Play-it-Real

Immerse in the world of Escape Rooms and Real Life Gaming

Author: Alexander (Page 1 of 2)

Escape Room Convention Stuttgart Part 3

The Adventure Continues

[more pictures and video will be added later]

After I missed the convention in 2016 it was about time to return to Stuttgart to visit Exit Venture’s Escape Games Convention. The Convention grew substantially and now included a day focused on founders and people new in scene. I skipped this day and arrived at the 20th in the morning, for the regular program.

VR games inspired by Escape Games

The first talk was held by Sven Haeberlein, (co-founder of Exit-VR) about Virtual Reality in the Escape Room business. He presented a short bio of the rise and fall of VR in the 90ties and its current comeback. Sven who develop various VR experienced proudly presented the first results of his co-production with EXIT Adventures. Driven by the idea to create something outside of the market of shooter & action games they will release their collaborative puzzle-driven VR experience in May. While I am personally not too intrigued by the VR experiences I have seen to date (unfortunately I did not get to test the demo they brought). I am aware that many creative people are busy experiencing with the possibilities and it is only a matter of time till some people will crack the secret to what will make VR a game changing experience.

Workshops

After a break we continued with workshops. Four choices were made available. Professionalization in the B2B sector, Digitalization of Game Rooms, Authentic Set-Design and Light & Sound. I stepped right into a classical trap and chose the topics in which I am naturally most interested in. Only to realize that in those fields it is the hardest to teach me something new. The first workshop round about the use of sound & light mainly made me realize that there seem to be a lot of designers who don’t intuitively use these elements to create a stronger dramatically effect. Especially the sound workshop stayed very basic and only presented a few doubly surround background sound compositions to show people that this can enhance the immersion. I would have preferred to talk more about dynamic sound and how to speed up/slow down, provide feedback and clues through sound, but it seems that for most visitors this basic edition was good enough.

The session about light ended up more entertaining, as the workshop giver in a slightly chaotic but very sympathetic fashion demonstrated the difference it makes when you switch of the TL ‘cleaning light’ and use many different small lights from to create dramatic shadows. As a fan of David Lynch and Film Noire the effect of lighting is obvious to me, but it is always nice to get some theory behind things one usually does intuitively. A very practical advice was to avoid white walls as much as possible as with all the reflection it is very difficult to control the spread of light.  Admittedly even a ‘know-it-all’ like myself got one or two good tips and ideas out of this one.

 

How to work with light and shadow to create an interesting Escape Room scene

 

Numbers and Market Analysis

Immersed in conversations I almost missed when Lukas C. C. Hempel from bookingkit GmbH  presented his data and statistical analyses of the German market. While I will look more into it after I received their white-paper, I remember that two insights turned up particularly often in the following debates. Most money is made by very few companies. This appeared like a very low number to most people and while the data might slightly underestimate it a bit (as for instance B2B income and additional invoice services might not be registered in their booking system) it seems as if the market is divided between hobbyists who, design games next to their regular job and those who try to create a business cases that create enough money for them and their employees.

Another interesting statistic was the overview of returning customers. Of their 3-year data collection they concluded that 65% of first time ER visitors did not return to play an Escape Game anymore, while 16% return to the same ER providers and 19% return to a different provider. The following discussion made also clear how the scene is slowly shifting. While in markets with many small providers of only one or two games most Escape Games are happy to send their players to other Escape Games as they also receive players from them. Large Escape Game providers with many rooms on the contrary have very little interest to recommend their players other places. In this spirit it a bit of a missed opportunity that we did not talk about the fact that the 19% of migrating players probably also mean many of your players actually came from someone else first.

The most debated number though was the 65% rate of non-returner. It seemed inconceivable to most people who only see players leave their rooms with happy smiles and shiny eyes that those would not want to come back and play another time. Pretty much everyone I talked to was convinced that their own player-return rates are much higher. Thus either the visitors at the conference represent the most ambitious and most quality driven providers on the market or we all overestimate the impact we have on our players. As usual, it is probably a combination of both, as it is obvious that the people who travel far to a conference like this are the ones most interested in providing the best games. It is also a very natural thing that we remember vividly the people who are most excited about our games while we tend to forget those who leave the game quietly because they don’t want to tell us that it wasn’t really something for them.

Actors in Escape Games

The next speaker was Jörg Homeyer Show-Manager of the Hamburg Dungeon a long and well established scary theatrical experience. He explained to us vividly the pro and con’s of using actors in our experiences. While it is talked about at almost every Live Escape Event, very few providers actually seem to do it (turns out we were the only one in the room that has an Escape Games that involves actors / performers). I very much enjoyed the talk as it highlighted some of the problems that such an experience can bring with it, like the constant need of back-up replacements if an actor is sick, or the general influence of the human factor than can either excel or ruin an experience. He also talked a bit about the pool of people he used to recruit from. While L.A.R.P’ers or students seem like a good fit in the first place  role-players are actually often difficult to work with and the most motivated people from his staff have previously worked as animator entertaining people on cruise ships or Hotel resorts. Those seem to be the people with endless energy and a huge drive to guarantee a good experience for the people they perform for. Looking at the general opinion in the room however it became somewhat apparent that actors in German Live Escape Performances will probably stay a novelty for some more time.

 

Hamburg Dungeon

Unlike in Escape Rooms, Actors scaring people for years already in the Hamburg Dungeon

 

The next workshop involved a hands on session how to make a clean brick wall look dirty. The workshop about set-design was fun and light-hearted and I learned  examples of how we can observe natural aging of objects and simulate those effects in an ER. For around 40min we found ourselves back in arts-class of high school painting with sponges and brushes on a fake brick wall. Turns out I am much better in artificially aging, smudging and damaging thing than keeping things tidy and clean… thank you Escape Games for providing a place for me in this world!

I enjoyed to be part of to the final panel debate in which we talked in large about how to define quality in an Escape Room, what the future will bring in the scene and if we limit ourselves by thinking to much inside the escape room box…. well to be honest the last one was the opinion I expressed but it seems that many people tend to agree with it. Overall it is fascinating and a bit concerning to see how rapid this market developed. Three years ago most people wondered how they can prevent their players from destroying all their beautiful props. Now it seems more about market share, growth rates, buying, selling, licensing.  I understand that for some people all this happens a bit too fast and that all the talk about the ‘survival of small Escape Game providers’ is very threatening.

Escape Games attract hobby game designers, artists and DIY craftsman alike as very successful business men and experienced game designers. While the scene is still very friendly one can see first signs how people from both worlds can clash with each other. While some claim that others only want money others think it is ignorant to run what looks like an unsustainable business model. In reality it is neither just about “the need to fill one’s fridge” (an expression actually used by a successful investor who just bought a few escape rooms) nor is it only about artistic self-expression without any pride in earning some additional cash.

The scene is dynamic and very diverse and while for some people it is an opportunity to create their own little magical universe, for others Escape Rooms provide the dream of a new business opportunity with rapid growth. For all of us it is an adventure.

The exciting thing about the scene is that it empowers many young and creative people to start their own business and run it their own way. This can mean that you rush from one business meeting to the other trying to open many franchises, but it can also mean that you spend long nights together with your friends in a basement, drinking beer and speculating how many people in our society can squeeze through the new 40 cm narrow corridor. Let’s enjoy it as long as it lasts and make sure we support each other in the process. In this spirit, thanks to everyone who I met as the conference. I had a good time and I am looking forward to see you again at our conference @Up The Game at the 9th of May in Breda, Netherlands.

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!

Alexander

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