6 Questions Every Escape Room Employee Should Be Able To Answer

We call or email nearly every company we book with. Some are helpful; others make booking challenging.

We don’t generally mention customer service in our reviews unless it is extremely impressive or disastrous because we aren’t normal customers and we know it.

Surprisingly, we regularly encounter employees, and occasionally owners, who cannot answer some of the most basic questions about their games.

Stylized black, white, and red photo of a rotary phone.

Everyone who works in a customer-facing capacity in an escape room facility should be able to answer the following questions:

1: What are the names of your games?

I know that some of you are thinking that this is a stupid thing to include on the list and it should go without saying… but it doesn’t. It needs saying.

It’s fairly common for employees to refer to the game by a slight variation of the game’s official title as posted on the website, which can be confusing to potential players.

2: Which of your games would you recommend?

“They’re all great!” & “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child” aren’t sufficient answers from a customer service standpoint.

Ideally you should be able to say something like, “X is best if you’ve never played a room escape before; Y is a lot of fun, but it’s a little intense; Z is a more challenging game that’s great for players who have more experience.”

Vary your answer according to your games. Probe a little to determine who is asking and what they need in a game.

3: What is the minimum number of players that I need to play the game?

Many games have puzzles that cannot be completed without a certain number of bodies. That is the true minimum. Unless you allow sub-minimum teams to call in the gamemaster as a puppet.

4: What is the maximum number of players that I can bring?

Every company posts a ticket maximum, but some customers will want to bring more players anyway.

Maybe the ticket sales cap at 10 but the room can fit 2 more people comfortably, even if that means that some people won’t get to do much. Or maybe your posted capacity is your actual capacity.

Regardless, you should have the answer at your fingertips.

5: What is the ideal number of players to enjoy the experience?

We ask this question of nearly every company that we book with.

“Uhh… the room fits 10 people,” is a bad answer.

Again, this is a question where a little nuance can go a long way. “If you’ve never played a room before, I think that 7 or 8 people is probably a good team size. If you’re a group of enthusiasts, 4 to 6 should be more than enough for you to enjoy the game.”

6: What should I know about getting to your facility?

It’s a cliche that the first puzzle is finding the place. You should be able to tell your players how to get in, especially if your facility is located in an unusual place that isn’t visible from the street.

You should also be ready to offer up parking information if that isn’t obvious.

Bonus reader suggestion: Are you wheelchair accessible?

Can someone enter your facility in a wheelchair? For each game you should be able to communicate whether it is (a) not wheelchair accessible, (b) entirely wheelchair accessible, or (c) accessible as long as at least one or two players are fully mobile.

Be responsive

Remember that you should readily respond to phone, email, and social media inquiries.

A large part of customer service is simply responding.

Unsatisfying Design [Design Tips]

A collection of multi-colored teddy bears with a mechanical arm failing to grab one.

The Unsatisfying Challenge created an animated short “about unsatisfying situations: the frustrating, annoying, disappointing little things of everyday life, that are so painful to live or even to watch.”

Keep these unsatisfying situations in mind when designing interactions.

Some of the examples in the video depict moments involving difficult things that are fair, but fail.

Many of the examples depict things that fail far more often than they succeed. This is what it’s like playing an escape room with broken interactions. It’s unsatisfying.

Consistent execution is key.

Room Escape Artist 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide

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The holidays are around the corner, so we figured we’d make your gift giving experience a bit easier with some creative gifts for your room escaping loved ones.

Enjoy.

Puzzles

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Puzzle Locks

Multi-staged, strange, and layered physical interactions are required to unlock and relock these nutty things.

Two of my favorites have been this ugly bastard, and this beautifully intricate one.

Note that we do not recommend these for use in room escapes. These are for fun puzzling outside of the game.

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Yellow to Red Gradient Jigsaw Puzzle

Are you looking to terminate a friendship this holiday season? Nothing says “you deserve to suffer” quite like a 500 piece gradient jigsaw puzzle.

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Laser cut wooden jigsaw puzzles

Got a jigsaw puzzler in your life who you truly care about? Give them a Liberty or Artifact puzzle.

These beautiful wooden jigsaw puzzles are laser cut into intricate and unusual interlocking patterns.

