The Mark of an Advanced Escape Room Player

A while back, I was asked to describe the defining characteristics of an advanced escape room player.

I’ve thought about this often. I’ve watched players that I respect and tried to figure out what makes them strong players. There are a lot of characteristics that I like to see in fellow players.

A hand with sparking magic

Characteristics of A Great Escape Room Player

These are in no particular order.

Player Traits

  • Observant
  • Strong puzzle skills
  • Willing to search
  • Able to accurately input solutions
  • Communicative

Personality Traits

  • No ego about the game
  • Willing to take hints when needed
  • Aware of their own strengths and weaknesses
  • Kindness
  • Able to step back and let others have their moments

Deeper Skills

  • An eye for what is and isn’t a puzzle
  • Knowledge of the various mechanisms that show up in games
  • Advanced puzzling skills of all kinds

These are all things that I love to see in a fellow player. These traits describe the type of players that Lisa and I strive to be.

The more I think about them, however, none of these are a bright-line indicator of advanced play.

The Defining Characteristic of An Advanced Escape Room Player

For me, the defining trait is simple:

Can the player continue to play an escape room effectively if the game’s sequencing has broken?

Sequence breaking can come from a bad reset, a technology failure, accidental opening of a lock, or solving a puzzle too early. This stuff happens, even in well-designed games.

A truly advanced player will do 1 of 3 things when met with this kind of challenge:

  • Call the gamemaster in to resolve the issue
  • Fix the problem themselves and continue to play
  • Acknowledge what’s going on with the team and work around it

All of these options are viable solutions. (The optimal one shifts based on precise circumstances.) The catch here is that any of these solutions requires a player to identify the problem. That is often difficult to do.

Identifying the problem in the first place indicates awareness and understanding of the mechanics of an escape room. Additionally, a novice might notice a bypassed puzzle and simply think, “one less challenge on our path to victory.” An advanced player will realize that broken sequence is a potential hazard for the team and not necessarily an advantage.

To me, this awareness and understanding sets the advanced escape room players apart.

What do you think?

Am I right? Am I wrong? Are there other traits that I missed?

We’d love to hear additional thoughts on what makes an advanced escape room player.

On “Spinning The Last Disk” in an Escape Room [Player Tip]

Rex, one of our top Patreon supporters, asks:

“What do you guys think about opening locks when you have all but one digit discovered (which is easy to do and helps with time) – does it matter? Is it a bit of a party foul? It’s a question that comes up in a lot of rooms.”

This is a recurring question. Our opinions on the subject have evolved quite a bit over our escape room careers.

This is a simple question, but the answer is nuanced.

The Simple Answer

Guessing the last digit (or spinning the last disk) when you think that you’ve solved the rest of a combination is fair play. 

At that point you’re down to a 1 in 10 chance of having the right solution. It’s really more like a 1 in 9 shot because whether you want to or not, you have one digit inputted. Hell… there’s a 10% chance that the lock just falls open because you’re accidentally on the right solution.

Cool. We can call it a post and go home?

Nah… there’s more to this.

Closeup of a stylized combination lock.

The Complex Answer

I’m going to stand by, “spinning the last disk” is generally fine, but I’ll explain why it’s fine.

Then I’ll explore the finer points of how to handle “spinning the last disk.”

Brute Force

Brute force, or the act of guessing solutions until one works, is a tried and true cryptographic technique. Blindly guessing works. It’s just a function of time and probability.

To be clear, brute force is a concept far older than escape rooms. It should not be confused with breaking things.

Probability

On a typical lock, which will have 10 possible digits on each individual disk, the probability of blindly guessing the right solution looks like this:

2 digit lock = 100 number sets

3 digit lock = 1,000 number sets

4 digit lock = 10,000 number sets

5 digits = 100,000 number sets

6 digits = 1,000,000 number sets

Sensibility

In an escape room, you’ve paid for the game. You can choose what to do with your time in the game, within reason.

If you think that spinning the disks on a $10 lock to randomly guess the 1 in 1,000 solution is a smart way to spend $30 for an hour in an escape room, then can I take a moment to rock your world with this 4 pack of combination locks?

I don’t think this makes any sense at all. Guessing against even moderately bad odds is a waste of time.

Spinning a 1 in 10 disk after you’ve already solved the overwhelming majority of the puzzles, therefore having played that aspect of the game… that feels better than fine. That feels logical.

