Game design cannibalizes ideas from past games. It’s the nature of gaming in general and we see it in tabletop games, video games, and escape rooms.
We’ve seen these 3 games turned into escape room puzzles on too many occasions to count. Sometimes we see straight implementations of the classic games; others times they are well-hidden or reimagined.
If you feel like leveling up your escape room skill, mastery of these 3 games will come in handy.
A codemaker sets a secret code and the codebreaker tries to crack it through deduction, logic, and a bit of guess work. The mechanics of this game are incredibly simple, but it has a ton of depth to it.
Somehow I never encountered Mastermind in my pre-escape room life and I’m kind of sad about that.
Towers of Hanoi is a straightforward logic challenge. There are 3 pillars and the more disks you add to it, the harder (and more interesting) it becomes.
I’ve seen some especially creative interpretations of this puzzle in escape rooms.
Not an endorsement for use in escape rooms
Each of these three puzzles has its place and its virtues. When we encounter Towers of Hanoi in an escape room such that it’s fun and make sense, that’s fantastic. That said, these classic puzzles don’t belong in every single escape room.
If you design escape rooms, please don’t read too deeply into this post. Don’t replicate these puzzles just because.
One isn’t always the loneliest number in an escape room.
The concept of “single use” items is common in escape rooms, but it has a strangely fuzzy definition.
Pros & cons
Single use is a popular design choice, but it is not the only way to design an escape room. It has a few benefits for both players and companies:
For players, the benefit is clarity. If you use something, you won’t need it again. You can create a “used” pile that you never have to revisit.
For companies, that player clarity generally results in smoother game flow. It also reduces wear and tear on props, because players don’t continually investigate them for the entire game.
On the flipside, without single use, the same concept can return in different ways, enabling players to build mastery. This can add a level of player satisfaction and more interesting and innovative game design.
Every game design decision comes with tradeoffs.
The proper definitions of single use
If you use it once, you never use it again.
“It” refers to anything in your gamespace, be it a prop, puzzle, solution, key, clue, combination… or black light.
The black light alternative definition
If you use it once, you never use it again, unless it’s a handheld black light. This is lame, but can be ok if it’s made crystal clear.
The incorrect definition
If you use it once, you never use it again, unless we think you should. We’ve seen this strange definition require us to reuse journals, keys, solutions, information that leads to one solution and then leads to another… and, of course, handheld black lights.
The words “single use” should be pretty clear.
They should mean that players will rely on each item once. If that is not your definition, that’s perfectly fine. Not every game needs to be, or even should be, single use. But if you design a game that reuses anything, don’t announce it as “single use” in your pregame briefing.
“Can you tell me what happened in the fire in an American escape room? I heard that players died.”
Last weekend at Poland’s WroEscape conference, approximately a dozen people asked me about a fire in an American escape room where players lost their lives.
I had an incredible time at WroEscape, and will write more about that soon, but I must immediately address this rumor:
This deadly escape room fire never happened. This is an urban legend. A myth… but like most myths, it was born of some truth.
Escape room fires in North America
I am aware of 3 separate fires in North American escape rooms. They happened in closed buildings when no players or employees were present:
Hoodwinked in New York City had a fire in the basement of their building. There were no injuries. After a few months of repairs they reopened.
An escape room company in Framingham, Massachusetts, never even had a chance to open because a fire in a neighboring business destroyed their facility. The owner of this company decided to start an escape room tech business instead of starting again from scratch.
GTFO Entertainment in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, had a fire in their building as well. It happened in the middle of the night and there were no injuries. They have since reopened.
If these fires happened and no one was injured, then where did the rumor come from? The short answer is me… Sort of…
Up The Game
At the Up The Game Escape Room Conference in The Netherlands in May, Lisa and I delivered a talk to a packed audience. One section of our talk discussed player safety. (This discussion begins around the 10 minute mark.)
I explained that with the amount of escape rooms operating, it is only a matter of time until there is a fire or some other emergency that could threaten players’ lives. I was making the point that escape rooms must be designed safely.
