Interview with the Cyberdrome Crystal Maze team

The Aztec Zone of a branch of the Cyberdrome Crystal Maze in JapanWhat’s your favourite game of all time? Any sort of game: board game, video game, card game, puzzle game, physical game, computer game, role-playing game, exit game, all sorts of other genres of game, whatever you like; compare your favourites from each medium against each other and pick a favourite. Too hard? You can narrow it down to four.

My four, in no order: puzzle hunts at large, the live action RPG campaign I played in at university, obscure mid-’80s hybrid board/computer game Brian Clough’s Football Fortunes and The Cyberdrome Crystal Maze. You can probably have a reasonable guess, among other things, that I was born in 1975.

This site has touched on the Cyberdrome Crystal Maze in the past without going into the detail it deserves. It was a physical attraction, based upon the The Crystal Maze TV game show, where teams raced from game to game about the centre, sending team members to play bespoke physical games or computer games where physical games would have been impossible. These were often as puzzling as the mental games on the TV show, or at least emulated the demands of one of the show’s physical games. It worked heart-breakingly well. The photo above is of the Aztec zone at the branch in Kuwana, near Nagoya in Japan.

I wrote a longer piece about the game roughly half my lifetime ago, and will probably still have reason to write about it in another twenty years’ time. It’s the one topic that I’ve always wanted to write about on this blog but always shied away from for fear that I could not do it proper justice.

However, failing that, here’s something rather special instead. Some detective work led me to the e-mail address of one Carl Nicholson, one of the founders of the Cyberdrome Crystal Maze – indeed, the technical side of the outfit. Mr. Nicholson extremely kindly agreed to answer some questions by e-mail; even better still, his partner in Cyberdrome, David Owers, whose focus was the business side, contributed some answers as well, and Carl has even got in touch with other members of staff. Huge thanks to all of them for their time, effort and responses, as well as for being the people behind a sensational game; it’s fascinating to hear more of the story behind the scenes. Continue reading

Interview with Stuart Rowlands, proprietor of Clue HQ

"Clue HQ" logoOne way to measure the merit of an exit game is to look at public reviews; another is to talk to people who run exit games and see which ones they recommend apart from their own. In this regard, one site that comes up again and again as being recommended by other exit game proprietors is Clue HQ of Warrington – and it has a reputation for being fiercely difficult. Just look at the number of teams who have escaped and the much higher number of teams who haven’t! It’s been very revealing and a great deal of fun to talk with propretor Stuart Rowlands.The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Stuart’s responses with SR below.

  • EG: What’s your background and how did that lead you up to the opening of Clue HQ?
  • SR: My background has always been in the leisure industry, with a bit of media production thrown in too. I’ve worked at a few theme parks, and more recently started to manage then create scare attractions – maybe this is why our first 2 games have a slightly creepy/dark feel! I also run another company, Ride Segway.
     
    A friend and I had heard about the idea with the London games and when it got to the top of Trip Advisor it was very hard not to go and see what was so exciting about being locked in a room! We visited Puzzlair in Bristol which has the John Monroe room, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We we’re really excited to do more and also visited Clue Quest in London. At the time the closest game we could find up north was Keyhunter in Birmingham, therefore thought we would have a go at setting up our own.
     
  • EG: What has your background taught you in terms of customer service, but also in terms of managing people’s expectations?
  • SR: My previous jobs have had me working in places where sometimes the people’s expectations would be mismanaged. Customer (or ‘Guest’ as we refer to it) service is by far the most important thing to ensure people come back. In previous jobs, it’s been about people through the door, and it’s always been a secondary thought about Guest Service. Exit Games are not always the cheapest attraction to visit (like my other company) but what’s important is that every guest feels valued and that they have had true ‘personal’ treatment and real value for money.
     
    For years now I’ve felt that good guest service hits you in the face a little bit – and it shouldn’t. That should always be the level when visiting an attraction, especially when escaping (excuse the pun) from reality for an hour or 2. These days, including myself, are ready to expect disappointment. I spend a lot of time with my team trying to ensure high levels of guest care, and I’m really proud of the team at Clue HQ.
     
  • EG: Do you think there is potential for further crossover between scare attractions and exit games? There are 66 sites in Budapest at the moment, and the first one of them to open had a name that translates to “Fear Park”.
  • SR: There is definitely opportunity for more of a crossover. We’ve got a good idea reserved for next Halloween. With TV programmes such as Release The Hounds I think ‘escaping the room’ whilst having surprises definitely could appeal to some. However, even with our Dungeon of Doom game people already come with a fear it’s going to be really scary.
     
  • EG: How has Warrington taken to its first exit game?
  • SR: Warrington seems to have taken it’s first exit game really well. Around 90% of our guests have never been to an exit game before so are a bit confused when they walk in to what it’s all about (just like we did in my first game). The feedback has been overwhelming, but brilliant. We always follow up any visits with an e-mail to see if there is anything else we could add to the game in order to improve.
     
  • EG: What techniques have worked well for you at getting the word out around Cheshire?
  • SR: I think one of the best things we’ve done is embrace Trip Advisor. Many of our guests book solely because we’re number 1 for the Cheshire area. Recently (as reported by you) Trip Advisor has reclassified all exit games which means exposure has been reduced somewhat which is disappointing, not only for us but all exit games in the UK.
     
  • EG: What are your favourite sorts of puzzles, regardless of whether they fit into an exit game or not?
  • SR: Physical puzzles are probably the things which people enjoy the most, and I’m no different. My favourite clues in both of our games are both physical clues.
     
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • SR: The Crystal Maze is often referred to on site by guests, although I wouldn’t say it directly influenced any design within the games we’ve designed.
     
