A report from “Up The Game”

"Up The Game" adTim Horwood, co-proprietor of forthcoming Derby exit game Make Your Escape was one of several UK exit game owners to visit the Up The Game conference in Amsterdam in the Netherlands last Monday. He kindly wrote about his experience for Exit Games UK.

The first International Escape Room and Real Life Gaming Conference in Europe, Up The Game, was held last Monday in an impressive venue in Amsterdam, attracting operators and enthusiasts from over 30 countries. Ahead of the opening of their own escape room in Derby this Summer, the Make Your Escape team travelled to the Netherlands to review the conference and chat to some of the speakers.

Taking advantage of the influx of enthusiasts were several local operators keen to advertise their wares and services. We took the 40-minute train to pretty Maasland near The Hague to try out the “Escape Bus“. Its proprietors, Dennis Hunink and Peter de Vette, ardent followers of all things Arduino, kindly met us at the station, offered us a couple of free drinks before the game, and then locked us on their bus, parked in the middle of the beautiful setting of a farm/campsite. The lights went out, and 60 minutes ensued of what might be best described as a Speed movie with flashing LEDs. The Escape Bus was, truly, inventive and exciting… despite our failure at escaping although, in our defence there were two of us and was aimed at four as a minimum. Then, when it was all over, the guys showed us how it all worked – a nice touch from operators clearly loving the industry and proud of their work.

So, onto the conference and, I must admit, prior to attending we did think the price might be a little expensive for a one-day event. However, greeted by mobile escape room, Fenomena Logica, a freaky circus caravan nestled unconventionally at the foot of the steps to a modern building, we ascended into a bustling hive of what felt like the cream of the world’s escape room industry. There were not as many vendors as we expected, and it was very much about the speakers giving advice, and talking about their experiences. That said, it took a few brave souls to try out the “Famous Deaths” real-life art/research project, where the aim was not to escape from the confined, un-lit coffin-like space but, rather, experience the sense of smell surrounding famous deaths. We were told JFK’s was particularly popular.

Derby’s escape rooms will have particularly strong narratives, as well as incorporating technology into their games, and so two of the talks we were most looking forward to were “Storytelling in Escape Rooms” and “Talking Tech”. These were two of, quite possibly, the most inspirational talks I’ve witnessed. Elles Van Asseldonk’s bubbly persona and passion was hard not to like, and she kept her audience gripped in the very same way she expressed that an escape room should. A co-designer behind local company “Logic Locks“, Elles gave away a series of spoilers from one of her games to give us an insight into how to ensure the story flows through an escaper’s experience. Gloeidraad are a technical puzzle company, based in the Netherlands, but working with customers worldwide, and Raymond Reints expressed how player experience can be enhanced with a little Arduino here and there, the emphasis being firmly on stability, reliability and durability. Of course, we’d experienced Hunink and de Vette’s Escape Bus the night before where everything, tech or otherwise, had been reliable other than our own success in escaping!

The UK was represented in the speaking department too. Alastair Hebson, a designer for video games such as Grand Theft Auto, talked about “Game Flow and Pace” in games, likening the experience of a game to a movie, where players need to be hooked and then entertained throughout the game. Again, this was an inspiring talk fitting nicely on from Elles’ storytelling earlier in our itinerary.

The main stage featured some of the most influential names in the industry, and one thing which was clearly evident was the welcome and gratitude they received from the audience, both in awe of them and thankful of their playing a part in an industry we love. There was perhaps no-one quite as influential as Attila Gyurkovics, the founder of “Parapark” and the inventor of the Escape Room that we see across the world today. Due to timings and clashes between talks, we missed Attila, but the applause for him might well have been heard in the tulip fields around Amsterdam.

Escape room games in education and training is, we know, a growing trend. Mark Hammons presented his concept of an open source project for educational purposes, “Breakout EDU” in one of the most enlightening talks. Rather than placing a group of children in a locked room, something which would certainly be frowned upon in the British Education System, children are invited to work together, logically, to unlock a series of locks and open a box – an ingenious idea no doubt coming to a school near you soon. Lisette Hendrikse’s “Legal Issues in Escape Rooms” advice Q and A session was popular and insightful, and Anna-Maria Giannattasio’s “Marketing for Escape Rooms”, incorporating her views on social media, certainly gave us at Make Your Escape food for thought.

So, back to the UK’s representatives, and we welcomed Tom Lionetti-Maguire, and the team behind the The Crystal Maze tourist attraction in London. After a humorous false-start of a video intro, and blank faces from an audience largely made up of people who’d never heard of the Maze’s retro TV show, Tom won the crowd over with his charismatic charm, and the best presentation of the day. From an idea conceived in a pub, to finding premises, to getting the money together, to launching the business with no idea as to how successful it will be, Tom’s story was met by a wave of nods of recognition from the auditorium. It was when we caught up with the Crystal Maze guys in the bar afterwards that they revealed even more tales of changing Building Use issues, handling the media, and legal issues. Down-to-earth and incredibly helpful, the Crystal Maze team are clearly proud of what they have achieved; whilst many of us won’t be selling out for the next year as they have, or seeing the footfall of thousands of customers per month, they were inspirational and their presence in the UK can only help the escape room industry at a local level.

There was so much packed into one day that, ultimately, the event proved great value. The Make Your Escape team brought a lot away with them, and have certainly discovered new technology that can be used in the Derby rooms, marketing techniques, and legal advice. The sheer sense of community, escape rooms working together, was very clear, and is a principle we hold strongly to grow this industry in the UK.

One final word is for the organisers, who were courteous, helpful, and worked hard to make the event run smoothly, and the free bar at the end of the day was welcome! My only criticism, if there are any, was that some of the breakout rooms were a bit on the small size, but we’d love to see the event grow to a two-day one. Host Alexander Gierholz, an affable and keen presenter who welcomed and thanked the audience, but was also interacting with as many guest as he could, including us. His passion for the industry was clear, and he smiled optimistically when I asked if he’d put the event on again next year. We left him as he headed to try out the JFK experience, and after a long but fascinating day, we decided it was time to make our escape.

Make Your Escape is the brainchild of Shelly Burton and Tim Horwood, perceived following a trip to Budapest in 2014. Since then, escape rooms have grown across the UK. The two experienced escape room enthusiasts, working alongside experts from the escape room and the movie production sector, are about to open their unique escape room game in Derby. Set to open in May, there will be a strong emphasis on storytelling, traditional puzzles mixed with technology. Two original games are penned, “The Signal” and “Spellbound”, with games aimed at 2-6 players in a former Derby College building in the city centre.

The Signal at Make Your EscapeFollowing reports of strange lights in the skies over Derbyshire, your team intercepts a distress signal, which leads you to an abandoned military bunker.
 
Once the door closes behind you, you quickly realise the signal was not all that it seemed, the bunker was not abandoned and you are not alone.
 
Work together as a team to solve the puzzles and escape. The truth is in there….

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