Coming soon to your own home: Escape Room in a Box

The titular box in which an escape room can be found

A phrase that I once heard and has got stuck in my mind runs “say it best, say it first, say it last or say it worst”. By cute coincidence, the only citation for it that I can quickly find comes from Professor Scott Nicholson of white paper and Escape Enthusiasts fame. Today’s article is about Escape Room in a Box, the Kickstarter campaign for which closes in less than two days’ time with glorious success; under $20,000 required to fund it, easily over $100,000 raised. Saying it best or first seem impossible now; at least this can be the last place where it gets mentioned… until the next place becomes the new last place.

If you’re reading this, the concept hardly needs explaining. Escape Room in a Box “…is a 60-90 minute cooperative game where 2-6 players solve puzzles, crack codes, and find hidden clues in order to find an antidote to thwart a mad scientist’s plot to turn them into werewolves.” How good could such a game be – or, more to the point, how much could you enjoy such a game? It depends perhaps what aspects of traditional location-specific exit games you most enjoy. Some aspects, like the puzzles, can reasonably be replicated in your own home. Other aspects, like the theming of the environment and ambitious physical props, are much harder. (If a big part of the attraction for you is getting to play with toys that you wouldn’t have the chance to play with elsewhere, it’s less attractive.)

The Logic Escapes Me thought hard about the potential opportunities and limitations of the format and expressed them in their tremendous preview. Perhaps it might best be read in conjunction with Room Escape Artist‘s review of a preview copy of the game, which validates Ken’s concerns and suggests that they have largely been dealt with in a fashion close to reaching the immediate potential of the format. On the other hand, to give full context, perhaps you should compare that review with Esc Room Addict of Canada’s counterpart review of a preview copy, which was rather less enthusiastic.

In any case, the concept appears to have been in the right place at the right time and caught people’s attention more widely; the campaign has been discussed at the Huffington Post and also by those alpha YouTubers at Geek and Sundry. Also excited was Adrian Hon of Six to Start (probably best known for the Zombies, Run! fitness app), also who mentioned it on Twitter. Subsequent discussion started with his opinion “Last escape room I played was $45 *per person*. Surely they could have a higher price/tier, and make the game better or longer?” Perhaps the success of the campaign points to there being the demand for the genre after all – and, from there, it’s tempting to wonder how other members of the family might differ.

Could a later iteration be a partly digital game, requiring its players to supply their own mobile device on which to run an app? Plenty of potential there, starting with being just another medium through which to deliver different sorts of clue, going through being a unique input device and going as far as in any other mixed media game. Certainly the prediction that there may be competitors was proved quickly correct, with ThinkFun introducing Escape the Room: Mystery at the Stargazer’s Manor this month (at a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of US$21.99, so set your expectations to low-tech), set to be distributed in the UK by Paul Lamond from June. That promises to have an online hint system at the very least.

Exit Games UK would be very interested if existing exit game brands were to consider this technique as a brand extension. Suppose someone has come and played your game, had a tremendous time and have left the room in high spirits. Might this be an excellent time to try to sell them a game so they might have related fun at home? It would take a certain sort of set of strengths for the combination to make sense; home games can convey puzzles very well, so this would work particularly well for a site which prided itself not just on its puzzles but also on certain sorts of puzzles which would translate to a home environment. It would also be a good way to advance the story of a persistent game universe, to keep them keen on playing within your universe when it takes so long and so much to introduce another physical game set there.

(Almost) Everybody hates deliberately ambiguous puzzles

You might have seen these puzzles, which have been doing the rounds on social media recently. What do you think the answers are?

Ambiguous fruit puzzle

a) 15. A bunch of bananas is a bunch of bananas. Who knows how many there really are in each one?
b) 14. There are four bananas in the bunches in lines 2 and 3, sort of, and there are only three bananas in the bunch in line 4.
c) 11. Nobody cares about boring old ordinary bananas. The only reason the bunches in lines 2 and 3 have any value is because of that special double-tipped banana. Without it, the rest of the bunch is worth zero.

Ambiguous flower puzzle

a) 26. A blue flower is a blue flower, regardless of how many leaves it has. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
b) 25. The flower head and stems are distractions, this is really about leaves.
c) The answer is undefined as there is no basis to say what the relationship is between the value of a blue flower with four leaves and one with five leaves. Consider how much more highly a four-leaf clover is regarded than a three-leaf one.

How many watermelons are there?

Ambiguous watermelon puzzle

a) Five. Three-quarters times four is three, and one-half times four is two.
b) Six. The middle four are two cut in half, the other four are used to produce the outer four. Yes, four quarter-melons are missing, but they clearly aren’t used to make up the ones in the middle.
c) An indeterminate number between six and eight, because we don’t can’t tell whether or not the ones in the middle are two halves of the same melon or not.
d) Zero. Three quarters of a melon and half a melon are both different things to a watermelon, notably in terms of freshness.