  • EG: Warrington has a lot of things going for it, not least its convenience for both Mancunians and Liverpudlians, but, with respect, it is not known as a great tourist destination. What convinced you that Warrington was the right town to set up in?
  • SR: I knew Warrington relatively well from previous work and also had access to a really good team to start the ball rolling there. We believed we could get more for our money (with our budget) by setting up in Warrington to start with, and the access to from Liverpool to Manchester has been a very good one – especially being located directly under the station. Our visitors come from as far as North Wales (especially during the summer). This enabled us to get a space with potential for at least 4 games, which we wouldn’t have been able to do at the time in Manchester. We nearly ended up opposite another exit game in Manchester after a few viewings.
     
  • EG: Do you tend to find that locals tend to visit the site at certain times in the week and tourists tend to visit at other times?
  • SR: I’d agree with that. More tourists do travel up at the weekends.
     
  • EG: How did you find your location within Warrington? What are you looking for in a good location?
  • SR: We knew our first game was going to be Bunker 38 and therefore we wanted something which lended itself well to that theme. I also wanted a building where we could control the light easily without having to board up all the windows. A slightly hidden location is also nice. Just to find Clue Quest in London can be a bit of a challenge – and I liked that. When people walk in we want to add to the mysteriousness of the games with music and with our games hosts.
     
  • EG: Your games have a reputation for being among the most challenging of them all, borne out by your very aggressive “escaped:dead” ratios. It’s wonderful that there can be a choice available of relatively accessible games and utterly ruthless games, and in an ideal world everybody would find the game and the room that’s right for them. Why did you decide to pitch your games so far up the difficulty spectrum?
  • SR: The truth is we really didn’t know how hard either of the games would be before the first test games. I’d never designed an escape game before. I think it was around 3 weeks after opening that we had our first group escape. The same with the Dungeon of Doom room when that opened in October. Obviously we know how many ‘clue points’ there are, but with Bunker 38 we were really at an unknown. I was convinced when our first test gamers entered they would be out within 30 minutes! We spend so long looking at all of the clues they look so obvious.
     
    The Dungeon of Doom had one objective from the offset, and that was to be tougher than Bunker 38 – due to people coming back and being wise to some of our tricks. All operators can tell a group from if it’s their first time, compared to if they’ve done one before. Our first test group for The Dungeon of Doom escaped within 92 minutes (we carry test games on until completion), and after which the game was modified to make it flow better and removed some of the clue stages.
     
    When escaping the John Monroe room on our first visit, we had so many clues that we didn’t really feel any accomplishment in escaping (although we enjoyed everything about it). The 2nd time at Clue Quest, 3 of us had 3 clues and got out with 1 or 2 seconds to go. We really felt like we had achieved something in order to escape. Having such a tough ‘reputation’ makes people who do escape go bananas and literally run up and down the corridor celebrating.
     
  • EG: How did you feel the first couple of times each of your rooms was cracked?
  • SR: I wasn’t actually at the site on both occasions when each room was cracked for the first time. I can, however, remember both of the ‘first games’ for each room with the public. It’s an incredibly proud but nervous moment when the first paying guests arrive to play the game for 60 minutes. We’re still learning the game ourselves (with our handy paper guide) and just hoping all the clues work as planned.
     
    I remember sitting in the booth on several occasions whilst watching the Dungeon of Doom game with people agonisingly close hoping they’ll get out. It’s like when you’re watching your football team go on the attack and your shouting at the TV from home, then they either score or miss – for me at least, the reaction is the same when watching groups!
     
  • EG: What makes an ideal exit game employee?
  • SR: Someone with enthusiasm for the game, good tech skills with a keen eye for detail. They bring the story to life, and set the scene when guests walk in. Also, we like our hosts to have a good sense of humour and they are allowed to send that over the screen. Technology can go wrong, so having a good knowledge of what can go wrong is a really good thing to have. Lastly, the eye for detail is most crucial when resetting the game – ensuring everything is perfect for the game after.
     
  • EG: What are the most memorable reactions from players that you have witnessed?
  • SR: This is a hard one to answer without giving anything away. Let say, guests think they are at the end of the game when infact their not. We’ve had some great celebration when a certain ‘thing’ has been opened only for them to realise it’s not the end of the game (or not even close). A jokeful number of ‘choice’ words are normally aimed at the poor games host. It’s a great feeling though because you know they’ve been ‘surprised’ by the game.
     
  • EG: Do you have any particularly funny stories from the time you’ve been open?
  • SR: It’s amazing seeing how people approach problems differently, this does create some funny anomalies. One group attempted to build a human pyramid in order to see high up with something. We now have to say to guests during our pre-game speech not to climb on each other. This often gets a laugh and a confused look – to which we have to explain what actually happened! If anyone is thinking of playing Bunker 38 – you don’t need to do this! We also have a suit inside one of the games which people often think they need to put on.
     
  • EG: Recently, you Tweeted that “Work has well and truly begun on our 3rd game”. It may be at an extremely early stage, but are there any teasers that you can reveal about your thinking behind it?
  • SR: At the moment we don’t want to commit as it still needs plans approving etc and if we hit a snag we’ll have to change the theme. However, it will involve another ‘twist’. The Bunker has 1 objective and that’s to escape. The Dungeon of Doom has 2, to breakout the trapped member of the team, then escape. Game 3 will have 2 objectives to, but all the team will stay together.
     
  • EG: Will your third game be at your current location?
  • SR: Yes, Game 3 will be located our Warrington location.
     
  • EG: What level of challenge do you anticipate setting for it?
  • SR: The level will be similar to Bunker 38, maybe a bit harder. The 2nd objective will also have a competitive angle which will be a big part of it.
     
  • EG: Can you suggest anything about your longer-term plans after that?
  • SR: We’re already looking at a 2nd site but cannot disclose the location as of yet unfortunately. When we build game 3, we will also be building the basis for game 4 in Warrington too. Hopefully, by April 2015 we’ll have all 4 games operational. Bunker 38 will be replaced at some point to make room for new games.
     
  • EG: You have one of the most distinctive and beautiful web sites of any exit game that this site knows. Is there anything that frustrates you about other games’ web sites?
  • SR: Not really, I think all the sites work well for their own location.
     
