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Category: all about Escape Room Design

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.

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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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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