You might think that the fact that they’ve got hundreds of thousands of shares suggests they’re popular and thus worth including (or, at least, adapting) in your exit game. Please don’t. They’re popular because they’re deliberately ambiguous and can be argued more than one way. That’s really not a good property for an exit game puzzle. The fact that people are likely to have seen the puzzles, or their central conceits, before is not the best starting-point.

Counting puzzles have a long history in exit games and are a core skill. They’re hardly likely to excite, though there are a few cute ways to dress them up and if you have fantastic art then they can be genuinely pretty. The last time that a counting puzzle actually made someone smile was approximately 1898 (some reports suggest 1896) when Sam Loyd sold more than 10,000,000 copies of “Get Off The Earth” (discussed in detail, though the link is old and so the pictures have rotted, at the wonderful defective yeti) – and that’s perhaps better classed as an optical illusion than as a puzzle.

Algebraic equations are also known within exit games; if you write out the equations in words, then things are unambiguous. They may be a sufficiently close reminder of school that people who didn’t like algebra at the time are unlikely to appreciate the reminder now. The first puzzle of the three is the least problematic; if the bananas were completely separate from each other, it would be unambiguous, though not particularly exciting. As it is, it gets into issues of two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional objects; why do you assume a banana is there when you can only see part of it, when you assume there isn’t any fruit hidden behind the apples?

One big problem with the puzzles above is that if you declare one of the answers to be correct and another to be wrong, then people are unlikely to be impressed by your explanation as to what makes something right or wrong. The bigger problem is that when people try what you consider to be the wrong answer and find out it doesn’t get them anywhere, they will probably stumble on the right answer by shifting one either way and then concluding that either their arithmetic was wrong (not much fun) or that your arithmetic was wrong (even less fun). It then becomes simple trial and error rather than puzzle-solving. It’s the sort of situation where only the person setting the room thinks it’s funny and the people playing the room think it’s not.

By contrast, if the “right” and “wrong” answers were, say, six away from each other and there were a satisfying reason why the “wrong” answer was wrong, that’s a much better puzzle – and whether a reason is satisfying or not is judged by the person hearing the answer, not the person setting the puzzle. This has been a very negative article so far, so here’s a constructive suggestion instead. If you’re effectively required not just to count up items for an equation but identify each item and work out whether thematically it fits into the category to be counted, that’s fine and potentially good; at worst, it’s a “how many animals of each time did Moses take into the ark?” trick question.

In short: stay well away from this sort of gimmick. The least worst thing that could be said about them is that they anchor the creation of your room to a particular point in time – specifically, this week or so – when everyone will have moved onto something completely different next week.

And as for the division sign in this little blighter, don’t even go there

Ambiguous division puzzle

Mechanics Monday: if you had to invent The Crystal Maze, would you?

A pentakis dodecahedron

A few days ago, this site was delighted to see job adverts for the exciting-looking position of Maze Master at the forthcoming The Crystal Maze live attraction opening in London in a double handful of weeks’ time. It might seem a shade strange at first to see them go down the acting recruitment route to fill the positions, but any customer-facing position in either an exit game or any other live entertainment game is definitely a show business position, playing to the audience of (usually) a single team at a time. Don’t forget, Richard O’Brien was (among many other things) an actor before he became so familiar to audiences in this particular role.

The hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of Kickstarter campaign pre-orders are an excellent indication that people are very, very excited about getting the chance to play the game – and, from there, it doesn’t seem too implausible to suggest that there may be many other people who would like to get the chance to do so but might not, for geographic reasons or many other possible causes. The number of other games that have made either explicit reference or implicit allusion to The Crystal Maze when trying to explain their appeal, or just as a familiar point of reference, also goes to reference the strength of the show as a cultural touchpoint at the very least.

It’s public knowledge that one of the distinguishing advantages of the live The Crystal Maze attraction is its authenticity, not least from the work they have done with the rights holders and the people who made the show in the first place. It’s also true that some part of the appeal of the show, to a (presumably reasonably large) part of the audience, was the wonderful and elaborate environment that the show worked so hard to create. It would seem unlikely to implausible that any other site might ever be able to match this; if people want to play the show they loved, they have no other alternative – and are delighted that the live attraction exists as a possibility at all. In case it’s unclear at all, getting to play the live attraction is one of the things that this site is most looking forward to in 2016.

However, it could be possible for a game to describe itself as “like The Crystal Maze but better” and then provide a number of reasons why it makes that remarkable claim. It’s certainly true that The Crystal Maze was designed to be watched rather than to be played by a mass audience. Some of the distinguishing properties of The Crystal Maze are not necessarily conducive to being an ideal experience when played live; the live experience has hinted at some concessions to authenticity for a better live experience and it will be fascinating to see, in time, whether further such concessions will have been made.