  • EG: Knowing what you do now about running your business, if you had your time all over again, what (if anything) might you do differently?
  • SR: There are always things that you’d do differently. During the build the design of a few walls would change, along with the layout of ClueHQ as a whole. But we tried to plan everything very carefully and this has paid off in the long term.
     
  • EG: If you could predict the future for exit games, how do you think it would look?
  • SR: I think it looks very positive. Obviously with quite a few games now open in the North West there could be a risk of there being too many. However, once the room has been done, it cannot be done again (although we’ve had a few people returning to the same room before moving onto the next). Breakout Manchester visited us shortly after opening and have said very kind things about our rooms, leading to bookings directly from guests who have visited them (we can’t thank them enough for this). We try to return the favour wherever possible as people often ask where there are other escape games. Although you’ll always be compared to other rooms and other sites – people will still want to try other nearby games which is only a positive thing for the new industry.
     
  • EG: If you could give the readers, exit game players and puzzle fans reading this one piece of advice, what would it be?
  • SR: If it doesn’t have a ‘leave’ sticker on it – it’s fair game.

Thanks so much for that, Stuart! Fingers crossed, it’s going to be a really exciting few months for Clue HQ; this site wishes them the best of luck and success with their endeavours and looks forwards to seeing just what will happen next.

A second interview with Paul Bart, CEO and Founder of The Escape Hunt Experience

Escape Hunt global logoOne of the early highlights of this blog was an interview conducted very nearly six months ago with Paul Bart, the CEO and founder of The Escape Hunt Experience. At the time, the brand had three sites open in three different countries and ambitious expansion plans. In just under six months, there are now twelve sites open in seven countries, with a thirteenth site (in Brisbane, Australia) opening in just a couple of days’ time. The expansion plans roll on at a considerable rate of knots, so it’s exciting to get back in touch with Paul. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Paul’s responses with PB below.

  • EG: It has been nearly six months since your previous interview. When the world of escape games is moving so quickly, that’s practically a previous era. What have been the big changes for you over the last six months?
  • PB: Hi Chris, thank you for your time. Yes, it is that long but feels a lot less as this is such an exciting business that moves so fast. My days whizz past; they really do! Well, I guess the biggest change is scale. We have grown enormously and so has the market in general. We now have branches literally all over the world and everywhere we go I am pleased that people know us and now what we do. Of course, there are so many other games springing up but this is fantastic as it shows how popular the genre is.
     
  • EG: At the time, I believe you were talking in terms of having deals signed for 30 branches by the end of 2014 and for 100 branches by the end of 2015. Now, you have revised those estimates up to having deals signed for 75 branches by the end of 2014 and for 500 branches by the end of 2015. It’s very exciting to see those numbers having grown so quickly! What factors have you identified as being responsible for the difference?
  • PB: Quite honestly, it’s the popularity of escape games in general and specifically what we do. We receive literally hundreds of inquiries each month and we are very, very flexible as to how we work, but we also have to qualify our future partners as any business does. Nevertheless, demand outstrips the rate we can expand, hence we are up to a number we will certainly now reach of 75 branches signed by the end of this year. As I write now we have 12 branches open, 18 will be open by Christmas and by the end of January-February we will be up to 25 open branches worldwide. The lead time for some branches to open is quite slow as we do things 100% legally and properly so that is where we have the difference in the numbers but be assured we will open these other branches in due course as they are all agreed and already planned. It depends on the location.
     
  • EG: How many of those deals signed have actually turned into open sites? The locations list suggests nine, but looking at individual locations’ web sites, it looks like many more than that. This figure must change very regularly; it looks like the Melbourne site opened yesterday (at the time of the interview!) and the Brisbane site is opening at the end of next week.
  • PB: Yes, you are right. We keep this table pretty much up to date. As I said, we need time to open branches but we will open in all the places we list. Look forward to 18 branches open worldwide by Christmas, all with different games!
     
  • EG: What are the biggest challenges people have faced going between signing a deal and opening a site?
  • PB: It can be many things. We offer a very comprehensive support package but every location has local challenges. Our list of signed branches and opened branches do not correlate at all as we can open in 3 weeks as we did in one location and other branches take 9 months. It is all about getting proper planning permission mostly. Some other operators cut corners, but we don’t so it takes longer for us but we get it right as we can’t afford any mistakes with our brand presence worldwide.
     
  • EG: Can you be more specific at all about the deal you have signed for the US? It looks like a country begging for national chains as well as the first generation of one-offs that exist dotted around from state to state.
  • PB: Yes, this is indeed an interesting question. First of all, it is the US and Canada not just the US, so it’s all of North America, especially since we already have a Master Franchise Agreement signed in Mexico, the third of the North American countries. The US / Canada has been on our horizon for some time but there are extremely strict franchise regulations in place so we needed a very special partner to handle all this. I am delighted to announce we have that in place in the form of a team of extremely experienced business people who will cover the whole of the US and open branches very soon all across the US and Canada. It took months of careful legal work and planning but it will be worth it. We will open in New York in January and the across the US and Canada very soon after. We have a lot of fantastic surprises in these branches so stay tuned!
     
  • EG: Investigation suggests that the 10-room London branch of the Escape Hunt Experience was the single location with the largest number of rooms in at least the English-speaking world when it opened, and is believed still to be joint holder of the world record. How big can a centre get?
  • PB: London truly is a big branch but actually many of our branches are very big: Phuket has 8 rooms and all our other branches have around 6 rooms worldwide. We are looking at the idea of mega centres but the issue there is the space required tends to mean they will be less central and one of our core principles is to be very centrally located for access.
     
  • EG: How close are you to being able to make further announcements closer to home here in the UK?
  • PB: Soon! We are currently in discussion to open across the whole of the UK and Ireland. Soon!
     