Brace yourself, they are challenging, but rewarding. A 300-piece Liberty Puzzle is far more challenging than most common 600-piece jigsaw puzzles.

While we have less experience with Artifact Puzzles, they are also awesome and have their own charm.

Tabletop games

Mystery at Stargazer's Manor contents.

ThinkFun’s Escape the Rooms

There are a number of wonderful at-home escape room games, but at the moment the two most approachable, affordable, and available ones are produced by ThinkFun.

We’ve reviewed both Stargazer’s Manor and Dr. Gravely’s Retreat.

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Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Lovingly reviewed by Shut Up and Sit Down, Consulting Detective is an intellectually heavy tabletop puzzling experience.

Tools

kickstart-lock-picks

Lock Picks

I’ve been picking locks since high school. It’s fun and challenging. There’s always something new to learn. Occasionally it’s also useful.

A small set of lock picks would make a great gift for a responsible and ethical loved one. Don’t go too crazy and buy a massive pick set, beginners only need a few basic picks, rakes, and tensioners to get started.

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iFixit Toolkit

iFixit, the website behind all manner of product teardowns and repair instructions, sells their own toolkits.

I’ve kept this one on hand for years. It has helped me open every strange screw that I’ve ever attempted to remove.

iFixit has a ton of different kits available for every manner of tinkerer.

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Makerspace Membership

Makerspaces are magical places where creators of all sorts of stuff and skill levels gather to share knowledge, tools, and ideas.

From robotics and rocketry to sewing and knitting, most makerspaces welcome all makers. In my experience, most teach classes, have 3D printers, and woodshops.

Each one is a little different in terms of equipment and culture, so find the ones nearest you. I would recommend stopping by a few times before committing to a membership. Find the right fit.

Video games

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Nintendo 3DS XL

Nintendo’s handheld system is a great platform for puzzle gaming.

Decades of exceptional Zelda games are available:

The Zero Escape games are also available:

There’s plenty more puzzling on the 3DS.

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VR

After decades of failures it looks like it may finally be virtual reality’s time. While we’ve dabbled with three of the big platforms, we’re not picking sides… yet.

We’ll keep an eye on the space and let everyone know which is best for adventure puzzling.

If you have a computer powerful enough to power it (or plan to buy one), the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift both have solid libraries of games available.

PS4 with Playstation VR is less established, but it is easier to set up and use.

Books

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Design of Everyday Things

If you only ever read one book about design, it should be this one. It’s approachable and dead-on. Its lessons apply to literally everything. (Paperback) (Kindle)

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Atlas Obscura

A traveler’s guide to the world’s oddest stuff. This guide to Earth’s curiosities is worth reading even if you never travel to see the strange things it reveals. (Hardcover) (Kindle)

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Path Puzzles

Simple to learn and difficult to master, these puzzles are a ton of fun.

We have an in-depth review of the book.

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The Code Book

A brilliant and approachable walk through the history of code/cipher making and breaking. I am in the middle of reading this one and I learn new and exciting things each time I turn the page. (Paperback) (Kindle)

Movie

Do people still gift movies in the age of streaming? If you do…

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Tim’s Vermeer

If you know someone who loves the overlap of art and technology, Tim’s Vermeer is a strangely moving documentary about Tim Jenison’s mission to recreate Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s photo-realistic painting “The Music Lesson.” Produced by Penn & Teller, the documentary follows Jenison, a Texas-based tech entrepreneur who had never lifted a paintbrush in his life, through his discoveries, triumphs, and failures as he seeks to uncover a 350-year-old secret.

I may have shed a tear or two while watching. (DVD) (Blu-ray) (Stream)

Stocking stuffers

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Zelda Boss Key Keychain

The only door it opens is a door called “nostalgia.”

A small comination lock used as a keychain.

Master Lock 4688D

This TSA-friendly lock is a joke of a lock… but it’s a convenient keychain.

Room Escape Gear

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The Original Cryptex®

A Cryptex is a common locking mechanism in room escapes, but most use the junkie Da Vinci Code replicas (and yes, both are junk, even the more expensive version).