For instance, this site tends to believe that nobody really wants to be locked in and to have to, at least nominally, wait to be bought out. Playing a game is more fun than not playing a game, which is why player elimination mechanics have fallen out of fashion in modern game designs. With this in mind, the suggestion that “locked in” players in the live attraction will also be able to rescue themselves by solving additional puzzles rather than by waiting to being bought out – or not – by their team seems like a wise one in terms of the gameplay experience. A friend made a suggestion to the effect of “If you pay £60 to go round The Crystal Maze and end up being locked in on game one then it’s your fault for being so rubbish”, which is fair enough on one level and the roughest of justice on another.

So if you were designing a live experience to be played by the self-selecting near-mass audience, rather than to be watched on TV, what differences would you choose to make from The Crystal Maze as we know it? While it makes sense for there to be a penalty for failing at (at least some) games other than opportunity cost, perhaps there could be other ways to express this penalty other than the “miss a turn” aspect of a lock-in. The whole aspect where only one player could play any particular game and everyone else just had to watch them play and (usually) shout suggestions might also be worth reconsidering; while shouting suggestions is one way to play a game, for many it will be more vicarious and less vicious than might make for the most compelling experience. Lastly, why couldn’t players have a free choice of physical, mental, mystery or skill genres and the ability to play more than one of a particular type in a particular zone if that’s what would make the game the most fun for them?

At this point, it’s tempting to imagine a rather freeform game. Imagine that your team might get to spend (e.g.) 15 minutes in each of four themed zones, gaining para-crystal currency units. In each zone, there are perhaps 25 opportunities to gain currency units, with each one designed to be possible to win by a single player, with teams having complete flexibility to deploy players to opportunities as they see fit – so possibly lots of people playing one-player games, or people advising other people how to play their games, or maybe even two people teaming up on a single game, or so on. Budgeting time and assigning players to challenges would be the major challenge; the only time limit could be the 15 minute limit in each zone. The currency won from each zone would then be used in some endgame to generate an overall score, which might or might not involve analogues of flying tokens and/or geodesic domes. This site is unsure what the intellectual property laws of the land would dictate.

Is this a game you would like to play? Is this a landscape that looks commercial to you?

Mechanics Monday: sprinting for victory

Ball of clocksLots of great things to read from around the exit game blogosphere at the moment, and you don’t have to be specific to any one country to enjoy it: David Spira of Room Escape Artist writes about playing the Contact Light megagame (and the fact that it’s not about exit games is not unwelcome in the least), The Logic Escapes Me features an excellent article about What makes a good host? and dives deeper into Namco and their Nazotomo Cafe games.

Following on from the latter, J at points to the Nazotomo Cafe intro video – which, while it has subtitles in Japanese, is perfectly understandable without them and sets the tone. It confirms that their low-end rooms do have a 765 second time limit, as discussed a couple of days ago, but also that they’re playable by teams of one to four. Another video has the 765-second countdown timer sequence available if you’re a big fan of the background music, which isn’t without its merits. Today’s “Turns out there’s a lot of BLANK videos on YouTube; who knew?” is, apparently, countdown timers.

The title of this piece discusses sprint games, but really it’s all about competing on cost. While this site prefers to explore the places that only exit games can go and admires elegant, deep, thoughtful design, suppose you were a business owner who decided to take the opposite route and decided to compete on cost alone. While business owners don’t generally go out to try to destroy whole industries at some degree of cost to themselves in practice, suppose you decided that you decided that you wanted to run a bargain-basement room and make a great virtue of its price, on the thinking that marginal players might only ever want to play a single game and they might as well choose yours on price grounds – with relatively little care as to whether they’re turned off the whole industry at large, though obviously you would want to encourage repeat custom within your business. How might you do it?

The largest ongoing expenses for an exit game are rent and staff. Rent can’t really be avoided, but a hypothetical simpleEscape (if you get the reference) game might go out to run with as skeleton a staff as possible. Could it be possible to design a game so that a single staff member might oversee many games rather than just one? Normally the relevant implicit question is “could it be possible to design a game worth playing” given the constraint, but that’s less important a criterion here.

Imagine a game with a very short time limit and relatively few puzzles to explore, with the constraint that staff are not expected to be following its progress, because they might be looking over as many as ten games at once, or none at all if they’re busy resetting rooms rather than watching them; if they’re watching a room at all, they’re looking more for damage or dangerous play rather than gameplay considerations. As staff wouldn’t be following progress directly, it’s tempting to imagine that the automated timing mechanic might also dispense hints – or, perhaps, that teams might get to choose between a hard level of difficulty in which no hints were offered and easier levels of difficulty that automatically offered some, or more, hints at timed intervals. (Bonus points for letting people press a button to step down a level of difficulty while they’re playing the game, as a good retort to those who don’t enjoy themselves because of their lack of progress at the hard level of difficulty they chose.)