  • EG: Are you aware of any of the sites featuring famous names who have come to play?
  • PB: I am sure we have had many famous names in many branches. As I started my life in the Bangkok branch, I can think of many celebrities but you know they like their privacy so all I can say is check Twitter. Maybe you will see some names linked to us there…
     
  • EG: I see that the global hub is expanding and you are offering positions so how has your daily routine changed over time?
  • PB: Yes, we now have operations offices in Bangkok and Malaysia. I spend far less time in the Bangkok branch and more in an office but it is tremendously rewarding as I am working with the best talent we can find worldwide to make games, not to mention other skill sets. Our Escape Hunt Game Design Academy based in Bangkok has really blossomed and we are working on our next generation games as we speak. It is so exciting for me to see a simple idea become so detailed and quite frankly, inspirational. I still personally check all games before we send them out and I am blown away now where we are globally with new ideas. I can’t say too much but let’s say we have developed a whole language of our own for game styles, genres, gadgets, hi-tech, sensory immersion, logic flow, game play, deliverables and so much more…
     
  • EG: What aspects of best practice have emerged from the various locations that you have fed to other sites?
  • PB: Great question, Chris. As we are the only truly global operator worldwide, we have learned a lot and we keep learning. I like to keep us all humble and cultural differences reinforce this. What works in London might not work in Perth, a game style in Ho Cho Minh might not be right for Brussels etc. For us now, it is all about the challenges of scale with control and local variation. We really want each branch to feel like The Escape Hunt Experience but also to feel local. We closely monitor every branch performance and learn and learn and keep learning. I am not sure if you knew or it was an accident but in my previous career I was a best practice business consultant so this comes naturally to me.
     
  • EG: In your previous interview, you hinted at continued growth, then diversification into new areas. The first half of the plan is going very successfully; can you reveal any more about the second half of the plan?
  • PB: Yes, we will have some great announcements soon. For obvious reasons I can’t say too much now…
     
  • EG: Just how large can experiential entertainment get? What other activities do you see it eventually rivalling for global popularity?
  • PB: That is another great question. I think the growth so far shows that people have an insatiable appetite for this type of entertainment. Can we even any more classify all this as “escape games”? I wonder…! For me, what we do is very particular and special. Our games are so far apart from other games as opera is from cinema. I think it’s high time to divide up the market place so customers know what they can expect. All escape games are a great addition to the entertainment arena and I respect everyone who enters this space but we are all quite different really. I have a lot of ideas here for classification as you can imagine! Just ask me some time for the new “escape game dictionary”, Chris!
     
  • EG: When you are in a position to have several different branches in the same country, have you been able to set up interesting interactions between those branches and their players?
  • PB: Absolutely. Thailand is a great example now of many to also come. We will shortly have our 4th branch opening here and we are planning all sorts of offers, synergies, co-branding, promotions, you name it… As I am sure you can imagine, one of the downsides of having a global brand is the constant differences it presents. It’s nice to be able to plan things in a country with the same language, currency, culture and so on and we we will make a lot more of this as time goes on…
     
  • EG: Is there any merit in the concept of competition between different locations of a single brand?
  • PB: We run friendly competition amongst all our branches but nothing more than that. We believe in offering great games and great service first and foremost so really we tend to compete over things like best TripAdvisor rank and reviews, mostly.
     
  • EG: How do you get players to move from escape games being an interesting thing to do once or twice to having escape games being one of their main hobbies and interests?
  • PB: That is one of the key tenets of our business, Chris. We are all about a place where everyone can go again and again. I hinted earlier about the new generation games. These offer huge excitement in terms of different game play, time play eras and game logic flow. When you also consider that each of our branches has different theming, different games always changed twice a year and different locally themed merchandise, it all adds to a reason to choose The Escape Hunt Experience as an activity in every place a customer finds it. We want all our customers to associate us with great games, great service and of course a new challenge every time they play!

    Thank you, Chris, for your time. It’s very kind of you to follow our progress.
     

Thanks so much for that, Paul! This site looks forward to more exciting announcements over time, and also to getting to talk with many of the other influential minds that have shaped the hobby.

Interview with Daniel Hill, proprietor of Escape

Scottish flag graphicThere are two new red pins, representing exit games set to open soon, in the Exit Games UK map. One is for Escape Rooms of London, which opens on Friday as discussed yesterday. The other relates to this Facebook post with the exciting news that the very popular Escape site of Edinburgh is set to open a second location, this time in Glasgow. Exit Games UK had the pleasure of an interview with Daniel Hill, the man behind the Escape business. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Daniel’s responses with DH below.

  • EG: What’s your background and how did that lead you up to the opening of Escape?
  • DH: One of my friends visited an Exit Game in Europe and mailed me the link. We decided we would visit one when he got back, it turned out there was nothing nearby. I was studying to be a Maths teacher but when we got the idea it certainly seemed a lot more fun and it just snowballed from there!
     
  • EG: How has Edinburgh taken to its first exit game?
  • DH: We’ve had an absolutely superb response. We’ve met so many fantastic people, not just from Edinburgh but from all around the world. It’s really interesting to get perspectives and feedback on how to improve from places such as the States, Norway, Australia etc….
     
  • EG: Your excellent progress is all the more remarkable given that the site has only been open for just over two months. What techniques have worked well for you at getting the word out around Edinburgh?
  • DH: We did a couple of promotional offers initially through sites such as Groupon. In addition to having an article in the local paper and we were pretty active on social media. This helped us get people in and thankfully the feedback has been incredibly positive. Word of mouth and sites such as TripAdvisor have really driven the business.
     
  • EG: What are your favourite sorts of puzzles, regardless of whether they fit into an exit game or not?
  • DH: I really like optical illusions, the idea that there is something right in front of you yet you cannot see it frustrates the life out of me.
     
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • DH: That’s a really hard one to answer as there are so many things that I have played/read/watched over the years. I used to love the books where you would have to make choices as you progressed, the first real “interactive” games I suppose. Then you have games such as Broken Sword all the way up to the apps that are around now. TV shows are an absolute gold mine, I always watch thinking how can I turn that into something I can use.
     