Human existence is complicated, however, so there’s also etiquette to keep in mind.

Etiquette

If I’m inputting the solution into a lock for my team while the solution is being derived, I’m absolutely going to spin the last disk. 100% guaranteed.

How I handle it might vary based on the puzzle, the team, and the circumstances.

Just Open It

If time is running low, or the puzzle is taking too long and I can tell that no one is having fun with it, I’ll just open the thing, announce the last digit to the room, and distribute the new clues.

The same goes for counting/ search puzzles. If we’ve found most of the items and know that the code is close, I’ll fiddle with the disks, adding a number or two on each wheel until the thing opens.

No one I know will be upset about missing out on the opportunity to do a little more searching.

Let The Team Earn Their Solve

If my teammates are working hard on the puzzle and seem to be enjoying themselves, I’ll spin the last disk, quietly open the lock, and then wait until they shout out the right answer before saying, “Great! It’s open,” and distributing the clues to the team.

It’s better to lose a few seconds over a puzzle that you know will be solved than to damage team morale over something unnecessary.

The Finer Points

The bottom line here is that there is a balance between gamesmanship and etiquette.

You should:

  • feel free to spin the last disk.
  • read the room and hold back on announcing the solve if the team is enjoying the puzzle, especially if you’re not feeling time pressure
  • announce the solve to your team and distribute the puzzle pieces among the players

You should not:

  • spend your time randomly guessing blindly on locks that you have no clues to, not because it’s bad form but because it’s silly
  • silently spin the last disk and then quietly leave your team behind

For more on this subject

This is an updated thought process on one of our earliest player/ design tips. I still think that a lot of that post holds up. Feel free to give it a read if this is a subject that you enjoy.

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Patreon

Finally, a big thank you to Rex and all of our other Patreon supporters.

This website has been a passion project for almost 5 years now and running it takes a ton of time, energy, and brainpower. The money that we receive from our supporters at all levels helps to fuel our engine.

Please consider joining the ranks of our Patreon supporters.

Selling Hints in Escape Rooms & Puzzle Games is Bullshit

It’s time to discuss something that’s dumb, but necessary. 

It has come to our attention that there’s a tiny minority of games that are making their players buy hints. 

I’m not really sure who’s doing it, but someone asked a question about this behavior to the panel that I moderated at the Escape Summit in Canada in May. 

So, let’s get this out of the way once and for all. 

Selling Hints is Bullshit

There is an assumption of fairness in escape room design. While some companies pull this off better than others, at the core of escape room play is the idea that these games will be fair even if they are difficult. 

Selling hints undermines that fairness by introducing a financial feedback loop that encourages bullshit puzzle design. I’ll explain:

If a company sells hints, then they make more money from bullshit puzzle design because bullshit puzzles necessitate more hints. 

This in turn encourages the company to include more bullshit puzzles, which drives more bullshit revenue. 

Bullshit leads to hints, hints lead to cash, cash leads to more bullshit. The cycle loops until collapse.

This loop repeats recursively until the company strangles the life out of their business and closes because they suck. Along the way they will hurt the other local escape rooms by convincing the local player base that escape rooms are filled with bullshit puzzles, and thus depleting the potential customer base.

Digital Games

We’ve seen some this kind of nonsense from digital escape games like the point-and-click mobile escape room Spotlight: Room Escape (that’s not worthy of a link.) We’ve refused to review them.

We just assume that if the game is selling hints, the puzzles are probably bullshit.

We have better things to do with our time and so do you.

What Do We Do About This?

If an escape room company is selling hints, beat the hell out of them on Yelp for it.

Be fair. Don’t hit them with a 1 star review, drop something rational, but explain why this is a problem. Shame them into changing.

Also, alert the local player community. If you have a regional Facebook group, leave a note in there about the company.

The Exception

The one time that I can see “selling hints” to be a viable option is if, and only if, the money is going to a good cause, in the name of the players (not the business).

Same goes for something like a blood drive.

Then even if the puzzles are bullshit, at least there’s a good cause to support.

But then again… maybe check out the cause on Charity Navigator first?

Building a Horror Escape Room Team

Having played my fair share of horror escape rooms, and having recently lurked as a team played one of my personal favorites, Dark Park’s Honeymoon Hotel, I’ve come to a few conclusions about how to build the right team for a horror escape room.

