried to catch you and if they would manage to read the number which we had to wear on chest and back we would lose points. The game involved a lot of running around, hiding and funny interactions with confused bystanders. One option to score a high amount of points was to spot the numbers, the guards were wearing. One of our team members tried to hire a little kid to go and get the number for him. Great plan, though the kid turned out to be unreliable and the numer he delivered turned out to be wrong! Well we all know it is hard to find competitive staff these days. – After initially getting lost and completely disappearing from the map we still managed to become third, which earned us a box of chocolate. Sweaty but happy we jumped in the tube to return and pick up our bags – one hour of running and hiding was quite intense and again I felt a certain kind of satisfaction that we spend our time worthwhile. A pity we don’t live in London and have to miss out on all the other games Fire Hazard is organizing.

Oh yeah – we also visited a couple of board game cafes drank overprized beers chased foxes and ate lamb testicles, altogether good times, looking forward to go back and check out some more actual theater.

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A German Business Adventure – First Escape Game Convention in Stuttgart

At the 4th September I was back in my home country for the first Escape Game Convention in Europe. ‘Let the Adventure Begin’ emphasized the slogan and while the look of the website and the program didn’t appear very adventurous (I know, for some people business is the greatest adventure…) I was still excited to meet so many other escape game designers and to learn a more about the scene in Germany. The organizer Exit Venture revealed that the majority of participants were German accompanied by people from various European countries and even the US. Against all my expectations though it turned out I was the only representative from the Netherlands.

The first talk was a video message by the well-known Scott Nicholson a game design professor and lead academic studying escape rooms. Actually turns out he wasn’t that well known in Germany as only a couple of people seemed to know him and surprisingly few of the convention’s participants outed themselves as participants in Scott’s recent survey-study. If you don’t know Scott, check out his escape room research and if you have a bit more time you want to check his entire video message right here:

Scott mentioned some very interesting initiatives in the US, one of them 5wits, a very professional and large scale entertainment complex that uses escape game mechanisms for their games. The truly innovative aspect is an AB state puzzle design in which participants, while solving a puzzle, automatically reset it for the next group. I am very curious how these puzzle look like and while is see the advantage for the operator I wonder how much it limits the spectrum of variety of puzzles that can be provide. Scotts experience as a game designer became apparent when he talked about escape game design. I couldn’t agree more when he emphasized that puzzles should make sense in the logic of the scenario and that a designers should focus on the experience of the player instead of behaving like a megalomaniac dungeon masters who can force their vision upon the players. Unfortunately we couldn’t have a QA session but we still rewarded him by applauding at the screen.

The next star on the program was Atilla Gyurkovic, the founder of ParaPark and arguably the inventor of the modern real-life escape game. In 2011 he opened his first games and he seems to have a very strong opinion and clear vision on how his games have to feel like. He designs his rooms to create intrinsically motivated experiences, inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, a psychological theory of the optimal experience While Mihali’s theory provides a broad perspective on life, pleasure and enjoyment it indeed provides many valuable lessons for game designers. If you don’t know anything you should check out Mihalis’s book, or keep on following this blog as I will eventually publish a little summary and personal reflection . Interestingly Atilla expressed much less importance of theme and story than Scott did. I mentioned this in a personal conversation with him later and it turns out that Atilla still shares one of the design philosophies of my team. Even if you don’t want your players to discover much of a story, it is important that you still have a concrete story in your mind, as this will help in your design decisions and provide consistency in the experience. All around Atilla seems like a great guy with a clear vision and I am curious to check out some of his games and look forward to the new outdoor games he is developing.

Last talk before the break, was given by Michael Bierhahn, founder of Exit Game Stuttgart very ambitious escape game endeavor. Escape Games Stuttgart started 1.5 years ago and already opened three locations and five rooms. Michael talk was more on the side of logistics and legal problems one can encounter on the German market. I would have loved to see some of their games as I was definitely impressed by their professional and transparent approach. Happy to hear they realize the importance of escape room operators and pay them more than the minimum salary. The main part of the talk however created some shivers among the audience, as the legal challenges Michael faced were unknown to most participants. Challenges, such as the limitations that arise from the official designation of the business. A business under the label of ‘team-building’ for instance does not allow employees to work on Sundays or holidays. Fire safety is another issue that can become problematic as one of his locations had to be closed as the stairs, which had been the fire exit route, were a couple of percentages to steep. Employees need daylight and a room to take breaks. Toilets need paper towels, not cotton. Ten hours is the maximum time an employee is allowed to work… on and on went the list that provides a great example what makes Germany a great country to live in, but a very difficult country to do something new and unusual. By now it became clear that the slogan ‘let the adventure begin’ might be more than just a cliché as it will be adventuroeus times when more escape rooms will have to face the terrifying outgrowths of western bureaucracy.  Michael however took all the obstacles with the attitude of a sportsman and managed to talk about it without bitterness. In the end he offered other escape room owners to contact him if they have similar problems as by now he became a bit of an expert in local regulations and how to deal with the authorities.

