Creating a fun and engaging Escape Room (ER) experience is more than putting some thrift store furniture and knickknacks in a room and opening to the public. Sure there are plenty of ER’s already open that meet this level of quality and I have played several of them. Let’s just say they left me wanting more bang for my buck. When my family and I decided to open Cracked it! Escape Games we sat down and brainstormed all of the things that we would not do when we built our ER business. These 6 things are some guiding principles we have used as we built our first two rooms.
1. Undefined theme/story - There is a popular argument among ER owners that story and immersion do not matter to the average ER player. We would wholeheartedly disagree. One could argue that the fun of the escape room is in the discovery of clues, the solving of the puzzles, and the race against the clock. While all of these are true they are not the only reason we do Escape Rooms. When I as a player plop down up to 30$ for an hour of entertainment I want to be entertained! I want to escape from the world for one hour and walking into a barely decorated office space doesn’t do it for me. I need to suspend my disbelief and feel as if I have become a part of a movie and I am a protagonist in that movie. If I am investigating a legend of a hidden temple, I honestly hope that the room is appropriately themed and decorated to appear as if I have stepped into a lost Mayan temple and not 123 Anywhere Ave, Suite D. I get enough of the office at the office. If you are telling me I am a member of a secret organization that investigates unsolved mysteries than I want to feel as if I am a part of that. The setting that I am playing the game in is as equally important as quality puzzles and challenges.
2. Not doing enough research - Our games have a somewhat historical flavor to them. Our “Queen Anne’s Revenge” room is centered on capturing Edward Teach (or Thatch depending on the source you are reading) AKA the notorious pirate “Blackbeard”, who ran the Queen Anne’s Revenge aground in the sound about 30 minutes north of our location. Our game incorporates historical facts. The scenario is based upon historical facts and the objective is based upon the circumstances of the capture and subsequent execution of Blackbeard by the British Royal Navy. In a nutshell we did our due diligence to produce a game that is beautifully set, based in fact and is engaging from the beginning.
By doing some research about the core idea of our game, we have found that there are many other connected details that directly relate to the actual game play. The puzzles in this room are based around the history that we discovered as we were planning the room. They are flavored to match the setting of being inside the skin of an 18th century wooden ship. Had we not done some research about the living conditions of sailors during the days of wooden ships and canvas sail our game would simply not be as fun as it is. These other details add context and depth that enable us to produce a richly detailed experience for our guests. As an example, the Royal Navy officer who captured and executed Blackbeard was Captain Robert Maynard. This detail gave us the idea to make our players a part of Maynard’s Crew and their mission gather information about Blackbeard and find an object to help them escape the Queen Anne’s Revenge before she is lost to the sea forever.
3. Requiring outside knowledge - Expecting a player to come into an ER experience with the knowledge of how to solve/translate/interpret an esoteric code is expecting too much from the average player. THERE IS NOTHING WORSE than getting to a point in a puzzle and not being able to go further in the game because a key bit of information is supposed to be “general knowledge”. Cipher codes are not general knowledge, Morse code is not general knowledge, and chemical/molecular diagrams are not general knowledge. What I am saying is, if we are going to put a cipher code in a room there surely better be an explanation of that cipher somewhere in the room on how to use it.
Players want to have fun and not feel like they have to pass the SAT to win. Having to burn a hint because I don’t understand a shift cipher is not fun, and I feel cheated!
4. Too many leaps of logic – Take special care to minimize the requirement for players to have to make leaps of logic to complete the challenge. A leap of logic is when a player makes an assumption based on known information. This assumption is not always correct and could lead the players to waste time and does not help the game progress forward. I have played games where the final solution required a huge leap of logic in order to complete the challenge. This was not only not rewarding, it was very frustrating. We played a game where we had to make a connection between a dot of color on an item in the room and other objects that were the same color in order to determine the placement of yet a 3rd set of objects. There was no clear indication that the items were related other than being of a specific color.
When we sat down to design our first room it was with this experience fresh in our minds that we determined that a leap of logic fine, in so long as the leap is not too long to make the correct conclusion and complete the challenge. As escape room owners we have seen first-hand how different people handle leaps in logic. Some can easily make a connection between objects while others simply implode.
5. Open ended puzzles/games – Have you ever got to the end of something and asked yourself, is that it? Games in general, and Escape Room games in particular should have a definite and rewarding ending. Puzzle elements should have a very clear connection with their end goal. Players need to know when they no longer need an item to progress in the game. There should be a definitive ending to a puzzle series. One key, one lock, end of story. Without a definite end, how does a player know when to move on or that they have achieved victory?
I have played at least one game where the goal is to find the murderer and when you do, that’s it, game over, finito’, you may now leave our establishment. An escape room, much like a story should have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Without a solid ending to a puzzle or scenario when does a player know that they have accomplished what they set out to do?
6. EXCESSIVE Red Herrings- Red Herrings are for lack of a better term, a waste of time and mental energy. Money not directly connected to the meta-puzzle, coupons in a box, and other extraneous bits of information all take time to filter through and determine if they are important. In one ER that I had done there was an appointment in an appointment book that had been flagged as seemingly important because the appointment had also been put on a calendar in the room. It turned out that there was absolutely no connection between this bit of information and the other puzzles in the room at all? A fair bit of time was expended on trying to determine if the three numerical bits of information in the appointment reminder had any bearing on the solution of the puzzle? Those bits of information, the date of the appointment, the time of the appointment, and the telephone number of the office had no importance whatsoever and ate up a bunch of time that could have better been spent on other puzzles.
As game designers, there is nothing wrong with having a red herring that is appropriate to the scenario. In the case of the appointment it was appropriate, however the 12 other appointments in the book continued to eat up precious minutes and led nowhere except to frustrationland (coming soon to a Disney park near you.)
When designing your next escape room, keep these things in mind. Doing so will lead to a fun and rewarding experience for your visitors.