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 Edwin Tsui of The Locked Room (Calgary, AB) about his experience as a game enthusiast and game creator/owner.
Room Escape Artist: How did your enthusiasm for escape rooms turn into a business?
Edwin: When my girlfriend and I first heard of the concept of the escape room, it sounded like an amazingly fun activity. After we played our very first escape rooms in Prague in early 2014, we knew it was fun, and we wanted to bring the activity back to our home city of Calgary.
I met with my two future business partners, Kyle and Adil, while offering them DJ service for their zombie-themed fun run. At the end of our meeting, I casually brought up the escape room idea, which intrigued them. From there, we launched our first two-room facility as a market tester and things just took off.
Your background and interests are in video games and puzzling. Tell us how video games have influenced your escape room business.
My favorite types of video games are RPG and strategy games. Well-crafted games of those genres tend to have good flow, and give players a sense of accomplishment as they progress through the game.
I want players coming through our escape rooms to feel like they have that sense of progression, with a mixture of some easy wins, and some tougher battles. This is accomplished by having a combination of puzzles and activities – some of which are straightforward and intuitive, and others that may require a bit of head scratching before the ‘aha’ light bulb switches on with the correct answer.
It’s important to listen to the players who come through and use their feedback to make improvements and changes. This goes for the games themselves, as well as marketing, customer service, and market conditions, which are equally important as the content in the escape rooms themselves. We always want to ensure that the fun factor is maximized and the frustration factor minimized. Visiting gamefaqs.com (in the olden days of the internet!) to find a walkthrough or tip for a certain boss or game sequence always felt like ‘giving up’!
You’ve played many escape rooms all over the world, but your business partners haven’t played as many escape rooms themselves. How do your design interests align with or differ from those of your business partners?
Part of playing more games is that quality expectations as a player are always increasing. I’m always comparing the puzzles, immersion and overall fun factor of each new room to pre-existing experiences (and also to my own offerings!).
When designing my own escape room games, it’s important to understand my market and to offer puzzles and activities that will be appropriate for that particular demographic (newer players vs. corporate team builders vs. puzzle hunt specialists). What may seem fun or intuitive to me after playing 100 games may be too difficult or non-intuitive for a first-time player. Thus, my partners do a great job of keeping me grounded and finding that balance of challenging, yet fun (without being frustrating), for our target demographic.
As a player, your favorite games cater to enthusiasts. How do you keep the gamer/enthusiast market happy while still executing on a viable business model?
The beauty of the escape room as an activity is that it’s accessible to a wide range of players; there is no steep learning curve, no inherent safety issue (generally), and everybody can share in the fun and adrenaline of the experience.
Gamers and/or puzzlers will have an inherent advantage because of the style of challenges in most escape rooms, but a player with 5-10 escape room games under their belt will already be on par or better at these real-life games than a brand new (but with games/puzzle experience) player.
We try to offer a wide variety of themes and difficulty levels so that everybody has a chance to find the right fit for themselves. Not everybody is going to love every game that they play, but it is our responsibility to provide as much information as possible so that we can manage player expectations heading into an escape room game.
When you started, you wanted to expose your audience to those awesome moments you had first encountered in escape rooms. How do you evolve so that you can continue to produce that wow moment?
There are many ways to achieve the ‘wow’ moments in a game, but as players become more experienced, it takes a bit more thought to find new ways to surprise them! Some of my personal favorites are clever use of ordinary everyday items in MacGyver ways or hidden objects (or passageways) concealed right under the players’ noses!
Electronics and technology are also useful tools for creating ‘wow’ puzzle components and, when used appropriately, can help bridge the gap between what can be achieved in real life and what is possible in video games.