After this relatively dry and somewhat sobering talk we expected another half an hour that would be difficult to swallow. The lawyer Carsten Ulbricht provided his view on the legal issues an escape room could face. Fortunately it turned out to be less scary than expected as the focus was more on the rights (or lack of rights) of escape room owners. The first topics focused on legal protect and answered questions like can you protect logo and name? Can you protect your game and puzzle design? Turns out, your brand name can be protected if it is unique and innovative. A requirement that most mystery puzzle escape exit and locked up rooms will certainly not fulfill. However if you gave your game has name such as ParaPark, your chances are much better. Puzzle design seems impossible to be protected and general room design and game design has the same limitations. It seems unlikely that there is any puzzle out there that is so radically different and innovative that it fulfills the requirements, nor the necessity to be legally protected. Another specific German issue was the right to your own picture. Strict privacy laws can indeed allow players to sue you if you have no clear permission to upload their pictures on Facebook or other websites. Additionally Carsten did not seem hugely impressed by the terms and agreements that most escape rooms seem to have copy pasted from other games and it turned out that it was not quite clear in how far an escape room can legally enforce to charge a team that cancelled their session short noticed.

Next points on the agenda were brainstorm sessions in small groups, each group discussing one out of seven topics. From mobile games, over the use of actors, tech and augmented reality and the value of an escape room foundation. Enthusiastic about the idea of a foundation a spontaneous gathering during a break led to the formation of a small action group, planning to work out a concept.

The official part of the convention ended with some small debates about topics proposed from the audience, thus we discussed ideas of cooperation, marketing, booking systems etc. Again the focus was clearly on the management and business side, while puzzles and design were more topic of conversation in small groups that formed during breaks and lunch.

Glad for the available beers and also some non-escape room related conversations I enjoyed the rest of the remaining evening. In hindsight I was very happy that I attended the convention, everybody seemed to enjoy to meet fellow escape game designers and share some problems and concerns. I would have wished to have the actual games more as a point of focus, but it seems that most people are quite convinced of the quality of their games while there is are challenges in the business or management realm. Personally I hope the scene stays fresh and innovative we will see also see some more game design focused gatherings. Thanks for all the people I had great conversation with and I hope I can drop by one day and check out your games!


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How to give hints in an Escape Room? Helping players to help themselves.

The majority of us players isn’t like Sheldon and & co (video) from the big bang theory, who easily rush through an escape or exit room and leave it disappointed by the lack of challenge.

Usually escape rooms are tough and especially if players failed, they tend to leave the room with the impression that they should have performed better and a slight embarrassment over their mistakes. It is very rare that players manage to succeed without getting stuck at least once. Sometimes it is poor game design or illogical puzzles but more often it is just the case that in the rush of the game it is easy to miss clues or get stuck on false assumptions (‘this object is not important for the puzzle’).

Of course escape rooms have to be difficult but there are first of all intended to be fun. It is usually not the intention of the designer that people get frustrated or bored as they don’t know how to continue. Therefore it is common practice to provide people with some additional help when necessary.

It is important that we are aware of the pros and cons of various different methods to provide hints and what our intentions are in choosing one over the other. Here a list of the methods known to me (please let me know if I missed some) and some considerations.

Players can ask for unlimited hints: To hand the player a walkie-talkie, having a phone in the room or a bell to ring, are just some examples of how to allow players to actively ask for help.


  • Players can wait for the right moments when they are in need of a hint and spend time on a puzzle without for as long as they want to.


  • Players can feel embarrassed or stupid that they have to ask for help. While it should be avoided to evoke such negative feelings in the player it can still lead to a situation in which players are stuck way too long on a certain puzzle without asking for help. Additionally it can happen that players actually did solve a puzzle but a malfunction in the room can hinder them from proceeding (a pad lock that doesn’t open, a magnet lock that didn’t work). It is very detrimental for the experiment when players realize that they got frustrated and were stuck, even though it was not her fault.
  • While there might be escape room scenarios in which outside help fits the theme (e.g. as commando police that can communicate with HQ) communication with the operator usually feels alien to the gameplay. In an ideal escape room experience players are able to immerse in the experience and forget the world outside of the room. To ask for help or to talk to someone from outside the room can break this experience and take away some of the tension and atmosphere.
  • In this scenario it is tempting for an operator to pay less attention as the operator does not have to analyze which is the right time to help. It is very unprofessional if the operator is not aware of the situation in the room and provides false help or first needs to be instructed by the players about the progress.
  • It is difficult for competitive players to compare their results. Some might even consider it unfair, if that they failed because they tried to solve puzzles themselves, while others succeeded through plenty of help. Experienced players prefer to take some more time to solve puzzles themselves, however usually also they don’t know how many puzzles are still ahead, thus how much time they will still need later.