I further explained that a serious injury or death in an escape room would have a calamitous effect on the escape room industry in the United States. Insurance rates would rise and regulations would add a tremendous burden to owners. Many escape rooms would not survive this.
The story of this haunted house fire was later misinterpreted by conference attendees who didn’t hear our talk. The “haunt fire where participants died” became the “escape room fire where players died.”
This deadly escape room fire was a myth. But if the escape room industry is not careful, it may come true. On that day, it will be too late to do something about it.
If you own or operate an escape room, please think about the safety of your players. This is more important than the purity of the experience that you deliver.
Always make sure that players can free themselves from your game without a gamemaster.
If they are locked in the room, then provide an emergency exit. The easier to operate the better.
If you physically restrain players, be certain that they can free themselves from the restraints. The easier to operate the better.
Keep your electrical outlets completely out of play.
There are many other issues of safety to consider, but let’s start with the basics and get smarter from there.
In an industry dedicated to creating fun and adventure, I ask everyone to commit to safety as well. It’s all fun and games until someone loses a life.
But, just to be clear, that has not already happened.
The trailer for the new TOMB RAIDER adaptation hit YouTube a few weeks back. It certainly looks a lot more interesting than Angelina Jolie’s turn in Lara Croft’s boots.
I’m calling it now: this movie is going to have an impact on escape room design. I’m not talking about the IP plundering of the inevitable knockoff rooms where players are searching an ancient tomb for missing adventurer Cara Loft. I’m referring to the endless remixing that goes on in culture.
After giving the 2-minute trailer a gander, I was struck by the number of featured interactions that looked like existing escape room puzzles… or things that could certainly become escape room puzzles. Here are the highlights:
“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am” published earlier today. It immediately made a splash in the escape room community. Regardless of your opinion, it raised a lot of issues that we as a community should stop and reflect upon.
Escape Room Live
While the Washington Post piece spotlighted Escape Room Live, this article could be about almost any escape room facility.
Escape Room Live does a lot right. The topics I’m about to address are industry-wide issues.
Hint system failure
The biggest issue that I read in this article was that the hint system failed and the team spent a significant portion of the time unable to communicate to the gamemaster. This is a deeply frustrating problem. It happens all too frequently.
I’m not surprised that a first-time player who spent a large portion of their game without access to their gamemaster had a bad time.
I recall that in our previous experiences with Escape Room Live, they had deliberate in-story mechanisms for receiving hints. This was one of the things that we loved about them. If I had to guess, they used walkie-talkies because Ghostbusters is actually a licensed game and walkie-talkies feature prominently in one of the most iconic scenes in the original movie.
Walkie-talkies are generally a sub-par means of hint delivery because they are clunky to use and it is relatively easy to change the channel. I understand, however, their place in this particular escape room.
I strongly encourage all escape room owners simply mic the rooms and have their gamemasters listening at all times, even if an in-story mechanism for requesting a hint is in use. The walkie-talkies can be used in addition to the regular room microphones. I’ve seen this before, and it’s smart. When the room is miced and the gamemaster is always listening, this problem is avoided.
“What do we win if we succeed?”
This isn’t an escape room company problem… but escape room companies still need to address it.
I hate the “what’s the prize?” mentality that a lot of people bring into an escape room. I think it undermines the entire idea of enjoying an activity.
My advice to escape room companies is this: The prize isn’t the hope of winning a record, getting a better time than your friends, or as the gamemaster in this story said, bragging rights. The prize is the journey. It’s the experience and story that you’ll create with your friends along the way.
To use a dated analogy, if you go to an arcade to win prizes, you’re literally going to spend your time dropping money into a garbage game that spits out tickets so that you can trade in a stupid amount of them for a prize that would have cost you a dollar to purchase. The way to experience an arcade is to go and play the games that are inherently fun for you. That enjoyment is what you’re paying for.
I’m smart, therefore I will win
The theme of credential listing ran throughout the Washington Post’s piece. I know that this is an issue in escape rooms. Educated players with good jobs who are probably smart people believe that they are entitled to win.
It’s completely unreasonable to believe that you will succeed at something that you’ve never done.