This site doesn’t suggest that this is inevitable, or even likely; the Japanese experience (as far as the report hints at) points to this being one level that does not seem to drive out the more intricate, deeper experiences that other companies choose to offer in practice. (Either that, or perhaps the price competition aspect of the marketing has not yet been sufficiently brazen.) That said, if part of the future of exit games is as an attraction within somewhere that offers many different forms of entertainment, then the fact that Namco have chosen to go down that route within the Nazotomo cafes, and one Namco Funscape arcade so far – but who knows if they might replicate it at their other UK arcades? – points to this as a possibility.

Sometimes people want to compare the lifespan of the exit game phenomenon to the laser game boom, in the UK, at the start of the ’90s. (To which this site says “could be much worse, the long-term health of the laser game industry has proven low-key but surprisingly robust”.) One direction that the laser game industry went down was as a secondary attraction at bowling alleys and the like. Could the same thing happen for exit games? If it were to, perhaps this low-interactivity, low-staffing approach might be the approach they choose. Not the one that this site would prefer, but…

DASH 7: “There’s never plenty of time”

Cartoon of a permanently stopped watchDo not take the graphic as a dig or a suggestion that DASH 7 was in some way broken, that most absolute and damning term of game criticism…

A common theme in the commentary of DASH 7 was its quantity, as well as its undoubtedly very high quality. There was more than people were expecting, possibly to the point where it strained the logistic constraints of practicality that its players had to place on it, and that’s where some of the relatively negative feedback has come from. This post concerns the Experienced players’ track only; primarily this is from inevitable self-centredness, though it’s worth noting that (provisionally) the convincing majority of players were on the Experienced track.

A phrase frequently used when describing the hunt in advance ran, roughly, to the effect of “We expect that most teams will solve all puzzles in 6-8 hours“, though the precise wording varied from location to location. Some locations announced specific wrap-up times in advance, others used phrases like “All teams across the world will be working on the same 10 puzzles over the course of a max of 8-hours“; it’s not completely clear where the concept came from that there would be an overall time limit, including non-solving time, of eight hours this year, except possibly from expecting a repeat of last year’s hard limit in the absence of anything to set our expectations otherwise. That said, this site probably propagated this incorrect notion; if so – whoops, sorry, genuine mistake.

The combined par time of the nine scored puzzles for DASH 7 was 5:45, very similar to the combine par time of the nine scored puzzles for DASH 6 of 5:50. However, as previously discussed, a reasonably representative total solving time (based on early, probably incomplete data) for a globally mid-table team rose from 5:10 for DASH 6 to 6:55 for DASH 7. Another way of looking at it is that the median score for DASH 6 was 411 and for DASH 7 was 349. True, DASH 6 had five minutes more par time and thus scores might be expected to be five points higher, but the other way of looking at it is that people were scoring far fewer bonus points than in previous years.

In DASH 4, the par value was described as a “generous average solve time”; this year, that was rather less the case. Looking at the nine global-median-scoring teams (usual caveats: early, possibly incomplete, data subject to revision), in DASH 6, a typical team earned bonus points on seven (sometimes six) of the nine scored puzzles whereas in DASH 7, a typical team earned bonus points on two, maybe three, of the nine. This is rather an abrupt analysis; fuller analysis would consider practice from previous years still. Nevertheless, the DASH 7 par values broadly didn’t feel like generous average solve times.

The very dear Snoutcast used to mention the phrase “Everybody likes solving puzzles, nobody likes not solving puzzles” often. From there, it’s not much of an extension to “Everybody likes solving puzzles, everybody likes solving puzzles and earning bonus points from doing so even more”. Teams who were used to having sufficient time to solve puzzles and frequently earning bonus points in previous years may not have had their expectations set to the higher standard this year, which doesn’t just cause “we’re not doing as well as we did last year” ill feeling but also can cause “we might not have time to get all the fun from solving puzzles that we want before the hard time limit expires” worries, which may knock on to causing teams to take sub-optimal decisions over their self-care, worsening their experience further.

There’s a very interesting discussion on the GAST scoring system on the Puzzle Hunters Facebook group at the moment. When the par times are sufficiently generous, then the ordering by (highest) scores and (fastest) solve times are identical; when they are not, some teams are arguably over-rewarded, or insufficiently punished, for relatively slow solves on some puzzles. This was an arguable issue as high as the top ten this year.

DASH has one of the hardest calibration issues of all puzzle hunts because it aims to cater to teams of so many different abilities, even among those who self-select for one level of difficulty or another. Previous DASHes perhaps might not have got the degree of credit that they have deserved for making the balancing act work quite so well. So this all points to a question of where DASH should seek to target its activities.

