Pre-PAX West Interview: Nate Martin, Puzzle Break

In advance of our upcoming panel discussion on room escapes at PAX West, we spoke with each of the panelists about their experiences as gamers, perspectives on room escapes, and future evolution of their games.

In this interview, we talk to Puzzle Break’s Nate Martin, an avid video gamer and PAX enthusiast, about the new games he is developing aboard cruise ships.

PAX West logo

Room Escape Artist: There is a panel on escape rooms at the upcoming PAX West in Seattle! How did this come about? And why does it belong?

Nate: PAX West is a conference/festival that grew out of the Penny Arcade comedy and game webcomic. Seattle’s PAX (formerly “Prime”, now “West”) is a full-blown cultural phenomenon celebrating all things gaming. Puzzle Break, the first contemporary US-based room escape company, was founded in Seattle, the home of Penny Arcade and PAX West. I’ve been a fan since the beginning. Giving a talk at PAX and being an ambassador for the industry to the greater gaming community has always been in the back of my head and the escape room industry has now matured enough to introduce it at PAX.

Live-action room escapes are, in many ways, the literal physical embodiment of a video game. Escape room experiences combine the core elements of a genre of video game with real-life elements to provide a gaming experience that is indescribably fun. That’s what PAX is all about.

When I reached out to the organizers, I decided to pitch the idea as a panel discussion. I’ve assembled a diverse selection of industry leaders who will share different perspectives and ensure some great discussion.

You’ve always been a gamer, but your escape room designs lean harder on puzzles. How do we see the gaming influence in your puzzle-focused escape rooms?

I was more or less raised by the Adventure/Point-and-Click genre of video games. The lion’s share of those games were hard. Conquering them was often a significant challenge (especially before the Internet was tremendously ubiquitous), but it felt so good. My co-founder Dr. Lindsay Morse and I feel strongly that it is far more entertaining and satisfying to encounter and hopefully overcome a tough challenge than breeze through a cakewalk.

However, we are extremely cognizant of a tremendously important distinction: There’s a fine line between challenging and unfair. People often forget that many if not most of the best adventure games (Myst, Grim Fandango, etc.) had their fair share of puzzles that were simply too hard or esoteric to be fair. At Puzzle Break, we love throwing challenges at our players, but they must always fall squarely in the “fair” category.

You’ve now taken this concept aboard cruise ships. How do you have to change your approach to design for the cruise ship games?

In many ways, not very much! Royal Caribbean has a seasoned entertainment staff who have a close handle on what their guests want. We’ve had countless discussions with their creative folks on how we might modify our design methodologies to better suit their customers’ desires. In the end, we changed surprisingly little from a design perspective. 

In-game image of the Rubicon. It's a futuristic spaceship lit blue.

One of the biggest draws of the room escape experience on a cruise is making new friends, so we definitely included a healthy amount of content that requires close teamwork. However, we also made sure to have elements for folks who want to work on stuff by themselves.

What are the technical challenges to operating multiple games in multiple locations on the different ships?

The challenges are simultaneously enormously easy and stupendously tricky. Most of the general operational challenges are nothing a massive cruise line doesn’t deal with 1000 times before breakfast. We put together a reference for everything the Royal Caribbean staff could possibly need to setup, run, and maintain the games, and they do it with comparatively few issues.

The real problems are arising with our new Escape the Rubicon room. I’ve famously claimed this is the most technically advanced room escape in existence in many ways, and I wasn’t kidding. We partnered with ShowFX, a stupendously experienced fabrication firm, to create a stunningly beautiful and diabolically complex interactive experience. Maintaining the room’s electronics and mechanics is uncharted territory and we’re figuring out best practices as we go. It ain’t easy.

We’ve recently seen photos of the new room you’ve developed for a cruise ship: Escape the Rubicon. It looks like you’ve really taken design up a notch. What are the challenges to bring that level of design to your Seattle and Long Island locations?

With Escape the Rubicon, we wanted to create a truly blockbuster-quality experience. Our design methodologies may not have changed very much, but through the partnership with Royal Caribbean we now had the resources to craft a Hollywood-caliber set and use professional actors to tell a story with next-level immersion.

The two biggest jumps in Rubicon were budget and technology.

Puzzle Break is entirely self-funded. As we grow, we put a ton of resources right back into R&D for new rooms and interactive experiences. Each progressive room we make is an evolutionary leap in fit & finish. Additionally, with every project we complete, our team learns more and more about embedded technology and systems. We are continuing to work to elevate the technology, design, and polish in all Puzzle Break games.

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