Justin Nevins, the creator of the first Cryptex, handcrafts this insanely solid Cryptex. They start at $300 for the normal version and become increasingly expensive for exquisite versions inlayed with wood and marble.

They are the perfect escape room prop, conversation piece, or proposal puzzle device. (I considered using this when plotting out my wedding proposal.)

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That dog looks so guilty.

Blacklight

The obligatory blacklight.

Charities

If you’re feeling charitable, these two organizations do wonderful work creating opportunities for children who desperately need to play.

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Able Gamers Foundation

These folks help make video games accessible for people whose disabilities would otherwise prevent them from playing.

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Child’s Play

This charity works to get games and toys into the hands of children who are in hospitals and domestic abuse shelters. You can send the gift directly to the hospital or shelter.

Thank you!

If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale. We truly appreciate your support.

 

Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

Morse Code, binary, Braille, and pigpen:

Letter encoding and decoding is a common thing in room escapes and puzzle hunts.

  • Set a radio to a specific channel and you’ll find a looping pattern of Morse Code dots and dashes.
  • Stick your hands into a dark space and feel the raised bumps of Braille.
  • Decode the line and dot patters scrawled on a wall in a pigpen cypher.

These are all acceptable, fairly common methods of hiding information in a puzzle game.

However, one problem with these can be the order of puzzle element delivery.

Paiting of the numbers "3039". Beneath the numbers are the braille representations of those numbers.

Standard letter codes

While they aren’t relevant to most people, and many are anachronistic, letter codes are standardized.

All rooms that I am aware of will rightly assume that their players have not memorized the translations for Morse Code, binary, Braille, pigpen, nautical flags, or semaphore (among others). If they are using one of these codes, they will provide a clear method of decoding.

Some companies will go so far as to translate Roman numerals.

This is great, but do not assume that no one can mentally decode these standards.

Translation key first, encoded message second

The room should deliver the decoding key before it provides a coded message that is encoded with a standardized letter code.

Players should discover the Braille translation key before they find raised bumps to decode.

Why?

Because if a player knows your code, they can and will solve the puzzle before they were supposed to.

Anyone with a ham radio license will know Morse, as will some people who were Boy Scouts.

Additionally, some of us escape room enthusiasts have started to memorize some of these codes (both intentionally and unintentionally).

I have picked up a little Braille completely by accident.

I also deliberately memorized Morse Code numbers simply because the pattern is simple to remember:

1) . – – – –
2) . . – – –
3) . . . – –
4) . . . . –
5) . . . . .
6) – . . . .
7) – – . . .
8) – – – . .
9) – – – – .
0) – – – – –

From a design standpoint, the key is to make sure that no one disrupts the game flow because they know a letter code.

Simple solutions

This situation can be solved with one of three simple fixes:

Place the translation key before the coded interaction

If you do this, then the player who already knows the translation finds redundant knowledge that doesn’t diminish their game, but it does make sure that all players reach the code on equal footing.

The player who has it memorized will naturally decode the message faster, but they will do it at the right time.

Don’t use letter codes at critical junctures

If a letter code is locking away an item that can be obtained at any point in the game without breaking the game’s flow, then a player popping the lock with outside knowledge won’t break the game.

Make your own letter code

If you create a letter code with your own symbols, then this whole discussion is irrelevant.

This is, admittedly, a tiny detail in game design. The issue won’t surface all that often, but if you plan for it, it will never be an issue.

The Pre-Game Player Experience [Design Tips]

Every room escape company knows that great products equal great games. They design, build, test, iterate, and maintain their rooms, because that’s where the money comes from. Right?

It’s true: room escape companies live and die based on the quality of their games. However, far too many companies forget that in order to play that brilliant game, players first need to find the company, purchase a ticket, and then get to the facility.

Painting of a rusted Master Lock No. 1 with a yellow base against a blue and white door.

To make sure you don’t cause friction in these pre-game and pre-purchase steps, focus on creating an easy, positive experience for the customer long before they step through your door.

Remember that the customer experience begins as soon as their interest is sparked. A poor booking experience or a weak website can either sour a player’s experience before the game begins or dissuade a player from even booking in the first place.

Sound all too familiar? Here’s a few easy tips to make sure your players are already loving your business before you say ‘Go.’