A team photo from THE BASEMENT. One player looks like a disembodied head due to green screen funniness.
Green Screen + Green Shirt = Fun

It’s All About the Mix

You need the right mix of bravery and fear among the teammates to maximize the fun for the entire group. 

If Everyone is Terrified

When everyone is paralyzed by fear, the team will seriously struggle to play because no one will be able or willing to search and solve puzzles. 

If Everyone is Brave

When everyone is unflappable (or pretending to be), then the horror escape room quietly transforms into a regular escape room… just with low lighting, jump scares, and probably lots of gore. 

This can still be a cool game, but something is missing.

In-game: The Girl's Room with a bed, a baby carriage, a dollhouse, a magnificent chandelier, and a cage.

Balanced Teams

Strive for a team with a good mix of players who are varying degrees of terrified and brave.

Terrified players need brave players to advance the game (and possibly to cling to). 

Brave players need terrified players to protect, and through whom they can experience the fear vicariously… because empathetic fear is a great substitute for the real thing. 

The right player mix keeps the game moving and maximizes the emotional experience for everyone.

If you’re on the fence about playing a horror game, find a brave player or 2 with whom you can create a symbiotic relationship for an hour or so. 

In-game: The ornate ceiling light fixture on the Honeymoon suite casing a a beautiful shadow.

The REA Duo

We’ve had some of our best escape room experiences in horror escape rooms.

While I’d attribute much of this to the games themselves – we’ve played some horrific masterpieces – some of that definitely had to due with our team composition. Lisa was terrified. I was … not so terrified. Our responses to horror complement each other. We strive to build out teams that are equally balanced.

Horror in Baton Rouge this July

As part of this summer’s Escape, Immerse, Explore tour to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, we will get to play The Asylum, the newest game by 13th Gate, and their first horror escape room.

We don’t get to play together on our tours… so this will be the first horror escape room where Lisa won’t be able to cling to me and I won’t be able to feel through her. Some of you will get to play those roles for us instead. Curious about this game? There are only a few tickets left… and the last day to buy them in Tuesday, May 28th.

Escape Room Random Player Theory

You enter a publicly ticketed room and meet your new teammates. Setting aside questions of their puzzling skills, or how pleasant they are to play with (attitude, communication skills, odor)… there’s a bigger question to address.

Who’s the random in the room?

Two of Dr Seuss' Sneetches. The one with a green star on its belly is looking down on the one without a star.

There are four conflicting schools of thought on this subject. I will explore the various theories of player randomness and evaluate each theory based on its own merits.

They Are Randoms Assumption

Hypothesis

“Anyone who isn’t me or a friend of mine is a random.”

Origins

The origins of the They Are Randoms Assumption are unknown and seem to have emerged around the same time that escape rooms emerged in the United States. Many different people came to the same egocentric conclusion.

Assessment

While the They Are Randoms Assumption was the prevailing belief throughout the early years of escape rooms, it relied on the presumption that randomness was bestowed upon one group of players by another, ignoring the possibility that randomness might have roots deeper than a player’s group identity.

Smaller Group Concession

Hypothesis

The smaller group of players are the randoms.

Origins

I first became aware of this hypothesis when escape room player Daniel Devoe Dilley proposed the idea over midnight pancakes on the night of January 19/20, 2019, in a small diner in Jersey City, New Jersey.

As a player who strives to almost exclusively play in a duo, Dilley came to the profound realization that sometimes he and his wife were the randoms.

Assessment

Dilley’s hypothesis was a watershed moment in Escape Room Random Player Theory. His notion that randomness is not assigned but is an inherent state of being completely shifted the nature of the debate.

Late Booker Inference

Hypothesis

The players that book into a partially reserved room are the randoms.

Origins

During the midnight pancakes of January 19/20, 2019, Lisa Spira, co-founder of Room Escape Artist, proposed an alternative notion of inherent player randomness to counter Dilley’s hypothesis.

Spira, one of the world’s most experienced and prolific bookers of escape rooms, argued that it’s not the smaller team, but rather the group of individuals who knowingly join another group are, in fact, the randoms.

