Escape Game Technological Generations: Interview with Shawn Fischtein [Interview]

During our recent trip to Toronto, we met Shawn Fischtein of Escape Games Canada. After playing two of his games, we had the opportunity to chat with him about the escape room industry. This discussion introduced us to his concept of Escape Game Generations, a taxonomy for differentiating games according to their technology usage. In this interview, we asked Shawn a series of questions to learn more about his Escape Game Generation concept.

Watercolor image of a digital keypad.

Room Escape Artist: What are the definitions of each of the four generations of escape rooms?

Shawn: These are loose definitions following basic principles of design and technology. Think Stone, Bronze, Iron, and Modern ages of Escape Rooms. It’s mostly technologically related, but I think it’s a fitting way to describe where a room sits on a spectrum of technological advancement:

Gen 1

  • Uses simple mechanical systems
  • Relies heavily on player energy input to make anything “happen”
  • Typically includes lock boxes with hasps and padlocks
  • Contains simple systems like using a reaching pole or a fishing magnet to obtain new information or items
  • Delivers information or clues mainly through visual representations (prints) or written language
  • Frequently relies on an observer or an in-game actor to moderate gameplay

Gen 2

  • Utilizes stored magnetic, electronic, kinetic potential (gas springs etc.) for much of the the game
  • Puzzles start controlling clue deliverance through means of tripping electronic sensors
  • Replaces lock boxes with spring-loaded or gravity potential release-triggered mechanisms 
  • Uses simple controllers (or “dumb” controllers) that aren’t processing any sort of logic
  • Can include simple lighting systems and sound systems that adapt as the players progress through the room

Gen 3

  • “Smart” room (as in, integrated technology)
  • Utilizes actuation and more complex electronic controllers
  • Room “knows” where the players are in their progress and can adapt, monitor, or guide the experience with more automation
  • Replaces most padlocks or combination locks with interactive and intelligent computer based systems 
  • Some of the systems in these rooms may be integrated in chunks or clusters, which help the game masters create phases of the game

Gen 4

  • Entirely automated rooms and doors
  • Substantial “smart” and responsive systems
  • Delivers clues and information through responsive systems that carefully monitor the progress of players and can adapt in order to keep a streamlined experience for everyone involved
  • Most or all computers are integrated to maintain a seamless transition from one objective to the next
  • Introduces complex gaming mechanics such as butterfly effects, strategy, and replay-ability

How did the terminology come about?

The terminology arose as we were talking with other owners about how we classify our tech inside of our games. The only way we could establish a system was to categorize rooms by this nomenclature.

When consulting it was very important for us to know the technical capacity of the people we were working with. Different skill sets unlock newer generations of build possibilities. We will never help an owner create a game they couldn’t troubleshoot or maintain.

What are the special skills that designers need in order to develop a gen 3 or gen 4 room?

In order to develop a gen 3 game, owners need a background in computer software/hardware engineering, mechanical engineering, and experience with set design and fabrication. Someone who likes to tinker with microcontrollers or a dedicated hobbyist could eventually learn the skills necessary to begin building these generations of games, but it would be a challenge without proper diagnostics and standards of engineering knowledge.

To get to a gen 4 game, owners require teams of highly skilled engineers with experience in the interactive entertainment industry. To build at this level requires knowledge of concepts such as power management for systems, sound engineering, video engineering, actuation, complex finite statement machines, game engine programing, analog to digital conversion, and systems networking/communication, among other things.

Is a later generation always better? In what circumstances might it be advantageous to develop gen 1 or gen 2 rooms?

During our seminar at Transworld we briefly touched on this question. Each generation has its place.

Technology has its advantages, but following Murphy’s Law, it can come with a whole host of problems.

A designer should never build a game beyond the means of the team’s technical capacity to maintain or fix it. If a gen 2 facility is at a point where the only points of failure are mechanical (locks, door pins, etc.) it might be a good time to start investing in removing them completely and going the extra mile to find creative ways to make them electro-mechanical systems instead.

Additionally, technology doesn’t fit every theme. For example, there shouldn’t be keypads in a Victorian era jail cell. In these situations, keys and locks are a great way to keep to a theme.

The real magic comes in hiding technology away from the eyes of players.

What are the common risks associated with each generation of room?

As you develop more technology you can expect to find more evil demons to fight. Here is a breakdown of some problems you might encounter with each generation of technology:

  • Gen 1: locks jamming, clues missing/damaged, keys breaking
  • Gen 2: relay failure, lights burning, corrupted data on controllers, wire connections breaking
  • Gen 3: IP network table drops, I/O pin failure, signal interference, sensor calibration failure, IC/Transistor failure due to induction, pneumatic leaking, compressor failure
  • Gen 4: Network communication failure/packet loss, broken experiences due to unpredictable player behaviors, software demons (bugs you can’t explain/reproduce)

Can you give us a sense of what you think gen 5 will be?

In terms of going beyond gen 4 games, the only ideas that I think may be worthy of a gen 5 title are multiplayer (head-to-head play or free-for-all), which can involve new technologies like augmented reality, AI, and anything else that may be developed in the future which completely displaces our current reality.

I don’t consider VR tech as supplementary to escape rooms or fitting for a generation label as its sole purpose is to create a 100% software-driven experience. This is an experience that will be – and already is – available in home, and will continue to develop on its own tangent.

Room Escape Artist concludes

We spend a lot of time (and words!) differentiating games from one another. Technology is one metric that sets games apart. This taxonomy is one representation of the technological growth of the industry. It’s clear and concise, but not restrictive to further growth. And it might save us words.

You can expect that we will write more on Escape Game Generations.


    1. Here’s a link to all of our reviews from Toronto (two more will post later this week):

      We did a limited subset of games based on recommendations from a few different Toronto reviewers. The most interesting companies we encountered (in no particular order) were Casa Loma, Escape From The 6, and Escape Games Canada.

      If you plan on playing Casa Loma, I highly recommend reading our review and planning accordingly.

    2. Escape games Canada is by far the best and most advanced escape room facility in Toronto and possibly in Canada. They have 8 operating missions that are all worth trying.

      1. “Best” is a seriously subjective claim. They are doing some really interesting things well worth experiencing.

        I think their use of tech is at or near the top of the industry.

        Calling them the best, might be hyping them to a point where it’s tough to live up to the expectation. They are doing cool stuff.

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