The Bare Metal Directional Lock at Red Fox

We recently visited Red Fox Escapes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they did something that I had believed impossible:

They made a Master Lock directional lock look both thematic and aesthetically pleasing – in a U-boat escape room.

They did this by stripping down the paint and exposing the bare metal with a Dremel and a file.

A Master Lock directional lock filed down to bare steel.

What Does This Fix?

Stripping a directional lock down to bare steel made it look cool – and like it belonged – even if it wasn’t period accurate.

Personally, I rarely ever think that period accuracy of mechanisms matters in an escape room. It’s huge just to make the room feel like everything belongs and nothing looks out of place.

Peeling away the ridiculous candy colored shell and “Master” branding transformed this from a silly escape room-y lock into a cool, curious object on a submarine.

What Doesn’t This Fix?

UI Challenges

This doesn’t make the directional lock more intuitive; it’s still a clunky contraption that requires explanation. Nothing is going to change this.

Breakage?

This isn’t going to improve the durability issues that directional locks have. They break, or at least, some large percentage break. There is a portion of the owner population that swears that they have never had to replace their directional locks… so maybe some are winning the manufacturer’s lottery?

Almost perfectly mirrored star ratings on both the high and low side for directional locks on Amazon.
Amazon

The directional lock that I own doesn’t work so well after casual use with proper operation in a clean environment. I honestly cannot account for the varied opinions, which are split evenly on 2,500+ Amazon reviews. The only thing that makes sense to me is inconsistent production on a manufacturing level.

The Bottom Line

Red Fox Escapes made an escape room clichΓ© cool with a small alteration. They thawed my heart towards the directional lock. I’m thankful for this experience.

A different Massachusetts escape room owner from Outside The Box in Webster had said to me of his game The Body Shop that “nothing went into this game untouched.” They roughed up and patinaed everything in the game.

This is a smart way to build compelling escape room environments without breaking the bank. While it doesn’t cost that much more money to build this way, it does require a lot more thought, effort, and care. I truly respect it.

Visit this Lock

Buy your ticket to RECON, our escape room industry convention taking place in Boston in August. Red Fox Escapes is the closest escape room company to the Boston Marriott Cambridge, where we are hosting RECON.

RECON eye & penrose triangle logo.

Come visit Boston this summer for outstanding speakers, meaningful conversations, and new perspectives on escape rooms… and add in your own directional lock tourism!

Support Room Escape Artist’s Mission

There are lots of ways to support Room Escape Artist, like buying from Amazon after clicking into the links included in this post or backing us on Patreon.

The money that we make from these helps us to grow the site and continue to add more value to the community that we love so much.

Escape Room Owners: Bathrooms & You

Escape room owners, it’s time for the talk.

Now some of you don’t really need this talk, but more than a few of you do… so I am going to try to add at least one or two thoughts to this that will help those that aren’t doing a stinky job managing their facilities.

Dan Egnor standing in an outhouse labeled "The Shitter" looking into the toilet.
Escape Room Guinness World Record Holder Dan Egnor peering into the abyss.

This πŸ’© Matters

A significant portion of your players – both experienced and inexperienced – are judging you by the quality and state of your bathrooms.

For years people have written in asking us to include bathrooms in reviews. For years we’ve elected not to – not because we don’t think that they matter – they sure as πŸ’© do.

Anecdotally, I believe that there is a correlation between the condition of an escape room company’s bathroom and the quality of the games and customer service. If someone isn’t cleaning up the πŸ’©, what else is being neglected?

The Tale of the Smelly πŸ’©

About a year ago we visited a company with one of Lisa’s oldest friends, Deb.

Now Deb will be quick to tell you that she “isn’t an escape room player” even though she’s probably played 40 games by virtue of being friends with us. Plus Deb manages a sports recreation business that is considerably larger than any escape room company in the United States. She knows stuff.

We played a fine, low-budget game in a small town. The game was clearly made with a lot of love. We all enjoyed it.

When we left, we went to dinner and took notes on the game. After we finished discussing the game itself Deb looked at us and said, “That guy doesn’t want to run a business.” One of us asked why she thought that. She pointed out that the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in weeks and it smelled like something had died in it. There was only one bathroom in the small facility, so he had to know, and chose not to do anything about it.