Players with ego frequently overthink, get in their own way, and then are reluctant to ask for help. There isn’t a lot that escape rooms can do about this. Watch the players and if they stall completely, push hints. I know that some players get pissy about receiving hints, but it’s far better than letting a group spiral out into frustration on the first puzzle.
In the 4th episode of the short-lived TV series Race To Escape, a self-proclaimed “puzzle expert” fully embodied this. I find this painful to watch, but many people seem to find this guy’s tunnel vision while he murders stuffed animals hilarious.
It genuinely seemed like that writer had no sense of what happened in the game. I’ve heard good things about Ghostbusters, so until I have first-hand experience, I am going to guess that the breakdown was in a lack of explanation for a player who may not have participated in, or even focused on, the puzzle solutions during her experience.
I don’t know what kind of post-game walkthroughs Escape Room Live does, so I’m going to make a generalization about the escape room industry:
Post-game walkthroughs are a dying art.
I am of the opinion that every team should receive a walkthrough. People on winning teams miss out on details and losing teams should have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and see the full experience… they’ve already paid for it.
When a team receives their walkthrough, their reaction should be, “oh… we should have gotten that.” Their reaction should not be, “I never would have gotten that.”
I know that some teams are so disinterested or frustrated by the experience that a walkthrough will only make them less happy, but these are the exception. There’s usually at least one person in the group who was interested enough to want an explanation.
I cannot say for sure, but I have a feeling that a solid post-game walkthrough might have mitigated some of the sour grapes that the article smelled of.
I didn’t like this, therefore I do not like escape rooms
“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am.”
The title of the piece implies that not understanding something inherently devalues either the concept or the person who doesn’t understand it.
I do not understand quantum computing. I kind of get the idea. I’ve read a lot about it. I can even sort of explain it, but I do not truly understand the concept. I do not think that the idea is dumb or that I am a lesser person as a result of not understanding it.
I know that editors frequently craft headlines, but even if the writer didn’t create the title, that mentality permeated the entire piece.
Escape rooms are a broad and broadening form of entertainment. There are adventure games, cerebral games, scary games, funny games… I could keep listing like Bubba, but I won’t.
Because of the terminology, many first time players assume that they will need to “escape” from a locked space. While that’s how this genre of entertainment started, it now only applies to small portion of “escape room” games. Escape room companies need to set clear expectations on their websites and in their pregame briefings, whether or not they use the word “escape” in their branding and marketing.
There are escape room-style games out there for damn near everyone, but you have to look for the ones that fit your interests best and you have to be open to exploration.
This particular story…
The moral of the story is that every single game is an opportunity to wow or fail a team of players. For every WaPo writer who plays an escape room and experiences a failure like this, there are so many more people who silently leave having had a bad time, and lose interest in escape rooms.
I know that many players are failed by the escape rooms that they play. Derelict gamemasters, broken interactions, and poor customer service are a pervasive problem. People write to us with all sorts of stories that reflect poorly on this industry that I love so much.
Companies with good products will still have a margin of error in game execution and customer service, but they can take steps to mitigate a lot of the issues.
Every escape room operator should remember that you can have a beautifully designed game fail completely if the basics don’t work.
For about a year I’ve been addicted to Mark Brown’s Boss Keys, an episodic analysis of the dungeon design and game mechanics of The Legend of Zelda videogame series.
Zelda’s legacy in escape rooms
Regardless of whether you’ve played Zelda, its fingerprints are all over escape rooms. The earliest escape room owners in the United States were big fans of Zelda. Whether you realize it or not, all of the US-based escape rooms are building off of these early videogames.
So… escape rooms are standing on the shoulders of The Legend of Zelda series… which was why it was so interesting when the concept came full circle and a Zelda escape game began touring.
Game Maker’s Toolkit
Mark Brown’s YouTube channel features his primary show, Game Maker’s Toolkit, where he dissects videogame mechanics and design decisions. This is a fantastic series, but not the subject of this post.
In preparation for a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode on The Legend of Zelda, Brown replayed every single game in the 30-year-old Zelda series and created a spinoff show Boss Keys as a sort of publicly posted series of notes. His analysis is fantastic.
