Immerse in the world of Escape Rooms and Real Life Gaming

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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1 Comment

  1. E. T.

    Sounds like an excellent conference. I am a but surprised but also impressed that the focus was on business / management – I think that many prospective owners or enthusiasts focus too much on their room & puzzles themselves and fail to understand why they struggle to be successful. The rooms themselves are just a piece of the entire puzzle!

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