The anticipation of an escape room can be a powerful feeling. They are mysterious adventures. Sometimes the less you know about the game, the more fun the anticipation gets.
Don’t Bring Me Down
I am sure that most of us have attended an event where the anticipation of the thing was just as fun as the thing itself. Too many times that feeling is deflated upon arrival at an escape room facility because of real world tasks like signing waivers, credit card transactions, watching rules videos, and long story introductions by unconvincing game hosts.
The customary pregame check-in formalities for escape rooms can often detract from the fun of the adventure. Players simply endure these procedures with a smile. I wish owners would take incremental steps to minimize this process with the goal of improving customer experiences across the industry.
Games that start more immediately are much more exhilarating. They help keep players’ excitement level as high as possible. The time for chit-chat and other business is after the game.
Onboard After The Game Begins
The cold starts I’ve enjoyed most have no pregame introduction at all but do provide adequate onboarding, hinting, and signposting once the experience begins. Some teams will need – and they will need to accept – more in-game instruction and hinting. If it is done well, it is preferable to being force-fed a lot of instructions before being allowed to play the escape room.
I urge creators to think about how much of your traditional briefings and rules presentations are necessary. Do you really need to show every group how to use locks before the game starts? Is there a way to minimize your waiver-signing procedure? I also find that some hosts over-explain the entire game or the hint system to people before they play. Are there ways you can make the systems more intuitive to streamline this pregame period?
What About New Players?
I don’t think that a large number of US escape rooms do an efficient job of onboarding players, regardless of skill level. I recently played 20 highly regarded escape rooms in Europe and was impressed with their minimal introduction sequences. These companies had no idea about my experience level, yet many started with little to no player prep. Have they figured out some secret?
How much preparation do newer players truly need before starting a game? Can your game design, initial onramp puzzles and hint system provide adequate support to ensure that most teams have a good time without a long set of rules, padlock demonstrations, and other explanations? Those are such a clunky and non-fun way to start an immersive experience.
Take Small Steps
Certainly I am not suggesting that companies should turn their current business operation upside down with a hard pivot to all ice-cold game starts. In fact there are players who prefer a slower, more comforting on ramp to a new experience, especially if they are nervous or anxious about what exactly they are getting into. It can be reassuring to be greeted by a pleasant host rather than an in-world character and to see a standard set of procedures that everyone is doing together.
I am suggesting that owners consider the idea of designing with a goal of shrinking the pregame period and maybe even experimenting with a game that really does start at the front door.
Some steps in that direction might include examining the boundary of your game’s magic circle and thinking about which processes could be moved from outside to inside of that circle. When I recently played a Matrix/ Bladerunner-themed game, our team was told by a dramatic in-character host to leave our phones and possessions in the box on the floor because “those items are useless and your tech won’t work here.”
Another idea is to think about which pregame rules could be totally eliminated with some design changes in the game. Covering electrical outlets or light switches with set decorations and making them inaccessible to players is a one-time fix that removes the need for hosts to mention “do not touch the outlets” to every single team.
Emphasize The Postgame
Colder game starts can sometimes require warmer, longer postgame debriefs, where the game host breaks character and spends some time walking through the space again with the players. This is an opportunity to point out details and explain the story so it is clear to everyone. This is where players and host can get to know each other after they’ve had a shared experience. Companies can really put an emphasis on postgame customer satisfaction that ensures players leave your business on a positive note.
We stopped doing long, rule-filled briefings years ago. We found that the number of people who touch lights is the same whether we tell them not to or skip it. Gamemasters just have to keep an eye on things and the briefing didn’t matter either way for most of the rules. Most people don’t listen after about 20 seconds. We also abandoned waivers during Covid. They were great for capturing email addresses, but now that we have reviews in the 4 figures, not as important to us. Both of these changes really shortened onboarding time, allowing us to move games 15 minutes closer together, allowing us to put an extra timeslot for each game on the schedule every day!
Paul, that is a great example. Owners who experiment with their pregame procedures will likely find that there are adjustments that can be made that will benefit them along with the player customers.
Love your ideas! We had waivers built in to our booking system, because it’s just no fun to do it onsite. We spent the pre-game time (so many people arrive VERY early anyway) building up the enthusiasm and covertly get to know something about the players. Then when giving hints or were stuck, we could insert something personal into the game itself. They LOVED when we’d address them by name over the walkies, ie “BOB, are you a double agent?!” when the gamemaster sees a player inadvertently put a prop in his pocket… Hilarity ensues 😀 Or asking a trivia question on economics to a professor and his students to earn an extra hint over the limit. Don’t we all love an inside joke? The fun starts from when they book on your website until months later when they’re still telling people what a great experience it was – not just what a good game.
Tara, it sounds like you are implementing some great ideas there. And really that is what I want people to think about. Just starting out with small, incremental changes to their regular procedure that will make the player experience more memerable.