This is the second in a series of interviews about innovations that enhance storytelling, the next frontier in escape rooms.
In 2019 Off The Couch of Santa Clara, CA acquired 3 popular games from Evil Genius Escape Rooms of Los Angeles, including Chapter 3: The Morgue which landed in the #7 position in the latest TERPECA ranking. These games helped form a base on which Off The Couch built their newest project Pandorum.
The game clock and the frenzy that comes with it as we try to escape before it ticks down are standard practice in the escape room industry. But is that really the best way to experience everything the creators have provided for us? Playing for speed isn’t always the most fun.
Pandorum is a single, 3-chapter game requiring several hours to play from start to finish. The innovative idea employed by Off The Couch is a system that allows players to buy blocks of time and then play the game at their own pace. Never feeling rushed, they have time to explore, understand, and appreciate the entire game and the story it tells.
For creators, once they decide to allow teams to move at their own pace, opportunities arise for additional story and even optional content. They don’t have to worry about fitting everything in 60 minutes.
Pandorum incorporates several interesting ideas, but the book-by-time innovation is something I am interested in keeping an eye on going forward. It is an adaptation that has tremendous possibilities with regard to storytelling.
Pandorum currently has an uncertain future. Check in with Off The Couch for the latest details.
Nick Schilbe, sometimes known as Panda, owner of OTC, told me more about Pandorum and the reasons behind the book-by-time system:
Why Book By Time?
Schilbe: We are moving away from the concept of “getting out / doing X in Y amount of time” for this game after reviewing data on hinting in our previous games. As part of our games, we offer an unlimited number of hints. After reviewing all of our hint data, it turns out that almost 80% of all hints asked for by our players are asked for in the last 10-15 minutes of a game. The players simply don’t want to lose the game and will rapid-fire ask for hints at the end just to see all of the content. This creates two things that we dislike:
1) Players have to rush through the final puzzles, which most commonly include the best puzzle or the main, climactic puzzle. This also means they are rushing through any ending story elements. As a game designer, we want players to see all of the content the way that it was meant to be played instead of rushing through it.
2) Players are not playing the way they would otherwise play. We feel that if a player wants to play quickly and ask for tons of hints, they should be allowed to do that. On the other hand, if a player wants to ask for zero hints, they should also be allowed to do that too.
To solve these problems we made Pandorum a book-by-time (instead of a book by slot) kind of game. Players can buy as much time as they like for Pandorum. When their purchased amount of time runs out, we save the players’ status and progression in the game. When they come back, they purchase more time and simply pick up where they left off, just like in a video game.
What is the key to your system?
Schilbe: The ability to save game progress is a huge game changer for us. It allows us to create more elaborate and longer game experiences. This means the stories are more complete, the players get a chance to become more immersed in the environment, and we get to experiment with more innovative ideas when it comes to puzzles.
What other video game concepts are you employing?
Schilbe: Pandorum plays more like a real-life video game than a traditional escape room. It still has all of the puzzle elements that people have grown to love about escape rooms, but it also introduces some new mechanics: side quests, classes, experience points, levels, and in-game items. The side quests serve as additional puzzles that make the game seem more realistic and can unlock prizes like in-game currency, exclusive souvenirs, and even additional game time.
We are also pushing the idea of player agency as an important part of the game. Most escape rooms follow a linear path and every outcome of every puzzle is the same. We wanted the players to feel more involved in how the game plays out by having their choices and actions impact future parts of the game.
For example, there are segments of the game where the players have to accomplish something in a certain amount of time. Success and failure result in different outcomes with potentially different experiences.
How long will a full playthrough take?
Schilbe: The length is a bit of a moving target, but we are expecting the average player to take around 4 hours to get through the main story of the game. There will also be the side quests that introduce more gameplay, if the players pursue them.
Take Your Time
Almost every escape room player appreciates when a game operator pauses the clock and allows the team to continue playing past the deadline. Being able to book as much time as desired and knowing up front that you will be able to experience a deeper level of game detail and more story is an exciting concept.
Most storytelling media do not benefit from being rushed. We’d all want our favorite scenes or chapters to be extended, to be in that fictional world just a bit longer. Escape rooms are our chance to live inside of compelling stories. Book-by-time can allow us to more fully enjoy where the story goes. We can appreciate it, take it in, experience it… rather than race against the clock in the moments where the storytelling might be at its best.
I like that operators are experimenting with ER offerings. I enjoy reading about the implementation of these new ideas. Whether they are successful or not, each is a valuable data point in the march towards creating viable enterprises in this genre.
In this case, I find the concept of having an option to buy more time than what might be the designer’s intent to complete the game. There are a lot of rooms I would have liked to “savor” the visuals and the mysteries/puzzles versus “beating the clock”. If the room is a 60 min room I would gladly buy 75 min. to minimize the “Frenzy” which is the least appealing part of ER to me.
On the other hand, playing only part of a game does not float my boat. Too much like eating part of a meal or reading part of a book. Especially when you know before you begin that you will not be completing the story/room/experience. I often play with different folks so it would complicate the playing of a room if the members of the team were at different stages of the experience.
Thanks for sharing these novel approaches.
While innovative, the “book by time” concept has several glaring flaws that I feel render it ultimately unsustainable due to its highly niche appeal. This sort of “save and reload” concept works in video games because they’re inherently designed so that they can be resumed at any time, with the state of the game perfectly preserved. This isn’t the case with a real-life escape room; many groups either can’t meet regularly enough for this feature to be beneficial, or they’ve come in from out of town and thus only have a limited window in which they can play the game anyway. Even factoring in all of that, how do you ensure that, if and when they do come back later on, the state of the game from when they left off can be replicated with near 100% accuracy?
At the end of the day, while it’s a bold move to be sure, I see only a very small fraction of groups taking full advantage of this system, which isn’t going to be enough to keep this kind of thing going long-term. At some point the question has to be asked: “At what point does building an escape room with video game elements become more problematic than just making an escape room video game?”