A report from Up The Game 2017

Tim Horwood, co-proprietor of Derby’s escape game game Make Your Escape was one of several UK owners to visit the Up The Game conference in Amsterdam in the surrounds of the impressive Breda Prison Dome. He kindly wrote about his experience for Exit Games UK.

As escape room operators ourselves, last year’s inaugural Up The Game conference was a springboard for our business, which we opened just two months later. We had so many ideas from attending it, and gained so much advice, making so many contacts in the process. From advice of the legal side of running an escape room company, to the storytelling aspects and use of technology we subsequently incorporated into our games, it really was pivotal to Make Your Escape’s development.

So, it is with some trepidation, we attended the “difficult follow-up” of such a successful event for us personally. We had lower expectations – for a start, the venue had been switched from Amsterdam to Breda. The first thing I did was reach for google maps. Secondly, the conference was to be held in a prison – ok, it sounded a novelty, but would it actually work? Thirdly, we’ve been open almost a year, and I was concerned that many of the talks would go over old ground. Still, we all know the industry is an evolving one, so I was interested to see just how the conference had grown, if at all.

The venue was, quite simply, astonishing, and a vast improvement on 2016. The main criticism I had last year, was that it was often difficult to manoeuvre between rooms due to the narrow corridors and low capacities of the smaller stages. This year, there was no such problem, and it’s credit to the organisers that the capacities seemed appropriate. The only issue I found was that there was no central stage in the same way there was the previous year, so organiser Alexander Gierholz had to welcome the attendees in the huge, open foyer, whose acoustics were appalling and sounding like, well, a prison. Other than that, the foyer space served well as a communal area for escape room operators, enthusiasts and suppliers to mingle, drink, eat, buy, sell, and plan itineraries. The buzz felt much friendlier than the more clinical feel of 2016.

So onto the speakers, and there was a huge variety this year. Last year we had the team behind the Crystal Maze attraction talk about how they set it up. This year, Scott Nicholson opened proceedings on the main stage, discussing or, at times, defending how he’d been involved in setting up this year’s Red Bull Mind Gamers. For me, Scott was probably the main draw for the event, a great achievement having him sign up to the conference, and becoming involved in the discussion panels later in the day. Having said that, there were some great names on the bill, Stephanie Allen from the acclaimed Punchdrunk, the brilliant Jasper Wille, presenting utilizing actors in interactive experiences and, skilfully engaging the audience, and Room Escape Artist’s Lisa and David Spira.

Our very own Nick Moran from Time Run, arguably, gave one of the best talks of the day, on the tools of immersion used in escape rooms. As the industry grows, so too do the customers’ expectations and the standards we see. Time Run is a great example of a truly immersive experience, and for Nick to share his thoughts on the subject, interjected with bucket loads of humour, his was the standout session of the weekend.

In addition to the talks and presentations, the conference gives an opportunity for discussion, and panels of experts from various corners of the industry, from operators to enthusiasts to bloggers discuss various aspects and developments.

We also had talks on legalities again, how escape rooms are useful for team building, and the importance of set design…with Wilko Drews giving some brilliant advice on how to make your escape room set look far more expensive than it actually is, but then confessing to spending 80,000 EUR on his own room!

As escape rooms incorporated more technology, Chris Lattner and Malte Eiben’s tech workshops proved particularly popular, ranging from basic tech to advanced tech, and Adrian Bacanu of the quite brilliant Quest Mission gave an engaging talk on how escape rooms encourage personal development, are incredible tools to assess human behaviour, and shape people’s lives. For many enthusiasts, creators and operators, this could not be any closer to the truth.

Once again, Logic Locks and Real Life Gaming succeeded in creating an outstanding conference, bringing together the best of the industry – ‘Connecting Creators’ was this year’s motto, and Breda felt the perfect venue for this. Very much looking forward to seeing what happens next year…

Make Your Escape is the brainchild of Shelly Burton and Tim Horwood, perceived following a trip to Budapest in 2014. The two escape room enthusiasts wanted to mix storytelling, traditional puzzles and technology into their rooms, but also create games which offer a twist, and also set themselves within Derbyshire. Whilst the original idea was to introduce the escape room sector to their city, they also wanted to create games based around local stories and legends. 

‘The Signal’, based on a story that appeared in the local newspaper following a sighting of lights in the sky, is designed to engage players and then offer them a moral dilemma as to whether to do “the right thing” and the couple cite Up The Game 2016 as a major influence on the game.

‘Spellbound’ was designed for larger teams, again following advice picked up from Up The Game, and is based on the local legend of the Witches of Bakewell, who were hanged close to the escape room.

Two new games are being built ready for the Summer, with the promise of a unique premise…

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