To Deb, it seemed like this owner just wanted to design games, which he was pretty good at. He didn’t want to run a business. If he couldn’t take the time to clean the πŸ’©, there must be other parts of his business that were starting to smell.

Within a few months, he closed his doors.

Give Your πŸ’© Some Love

A few pieces of actionable, tangible advice:

Clean Your Bathroom Regularly

Have a schedule. Make sure people are held accountable. Remember that in a small business, no one should be above cleaning the πŸ’©.

If You Aren’t Responsible For Your Bathroom

Plenty of escape rooms are in buildings where someone else is responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of the bathroom. There are limits to what you can do here.

If you are thinking about renting in such a place, I strongly urge you to do two things:

  1. Check out the bathrooms every time you visit before leasing. Make sure they are being cared for.
  2. Put it in the terms of your lease that the bathrooms will be cared for. If the landlord is already taking care of such things, it won’t be a hard ask. If they are being negligent about the state of their facilities, then they’ll throw a fit. Either way, you have an answer.

Elevate The πŸ’© Experience

Design your bathroom. Make it thematic, make it elegant, make it something special.

A basket with floss, maxipads, tampons, mouthwash, and mints in a bathroom.

Also, you can do what we saw at Riddle Room in Rhode Island: leave a care basket with feminine hygiene products and other comforts. Most will probably never use these items, but if someone truly needs them, you probably just made their day.

Closing Thoughts

Running a business – any business – comes with some πŸ’© tasks. So much of the difference between success and failure is the willingness and discipline to just do that πŸ’©.

The (Potential) Magic of the Single-Room Escape Game

We recently received a question about single-room escape rooms from Victor, co-creator of Sherlocked in Amsterdam. He recognized that making a compelling single-space escape room would be quite challenging and asked us if there were examples of successful ones, and what makes these successful.

Black & White, a lone person looking out a large window from behind.

When You Survey the Players

When asked, escape room players will tell you they overwhelmingly prefer multi-room escape rooms. (See the graph on page 4 of the 2018 Escape Room Enthusiast Survey.)

When most players answer that question, however, I don’t believe they are saying that multiple rooms are inherently more enjoyable. I think they are saying that most of the rooms they’ve loved – the rooms that have given them a sense of adventure, excitement, intrigue, and discovery – have multiple rooms.

It’s easier to deliver on these escape room virtues through multiple spaces.

The Lull of the Single Space

It is easy to make a mediocre single-room escape game.

When you spend 60 minutes solving puzzles in a single space, you begin to feel comfortable with the space. You’ve searched it thoroughly. You know everything about it. You won’t find anything new. You won’t be surprised. The excitement and sense of adventure subsides, slowly at first – and then quickly.

Unless…

You go out of your way to design an experience, not just a room.

The most successful single-space escape rooms make that room feel like it’s part of a broader world and story through a number of different tools.

The Narrative Twist

If the story changes, the players are in the same physical space, but they are experiencing something new there.

Let’s say that the team was put into the room on a mission to disarm a bomb. If the game ends with the diffusing of the bomb, there was no twist; there was no intrigue. However, if that bomb gets defused 20 minutes into the game and it turns out that something more sinister is afoot… that creates opportunities for surprise.

The Scene Change

If the setting changes – through lighting, sound, the addition or removal of props, or anything else – the space can once again feel new and discoverable.

Adding or removing things from the space can fundamentally change it. Additionally, large-scale reveals can create powerful moments. There are single-room games that feel like large puzzle boxes, slowly revealing big secrets and new interactions. This can be incredibly engaging. Arcane Escapes in California did this in The Hideout.

In-game: A wooden wall with pipes and a big red valve mounted to it.

The Characters Emerge

In games with actors, these characters can change the space with their presence. They will move through it and interact with it, drawing players to see it in different ways.

A live actor can also affect the setting in planned ways that a player cannot. SCRAP does this so well in San Francisco’s Pop Star Room of Doom.

In-game: view from one apartment window through another. Across the way is the popstar's blue walled apartment covered in 90s references.

The Outside World Exists

Having the room feel like it is within a broader world is powerful. This is part of the magic of Strange Bird Immersive’s The Man From Beyond.

