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…

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….

The highlights of 2015

heartsLet’s shine a spotlight on some of this site’s highlights of 2015.

DASH 7 at the end of May was a spectacular day. The puzzles were rather tougher than those of the previous two years, in the main, but ingenious and thematic. The company was excellent; many thanks to everyone who put the event together, whether globally or specifically in London. Being able to cover the event extensively on Exit Games UK was also a treat. A date for DASH 8 has been announced, but it has not yet been confirmed whether anyone has stepped up to the plate to run the event in London. If nobody does, it’s quite possible that there won’t be a DASH in London this year. Does DASH have your name on it?

This site considers 2015 to have been an amazing year for puzzle TV. Here in the UK, Only Connect was great fun, as usual. Race To Escape in the US divides opinion – it has been pointed out many times that it encourages behaviour that nobody would want to see in a real exit game – but this site considered it great fun, full of clever ideas and remarkably variable from week to week, well worthy of an inclusion in a highlight post. Series four of The Genius was outstanding; some consider it the best season of the four, others don’t, but it’s definitely there or thereabouts. Quiz The Nation was both a highlight for those who were able to win hundreds or thousands of pounds from it – and, it should be noted, received their winnings in full and promptly – and a slight lowlight in that it only had one short run at the start of the year and perhaps hasn’t yet lived up to its strong potential.

On a related topic, this year, this site got really excited about getting to interview the team behind The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze, and following the progress from a distance of the live The Crystal Maze attraction coming in less than three months’ time. This year’s April 1st post was a lot of fun to put together and it was a selfish thrill to be quoted in pieces by CNBC and by the BBC.

It’s also been very exciting to read about the parallel development of the genre in so many different countries. People want to talk about these games of ours, and related games, and this leads to weblogs; from there, weblogs lead to meetings, or perhaps conferences. It’s always slightly disappointing when cool events aren’t documented in nearly as much detail as you hope they might be, and there seems to have been only one report of the MIT Escape Room Game Jam in April. Stuttgart’s Escape Games Convention sounds amazing, but again there seems only to have been the official report and a recommended write-up at Play-it-Real talking about it… at least, in English. (The Twitter hashtag has gone dormant.) October saw the Ontario Escape Room Unconference; the report gives some flavour, but the Google document generated by the participants has so much more to offer. Fingers crossed that this example of best practice can be emulated in the future.

The games, the puzzles and the ideas behind them may fascinate, but to (mis?)quote Alan Parr, “it’s the people, not the games, that make the hobby”. Here’s to much more of everything in 2016!

Meetings of minds near and far

"Up The Game" adApril 2016 is set to be an extremely interesting month. The banner above is an advert for Up The Game, a conference focused not just on exit games but also other real-life games, which will take place in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, on Saturday 18th April 2016. “ As one of the fastest growing entertainment trends since the rise of cinema, real life gaming has taken the world by storm. ((…)) Where traditional games are a bit of a niche, real life gaming attracts a wide range of customers and people who exit a great escape room do so with shining eyes and a budding addiction- ‘where can I play more?’ But it doesn’t stop here, new games keep adding even more crazy ideas, more technology and more compelling interaction to the experience. We love to see all those new ideas as the better our games are, the more people will become excited about real life gaming.

That’s not April’s only attraction, though. Back in June, this site proposed that the UK industry meet up at the forthcoming The Crystal Maze live attraction. We have a date – Tuesday, 26th April 2016 – and an afternoon timeslot. (We don’t have a location, other than King’s Cross, London; this site’s uninformed guess is “somewhere within the Granary Square complex”.) There’s no guarantee who’ll turn up, but tickets have been bought by representatives of Escape Hour, Enigma Quests, Escape Quest, Archimedes Inspiration, Agent November, the The Escape Room chain, Breakout Manchester/Liverpool, Escape Live (both Birmingham and the forthcoming Southend branch) and the Escape chain, as well as by five fans with no business connection. 31 tickets have been paid for in total with a 32nd still available, plus potential resales from people who can’t make the event in the end. That 32nd ticket is available at cost price – £32.50 – which is rather cheaper than the £50 or £60, plus booking fee, you’ll pay for a ticket today. If the company appeals, as well as the price, then please get in touch by e-mail. ((ETA:)) Someone has called dibs on the 32nd ticket but if you’re still interested in going, I’m operating a waiting list in case there are resales.

Why wait until April, though? On Wednesday, 13th January 2016, there will be an exit game unconference in Leeds at a central venue to be announced. This has been discussed previously and the discussion of the counterpart unconference in Canada sounds intriguing. Be sure to grab yourself a ticket today.

Why wait as many as five and a half weeks, though? This Tuesday is Puzzled Pint day, and the December theme is Mad Men – though, as ever, no knowledge of the subject is required. The location puzzle has been posted; solve it to find out where the event will take place. My partner and I will be helping to run the London East location; being December, we’ve had to guarantee a high minimum spend so that they don’t pass us over for another Christmas party, so we really hope to see you there on Tuesday night!

Late September news updates

Newspaper graphicA few short news stories and they’re all good news, so without further ado:

  • Escape Plan Ltd. report that their lease has been extended until late January 2016, so there’s longer to enjoy their current game in its present location. Celebrate this good news by using the launch discount code, which will spiral into infinity for good when business closes on Friday night.
  • Excited to see Play-it-Real, an English language blog on exit games by the owner of one in Amsterdam. It’s only two posts old, but Exit Games UK really loved the Play-it-Real recap of attending the convention in Germany three weeks ago. Not much has been written about what happened there, making this article a must-read.
  • Only four days to go for the crowdfunding campaign for the Red House Mysteries exit game in Exeter. The campaign has come on in leaps and bounds over the last two or three days and is now well past 90% funded. While you can’t take anything for granted, you would be disappointed if your ticket pre-orders at extremely attractive-looking prices weren’t to come to fruition from this point.
  • Good news about new games coming at sites in Nottingham: Escapologic are opening their third room, E.P.I Centre on Saturday; it’s a game about compound interest, or at least about an interesting compound. Alma City has just been hit by an earthquake. There’s panic on the streets. Chaos and devastation. Buildings are collapsing. Fires are raging. People are screaming. Cars are crashing. Your team is the disaster cleanup crew. You have one hour to save billions of pounds of chemical research from the Edward Palamate Institute. Stabilise the systems. Save the priceless chemical sample. Get out before the contents of your cryogenic case disperse and it’s all over. Elsewhere in the city, the second room at Cryptology, which is set to put the crypt into Cryptology, “will be ready for an October launch”. Good times!
  • And finally, Agent November used Twitter to confirm the announcement that the intellectual property for the well-known large-scale zombie chase game 2.8 Hours Later has been bought from the sadly insolvent Slingshot. The zombies may yet run again; it will be rather exciting to see what a company that is used to smarter games might do to refresh the familiar concept!