New escape room designers have been reaching out to us with increasing frequency looking for tips to get started on making their own puzzles. I’ve been trying to write personalized responses to everyone, but it’s becoming a bit too much, so here are the basics as I see them.
I am a user experience designer by trade, but I design websites and mobile applications.
I have never designed my own escape game. I am quite confident that there are pitfalls of room escape design that I am unaware of.
Build it sturdy
There are few things as disappointing as a breakable (or broken) room. This may seem obvious, but a lot of rooms fall into the Ikea trap; they look great, but everything is flimsy.
The first time a bold and mighty drunk enters your room, they are going to rip your composite wood and cardboard furnature to pieces, and leave thinking they won.
Set clear rules & follow them yourself
We escaped one room that made us sign an aggressive release form making us promise not to touch or move their computer equipment. It was a typical “you break it, you bought it (at a greatly inflated price)” scenario. Fine.
We got stuck and couldn’t move forward in that room, so we called for a clue. It turned out that those jerks hid a clue under their computer monitor. We followed the rules and got punished for it. That sucked.
Keep your rules clear, minimal, and consistent.
Your room should be safe (even if it’s scary).
Don’t put things up so high that people have to climb on your furnature.
Don’t put things out the window.
Cover your electrical sockets, and don’t make them a part of the game (unless they power something in the room).
The same company that hid a clue under their sacred computer monitor also elected to use an electrical outlet wall safe. Find a different way to hide stuff.
This is a good use of rules: Be explicit that there is nothing hidden up high, out the window, or part of the electrical system. You’ll thank me when you aren’t in court over this silliness.
Repetition is the enemy of fun. If you’re duplicating your puzzles, it’s going to get boring. If all you are offering to your players is locks, then your game is going to be dull.
Every puzzle in your room should be great, unique, and a standalone moment that is worth remembering.
Discard your throwaway puzzles.
Make it believable
The theme of your room matters. You’re building a fictional world for your players, it needs to be unique and believable.
It should be a consistent experience throughout the game. The puzzles should be on theme; the sights, and sounds should be too.
People are coming to your game to experience something exciting. Give them excitement.
If you don’t have at least one cinematic moment, that makes your players feel like they are the stars of their own blockbuster movie, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.
That awesome moment will make people want to come back and play another game with you, and it will also make them tell their friends about “this incredibly cool thing that they need to do.”
Years later, your players should remember that one crazy moment of your game.
This is about quality. Your players only get to enjoy your room once; make sure it’s setup correctly.
It’s really disappointing as a player when the wrong lock is put onto a chest, or something is missing.
When that kind of stuff happens, you’re giving your players a subpar experience, and you can’t undo the error.
Location, location, location
Set up your escape company in a neighborhood that is easy to get to (near mass transit), and in a part of town where people will feel comfortable.
The adventure should be in your room, not on the way to it.
Your escape business should be well-lit, clean, and inviting.
You should have a bathroom (and it should always be clean).
Even if you’re running horror games, the creep factor should not extend to the business itself; keep it in the room.
Your website should be just as bright and inviting as your establishment. You don’t want to scare people away before they play a game with you.
- Your address should be easy-to-find
- It should be easy to see what games you have to offer
- Pricing should be clear
- Explain what a room escape is, and make people feel comfortable with the concept
Easy-to-use is better than cool.
Customer service is an art. Master it.
If you can’t, then you should at least make sure that you and your staff treat your players with the utmost respect.
Play escape games
Get out there and play some escape games. Find some good ones, find some bad ones, and learn from both.
You won’t be able to recognize mediocrity or excellence until you meet them both.