  • EG: Your Edinburgh Evening News article describes you as a game show junkie. Which shows have most inspired you in Escape and of which other shows do you have fond memories?
  • DH: Yeah it’s true I like a game show! From classics such as The Crystal Maze, Krypton Factor and kids shows such as Knightmare. I’ve started watching a couple of series from the 80’s recently that have given me some interesting ideas so I’ll keep them to myself!
     
  • EG: Your site might be one of the most intensively used of them all; few, if any, other sites have as many as nine teams through each room in a single day. What does a typical day for you look like?
  • DH: To be honest at the moment there is no typical day. Switching between working in Edinburgh, setting up Glasgow, writing “The Da Vinci Room”, organising corporate bookings and having potentially 18 bookings a day in our two rooms it is all a bit chaotic. Thankfully we have a great team who are prepared to work a lot of hours as we try and get everything done to the right standard.
     
  • EG: What makes an ideal exit game employee?
  • DH: After having recruited a couple of more members to the team we have primarily been looking for people from a service background with an inquisitive mind. The ability to put the customer at ease very quickly is really important as the majority of the time they are participating in a new experience.
     
  • EG: Do you have any particularly funny stories from the time you’ve been open?
  • DH: There have been several moments that would have made Youtube gold! We had a team of 3 girls who got stuck and decided to dance until they got another clue! A couple who sang the alphabet song to each other to try and break a code, and one team that pretty much lifted the entire carpet in an effort to Escape…they failed!
     
  • EG: August is Festival season in Edinburgh. Do you have anything particular planned for this month?
  • DH: We have extended our hours and been building “The Da Vinci Room” for the last few weeks. I’m really excited by this as we have turned a much bigger room into an old study with some really interesting puzzles. Getting the piano up the stairs better have been worth it!
     
  • EG: You mentioned on your Facebook page that you are planning to open a second location, but situated in Glasgow. What lessons that you have learnt from Edinburgh will you be applying to your Glasgow location?
  • DH: We have gone for a similar format to how we currently operate. The main changes being that we are on the ground floor with windows facing Glasgow city centre and having a bigger site. We have also amended the booking times to make it easier to manage.
     
  • EG: If you could predict the future for exit games, how do you think it would look?
  • DH: I think we are at the tip of an iceberg. Games are going to get more and more ambitious and I imagine there will be a number of sites opening over the next 12-18 months. I’m really excited about seeing what the other sites have got coming up in the future!
     
  • EG: If you could give the readers, exit game players and puzzle fans reading this one piece of advice, what would it be?
  • DH: Take your time and be organised, noone is going to present you a puzzle that cannot be completed in the time limit.

Thanks so much for that, Daniel! Glasgow poses a massive opportunity, with the conurbation holding literally millions of potential players. The very strong reviews that the first Escape site earned speak for themselves; anything that gives so many more Scots the chance to join the fun has got to be a big step in the right direction.

Interview with Ed Roberts, proprietor of Breakout Manchester

Breakout Manchester description graphicThis site has previously discussed the Breakout Manchester exit game business, around two months old but already doing excellent business. It’s a joy to be able to feature an interview with Ed Roberts, the man behind the site. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Ed’s responses with ER below. The opinions are a little feisty in places; no bad thing at all, but be clear that they belong to Ed.

  • EG: What’s your background, leading up to the opening of Breakout Manchester?
  • ER: I’m a director in two other business, Awaken Ibiza and Funk Events, so up until opening Breakout I was running those companies. A lot of the skills developed in running these two businesses have been hugely beneficial in launching Breakout Manchester.
     
  • EG: It’s exciting to see your Tweets from time to time suggesting that Breakout Manchester is selling out days in advance. Can you say more about how well things are going for you?
  • ER: Yeah, things are going remarkably well. Another company opened in Manchester about 2 months before we did and I think it’s struggled. So for us to be selling out a few days in advance and weekends a few weeks in advance I’m really happy.
     
  • EG: Your excellent progress is all the more remarkable given that the site has only been open for about two months. What techniques have worked well for you at getting the word out around Manchester?
  • ER: My background is in advertising, marketing and promotion has been hugely beneficial. We use some fairly advanced social media techniques to promote the venue and I have done promotion in Manchester for the past 7 years I know a lot of people and organisation in the city which have been a big help. In addition to that, word of mouth is one of our strongest attribute, and that comes from people having an excellent experience with us and then those people spreading the word.
     
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • ER: I really enjoy action computer games. Games such as Zelda, Dishonoured, The Room and The Room Two. Also TV programmes such as The Cube and The Crystal Maze. I’ve always been a huge fan of puzzles my whole life.
     
  • EG: What lessons has your background in event promotion taught you about offering good customer service?
  • ER: In terms of customers service probably not a huge amount, this is one thing I have learnt a lot of from doing Breakout. Where it has hugely helped is the promotion, marketing and advertising of the rooms and the venue.
     
  • EG: It was fun to read that representatives from first the Daily Sport and later the Bolton News have visited your site. Do you have any other star guests lined up?
  • ER: Not really guest stars but quite a lot of press will be coming through in the next few weeks.
     
  • EG: What does a typical day for you look like?
  • ER: I normally get to the venue around 7am and do around 3 hours on Awaken Ibiza or Funk Events. I then organise the staff for the day and spread my time between running the games, tweaking the games, promoting and advertising the venue. The venue is also incomplete so various DIY and decoration is still in place. To be honest for the past week it’s been non-stop running of games. I normally finish around 9pm.
     
  • EG: What are the most memorable reactions from players that you have witnessed?
  • ER: The other week we had 4 teenagers with behavioural issues in from Manchester Young Lives. They were accompanied by 3 teachers from the centre. They had all previously been expelled from numerous schools. The 4 of them absolutely loved it and were captivated from start to finish. Their teachers said their concentration spans were normally that of minutes and had never seen them working as a team before. Turning four disinterested teenagers into a team of happy, energetic and proud young adults was a very memorable moment. To see them rave about it afterwards really impacted me. A good escape room game is fantastic for all ages and in all situations. This particular example is a great example of this, and is testament to the quality of the room.
     