Continue reading the rest of our guest post on the FareHarbor blog…

Hints and Hinting Systems [Room Design]

We received a question about hint delivery from Matthew Steinman of Missing Pieces Escape Games in Minneapolis, MN, as he considered multiple different hint delivery methods for a game set in a space that wouldn’t naturally have a TV monitor.
“We have played rooms with all sorts of different delivery methods, as I am sure you have as well, but I am curious what you think maintains immersion the best… Have you come across any hint delivery techniques that have really stood out to you?”
Painting of a mouth with a word lock in its mouth. The lock reads, "HELP!"
Hints are surrender.

Hinting in character

We’ve played a handful of games where the hinting never broke character. In each of the examples below, the hints were delivered from the characters in the story.
  • The Wizard’s Apothecary, Escape Room Live Alexandria (Alexandria, VA) – Hints from the wizard were delivered through a magical wizarding device.
  • The Sanatorium, I Survived the Room (Long Island City, NY) – One of the actors gave us hints in game, in character.
  • Escape the Darkest Hour, Mission Escape Games (New York, NY) – As we tried to escape from a murderous butcher’s lair, the killer himself delivered hints over a walky-talky, which kept the tone of the game.
  • The Vanishing Act, Locurio (Seattle, WA) – As we solved a mystery backstage at a magic show, the magician’s assistant sent us hints via text message (in her breaks between acts, clearly).

Each of these games used a different hint delivery system. Each worked well within the context of the game. In all four examples, the hinting enhanced the immersion, by adding to the game’s story. We took an unnecessary hint in The Wizard’s Apothecary simply because we wanted to see the hinting system in action.

Disregarding Realistic Immersion

There are also instances where it doesn’t matter that the hint system doesn’t belong in the environment. In The Mayan Tomb at Last Minute Escape (Morristown, NJ) the ancient tomb had TV monitors, not only for hinting but for video content. The scenario was so light-hearted and playful that it worked.

In this instance, realistic immersion wasn’t the goal of the experience.

Successful Hinting

Hints should only be needed when things have gone wrong for the team.

Hints are surrender

When a team has asked for a hint, it’s generally because they have stalled out. The fun has stopped and they want it to restart.

Hints should be delivered quickly and clearly (not as another riddle) and they should be actionable. They should help players pick up momentum again. Hints, at their best, take a stalled game back to being fun.

It’s most important that the hint delivery not be burdensome to the players; they’re already frustrated at the point of requesting a hint.

Burdensome hinting

Every hint delivery vehicle has its own challenges. When designing a hint system, beware of these marks of burdensome hinting:

The hint is hard to understand

If the text is hard to read or the voice is hard to hear, it becomes a puzzle to decipher the hint. The hint is not an in-game clue. It should never be hidden or obfuscated.

The hint is not in a convenient location

If the hint is delivered in another room, far from the puzzle that’s currently engaging players, it can be hard to use the hint to re-energize on that puzzle.

If it’s too far away, the team may not even realize that they received a hint.

This hint is not relevant

If the gamemaster isn’t following the players’ progress and tailoring the hints to their situation, the hints are at best useless and at worst detrimental.

Hints need to help players regain the thread of gameplay. An irrelevant hint will likely confuse the situation.

The hint arrives at the wrong time

If a player is about to solve a puzzle, don’t break into their experience with a hint they don’t need. Gamemasters need to be paying attention to hint at the right times.

The hint is antagonistic

A gamemaster should never be mean or condescending to players over the hint system. Unless they do it really, really well and it’s part of the game.

Hints that maintain immersion

Matthew asked which hint system maintains immersion the best.

Immersion capabilities aren’t more inherent in the TV monitor or the walky-talky or the cell phone or the gamemaster in the room. This is going to vary on a theme-by-theme and room-by-room basis.

Primarily, choose a method that delivers hints well. It should efficiently set your players back on the path to success. Secondarily, pick one that fits within the fiction you’re creating.

Any of these hint systems can also further the immersion of the world you’ve built. If you want to take your hints to the next level, consider your story and characters. Who are the players? Who would be giving the hints? How would they communicate with each other?

Make your hinting system believable and make your hints actionable.