Is the number of puzzles correct? Should the puzzles be shorter… or the same length, with longer par values? Would DASH be better served by having the sort of quantity of content (i.e. total solve time 4½-5½ hours for median teams) that is had in previous years, or a similar quantity of content to that of this year spread over a longer day? The considerable downsides of a longer day could include that it might well put potential players off, potential GC and volunteers off and that it might make finding appropriate locations even more difficult still. On the other hand, challenges as meaty as those of this year were an awful lot of fun!

This is a very INTP-ish “throwing things out there” sort of post, so perhaps time to be a bit more concrete. It’s inevitable that calibration suggestions will turn out to be self-interested, though the self-interest will be subconscious as efforts have been made to try to eliminate conscious bias. For an eight-hour-overall-time-limit day, perhaps the calibration target should be that 75% of teams solve all the puzzles, in their division of choice, within 5½ hours solving time, and that 80% of teams beat the par value for each puzzle.

That said, it’s not as if tuning puzzle difficulty up or down is at all an exact science, or that playtest results are necessarily reflective of how puzzles will turn out in real life. The whole process is the endeavour of fallible humans after all; the puzzle community at large is truly grateful to those who submit puzzles, those who edit them, those who make the selections and turn raw puzzles into complete hunts. The quality has once again been extremely high, even if the quantity was not what people had been led to expect.

It could be possible for a DASH to offer so little challenge to the fastest teams as to hurt their experience, so here’s an out-there suggestion to finish. While adding multiple levels of difficulty by writing more sets of puzzles adds very considerably to the workload – and while the BAPHL series of hunts offers two levels of difficulty, this site isn’t aware of any other hunt that offers three, what with the brilliantly thoughtful junior track as another labour of love – here’s a possibility.

Consider the addition of a hardcore mode that shares the same material with the experienced track, but is different in the proactivity with which it offers hints, and also limits team sizes to three. This could slow the best solvers down while hurting their experience in only the “it’s fun to solve in large teams” fashion – but, if you’re that hardcore, you’re likely to have access to other events which will let you solve in larger teams as well. It’s also been proven to be the case that the best three-player teams can match the best larger teams as well!

Themed Thursday: Betrayal II

Are you an angel or a devil?(This is a follow-up from this site’s attempt two weeks ago of the previous prompt of Betrayal.)

You and your team are playing an adults-only exit game called Afterlife. It becomes clear, some of the way through, that two team members will have to split off from the rest of the team, one of whom is required to retrieve information from “Heaven”, the other from “Hell”. You ever-so-bravely volunteered to go to “Heaven”.

You opened a low door and made your along a short crawl-space barely a couple of feet high, then turned back on yourself for a second crawl-space on top of the first, then a third on the top of the second. This concept of going up felt in keeping with the traditional viewpoint of heaven being above, and the decor became more sky-like and the soundtrack more ethereal. At the top of the final crawlspathence, you made your way into a small, brightly lit, wonderfully bright white room.

So it turns out that “Heaven” has a big comfortable chair, with a table next to it, on top of which is a top-of-the-range coffee machine. A freshly-made cup of tea is pushed onto the table through a hidden door, along with two chocolate digestives. You look for your next challenge… and there is nothing to do but sit down.

It turns out there is a video screen in the wall – and as you sit down, a video starts to play. A handsome man and a beautiful lady, both elegantly dressed, sidle on from the sides, and start to take their jackets off. One of them blows a kiss and leaves… leaving you only your favourite sort of stripper to watch. (But how did they know? Were they tracking the motions of your pupils to see where you were looking?)

Your chosen stripper says “Hi there! Welcome to Heaven. Stay awhile. You’re in no rush to leave. Enjoy the tea, or the coffee, and the biscuits. Or perhaps you’d like something a little stronger?” You mutter “A lager would be nice”… a few seconds later, the video says “We’ll see what we can do. Just give us a few minutes.” Then the jacket comes off, and the stripper starts to undo the buttons of their shirt, one by one.

They say “So you’re here about a puzzle answer, right? The answer to the heaven puzzle… well, that’ll be with you in a moment. And here’s your drink.” The next thing through the hidden door is, indeed, a can of lager. You regret not naming a brand! The stripper then starts to talk through the puzzle you were facing, showing more and more beautifully tanned skin. You’re aware of the time limit, but the lager does look tempting – and so cold! – and there’s nothing else to do while you’re waiting for the answer to be given.

The stripper confirms everything you thought you knew about that last puzzle, while now having only a couple of garments on apart form underwear, then just before confirming the answer you’re missing, says “One more thing. Stay here. You can be more use to your team here than back in the room, because if you stay here, I’ll tell you all about the puzzles that are coming up and how to solve them. And if you stay here for just two more minutes, you’ll get some cold, hard cash to take away with you. The answer you’re after is seventeen.”

You hadn’t seen someone stripping while explaining puzzles before, but you have now, and it’s remarkable how good they are at both halves of it. The stripper directs you to a box on the wall… and suddenly a stream of coins falls out of it. They fall into another box below, which directs them back out of the room, but you can catch them as they stream. Sure, they’re only 5ps and 10ps, but a double handful of them adds up, and you wonder just how much you can stuff in your pockets.