  • EG: How are your preparations going for adding a third room at your current location?
  • ER: Extremely slow 🙂 It’s the first room I’ve ever created completely by myself so I want to assure it’s as good as possible. It’s called Madchester so revolves around Manchester, its history and culture. Think the Hacienda, Stone Roses, Oasis, Coronation Street and so on. It will be open at the end of July if it kills me! 🙂 I’ve been to a few other sites around the country and with the exception of all the London sites, Leeds and one of the Bristol ones, some of them are very poor and I want to assure that my centre is as good as it possibly can be. If someone has a bad experience of an escape game it will put them off for life which would be such a shame.
     
  • EG: Can you reveal anything about your longer-term plans after that?
  • ER: We have the capacity to open another one maybe two rooms in Manchester so my focus is on that and to create some games which push the boundaries of the industry. I’ve got a lot of ideas of how escape rooms can break out of their current mould and I want to explore that. Why do they have to be an hour long for example? Could a escape room be more story driven? It’s exciting times for the industry as a whole.
     
  • EG: If you could give the readers, escape game players and puzzle fans reading this one piece of advice, what would it be?
  • ER: Play The Room and The Room Two on a tablet. Then come to Breakout 🙂

Thanks so much for that, Ed! Note also that last week, Breakout Manchester posted to their Facebook feed that:

Breakout Manchester is recruiting. We need game organisers, makers and technicians. Part time flexible hours available. Must have good customer service skills. If interested please send your CV to hello@breakoutmanchester.com and the days and hours that you are available to work.

Full-time and part-time roles are available, so as well as there being a good opportunity to play the site’s games, perhaps there’s a good opportunity for the right people to be involved from the other side as well!

Interview with Stephen Miller, proprietor of Pyro Puzzles

Pyro Puzzles logoThis site has previously discussed the upcoming Pyro Puzzles series of mechanical puzzles and the Top Secret cryptic treasure hunt being run near London on Sunday 3rd August 2014. It’s a privilege to be able to feature an interview with Stephen Miller, the devisor of these puzzles. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Stephen’s responses with SM below.

  • EG: How did you get into puzzles, Stephen?
  • SM: I’ve always liked puzzle boxes; the idea of having something on display that hides a secret inside, is something magical. However, until quite recently I didn’t own any such boxes, as I had no clue where to get them from. Now however, I have a decent little collection thanks to the guys at MPP – the Midlands Puzzle Party. I joined this group and have attended all of their recent gatherings, even going to the Netherlands for the Dutch Cube Day where there was a puzzle market, which resulted in me going home with an empty wallet, but a very full backpack.
     
  • EG: What from your background led you towards puzzles?
  • SM: I was an inquisative child and when I was nine years old (1979) my Uncle showed me a book called ‘Masquerade’, by Kit Williams. My Uncle was an nature artist and did lots of paintings of birds, animals and the countryside. He’d bought the book because Kit Williams had done some fabulous paintings of similar subjects to illustrate the book and had hidden a hare in each painting, my Uncle challenged me to find the hare in each – I found all but the first hare (which was hidden inside a hill in the picture!). Kit Williams had buried a golden hare somewhere in Britain and had hidden the clues for finding it in his book and I got hooked on the idea of buried treasure, avidly following the subject until the hare was dug up in 1982.

    About eight years ago, the memory of ‘Masquerade’ surfaced, after being forgotten for some 25 years, and I went on-line to look it up and found several communities dedicated to it and similar treasure hunts. I joined the communities (Q4T – Quest for Treasure and TATHC – The Armchair Treasure Hunt Club) I took part in a few hunts and then started running them for these groups, which was great fun.

  • EG: How is the market for physical puzzles, such as your past Isis Adventure puzzles and your upcoming Elemental puzzles?
  • SM: That’s a very good question, I had very little to do with the marketing or sales of the Tessarisis or Tarka puzzles that I designs as the fourth puzzle in the Isis series. I can only go by the fact that the Isis series pays a living wage to the company director and also pays for one or two employees, so they must be selling. I’m lucky to have a full time job away from puzzles, which pays my mortgage, so it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do with the Elemental Puzzle Series, without the pressures of having to earn a living from it – this means I can afford to ‘Do It Right’ which is the overwhelming principle behind Pyro Puzzles and The Elemental Series, the main visible manifestation of this is that I refuse to take pre-payments from people for puzzles that are not assembled, packaged and ready to ship.
     
  • EG: Of which physical puzzles do you have the fondest memories?
  • SM: It has to be the Barcode Burr by Lee Kraznow from Pacific Puzzle World, I’ve never owned or even held one of Lee’s creations, but I saw a YouTube clip of him demonstrating one and fell in love with it – a cube made up of six identical shapes that took 128 moves (64 if you know the short-cut!) just to get the first piece out. Just the thought of it blew me away.
     
    I’d been trained in 3D CAD at work, so I decided to try and draw up a Barcode Burr during my lunch breaks, using the photographs on Lee’s website – it took me three years! But eventually I figured it out (the experience and skills I gained by doing this made me a bit of a 3D CAD guru at work). I then had a Barcode Burr 3D printed and contacted Lee with some photographs of my creation – He said that other than him, I was the only person ever to make one. He was impressed with my work and has given me permission to make up to one hundred Bar Code Burrs – which is very kind of him. I’ve looked into getting them machined from aluminium and anodised, but the complexity of the design means they would cost far too much.
     
    (See also a video review of the Barcode Burr.)
     
  • EG: You have a background of co-setting some of the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club’s in-person events. What aspects of armchair treasure hunts and in-person events do you particularly enjoy?
  • SM: I enjoy dreaming up the challenges and then formulating them and linking all the elements together to make a cohesive whole (so the interconnections hold the theme together – as I did for the Avebury hunt where everything appeared to have been waiting to be discovered for 3,000 years), where everything fits together properly. It’s also very important to vary the challenges so some are easy and some a bit more difficult, so everyone feels that they are contributing to their team and that their team is making progress. On the day, I enjoy seeing how people react to the challenges I’ve set, it’s great watching people sweat and then see the light bulb come on when they discover the key element that solves the problem.
     