Each episode looked at a different Zelda game, mapped out the dungeon design, broke down the game’s mechanics, and then evaluated how it all worked. Brown’s insights intrigued me as a lover of both Zelda and escape rooms.
Since escape rooms are at least partially rooted in Zelda game design, an analysis of Zelda design also teaches lessons about escape room design.
A few key episodes
While I wholeheartedly recommend watching the entire Boss Keys series in order – the episodes build on one another as Brown’s insights compound – there were a few episodes that I think are critical viewing for the escape room community:
This episode looked at a critical and often overlooked installment in the franchise, exploring all of the ways that the designers expanded the language of dungeon design. Watch for the breadth of locking techniques applied in the game and the smart use of backtracking to allow the player to learn from the game environment and puzzle their way towards mastery of the space.
This episode explored dungeon design where the physical space itself drove the puzzling. These kinds of puzzles are brutally difficult to design – and real life has a lot more restrictions than video games – but they are incredibly satisfying.
A Link Between Worlds
Brown’s analysis of the pros and cons of an almost completely non-linear game design directly correlates to escape room design.
This episode lightly explored the perils of bad hint delivery and went into depth on the issues of linearity and choice.
Breath of the Wild
Brown has not yet published an episode on the latest game, Breath of the Wild, but I cannot wait to hear his thoughts.
I highly encourage anyone who is interested in either escape room design or game design in general to lose themselves in Brown’s YouTube channel. His knowledge, joy, and ability to break down complexity is so much fun to watch.
The video itself was originally recorded and posted by escape room & haunt reviewer Christine Barger. Fun fact: Christine is also a professional ventriloquist who once used Lisa and me as her dummies in an impromptu performance.
A lot of folks sent this video to us both because of the kind shout out we received from the presenters and because of its fantastic content.
The Cross Roads duo delve into the nuance of escape room real estate as well as the hideous world of local government and bureaucracy.
I fully endorse both the content and message of their talk. They nailed this stuff.
The video plays well at 1.25 speed if you want to knock 15 minutes off of the runtime.
Also, the video states this, but it bears repeating: DO NOT CONTACT the presenters. This was a one-off thing.
I’m truly looking forward to the next game from Cross Roads.
Who knew that the most gruesome thing at a Halloween show would be a discussion about dealing with local bureaucrats?
At last year’s Room Escape Conference in Chicago, we participated in a impromptu Trapdoor UNLOCKED recording session about operating an escape room. This roundtable discussion covered a ton of ground as we all tried to help Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego, CA, a company we haven’t played but have heard many great things about.
One year later, we caught up with Jason about the changes he made to set his business on a sustainable path.
… Just know that the audio quality wasn’t amazing as this was an unplanned recording in the middle of a bar.
Room Escape Artist: When this video was shot in August of 2016 – at the first Escape Room Conference in Chicago – how many customers were you seeing each month?
Jason: Things started very slow. Not counting customers who had purchased Groupons, we were only seeing about 10-20 customers a month.
A year later, in August of 2017, how many customers are you seeing each month?
With the constant fluctuations in our market (we’re in a tourism location), it is hard to gauge, but the average is around 300 customers for our one room.
What was the most important tip that came out of the round table discussion?
The two tips that stuck with me were:
Reach out to other businesses and don’t try to do everything yourself.
It’s not that we didn’t know these things, but we weren’t practicing them. Since then, my wife/partner and I have decided where to focus our own efforts.
For example, we hired professionals to redesign our website and help with programming and construction. Also, we aren’t trying to do our business taxes ourselves.
Regardless of how simple these tasked seemed, it was the time that it took to learn and implement them that was the true cost.
Besides focusing your own efforts, what other changes did you implement that improved your business?
My favorite change was extending the time between groups. It takes away a time slot, but it lets us comfortably reset the room and interact with the customers.
At the conference in Chicago in 2016, Andrew King from Flummox’d Escape Rooms in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave a presentation on getting five-star reviews. It was hands down my favorite presentation from the conference because it went into the psychology of the experience. Before we had a great room, but now we have a great experience from beginning to end.