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

Incredible things can happen when it feels like the actions that you take within the room are changing the world beyond the walls, and similarly, outside forces are affecting you.

There are many other ways to do this. The key is to build drama. If the players get too comfortable with the setting and the story, then their excitement will wane. Keep the space in flux – in reality or in their minds – and single-room escape rooms can be incredible.

Single Room Hate

Players often look down on single-room games because the single room is frequently an indicator that the game was under designed. For every Man From Beyond, Pop Star Room of Doom, and The Hideout, there are many more forgettable single-room escape games.

We’ll never knock an escape game just for being a single room. We’ll argue against anyone who thinks that one room is an automatic indicator of bad quality. That said, we understand why an escape room player might draw the conclusion that single-room games offer a lower quality experience.

Case in Escape Room Tech

CaSE, iT MAttErs.

We live in a civilized society with rules. Respecting case is one of them. The utility of letter case is rarely discussed… and we’re not going to get into any of that today.

We are going to dig into how case regularly breaks puzzle inputs in stupid, avoidable ways.

Close up stylized image of the shift and caps lock keys on a Mac keyboard.

What Escape Room Designers Must Know About Case

Everyone knows that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, right?

Well to a computer, there are not 26 letters in the English alphabet, there are 52. Unless a computer is told otherwise, it will treat upper case letters and lower case letters as different entities.

When, as players, we find ourselves inputting a puzzle solution into a digital interface, case frequently presents a silly, easily avoidable, joy-killing barrier.

Solutions & Case Sensitivity

My team just solved a puzzle. The solution is “sherlock.” We are confident that we have to input this solution into a computer… so we type it in… and it’s rejected.

In most instances where a password is typed into a digital interface, there are 3 different options for case:

  • sherlock
  • Sherlock
  • SHERLOCK

As a player I can confidently tell you that I don’t give a $#!% which one works. I do care, however, when my right answer fails because I used a lower case “s” when I needed an upper case “S” or vice versa.

This problem is magnified when a team doesn’t stop to think about the implications of case. They might just walk away from a correct answer and dive down some useless rabbit hole. It happens. I’ve seen it.

Keyboards, Shift, & Caps Lock

These problems are often exacerbated by the shift and caps lock keys on a keyboard. Often, when a password is inputted into a computer, the display looks like this:

******** or ●●●●●●●●

UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES I MIGHT NOT NOTICE THAT MY TEAMMATE POKED AT THE CAPS LOCK BUTTON EARLIER… AND NOW I AM SHOUTING MY SOLUTION AT THE COMPUTER LIKE A CRAZY UNCLE FORWARDING A 10-YEAR-OLD POLITICAL CHAIN EMAIL!!!!!!!!

Solutions

There are a few easy solutions to these problems. The right combination of solutions will change based on the game’s individual circumstances.

Program Different Cases

If you’ve custom built the software that accepts your password, you can likely code it to accept multiple responses.

Allowing your software to accept “sherlock” OR “Sherlock” OR “SHERLOCK” nullifies the problem.

Normalize or Ignore Case

Again, if we’re talking custom software, you can usually drop a line of code into the program that either normalizes case or ignores it entirely.

Normalization is probably my favorite solution because when you start typing, it always types in the case that the system wants. I type in “Sherlock” but what displays is “SHERLOCK” and there is zero room for confusion on my part or the computer’s.

Ignoring case is useful as well because I can type “ShErLoCk” or any other permutation of case and the computer accepts it. It’s not limited to the pre-programmed solutions.

Programmatically Disable Shift & Caps Lock

Depending upon the computer you have and software you’re running, you may be able to programmatically disable the shift and caps lock keys so that they do not function.

This could be useful under circumstances where you have full control over the computer, but not the software that needs to accept the password.

Physically Disable Shift & Caps Lock

Finally, if all else fails, you can go nuclear and crack open the keyboard and break the shift and caps lock keys so that they cannot function on a mechanical level.

The Bottom Line

Whichever route you go, the net benefit is that you’ll eliminate a point of needless confusion and friction for your players.

This will also eliminate an entire category of hints and completely streamline a segment of your game that really isn’t supposed to be a challenge in the first place.