  • EG: Are there any armchair treasure hunts of which you have particuarly fond memories?
  • SM: Well, obviously ‘Masquerade’ was the genesis of armchair treasure hunting and I have memories of that (I have 16 picture frames hung on my wall which show the 15 beautiful paintings and title page from the book – cost me £26 for the two copies of the book and £171 in picture frames!), as far as hunts I’ve taken part in, those would have to be my first one which was at Ampthill with Q4T in 2008 and then Olney in 2011 with TATHC (the only one that I’ve actually won). The most memorable moment from one that I’ve run was at Bourton-on-the-Water in 2010 when someone who’d claimed that they were not competitive, solved the final clue, ran about 500 yards and jumped into the river, without taking their shoes off, in order to recover the treasure (we had waders available for them to use, but they didn’t bother to stop for them)!
     
  • EG: How are preparations going for your “Top Secret” treasure hunt in Essex on Sunday 3rd August?
  • SM: We’ve got all the plans in place, just need to write everything up and laminate various pages, so they don’t get trashed too easily – I’m having to get it all sorted well in advance, as I’m planning to launch ‘Fire’ the first challenge from the Elemental Puzzle Series at the beginning of August, so most of July is going to be taken up with assembling, engraving and packaging ‘Fire’ ready for August.
     
  • EG: You have said that your event will be “similar to ‘escape the room’ type events, except that here there will be multiple rooms to challenge and confound the participants. What have you learnt from such games that you will be applying in your hunt?
  • SM: That would give too much away at this stage, I don’t want to let the players into my head or they’ll figure out how I think!
     
    But I can say that the ‘Top Secret’ event is similar to ‘Escape The Room’ games, in that the teams have to escape. There will be multiple rooms, each containing codes and riddles that need to be decyphered and solved to reveal how a team can escape the venue and recover the treasure once outside.
     
  • EG: You have previously suggested that you expect to be able to accept teams until the end of June. Are you still taking entries?
  • SM: Actually, we can accept individual and team bookings up until the end of July – the more the merrier. However, we’ll be sending out final instructions and details for where to meet a week or two before the event, so everyone knows where to be and at what time. We have had a few full team entries, but most are individuals, we’re happy to shuffle people around at the start of the day, so everyone is in a team, so don’t worry if you don’t know anyone else who wants to come, we’ll sort you out with a team and you’ll probably make some good friends that you’ll keep in contact with.
     
  • EG: Can you reveal anything about the hunt that has not yet been made public?
  • SM: There is a teaser hidden within the electronic flyer for the hunt (.pdf file).
     
  • EG: Why are you making your puzzles under the name ‘Pyro Puzzles’?”
  • SM: I have always worked with explosives and pyrotechnics (I was a qualified bomb disposal engineer before I left school!) and have used the ‘Pyromancer’ name in pretty much every forum I’ve ever joined. So when it came to finding a suitable name for a puzzle concern ‘Pyro Puzzles’ just fitted the bill – It also appealed to me through the links and interconnections that I love so much, in as much as my first solo puzzle will be called ‘Fire’, the Greek for fire is pyro and of course ‘Greek Fire’ is considered one of the first pyrotechnic/explosives used by man.
     
  • EG: Is your upcoming treasure hunt completely self-contained or is there useful preparation or background reading that players might do in advance, particularly in terms of the theme of the event?
  • SM: It is completely self contained, as we don’t want anyone having an unfair advantage, so we’ve included elements for puzzlers, treasure hunters and mere mortals.It is completely self contained, as we don’t want anyone having an unfair advantage, so we’ve included elements for puzzlers, treasure hunters and mere mortals.

Thanks so much for that, Stephen! While that week will be a tricky one for the webmaster of the site, this site very much hopes to be able to feature coverage from the event. If you enjoyed DASH in April, or if you’ve played and enjoyed a few exit games, while nothing can be guaranteed, this sounds like it has the potential to be spectacular, and you can investigate the considerable strength of Stephen’s track record for yourself. At the very least, it sounds like a good excuse to get your team back together and have a puzzle-filled day out.

While Stephen suggests above that individual applications are welcome as well as team applications, if readers of this site happened to want to organise a team for this hunt between themselves, there’s a comment box below which would do the job admirably.

Interview with Paul Bart, CEO and Founder of The Escape Hunt Experience

Escape Hunt global logoHere’s a perspective you won’t find elsewhere. This site has already discussed Escape Hunt, set to open in London in August. There are already three Escape Hunt sites open, in three different countries, and the locations list details the ambitious expansion plans around the world, particularly over the short-term future.

Accordingly, it’s exciting to be able to feature an interview with Paul Bart, the CEO and founder. There are very few brands with a similar global perspective and profile, so Paul’s take on the genre, and his background, will be distinctive. The questions asked by Exit Games are tagged with EG and Paul’s responses with PB below.

  • EG: How did you get into “escape games”, Paul?
  • PB: I was looking for a new business idea a while back and I noticed around a year ago that a few escape games were spring up and doing well in other cities. I decided it was worth looking at how they were being run and what the potential was to expand with them globally. Unfortunately none had a truly global vision and I decided I had to go it alone. Hence The Escape Hunt Experience was founded.
     
  • EG: What is your background that could possibly relate to this?
  • PB: There are many factors here and, without boring you, let’s just say I have always been fascinated and challenged by puzzles. I was the kid who would stay up late at night in bed trying to figure out how to solve a maths or word puzzle. I also have a good psychology degree specializing in several areas one of which is IQ testing and another is data analysis relating to statistics. Add in many years of corporate training, seven languages and a lot of other eclectic experience and that might tell you why I love what I do so much.
     
  • EG: How do you see this market now and in say 12 months time?
  • PB: Now it is growing fast and it will continue to do so. There are two main types of players now – larger companies like us of which we are the clear global leader and then local games with one or maybe a send branch only. As time goes on, this will get more blurred with regional players, more different styles and a lot of different ideas. We are clear where we will be in 12 months time – around 100 branches worldwide in our own style but maybe more advanced games as this changes monthly.
     