For more tips

Hinting is one component of room design. For more tips, check out our Room Design section.

Jump Scares in Room Escapes

Some of the most thrilling room escapes are horror games. Horror escape rooms are a natural offshoot of an industry built around immersive experiences.

In a scary setting, games can rely on the incredibly powerful emotion of fear to achieve immersion. However, it is easy to execute horror poorly. It takes some art and a little understanding of human psychology to really get it right.

One classic example is the jump scare:

“A tactic used in horror movies to scare people, the jump scare is used by unimaginative filmmakers as a cheap method of frightening the audience; i.e, making them literally “jump” out of their seats. This device is being increasingly employed in modern horror movies, along with gratuitous amounts of gore, because the directors have forgotten how to actually scare people.” –Urban Dictionary

Having played a number of rooms that did jump scares poorly, and one or two that used them appropriately, I’ve been thinking about this for a while… and then this video showed up in my feed and did a far better job that I will ever do covering the subject.

Shawn Fischtein of Escape Games Canada discussed this same subject in a brief portion of one of his larger player psychology talk at the Chicago Room Escape Conference.

Jump scares can be a useful tool when executed well early in the game, and used to enhance feelings of fear. If the jump scare has to stand on its own or it is being used repeatedly, then it’s almost certainly lame.

Don’t end on a jump scare. That’s completely missing the purpose of the jump scare as a narrative tool.

Image from Lord of the Rings of Bilbo Baggins lunging for the ring. He looks like a monster.

(Video found via BoingBoing)

“Room Escapes Are So New No One Knows The Right Way To Do Them”

Ok… I’ve had it. I’m tired of hearing people utter some version of the phrase:

“Room escapes are so new that no one knows the right way to do them.”

This is bullshit.

Books

There are books (plural!) about how to make escape rooms:

Escape the Game: How to Make Puzzles and Escape Rooms by Adam Clare (paperback or Kindle)

How to Open Your Own Room Escape Game by Elisabeth Garson

Facilitating Team-Building Sessions: A Guide for Escape Room and Exit Game Owners by Christy M. Byrd

I cannot vouch for all Christy M. Byrd, but I can tell you that Adam and Elisabeth know their stuff.

Mosaic photo of a pile of books. "Puzzle Craft" is front and center.
Puzzle Craft is the puzzle design bible, if you can get your hands on a copy.

White papers

There are two freely available white papers specifically about escape rooms:

Scott Nicholson’s (2015) white paper, Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities, is the seminal work on escape rooms.

Markus Wiemker, Errol Elumir, Adam Clare’s (2015) piece titled Escape Room Games: Can you transform an unpleasant situation into a pleasant one?

Blogs & podcasts

Oh man are there blogs. We have over 250 posts on this site alone.

And then there are these fine folks:

Communities

There are vibrant Owner, Startup, and Enthusiast communities on Facebook. Each one is searchable. If you have a question, there’s a good chance an extensive thread already exists on the subject.

If a thread doesn’t exist, start up the conversation.

Financials – the big fuzzy

The one bit of knowledge that’s tough to get at is industry-specific financial information.

How well does the average room escape company do? Who knows?

There’s not a ton of information out there; what is available is frequently a bit suspect.

Standing on shoulders

If that’s not enough, then consider this:

Room escapes are a relatively new form of entertainment that is built from pieces of well-established forms of entertainment:

  • Puzzle design
  • Game design
  • Set design
  • Sound design
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Hardware engineering
  • Writing & storytelling
  • Editing & proofreading
  • Lighting
  • Fabrication
  • Graphic design
  • Play testing

On the business side, there’s nothing new. All of the rules of these different professions apply to an escape room business:

  • Web design
  • Web development
  • Accounting
  • Insurance
  • Real estate
  • Finance
  • Contracts & other legalities
  • Customer service
  • Marketing
  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Social media management

Each bullet in the list above represents an entire profession. There are more books on each of these than you’ll ever be able to read… hell, you can go earn a degree in most of them and make a fine living only practicing that one.

So stop making silly statements about the newness of escape rooms. There is a ton of knowledge and wisdom out there that can help you propel your business forward. You have to decide to educate yourself instead of choosing to remain willfully ignorant.