Player can ask for limited hints or hints come with a cost: Similar to the previous method, but with the difference that hints either come with a cost (usually time, when hints cost money it seems a bit like a hidden cost rip off to me) or players only have a clearly limited amount of hints that they can ask for.


  • The hints are clearly part of the game and therefore players don’t have to feel stupid when they request them.
  • It helps more competitive players to compare their results.
  • You can offer various difficulty levels, like an easy version that allows 8 hints, a medium version with 5 hints and a hard version with only 2 hints. This helps to balance the game for beginners and experts.
  • The team has to discuss when to ask for help. While with free hints some people might just want to ask for help while others don’t want to. There isn’t much to discuss but the personal preference of how to have more fun in the game. In a scenario where hints are limited or come with a cost, the team has to strategically decide together if it is worth to ask for help. This keeps the game tense and provides an opportunity for interesting team dynamics as the discussion is more goal focused (how can we win the game?) than focused on the personal preference (what is most fun for the me?)


  • When players lose time when they ask for help, they can feel tricked as their experience will last less long (probably each session ends earlier than the max playing time). I don’t even want to discuss the money version – this isn’t an option for me, as it provides a financial incentive for poor game design (too difficult, illogical puzzles).
  • it can happen that players actually did solve a puzzle but a malfunction in the room can hinder them from proceeding (a pad lock that doesn’t open, a magnet lock that didn’t work). In this case the operator would have to tell them or the players might not even realize that they already have or cannot solve a puzzle.
  • It is tempting for the operator not to pay close attention (same as in the unlimited hints version)
  • Players can get completely stuck. If players run out of hints they can end up being completely stuck. Even if it might be there fault for using too many hints or choosing a too high difficulty level, this can be extremely frustrating and they won’t enjoy the experience that much.


Operator decides when to give hints: In this scenario the operator has to pay close attention and decide herself when the group is stuck for too long and provide a hint.


  • An attentive operator can make sure that the players stay in a state of flow without frustration or boredom.
  • The operator can easily help in case of malfunction in the room and if he is creative he can even hide the fact that it was a malfunction.
  • as operator knows the game very well she can try to give hints in a way that the game isn’t going to be too easy or too hard (ideally each group needs almost all the time they have).


  • Players can be irritated if they receive a hint while they think they could have also solved it themselves. This is especially the case if the operator is impatient and gives hints too quickly. It is part of the game to think about puzzles and wonder what to do. Nobody wants to feel like receiving instructions.
  • If players don’t know that hints are common, they might feel stupid that someone has to help them.

How to give hints? Immersive experience and the psychology of puzzle solving

How to give hints is an equally important consideration. We often see a telephone in the room, a monitor or the operator’s voice over the mic. Then there are is the version (in Europe not that common) in which the game master is present in the room itself. While these are just some examples, the possibilities are countless and only limited by the designers creativity. For the immersive experience it is the most important aspect that the system to provide hints is thematically integrated in the room. If you have a historical chamber don’t use a modern screen, if you use the operator’s voice you might want to distort it to make it sound differently etc. There is of course also the option to provide hints through different methods and therefore provide a little surprise to the players each time they receive help. As optimal solution I see a system that is entirely integrated and organically feels like part of the game. Often the players only need a little bit of guidance or just a slight hint towards the right direction. A classic experiment demonstrated that subtle clues can trigger an insight moments. In this study participant had to die two cords together that hung from the ceiling but were too far apart to be reached together.

The puzzle was rarely solved, but when the researcher passed one of the strings and accidently made it swing a bit the required insight moment occured and many participants could afterwards to solve it. Even though this was the crucial hint that enbaled most participants to solve the puzzle they were unable to point out what led them to the solution. There have been many variations of this, a recent study found that seemingly unrelated arm movements that participants performed during a break increased their chance of solving the puzzle (link to research paper).  These studies have in common, that very subtle and sometimes even unconscious clues can turn out to be surprisingly effective. A subtle hint system that uses sound or a light to emphasize a certain objects or part of the room can lead a player to success without them being aware of the outside help, hence the experience which eventually is the most rewarding.

If the hints have to be more explicit they should still be mysterious and the least obvious as possible. Ideally they seem like a riddle itself but provide just enough information that the players can still be proud of solving the puzzle. If people have to look under a carpet you have can tell them for instance ‘even if you are standing on the solution, there is no time to rest’. Also here, instead of taking away a challenge from the player you only decrease the difficulty or providing just a little bit of help so that the player feel the autonomy and satisfaction to solve the puzzle herself.

Which hint system and how to provide hints is eventually up to each individual designer and I am sure that different systems work better for different games. The main challenge in giving hints is to provide players with a rewarding experience. I think we can all agree that it should be avoided to make them feel stupid and that we should not break the immersive experience of the game.


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