  • EG: What is your current personal contribution?
  • PB: I run the business so I have a lot of strategic responsibility. I also oversee all the global marketing and franchisee relations. Most of all I love game design so that takes a big chunk of my time leading our global game design team based here in Bangkok.
     
  • EG: Which puzzles, games and other artworks have influenced you most over the years in your designs?
  • PB: That is a hard one! I love art – everything from Renaissance to Modern and also sculpture. I also love languages. Add in some darker stuff like the occult and great literature and you can see its very eclectic. Most of all we try very hard to be logical and balance our games. Many game providers don’t see the need for that but it is very important especially as we operate in so many countries with so many languages.
     
  • EG: If you could predict the future for escape games, what would it be?
  • PB: Growth, growth and more growth! Then some diversification into new areas. We have huge plans here. Watch this space as they say…
     
  • EG: Do you see it appealing to different markets in different geographies?
  • PB: Of course. It’s a global phenomenon. At our Bangkok branch we have seen nearly 20,000 players and I can’t think of a country not represented. It is a fascinating anthropological study, believe me. Filipinos are so different from Thais, Brits from Americans. They all have fun in different ways. Doing as much corporate work as we do is amazing too as we see global companies bring their worldwide staff – all very different styles!
     
  • EG: How, in practice, do different countries vary from each other in what their players are looking for?
  • PB: They all want fun but some are more serious. It sounds like stereotyping but it is true that Europeans take it more seriously and Asians take more photos afterwards as just one example…
     
  • EG: Have you identified any trends as to which nationalities prefer which styles of puzzle?
  • PB: Actually Chris, it is fairly culturally neutral overall. I see no bias for different preferences actually but If you ask me about ability, that is a totally different question. Asians are renowned for their quantitative skills whereas Europeans and Western nations in general are more qualitative. This bears out in game play too but it is also about initiative. Asian players are generally better at solving puzzles once they are “shown the way” if you like whereas western races grasp the idea quicker but then don’t make such good progress in average. It all equals out in the end pretty much and then differences some done to social factors such as assertiveness, cooperation and leadership. It’s a long story; maybe I can answer next time in a specific chat on this point.
     
  • EG: How do you deal with language issues, particularly in countries where there are a multitude of languages spoken or where tourists are such a high proportion of visitors that you cannot reliably make assumptions about what languages they speak?
  • PB: That’s a great question, Chris. We run both multi-language games and single language depending upon the location. Our Asian branches are multi but London will be single language. It is not always obvious which language either! Phuket will run in English and…. Russian. Not Thai as you would expect. Overall, we adjust for cultural bias and language in our games so language plays a very small role in overall game play. Bangkok is another great example of this. We run in Thai and English but despite even messages in Japanese on our website to say “we do not speak Japanese. These games are only in Thai and English”, such is our popularity amongst Japanese locals in Bangkok and tourists, they still come and speak absolutely not one word of Thai or English. We still have great fun using sign language and they leave with a big smile!
     
  • EG: Where are you based and how does that allow you to work?
  • PB: I am based in Bangkok but travel all over the world. I am on the road a lot setting up our game centres and I install all games personally. I love that…
     
  • EG: What is a typical day for you, Paul?
  • PB: There is no typical day but overall it is around 30% game design, 20% franchisee support, 20% marketing, 20% technical things and 10% on Bangkok branch.
     
  • EG: What are the most memorable reactions that you have witnessed?
  • PB: I have to say that large groups of Filipinos are the most exuberant when they solve the puzzles and then they all get so happy in a huddle but for me it is the 3-4 occasions where an older player has personally shaken my hand and thanked me for the “best time they have ever had with their grand children”… Really makes all the hard work worthwhile!
     
  • EG: What has surprised you in the last 12 months?
  • PB: A lot of things but mainly for us how successful we have been and how we have adapted our proposition to all the different cultures and geographies. In Bangkok branch, we also developed a huge corporate following without a single call to a company. They all find us. Singapore has also been so successful only a short time after opening it shows the power of our global brand.
     
  • EG: What have your years of corporate training experience taught you about how to tailor the experience when you offer corporate events?
  • PB: Wow! OK, the short answer is always understand beforehand what the agenda is. We have hosted ExxonMobil and Shell at one end of the scale and small local travel companies at the other end. The key is to know how they want to play things. Our website has a sample corporate agenda in the FAQ section but actually it is the whole atmosphere that counts. We always keep it fun and stimulating but we can also get into some deep coaching too if needed. I try to personally host each corporate event as I have the skills but we even get into quite esoteric stuff at times like hypnosis and visualisation techniques. It is all about what the client wants and we do cater to all needs…
     
  • EG: What would you say to anyone who feels they want to work in this industry?
  • PB: Go for it. It’s a great and exciting place to be. Whether as a game designer, game master or even the administrator, its never a dull moment. There will be courses at universities soon on “Escape Gaming” or as we call it, “Experiential Entertainment”.
     
  • EG: What misconceptions about the industry would you most like to dispel?
  • PB: I think all the press and feedback is positive. The only things I would say that are unfair are the criticisms of games at number one on TripAdvisor. We have been number one in Bangkok since a month after opening and we deserve it as we offer an extremely high level of satisfaction. Sure, we are not a temple, but maybe we offer better service and satisfaction! I guess the only other point is that the industry is not only for geeks as is often assumed. We are a major international company operating in many countries so its hardly geeky anymore – no more geeky than working for Apple, I guess!

    Thank you for your time, Chris, and letting me tell my story! For all those who want to be part of our future, we still have franchise opportunities available in many locations. For those who want to work with us, send us your resume via our website. We are hiring in all sorts of areas!

Thanks so much for that, Paul! This site very much hopes to feature more interviews in future as a way to get a variety of perspectives from behind the scenes. It also considerably adds to anticipation for the London opening, just a few months away.