Play-it-Real

Immerse in the world of Escape Rooms and Real Life Gaming

Month: September 2015

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!

Alexander

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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.

Pro:

  • 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.

Con:

  • 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.

Pro:

  • 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?)

Con:

  • 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.

Pro:

  • 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).

Con:

  • 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.

Alexander

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