We start things off with a 10-minute lobby game that I designed around a small box. I also offer strategies for success in the room, such as communication. After the 60-minute game, we talk about the puzzles (likes and dislikes) and listen to suggestions. We also ask about other escape rooms our customers have played and we recommend other local rooms they would enjoy. We want to help grow a sustainable player base for the escape room industry here.
Secondly, we’ve expanded our social media presence. Previously we only posted pictures of winning teams. Now we also post pictures and videos from other angles of the business such as puzzle construction. I build and program all the technology myself and it can take a long time, so I show the progress along the way, as well as lessons I learned while constructing. I don’t know exactly how much direct impact this guerilla marketing has on the business, but it does generate interest in when the next room will be ready.
Finally, we switched from public rooms to private rooms. In the roundtable discussion I explained how much I love public rooms, but I understand that most customers do not. We are consistently told by customers that they booked with us because we host private rooms, which eliminates the fear of half the group showing up late and strangers that don’t get along. Bummer for me, but great for business.
You mentioned social media. What other new marketing techniques have brought in more business?
We’ve devoted more time to marketing. For example, we look for high performing Facebook posts to boost, which leads to customers. We also followed advice from Anthony Purzycki of Trap Door in New Jersey and approached at least 20 different business in the area. Some led to nothing, but the process isn’t instant and we see results weeks and months later.
Did you consult business resources from outside the escape room community? Which ones were most helpful?
“Escape room community” is a broad term. The Facebook groups (Escape Room Owners and Escape Room Start-ups) are fun to read, but they are also very similar to Stack Overflow. You need to research everything and then ask your question or get crushed by experts. That being said, I wish I had known about these groups from the start because they provide a lot of good information.
In terms of business books, I recommend How to Win Friends & Influence People. It shows the benefit of empathizing with the customer. I use this principle whenever I design a puzzle. I consider it from the customer’s perspective to make sure it is challenging rather than frustrating.
Instructables.com is great for ideas. It’s a website with user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects. I don’t type “puzzles” in the search bar, but I scan through it. When I look at the various projects, I ask myself, “How can I incorporate this sensor or project and turn it into a puzzle?”
The NPR podcast Hidden Brain deals with the way people think, which helps with creating fun puzzles and offers an insight into a way of thinking that is different than my own.
Finally, I joined an Arduino Enthusiast Meetup. These folks have helped me with so many projects. Now I’m at the meetings helping other people with Arduino questions!
How has the San Diego escape room community changed since last summer? How does the community support your business?
Furthermore, the community is now cooperating more. After the convention in Niagara Falls last summer, a number of owners in San Diego got together to discuss cross-promotion. One of our first initiatives was to create a pamphlet advertising the various escape room companies around San Diego. Now we meet once a month in person or through video chat. We have created guidelines for the group and we work on joint initiatives such as organizing events to inform the wider San Diego community about escape rooms.
These meetings have also led to new relationships with other owners. Through this community, I’ve become friends with Edwin from Unlockables. We send each other customers and help each other with everything from puzzles to marketing.
What’s next for the growth of Steal and Escape?
We hope to have our second room completed by December.
In terms of marketing, we also are working on a commercial and we are considering adding a blog to our website.
I also want to offer a lockpicking class and incorporate lockpicking into our of our escape rooms.
I’m developing an 18-player scenario, for 3 teams of 6, geared toward team building.
What’s your current most pressing business challenge?
It’s wonderful if you can find your passion and make it your job. My wife and I have found our passion in escape rooms and we love our business. We don’t mind working until three in the morning because we love this business and we are invested in it.
However, I still have a full time job that takes me out of the state for weeks at a time. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like working on the business. When I’m in town, I want to do everything and I have to think carefully about how to spend my time.
We’ve come a long way since last August. We’ve hired for certain skills and we have more community resources to draw on. We aren’t on our own for everything including finance, electronics, carpentry, marketing, customer relations, creativity… the list goes on. That said, we haven’t met anyone who is as passionate about and dedicated to our business as we are. It’s still a challenge to balance our own time wisely.