So you’re in an exit game, and there’s this person you can’t take your eyes off, but you have some lovely drinks to drink and biscuits, and someone’s pushed a very cute-looking cake through to enjoy as well, and you’re getting the answers to the puzzles so your team will be really happy with you when you get back to them and it’s all confusing and overwhelming but in a good sort of way and… er, would you look at that.

OK. Now you know how to solve the next three puzzles and they sound like really good puzzles and you’re looking forward to getting back and solving them, but if you just wait for three more minutes and learn the answers to the last puzzle then you’ll get a T-shirt to keep as well as everything else. And the stripper… well, that doesn’t leave much to the imagination, does it?

Well, this wasn’t how you expected this game to turn out. The stripper has put on quite a show, and you’ve had a lovely little snack, and got a handful of cash, and a voice asked you your shirt size, and a couple of minutes later a bag came into the room with a shirt in your size.

And all the lights suddenly go from white to red. The stripper has gone. The mood has suddenly changed, and the angelic pan-pipes have been replaced with a loud, discordant buzz. What you can now see on the screen is… well, that looks like your team, and they seem to be going mad waiting for you.





Mechanics Monday: a role-playing redux

Tabletop RPG character sheet (could be D&D 4th edition?)Really interesting Mechanics Monday piece on role-playing in exit games by Mark at QMSM today, which has inspired a few not-completely-developed-but-getting-there thoughts to progress the conversation along, hoping to inspire the people who really know to get involved. Prof. Nicholson’s white paper on exit games notes games with exit-game-like characteristics that preceded exit games as they are known today, and provides evidence of reasonably close direct predecessors having taken place as part of larger live-action RPGs in previous decades.

Choose your own dictionary and pick your own definition, but Collins’ one of the act of imitating the character and behaviour of someone who is different from yourself seems like a fair enough start. This is familiar enough from language-learning exercises, but also from games. Any war game in which you consider yourself to be in charge of military has elements of role-playing. Stretch this back far enough and it’s tempting to stretch to games in the chess family, but the distinction is beautifully illustrated by John Wick:

((…))the focus of an RPG is to tell stories. Let me explain. Chess is not a roleplaying game. Yes, you can turn it into a roleplaying game, but it was not designed to be a roleplaying game. If you give your King, Queen, Rooks, Knights and even your pawns names and make decisions based on their motivations – instead of the best strategic move possible – you’ve turned chess into a roleplaying game.

The extent to which a game has the role-playing nature or not depends on what sorts of thoughts the players have while they’re playing it. There’s a theory that engaging more different players’ senses will engage more of their brain; live-action role-playing games can be much more tactile than tabletop ones in this way, and can be designed to trigger other senses as well. This “five sense” principle was an overt goal for, and an explicit set of inspirations for some of the puzzles within, the brilliant-looking no-charge Sensation exit game run by Dr. Bryan Clair for teams at St. Louis University. Prof. Nicholson’s white paper does report on small proportions of commercial exit games deliberately incoporating unusually multi-sensory challenges.

(Side note: there’s at least one site in North America with a room with a really cute advertising gimmick – being much more coy about the contents of that room than the others other than a higher price and a strictly-applied age limit, letting the players’ imaginations guess at what might cause the extra restriction for that game only, much as the earliest horror movies did. Perhaps it would be cute and popular to have an 18+ room with a higher price, where one crucial part of the gimmick turns out to be that the surcharge pays for adult beverages served during the course of the game.)

One of the ways in which, to a reasonable first degree of generalisation, exit games have a nature different from conventionally-understood role-playing games is that exit games have defined “win” and “lose” conclusions, and players are required to use their own intelligence and resourcefulness as players rather than taking the roles of characters who can certainly have no more intelligence and resourcefulness than the players portraying them. When application of these mental skills may well be a crucial part of what determines whether the conclusion is “win” or “lose”, there is little incentive for players ever to voluntarily take on additional constraints on themselves and attempt to adopt an additional character while encountering the content of an exit game.

There are at least two approaches to play with this. Perhaps getting into character and risking a lower level of success might be a challenge that a particularly confident team might set themselves when facing an exit game which they suspect to be relatively easy, but it would take a team with a particularly high regard for art to find this experience more compelling than playing the game out of character. An alternative approach would be to attempt to give players additional powers compares to the ones they have in real life, and the interview with the creators of Breakout in Avenue K by Escman League touches on this. Enabling people to use these additional powers is something that needs to be very carefully handled or it may risk throwing people out of their degree of suspension of disbelief.