Everybody wins.

Double Inputting in Escape Room Tech

Double inputting is a silly source of player confusion in escape room tech, but it’s easy to eliminate.

Double inputting is a silly source of player confusion in escape room tech, but it’s easy to eliminate.

Stylized image of a horizon with two rainbows.

What is Double Inputting?

I’ll set a scene:

I’m at an altar with my team. It’s the end of the game. We have collected a series of magical items and we must place them on the altar, then remove them in a particular order. If we do it correctly we will summon the all-powerful God of Interface Design and win the game.

We place our objects one by one in the correct order… and nothing happens. We were right, but it didn’t work.

It turned out that when placing one item my hand shook just a little.

Stylized image of a birthday a with a "2" candle on it.

What happened? The RFID chip in the object moved in and out and then back in range of the reader. The result is that it read as the same object twice. Thus the entire sequence was considered incorrect.

There are a lot of circumstances where signals or inputs can be duplicated quickly and without the player realizing that it has happened.

When this happens, the result is always the same: the solution is incorrect and it’s frustrating.

In some instances this happens so frequently on a particular puzzle that the gamemaster pops onto the hint system to say, “It’s ok guys. You have the right answer. It happens to everyone. Just be really quick and deliberate… and it will work. If you can’t get it, I’ll come in and do it for you.”

Stylized image of a double decker bus in London.

Solution: Read Delay

There’s a pretty easy software fix for this problem:

Add a “read delay.” After an input is accepted, put a few second delay on reading another signal. That way if someone’s a bit shaky or fumbles the pieces, the computer won’t get confused by the action.

Exactly how long that delay ought to be is going to vary based on the individual interaction. Take your best guess. Then test it with real players and adapt accordingly. The goal of the timing should be that it doesn’t slow down their pace, but it should prevent double inputs.

Pushbuttons and switches have a similar problem, called “bounce.”

When a read delay is used for buttons, it is called “debouncing.”

Solution: State Machine

Another fix is a “state machine.” A state machine is a list of states and a list of transitions that take you from one state to another. This allows you to control exactly what is/ isn’t considered an input in the sequence.

More Technical Details

The following explanation is thanks to Brett Kuehner:

For example, let’s say you have 5 props: A, B, C, D, and E. You want them placed on a single pedestal, one at a time, in that sequence. If the players make a mistake (i.e. A, B, D) you want them to have to start over from the beginning. The diagram below shows a state machine with 6 states (circles), and transitions (lines) between them:

State machine explaination diagram.

Where there is a line between states, it indicates that the program should move between states if that condition is true.

This gives you complete control over what happens for each input. Each correct input moves the players from Start towards Finish. Each incorrect input sends them back to Start. A duplicate input does nothing because there is no transition. In the example, there is no transition from state 2 when the players place B on the pedestal. They can place B on and off as many times as they want, and the puzzle stays in state 2. When the players get to Finish, the system can unlock the lock, play the fanfare, and flash the lights. You know the only way it can get to Finish is if the exact sequence was followed.

State machines are a robust way to describe puzzle behavior because you can draw a diagram of exactly what you want and to turn it into rules for your control system to follow. Once you have a generic state machine routine, you can easily describe complex puzzles with minimal code or without any code at all. It is just data describing the states and transitions.

Here’s what the code might look like:

AddState(“start”, { DoStuffToResetThePuzzle(); });
AddState(“solved”, { UnlockTheDoorAndSoundTheTrumpets(); });

AddTransition(“start”, { return CheckTheSwitches(); }, “solved”);
SetState(“start”);

There are just 2 states: start and solved. The system continuously checks the current state of every puzzle, and sees if any of the transition conditions are true, which makes that puzzle move to another state. When the system goes to start, it resets the puzzle. (Doing this in start guarantees that every way you reset the puzzle will do exactly the same thing.) If “CheckTheSwitches” becomes true, the state machine goes to solved, which triggers the door to unlock to the trumpets to sound.

[collapse]
Black & white stylized image of two large birds flying overhead.

The Bottom Line

These kinds of details matter a lot. They are the difference between the technology being invisible and the moment triumphant… and the tech being obvious, broken, and the moment frustrating.