Please, do your research. It will be worth it to you and your players.

Update: There isn’t necessary a right way to design an escape room, but there are lots of wrong ways to do it.

If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.

Pre-PAX West Interview: Edwin Tsui, The Locked Room

In advance of our upcoming panel discussion on room escapes at PAX West, we spoke with each of the panelists about their experiences as gamers, perspectives on room escapes, and future evolution of their games.

In this interview, we talk to Edwin Tsui of The Locked Room (Calgary, AB) about his experience as a game enthusiast and game creator/owner.

Photo of Edwin and his partners in one of their horror games. It's dark and there are body parts as well as implements of destruction postioned throughout the room.

Room Escape Artist: How did your enthusiasm for escape rooms turn into a business?

Edwin: When my girlfriend and I first heard of the concept of the escape room, it sounded like an amazingly fun activity. After we played our very first escape rooms in Prague in early 2014, we knew it was fun, and we wanted to bring the activity back to our home city of Calgary.

I met with my two future business partners, Kyle and Adil, while offering them DJ service for their zombie-themed fun run. At the end of our meeting, I casually brought up the escape room idea, which intrigued them. From there, we launched our first two-room facility as a market tester and things just took off.

Your background and interests are in video games and puzzling. Tell us how video games have influenced your escape room business.

My favorite types of video games are RPG and strategy games. Well-crafted games of those genres tend to have good flow, and give players a sense of accomplishment as they progress through the game.

I want players coming through our escape rooms to feel like they have that sense of progression, with a mixture of some easy wins, and some tougher battles. This is accomplished by having a combination of puzzles and activities – some of which are straightforward and intuitive, and others that may require a bit of head scratching before the ‘aha’ light bulb switches on with the correct answer.

It’s important to listen to the players who come through and use their feedback to make improvements and changes. This goes for the games themselves, as well as marketing, customer service, and market conditions, which are equally important as the content in the escape rooms themselves. We always want to ensure that the fun factor is maximized and the frustration factor minimized. Visiting gamefaqs.com (in the olden days of the internet!) to find a walkthrough or tip for a certain boss or game sequence always felt like ‘giving up’!

You’ve played many escape rooms all over the world, but your business partners haven’t played as many escape rooms themselves. How do your design interests align with or differ from those of your business partners?

Part of playing more games is that quality expectations as a player are always increasing. I’m always comparing the puzzles, immersion and overall fun factor of each new room to pre-existing experiences (and also to my own offerings!).

When designing my own escape room games, it’s important to understand my market and to offer puzzles and activities that will be appropriate for that particular demographic (newer players vs. corporate team builders vs. puzzle hunt specialists). What may seem fun or intuitive to me after playing 100 games may be too difficult or non-intuitive for a first-time player. Thus, my partners do a great job of keeping me grounded and finding that balance of challenging, yet fun (without being frustrating), for our target demographic.

As a player, your favorite games cater to enthusiasts. How do you keep the gamer/enthusiast market happy while still executing on a viable business model?

The beauty of the escape room as an activity is that it’s accessible to a wide range of players; there is no steep learning curve, no inherent safety issue (generally), and everybody can share in the fun and adrenaline of the experience.

Gamers and/or puzzlers will have an inherent advantage because of the style of challenges in most escape rooms, but a player with 5-10 escape room games under their belt will already be on par or better at these real-life games than a brand new (but with games/puzzle experience) player.

We try to offer a wide variety of themes and difficulty levels so that everybody has a chance to find the right fit for themselves. Not everybody is going to love every game that they play, but it is our responsibility to provide as much information as possible so that we can manage player expectations heading into an escape room game.

When you started, you wanted to expose your audience to those awesome moments you had first encountered in escape rooms. How do you evolve so that you can continue to produce that wow moment?

There are many ways to achieve the ‘wow’ moments in a game, but as players become more experienced, it takes a bit more thought to find new ways to surprise them! Some of my personal favorites are clever use of ordinary everyday items in MacGyver ways  or hidden objects (or passageways) concealed right under the players’ noses!

Electronics and technology are also useful tools for creating ‘wow’ puzzle components and, when used appropriately, can help bridge the gap between what can be achieved in real life and what is possible in video games.