Creating a Remote Escape Room with Asymmetrical Gameplay: Interview with Mad Genius Escapes

The Truth About Edith was one of the first online escape games I played during lockdown last May, and a year and a hundred-odd remote escape games later, it’s still the game I most frequently recommend. For my team and so many others, this game facilitated meaningful, joyful, laughter-filled remote connection early on in the pandemic, at a time when we were all mourning the recent closure of escape rooms globally. From a design standpoint, I consider this game to be groundbreaking in demonstrating how caringly home-brewed artwork, tech, and acting can lead to a compelling remote experience.

I hopped on a Zoom with Peter Lewis, the co-owner of Mad Genius Escapes in Portland, OR, to dive into his experience creating The Truth About Edith and Boobano Farm. In the last section of the interview, we discuss the tech behind building web apps with asymmetrical gameplay.

Additionally, here is the Code Lab that accompanies this interview. Using the same tech stack as Edith and Boobano, you’ll learn how to build a simple web app that allows players on multiple devices to solve a jigsaw together.

Note: This interview contains light spoilers for The Truth About Edith and Boobano Farm.

Edith up close to the camera on a Zoom call.
The Truth About Edith

You released The Truth About Edith very early on in the pandemic. What were your goals in creating the game?

We realized that if we designed it right, it could be played by anyone, anywhere. We didn’t know if it would end up being fun. We didn’t know what a good price point would be. But at that point, it’s like, the world is falling apart and we just had to do something, and it did seem like there was a lot of potential.

Edith seems like it’d be fun and accessible to a very broad audience. Is there anyone for whom the game hasn’t landed?

One lady signed in and immediately said, “I didn’t know this was going to be on Zoom. I’m not doing this.” And we’re like, “oh what, really?” And she’s like, “I’m not paying to be in a Zoom for an hour.” She demanded a refund, which we gave her, and then she left a one star review that said “this is just on Zoom.”

That’s one person out of everybody, and everyone else has been lovely! Young people have played it. Old people have played it. People seem to get it really well. That’s where it helps to have a clue master. Our clue masters are probably 25 or 30% tech support at this point. Refresh Chrome, try this, try that, because people have problems with tech for sure.

How did you develop the asymmetrical gameplay in Edith?

The asymmetrical aspect was going to make it unique and different and fun off the bat. When building The Truth About Edith, we played a lot of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. That was the first asymmetrical game I’ve played and I loved it, so we knew that style of gameplay was fun and the way we ended up setting up our online framework, it was included.

When somebody logs in, they’re sent a role. You’re looking around for some information – that’s great, that’s a puzzle. But you’re looking around for some information and everyone has a different control, that’s something else. It requires communication and teamwork, which is what you lose when you go virtual.

Unfortunately, there are times when the gameplay can really hinge on one person, and it’s completely random. If you get the wrong person, you’re a little screwed…. But again, the clue master can just fill in. Over time, as stuff has popped up, I’ve given extra abilities to the clue masters in their interface.

How did the actor interactions in Edith develop?

The game used to have three different characters, and it was just too long. So, we worked with one of my friends who’s a story consultant and pared it down, and it made the whole narrative a lot clearer. We realized that by taking out the first two characters, it makes the point where you actually meet Edith more exciting and more fun.

Plus, it’s so much easier for us. When we started, one person would be the clue master and two people would be actors, and that was just financially impossible. We were paying three people to be on for every game. 

It was one of those moments where everything just kind of lines up and makes sense all at once. The great part is that the other characters can be in our next game! We have this part all built out where there’s this creepy Mad Genius employee, and he has a robot that he’s tinkering with, and then you can log in and control the robot… I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s pretty cool.

I’m really curious about your next game. Is there already a plan for it?

We actually all have other jobs now, which is sort of tricky. This was our full-time thing for a couple years. I do all the programming, half the puzzle design, and the music. My sister Katie does puzzle design, business management, and the art. We have two employees who also do art.

But now, as a combination of just being at that point in your life and it not really being sustainable with the pandemic, we’ve all gotten involved in other things. Which, to tell you the truth, is working out pretty well. We haven’t built a full game since then, but we’ve managed to run the games we have and maintain them and make improvements. But I think there’s just so much we could do with another game and people are so awesome and so supportive that I feel like it’s inevitable that we come out with our next game at some point.

