The UK Escape Room Conference 2017

Wow, what an experience! Those of you who were lucky enough to get tickets to Nottingham on Monday will know just what I mean. It was an action-packed day from the moment the conference attendees arrived till when I left late in the evening (and well beyond by the sound of it!). As a non-owner, I always feels a bit strange attending these events. I’m an impostor, flitting from design talk to design talk and steering clear of the more mundane aspects of running escape rooms but maybe that means I can step back and look at things from a different perspective.

For me, the highlight session was the Daves from Bewilder Box and James from Deadlocked in Reading talking about in-game interactions. I had no idea what to expect but I really liked the clear way their messages came across. Dave Middleton’s comments around “the ancient art of dressing up” were particularly inspiring. Whatever aspect of escape room design you’re thinking of, consider whether you can put a (potentially metaphorical) costume on it to help aid the immersion. Their use of D.A.V.E., the in-room AI to dispense hints but also entertain and, when necessary, control the players showed just how creative you can get. In some rooms, the clue system is a necessary evil. A break from immersion that most players are happy to accept but the purist in me still wishes could be improved. In Bewilder Box it becomes the central pillar of the game, controlling the experience to a level that other games rarely attempt.

James, on the other hand, talked with passion (and humour!) about adaptable experiences. It was one of those great presentations where you go away thinking that what you’ve been told is both obvious and entirely new. The central theme there was how you could make games that appealed to the full range of teams from novice couples to large enthusiast teams and everything in between.  How? Well, adaptable experiences obviously but what I liked was his explanation and examples of how they’d done that. His overriding principle is the need to keep the interventions invisible, in-game and in-character. I told you that it was obvious but I still went away excited about what that might mean for other games in the future. Totally unrelated to what he was saying in the session I’d also like to send kudos his way for placing a strong female central character in their first game. The gender-balance of in-game characters in escape rooms is shocking, especially given the seemingly well-balanced demographics when it comes to players. It’s great to see another game with a non-male characters front and central.

Common to both those talks was a sense of interaction which was a more general theme I picked up on throughout the day – gone are the times when sticking a few puzzles in a room was enough. We’ve moved on to a new stage in the industry where you need to be doing more to engage your players. There were plenty of talks to help you with that, not least from the Escapement. In the morning David and Lewis were showing how they’d seamlessly integrated technology into Pirates of Polaris (via the most unbelievably advanced portable escape room kit, a live demo and members of the audience) while Mica took the afternoon slot to talk about set design.

One of the sessions that I couldn’t make it along to was Alasdair from History Mystery talking about how they’d managed to build on local history to tell stories and create games. Fortunately, I managed to grab some time to chat with him and his partner Lisa later in the day covering some of what he undoubtedly said in the talk but also hearing more about their plans. If you’re ever thinking of creating a game with a strong historical backdrop then I’d highly recommend getting in touch.

Most of those people were probably talking at an escape room related conference for the first time and made a fantastic job of it but there were, of course, some of the stalwarts of the industry for whom this is old hat. Nick from Time Run opened the conference with a rerun of his Up the Game presentation on the Tools of Immersion (good news – if you missed it you can catch it on YouTube here) which was universally well received. Mink of Enter the Oubliette fame took on the controversial topic of Doing Away with Padlocks. Or was it controversial? Perhaps she wasn’t so much saying you should get rid of padlocks as think more about where they belong and whether there are ways of camouflaging padlocks in other forms. Stuart from Tulleys kicked off the downstairs conference stream with the tale of how Tulleys had taken their experiences from being a huge force in the haunt industry and applied it as new entrants to the escape room market. James Wallman, author of Stuffocation, was the one non-industry speaker at the conference, covering the experience economy and how that played into the escape room industry.

It didn’t end there though. Simon from Escapologic, one of the hosts of the conference, somehow managed to find time to put together a session on tailoring the game to the individual alongside one of his managers, Conrad. Brendan from Escape Plan in London hosted a well-received interactive session on dealing with difficult situations. Alex from the Panic Room gave us his insights on how to take your ideas and make them a reality while Jane from Norris Box and Jason from Thinking Outside the Box joined forces to talk about how to involve children in games. I loved the simple advice Jane offered of locating child-friendly puzzles as low as possible to make them appealing to kids and unappealing to their parents! It wasn’t just owners, though, Sarah Dodd (the other organiser) teamed up with me for a session on players’ perspectives while the other half of S², Sharan, headed up a panel with Mark from Really Fun, Amy from Brit of an Escape Habit and another appearance from me (I’ve got two blogs, so it’s only fair I get to talk twice, right?). Finally, there were a couple of owners’ panels to round out the conference and let everyone get a few insights from the great and the good of the industry.

And breathe… It’s hard to believe that so much was fitted into one day. 16 full sessions given by around 30 people from all aspects of the industry. What’s all the more remarkable is that all these people did it out of the goodness of their heart – they didn’t even get their expenses paid. It’s great to be part of an industry where companies are happy to support each other without expecting anything in return. Where people are willing to get up on stage and explain the secrets of their success to strangers. It leaves me filled with hope that the UK escape room industry will continue to move forward rapidly but, even better, do that cooperatively rather than competitively. Long may it continue!

To the old friends that I caught up with on the day – it was, as ever, a pleasure. To those of you who I met for the first time (at least in person!) – thanks for taking the time to chat and make the conference a great experience. To those of you with whom I didn’t manage to connect – I’m sure it won’t be long before we get the chance again but please do feel free to drop me an email and say hello.

The only question that I was left with at the end of the day?  When can we do this again?

Watch this space…