I’m Back! Having Escaped the Room…

*Apologetically knocks on door* Ooooh, hello again. Remember me? Crikey – has it been that long?

I’ve been doing quite a lot over the last two years – new jobs, many new games and projects, and just general life – but it seems I’ve been somewhat absent in documenting and sharing it.  So, sorry about that. I’m going to try to get back into the habit, although in perhaps a slightly different direction than previously.

My current primary line of work has steered me somewhat away from my previous focus on spatial (c. 2005-2012) or videogames (c. 2011-2016), and I now find myself as a “playful technology” designer. That is, designing actual physical puzzles, games and playthings that use technology to delight, entertain, and amuse.

My latest project was to design an “Escape Room” game for the American Libraries’ Association International Games Week, and I’m creating a series of videos that describe the experience ony my (new) YouTube channel. I’ve just finished uploading the first video, which you can watch here:


In this first video, I describe the planning and overall design of the experience, which included discussing the following considerations:

Premises – How is the play space defined, making the “magic circle” in which players participate separate from the surrounding environment, allowing for passers-by to spectate, the possibility of multi-room and opening up new areas to advance game narrative. “Escape Room” games don’t have to involve escaping from a room!

Target Audience – What is “common knowledge” and interests of the target audience? What familiarity can you expect the players to have with certain technology? What degree of additional direction might players need to understand the affordances that certain items have?

Team size/dynamics – Have the team entered as a unit – do they already know each others’ skills and knowledge? Up to a certain point, additional players add to a team’s capability. However, past a certain threshold, the additional noise created by more players degrade the team’s ability. The total number of players affects the degree of parallelism of the game flow

Outcomes – Beyond simply being enjoyable, what experiences and outcomes should the players have? A Halloween game might thrill the players’ through fear, or a corporate escape event might be intended to build teamwork/communication skills. Outcomes can be worked into the game itself, or as a wider part of the experience – e.g. running a workshop after the game.

Theme and Narrative – The significance of the theme and narrative varies a lot between different games, but is always important to provide some thematic consistency and context to create an experience rather than simply a series of unconnected puzzles. Narrative also provides purpose and motivation – why do the players have to solve these puzzles? Why is there a time limit? What happens if they succeed/fail? When thinking of a theme, work with what you have – don’t fight against it! If your room takes place in an ancient building, don’t set your theme in space. If your game takes place in a library, set the narrative in a library!

Game Flow – Begin with a limited number of exposed puzzles so as not to overwhelm the players at the start. As the game progresses, let the game expand to expose more possible combinations. A series of linear steps can introduce a bottleneck – everything gets held up while waiting for the single element at the head of the puzzle to be solved. Having a greater degree of parallel puzzles allows more players to be simultaneously actively involved. Meta puzzles, such as removing multiple padlocks can act as motivator – rewarding achievements through the game, and also as an indicator of progress.

It’s a fairly theoretical discussion (and I do tend to ramble on a bit), but it’s intended to provide useful prompts for people who might be planning on building an escape room to consider. If you’re into more of the practical side of things, I plan to make two more videos in this series – the second will cover the design of many of the individual puzzle elements, while the third will cover the creation of the “hidden tech”-powered puzzles, involving Arduino and Unity, so I’ll let you know when those are ready.

As always, please let me know what you think, and any comments/suggestions welcome!

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