Wow, you also write the music for your games?

Yes! I’ve played music all my life. I love recording – it’s my main hobby and passion. And so, Boobano Farm was especially fun. I composed and recorded all the music for it and am really proud of the Boobano theme. Maybe I’ll put out an album of Mad Genius music one day…

A Boonabos on a journey.
Boobano Farm

Speaking of Boobano Farm, while Edith is designed for 4 players, Boobano Farm is for 8-16 players. Tell me about designing gameplay for larger teams.

At first there was no asymmetrical gameplay at all, and it was supposed to be for 40-50 people who are not communicating because we didn’t think that many people would be able to talk at all. So the idea was: wouldn’t it be cool if the players figure out a puzzle just by seeing whatever everyone else is doing? You see, you mimic, you participate, and then together you actually accomplish a huge task that would have been impossible otherwise. That inspired the ant colony metaphor of Boobano Farm.

After our first test, we realized a lot of it wasn’t working. Even after you figured out what to do, it felt too much like a chore. So, we set out to make it more puzzly. The way we decided to do that was to introduce an asymmetrical element to each puzzle, where we’d split players into two groups. We’d also realized in our beta tests that people could talk and they were talking. Even with 40 people, communication wasn’t really an issue.

We thought that by bringing down the number of people, we could make the puzzles a little smaller and more puzzly, bringing it closer to a traditional escape room. That really worked, luckily, and we’ve just been tweaking the puzzles in that direction ever since.

Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in creating Boobano Farm?

The design of the puzzles in Boobano Farm could have been better from the beginning. We were thinking of things that a lot of people could do at once, like a crossword or memory flipping cards, but then we went back and tried to add in the aha. I think we did the best we could and I think it does work, but I’d recommend to everyone: never cut your design process short. Never underestimate how important that part is, because you’re going to do so much work coding it up that it’s really worth designing it first.

Speaking of coding, what was your tech stack for these games?

The whole thing is built in HTML, JavaScript, Node, and Socket.IO, a websocket library. 80% of it is client code, and 20% is server code. Socket.IO lets people connect to your server and let your server connect to anybody who visits the page, making it relatively easy to build in asymmetrical gameplay.

The server runs Node.js, and there are a few lines of this thing called Express which set up the Socket.IO connection. Each browser that connects gets a socket ID. They can send any message they want, like text or data, to the server. The server reads the message and the ID and can send messages back, either just to that person or to everyone. Once you have that, you can really do whatever you want. It works so well: there’s no latency, and they say you can have thousands of connections.

Where it gets a bit trickier is parceling your sockets into different “rooms” and knowing who’s in which, if you want to run multiple games at once. And then there’s the question of how to block just anyone from logging in. We didn’t really want to have account logins, so we thought as simple as possible – let’s just make it a one-word password.

What tech changes did you make going from Edith to Boobano Farm?

With Edith, each individual app was its own Node/Heroku folder that I was copying and pasting most of each time. Going into Boobano Farm, I took all the stuff that was happening every time and made these “engine” files their own thing which I can now “include.” This sets up room management, codename verification, and some basic shared functions like clearing the room. I was so close to getting players’ video and audio into the site, but it just wasn’t working consistently enough. I was heartbroken that we couldn’t get it, but we just had to move on.

Do you have any advice for other creators interested in making remote escape games?

We’re going to see several platforms come out soon that let people make interactive, maybe asymmetrical, custom stuff for their games – which is great. But I hope it doesn’t dissuade a few people from still trying to build these elements themselves. I would love to play anything someone makes from scratch because they’ll just inject so much of their character into it, just by means of doing it.

We always give ourselves a lot of permission. That’s why we do it – to have fun and express ourselves creatively. If it makes us laugh, it’s probably going to go in, even if it’s really stupid.

For a deeper dive into the tech stack mentioned in this interview, check out the code lab we put together with Peter. You’ll learn the basics of Socket.IO through building a simple web app which allows players on multiple devices to solve a jigsaw together.

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