So a question for game operators is the extent to which they intend role-playing to be crucial within their game, over and above participating in the game narrative. It’s still a little of a loaded term; while video games that would be considered fantasy RPGs are broadly known and widely accepted, there’s still the perception of the term being linked to traditional tabletop gaming. The graphic at the top of the article probably doesn’t help, but are there alternative, instantly-recognisable role-playing images that could be used instead? An explicitly role-playing-focused room would be a stand-out positive for some players, but possibly not for many, when people think of exit games as adventures rather than as games.

Perhaps it might be wise to have one room in a facility having more of a focus than others and then continue to work hard that people will first play the room within your facility that is best suited to them, but the degree of emphasis would be carefully handled to avoid turning off players who end up facing it other than through explicit preference for its features (for instance, if it’s the only room available at the time they want to play). Going back to Mark’s original post, his prediction that rooms might have additional role-playing focus as an option rather than a necessity sounds very smart… and potentially cost-effective.

Lastly, if you have a room and you’re aiming for it to succeed from a role-playing perspective, here’s a possible test. If your players manage to solve every puzzle and complete every challenge in the room in good time and then choose not to leave before the time limit because they’d prefer to spend longer in the game and finish with the “fail” ending rather than spending less time in the game and finish with the “win” ending, your room’s evidently doing pretty well!

Personality types and exit games

Myers-Briggs types. Adapted from, released under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Click for larger version.

Some people put a lot of stock in the Myers-Briggs personality types. Other people compare it to a modern-day form of astrology, with all sixteen types being desirable in their own way and people choosing to self-identify with the commentary from their specific type through a process of self-directed cold reading. I tend to be somewhat more towards the latter end of the spectrum – but then, as an INTP, I would say that.

That said, I did enjoy the summary of the INTP type. It’s quite possible that if you’re a MB person, you might have been able to see it coming through in this blog; “They love patterns ((…)) people with the INTP personality type tend to share thoughts that are not fully developed, using others as a sounding board for ideas and theories in a debate against themselves rather than as actual conversation partners“. Guilty as charged.

I also enjoyed the graphic at the top of the Prelude Character Analysis page for the personality type, being a certain sort of logic puzzle. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that I thought “I recognise that puzzle – and I like it”! It might also explain why this blog keeps a diffuse focus in puzzle adventures and tries to interest people in logic puzzle competitions.

So this post is principally directed towards those who do tend to give credence to personality typing, specifically the MB types; if this isn’t for you, there’ll be another post along tomorrow.

Do exit games tend to attract certain sorts of personality types? Do certain sorts of puzzles in exit games tend to attract certain sorts of personality types? Is there any social science, pseudoscience or just plain tried-and-tested anecdotal received wisdom over why certain sorts of puzzles – irrespective of the quality and originality with which that puzzle is implemented – tend to play well with the sorts of people who would pay money to play an exit game? Could sites do more to help people find which of the several games they offer they would most enjoy based on players’ personality types? (Right, that’s almost enough underdeveloped theories for one post, you lovely sounding-board.)

I also enjoyed reading this recent Escape Games Review post, hinting at an exit game, themed around the Seven Deadly Sins, where every team member started off in a sin-themed mini-room of their own which they had to escape solo before they could work together towards a group victory. Could there some day be an exit game where players had individual puzzles to solve that were tailored towards their personality types – either to play to their strengths, or to force them to overcome their weaknesses?

Jamming the odds and ends in

Jars of jam

Right behind these lovely-looking jars of jam is a jar of game jam. (Maybe it’s more of a preserve.) Specifically, it’s the Escape Room Game Jam held at MIT, probably the world’s coolest university, in the Boston area this weekend. It’s organised by the MIT Game Lab in affiliation with Red Bull; the link is clearer when it becomes available that teams will be creating escape room content “escape room based around a moment in a upcoming film”, with the film being DxM, the “second project from Red Bull Media House’s recently launched feature film division CineMater“. The boffo Variety magazine calls the film a “high-octane thriller based around the possibilities of quantum mechanics“. Sounds cool, though it’s not possible to measure precisely how cool without changing how cool it is.

This whole Game Jam is really exciting, not least because of the articles it has already generated. One of the co-writers and producer of the film, Joanne Reay, writes that “the next generation of Escape Room will offer a compelling narrative in which an understanding of the story-world delivers an added advantage and insight into the solving of the clues“. Quite possibly so; this site doesn’t believe there is a single future for exit games, but this definitely sounds like part of the future and one that a great many players would surely appreciate in their games. If it’s an aspect that is to be emphasised in this particular Game Jam then the results will be enticing indeed.

Additionally – and this is particularly interesting – Konstantin Mitgutsch, Affiliate Researcher at the MIT Game Lab, writes, advancing the state of the art, on the topic of turning escaping from exit games into a competitive sport. There’s definitely scope for expansion in at least a couple of ways here: first, how might these general principles be applied to other sorts of puzzle-based live adventures; second, how might Escape Room Malaysia’s Escape Run 2014 event compare in practice to the theory? (Are there any other events that might be compared? This site can’t think of any, but you may well know better…) Certainly if you were an operator thinking of running something yourself in the future, there’s the theory to consider.

