In season 2, episode 3, we chat with Sarah Zhang from Omescape Escape Rooms in the California Bay Area. Sarah is one of the creators of the award-winning online escape room game, Pursuit of the Assassin Artist, which was voted the #1 online escape room in the 2020 TERPECAs – the Top Escape Rooms Project Enthusiasts’ Choice Awards. It was also a winner at our own 2020 Golden Lock Awards.
2020 was a difficult year for most escape room companies. Many operators adapted their games for virtual play, allowing players to experience the games through a digital interface. Omescape elevated the online escape room, creating an experience that took advantage of the virtual format by introducing a time-loop mechanic.
Sarah walks us through their creative design process, citing many games that excited and inspired her. She talks openly about borrowing concepts from her favorite games. Through some magical alchemy, she has managed to distill various aspects and mechanics into what is far and away one of the strongest games to emerge from the virtual escape room scene. Sarah was incredibly humble and such a sweetheart. It was an absolute delight having her on our podcast.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- Peih-Gee talks about playing virtual escape rooms and mentions the potential of pushing boundaries in a format where you’re not limited by real-life mechanics. [1:44]
- Sarah mentions Miss Jezebel by 60 Out and Agent November as inspirations for creating Omescape’s virtual escape room, especially having a fun, interactive avatar. [2:16]
- Sarah says that from the start they knew they wanted to create a unique game that wouldn’t work in person, and could only be played online. [3:09]
- Sarah says that their main inspiration for their game Pursuit of the Assassin Artist was The Pop Star Room of Doom from SCRAP, a real-life, time-loop game (no longer available). [3:15]
- Sarah says she actually thinks that the Pop Star game had similarity to virtual games because you’re also observing the pop star’s house, but can’t interact physically, only via telephone. [4:30]
- We chat about the making of Pursuit of the Assassin Artist, and David advises listeners to play the game before continuing to listen. [6:20]
- Sarah mentions that they built the room from scratch in about two weeks, and everything is manually controlled, with no electronic or central game control. [7:23]
- Sarah discusses the actors they hired for the game, saying that they let them take the lead with improv and camera angles. [7:46]
- We discuss the importance of the avatar role in online escape games. [8:26]
- David talks about going through a personal shift where he went from playing with a goal of winning to playing with a goal of entertaining his avatar and friends, and he says that led to having better experiences overall. [9:51]
- Peih-Gee says that looking back, all her favorite virtual games have been (at minimum) 2-person operations, with one on-camera host and someone else holding the camera. [11:03]
- Peih-Gee also mentions that some of her favorite parts of online escape rooms are being able to order the avatar around and having funny interactions with them. [11:33]
- Sarah says that a few of the mechanics of Pursuit of the Assassin Artist are based on video game mechanics, like achievements and restarting from a save point. [12:12]
- Sarah says that when designing the game, they knew they wanted something unique for the game mechanic, and also for the theme. They figured a time-loop mechanic hadn’t been done before, and they thought art studio was a very different theme than usual. [15:30]
- Peih-Gee and David discuss what they liked about the game mechanics, including early on-ramping to the time-loop mechanic as well as not making it too repetitive. [18:02]
- Sarah talks about Omescape as a Chinese franchise and discusses how she got into the escape room business. [21:24]
- Sarah Zhang was one of the earliest escape room owners in the US, and she talks a little bit about her escape room origin story. She mentions that because her group isn’t composed of hardcore puzzle people, they try to add other fun elements in their games besides puzzles. [22:15]
- David shares that the Omega Room at Omescape’s Richmond, CA location was the first review he ever wrote for REA. [23:51]
- Sarah talks a little bit about the escape room scene in China. She mentions that most of the rooms there have moved to fewer puzzles and have become more like immersive adventure rooms with massive sets, costumes, and actors. [24:42]
- Sarah mentions an experience in China that seems to be a type of open-world scenario. She compared it to Sleep No More, but more interactive and puzzley. [26:47]
- Sarah talks about developing games in-house and mentions that they only keep a percentage of the game mechanics that are developed from the Chinese team. [28: 30]
- Sarah says that with the success of Pursuit of the Assassin Artist, they plan on developing more virtual games. She says they plan to keep running Pursuit of the Assassin Artist as well. [29:29]
- Sarah talks about a game she’d love to create where each player can control a different part of the room in such a way as to manipulate the actor in the room. [30:39]
- Sarah discusses the business side of escape rooms and how it’s changed since she started in 2014. [33:57]
- Sarah talks about different pricing structures for escape rooms. [35:07]
- Peih-Gee shares a story about the time she was traveling and bought a ticket to play a public booking, only to find she was the only player. [36:14]
- Sarah gets real with us about the nitty-gritty details of running an escape room business, saying that passion isn’t enough, because designing a fun room is only a small percentage of the business, while the rest of her time is spent on details like rent, customers, permits, etc. [37:51]
- Peih-Gee talks about the difficulties gamemasters face, including acting, dealing with customers, and skillfully giving the right clues. [40:09]
- Sarah’s team is working on several puzzle books and at-home puzzle box experiences. [41:38]
- Sarah shares a fun story about the time one of her escape group’s members chatted up a pre-recorded audio, thinking it was a real person. [44:41]
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Play Pursuit of the Assassin Artist
- Omescape Website
- REA Review of Miss Jezebel
- REA Review of Agent November
- REA Review of Pop Star Room of Doom
- REA Review of Pursuit of the Assassin Artist
- REA Review of Omega Room
Sarah Zhang fell in love with escape games in 2013, and co-founded Omescape in the Bay Area in 2014. With 3 locations and 12 different escape games, Omescape is one of the leading escape game providers in the Bay Area.
She is one of the designers of the virtual escape game Pursuit of the Assassin Artist, which was ranked the #1 online room by TERPCA.
Follow Sarah Zhang / Omescape
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