Assessment

Spira’s argument is rooted in the assumption that the original group to book actively selected an empty escape room for their group. The original bookers would be surprised by the arrival of additional players whereas any players who booked into a semi-filled game took this action knowingly and thereby assumed the random mantle.

Theory of Random Relativity

Hypothesis

In any given random team escape game, all unaffiliated parties are in a perpetual state of randomness.

Origins

At the legendary midnight pancakes of January 19/20, 2019, the most important event in the rich history of Escape Room Random Player Theory, co-founder of Room Escape Artist David Spira proposed the Theory of Random Relativity in a predictable act of one-upmanship.

Assessment

His argument was rooted in the notion that for every story that he has about “some random person in an escape room,” there’s another player who has a story about this time that they were in an escape room with “a pair of random, obsessive escape room bloggers.”

A Modest Proposal

We here at Room Escape Artist like to grapple with the big questions that the escape room world faces.

Escape Room Random Player Theory may be a problem that is limited to the United States, but endless and constant forum discussions about “public vs private” ticketing are an international issue.

The next time you see a public vs private debate, I ask that you shift the discussion to something more important like, “who’s really the random in a public game?”

Escape Immerse Explore

Now… what you should be doing is coming out to our escape room tours in San Francisco or New Orleans. We’ve got an amazing lineup of games and you’ll have a chance to meet tons of fellow escape room players.

… They may be sort of randoms, but they’re the best kind of randoms.

Post Escape Room Hyperawareness

You exit an escape room and walk down the street… and everything that you look at feels like it has hidden meaning. You’re hyperaware. It’s an oddly pleasurable feeling.

I suspect that any engaged escape room player knows what I’m talking about. Call it what you want; we call it post-escape room hyperawareness.

Closeup image of a blue eye.

After playing more than 700 escape games, we often get asked if we’re bored with escape rooms… and the answer’s still the same as the last time we wrote about it: The highs are higher, the lows are lower, and we really love novelty and thoughtful design.

One thing has changed: we don’t get that hyperaware feeling anymore… and we really miss it.

Where did it go?

I’m not really sure. I’d venture to guess that becoming really practiced at escape rooms, and having learned to parse the signal from the noise in any given room, has focused our awareness. I think in our earlier days of playing, escape rooms would kick our awareness into overdrive.

I also suspect that it might be adrenaline-related. After playing so many, an escape room has to do something really special (and frequently frightening) for us to trigger that particular neurological reward.

What about you?

What’s your escape room play count? Do escape rooms send you on your way in a state of hyperawareness?

The Split Team Regrouping Problem in Escape Rooms

The longer a player or a group of players works within a space in isolation, the harder it becomes for teams to fully reintegrate… and it’s often better for players to stick to the space that they intimately know.

The problem becomes more pronounced over time. It’s barely noticeable if the teams are only split up for a few minutes. When teams spend half of the game split, it becomes an annoyance. When teams spend more than 3 quarters of the game split, it can be downright irritating, even if no one has the language to vocalize it.

Stylized image of a woman's head splitting in two.

The Situation

When a player enters a space that has already been thoroughly searched and solved, that player has three options:

  1. Start playing normally and “find” a ton of stuff that’s already been found or solved. This usually leads to exchanges along the lines of, “hey… did y’all see this little trap door?” A teammate who has been in space from the beginning will have to stop and explain that it’s been found and used.
  2. Stop the entire game while teammates catch one another up on what’s been found, solved, and what still requires the team’s attention.
  3. Stay put. Nobody crosses the boundaries and everyone sticks with the content that they already know intimately.

We had been feeling this problem for years, and only started to put our finger on what was going on last year after playing The Order at I Survived The Room. Prior to identifying it, under circumstances like this, we would just say something like, “Hey… I think it’s easier for me to just solve this.” Which is a polite way of saying, “You don’t know what’s going on and you’re in the way.”

Stylized image of tomatoes and potatoes split up into separate piles.

Our Dominant Strategy

When faced with a challenge like this, if we’re choosing to play efficiently, we usually stick to the spaces that we have mastery over, even when free to roam. 

The pro is that we maintain efficiency. The con is that everyone kind of misses out. Another potential con is that we could really use person A’s skill set in space B and we’re avoiding that situation.

Regardless of what we choose to do, it usually feels like a bit of a wash because getting up to speed on someone else’s mostly solved section of a game is tedious.

Unevenness

It can be challenging to follow this strategy when the spaces are really different from one another. If the other space looks really inviting, as players, we have to go against our instincts to follow this efficiency strategy.

If we instead take the time to fully explore another teammate’s space, some players invariably feel like they drew the short straw, and they would have preferred to spend the majority of their time in the other space, the one the group deems more fun or more exciting.

Stylized image of a road splitting around a mountain.

Mitigating the Regrouping Problem

There are a few ways that we’ve thought of to prevent this problem from emerging: 

  • Limit the amount of time that teams spend split up. This is a problem that becomes increasingly pronounced with time.
  • Once the teams regroup, push them forward into a new space. If the previous spaces aren’t really relevant, then it’s a nonissue.
  • Make all of the puzzles within the split-team portion joint solves, so that seeing the other space feels more like seeing what you’ve already participated in, rather than something new that demands exploration.
  • Don’t bring the team together. If you want split-team gameplay, keep it split the entire time.

The regrouping problem isn’t a gamebreaker, but it can be a late-game momentum killer… which is less than ideal for both players and game designers. Teams should be excited to regroup. That momentum plays a crucial part in building the right vibe for any given moment of a game.

We the Enthusiasts Passports [Interview]

Earlier this winter, we were thrilled to learn that Audrey Pendleton-Chow, owner of Curious Escape Rooms in Fitchburg, MA and an escape room enthusiast herself, had launched escape room passports.

We loved the idea of collecting stamps at the end of each game in these beautiful passports. We recently caught up with Audrey to learn more about what these passports offer players and how owners can get involved!

Multiple passports opened to reveal the different pages, all surrounded by stamps, locks, keys, and puzzle pieces.

Tell us about your passport!

The We The Enthusiasts Global Escape Room Passport is a collectable to preserve your escape room escapades!

I’ve been archiving my escape room history in an Excel sheet. I know I’m not the only escape room enthusiast who does this. I thought it would be more fun to have something collectable! Why not stamps for every game from a participating event or escape room? That’s why we made a universal escape room passport.

The stamps for both of Curious Escape Rooms' games, the Doll House & The 90s Video Store.

I designed this small, durable booklet with a leatherette and gold foil cover, a profile page, and a unique ID. It provides 56 boxes for stamps and small spacing for notes and completion times. Stamp filler pages are available as well because, you know, 56 games could go by pretty quickly!

What makes for a great stamp?

It’s been amazing to see the different designs that escape room companies have created.

A great stamp is like an icon. It should be clear, one color, unique, and have thick lines.

Boxaroo's Conundrum Museum stamp.

The design should symbolize the theme of the game so when enthusiasts look back at it they remember their experience!

It’s nice to have the name of the game on the stamp too.

How do players buy a passport?

Players can buy our passports online at WeTheEnthusiasts.com. They are also available at many participating escape room businesses. Pricing and promotions may vary if you purchase from an individual participating business.

Audrey giving Rene his box of passports at Gate Escape.

Who are the participating companies?

We’ve got 187 games, 63 companies with stamps, and 25 locations selling passports. 🙂 So far we’re in USA and Australia.

The full list of companies and their games is available here. It’s growing every week!

A rack of passports.

How can a new company get involved?

See Become a Participating Business for more information. There, interested companies can read the FAQ, purchase passports wholesale to sell at their own business, and register.

It’s free to be listed on our website as long as the business agrees to stamp passport-holders with your special stamp for your participating game or event.

You get to choose and purchase your own stamp. You can even design the image that will represent each of your games!

Stamps resting on an open passport.

If we wanted to make a stamp for our Escape, Immerse, Explore tours, could we do that? 

Absolutely! This would be perfect for an escape room tour! We welcome any experiences related to puzzles or mystery solving. We’ve reached out to puzzle/ scavenger hunts, mobile escape rooms, and immersive plays, such as the annual immersive theater and puzzling eventClub Drosselmeyer.

When and how did you come up with this passport idea?

In 2015 my partner (now husband) Jeremy Pendleton-Chow and I visited Portland, Oregon. We went to a McMenamins, which revitalizes unexpected spaces to become different themed bars.

As we entered the 1960s elementary school building, passing the cigar bar “Detention,” a small bar “Honor’s Hall,” and the movie theater that used to be the school auditorium, we found that part of it had been turned into a hotel. The check-in desk had one sheet of novelty McMenamins passports, encouraging customers to visit all their locations and collect different stamps. I thought it was a great idea!

I was in the process of opening Curious Escape Rooms in Fitchburg, MA. I began talking to other escape room owners about the idea of a global passport.

After a failed attempt of making less-than-quality samples of passports last year (which lasted merely a month in my bag), I put the idea on the back burner until I discovered a way to create the durable and beautiful passports I had imagined. They had to be fully brag-worthy and long-lasting to be worth it.

In November 2018 we began selling We The Enthusiasts passports and rallying escape rooms to join us in creating stamps for each of their games. Every week, new businesses join us and we add them to our website.

Room Escape Problems Interviewed Lisa: Travel Tips, Tour Logics, and Best Cupcakes

Room Escape Problems launched an interview series this month as part of their mission of “connecting escape room players one problem at a time.”

Blue tinted images of Terry Pettigrew-Rolapp, Yolanda Chiu, Lisa Spira, & Nick Moran. Lisa and Yolanda are both holding ice cream cones.
Nick & Terry… where are your ice cream cones? Up your profile pic game.

David and I enjoy the Escape Room Problems’ memes.

Interview Topics

When they asked for an interview, I was happy to chat!

Life Before Escape Rooms

Escape rooms are a pretty recent phenomenon. Before escape rooms I solved other puzzles… like where to get the best cupcakes in New York City.

Escape Room Travel Tips

We discussed my top 5 escape room travel tips… accumulated by booking almost every one of our 700 escape rooms played to date and all the corresponding travel arrangements.

Planning Escape Room Tours

We also talked about planning escape room tours. David and I have made the ambitious choice to run Escape, Immerse, Explore twice this summer. We’ll bring a tour to Palace Games in San Francisco in June and another to New Orleans in July. That’s twice the logic puzzle… but twice the fun!

REP’s Other Interviews

We’re looking forward to reading your conversations with Terry Pettigrew-Rolapp of Hatch Escapes in Los Angeles, Yolanda Chiu of Asia Escape Game, and Nick Moran of Time Run and Sherlock: The Game is Now.

Thank you, Room Escape Problems. I’m honored to be part of your interview series.

From Quake to Fortnite to Escape Room: Learning From Your Players

I pretty much grew up with video games. I mean that in both senses of the phrase: 

  • I grew up playing video games
  • Video games grew up as I did

Obvious Controls

When I first started playing first person shooters (and suffering through them while they made me motion sick because they were choppy as hell), the arrow keys on the keyboard were the movement standard.

The arrow keys made sense. They were the obvious input mechanism for controlling motion. That was, until “WASD” came along. 

Close up of glowing WASD keys on an keyboard.

“Thresh” Hold

From Half Life and Counterstrike, to Portal and Fortnite, the movement control standard for first person games has been the “WASD” keys on the left side of the keyboard. This button mapping wasn’t obvious… and it didn’t come from a video game designer. It came from a player. 

Dennis “Thresh” Fong was the top Quake player back in game’s heyday of the mid 1990s. WASD was his button mapping; he went undefeated with it. Thersh was basically a folk hero among gamers back then. This layout caught on, partially because of his notoriety, but mostly because it worked. 

I remember being super skeptical of WASD as a button mapping, but it made everything more fluid and easier. Those keys were laid-out perfectly and the hand position gave access to plenty of other buttons, enabling complex actions that simply weren’t possible when your fingers were isolated over by the arrow keys. 

This story is beautifully told in this video: 

Why is this relevant to escape rooms?

Good escape rooms are built on top of decades of knowledge from other industries. Video games are certainly one of the biggest influences. 

I’ve encountered plenty of companies that learn from watching their players. Some learn from aggregate player behavior, using their games as large experiments and iterating on them based on player trends. 

I’ve heard of other designers taking inspiration for new puzzles or puzzle iterations by listening to the wrong ideas that players cook up while attempting to solve a challenge. 

As a player, I’ve adopted plenty of tactics from other players… and I’ve invented a few of my own. 

Two Questions

Players: What tactics have you learned from other players? 

Owners: What have you seen your players do that you think would make for great standards? 

I think that there is a lot to learn from great players, both in terms of improving one’s abilities to play, and as in the case with WASD, improving the way that games are designed.