The speakers at the Game Jam have remarkable sets of qualifications; the same page suggests that the event is set to be filmed. The designs produced are set to be released under a Creative Commons licence; hopefully, the filming will extend to the speakers and their talks will be released as well. If the content released does go on to be used in a pop-up game supporting DxM, then Red Bull will have probably done quite well in terms of getting considerable development expertise at the cost of enabling a single Game Jam – but the Game Jam material’s release will mean that the world at large will have done well from it too, and gratitude should be given to Red Bull and the MIT Game Lab for that.

A couple of other odds and ends outstanding: thank you to everybody who made a submission to the site survey released to celebrate its first birthday. There were more than twice as many responses as there were for the previous such survey (after a hundred posts) and it represents greater commitment to go and fill in a survey on another site, so this does represent progress. Particular thanks to those who offered additional commentary in the text box section, which will not be addressed here, but the responses were very much appreciated.

  • About a quarter of respondents are in the exit game business and another quarter have their own blog on the topic, so the proportion of “pure players” is just under a half. The suggests that no matter how many people visit the site just for the big map at the top and to find a site location, it takes quite a degree of commitment to scroll further down and read the blog articles, let alone respond to the poll.
  • Nearly 60% are more interested in exit game posts than anything else, nearly 30% are more interested in puzzle hunt posts than anything else, with some clicking both and some neither, which is fine; plenty of reason to keep things varied, but good to get such a clear indication of what you think the main attraction is.
  • The geographic questions were not so well-designed on this site’s part, but it looks like nearly a quarter of respondents are from Greater London, nearly a quarter from the North-West of England, just under 20% from the UK or Ireland but outside both hubs and just over a third from outside the UK and Ireland.

Finally, this site has captured a second quarterly set of live price data towards producing an estimated exit game inflation rate, and with rather a better idea than it had three months ago about what should be in the basket. Still far too early to attempt to quote a meaningful inflation rate, though, but the general trends based on very few data points are that London launch prices are varying at both the high and low ends compared to prior practice, and provincial launch prices are trending slightly lower.

Themed Thursday: Betrayal

Betrayal: the Kiss of JudasOh, dear. Even when this site tries to do a Themed Thursday, it comes out looking like a Mechanics Monday that missed the boat.

Themed Thursday is an exit game blog initiative whereby anybody who feels so inclined is invited to propose the contents of an exit game, in some way, shape or form, prompted by a specific topic. Last week, the topic proposed at QMSM for discussion this week was betrayal and has brought forward a thought from the back burner.

This will be a relatively rare supposition, but imagine that you are with an experienced team of exit game players and you have played most of the games at your favourite site. You’ve deliberately chosen which one, or ones, to leave because they’re advertised as being towards the easier end of the scale, and you fear that you won’t get your money’s worth. How can you make an easy game more of a challenge?

Many of you may remember The Mole, an originally Belgian constructed-reality game show in which a team take on a succession of challenges. However, one member of the team is the eponymous Mole and attempting to betray the others into not completing them successfully, while also attempting to keep their identity secret. The show has been running for a good fifteen series in the Netherlands and yet is as popular as ever.

Putting it together, is there a way to make an easy exit game more challenging by introducing a teammate who is incentivised to betray the others while keeping their identity secret? Here’s an attempt to codify one. Much as the individual challenges in The Mole only really worked in context of the overarching metagame, this needs some out-of-game structure to implement it, and here it has been posed in the reasonably familiar context of a gambling game with drinks at stake. As ever, don’t bet with money you can’t afford to lose (but if you can afford to play an exit game, you evidently do have some resources…) and this site doesn’t endorse drunkenness. Here’s a bombshell: I don’t even drink.

To play an exit game with a betrayer, you need at least a team of at least three players. Tear a sheet of paper into a number of roughly identical pieces, one more than the number of players. Mark one of these pieces with a cross and the rest with circles. Screw up all these pieces of paper and jumble them in a container so that it is unclear which one has the cross. Each player takes a paper, leaving one left over.

All players secretly look at the symbol on their paper, then keep hold of it until the end of the game. The player with the paper with the cross is the betrayer. (It is quite possible that there may not be a betrayer.) The team then play this ostensibly easy exit game and the betrayer’s aim is to prevent the team from succeeding in time, without being identified as the betrayer. Every player who isn’t the betrayer wants to try to convince the others that they are the betrayer.

Once the game is complete, every player individually votes as to who the betrayer was, then every player reveals their vote and their piece of paper. Any player who cannot present their own paper at the end of the game has lost and must buy the others a round of drinks. Trying to make other players lose their papers is slightly too dirty play for even this game… unless there has been acceptance beforehand that it isn’t. Voting for yourself, not voting at all, or any other sort of voting malpractice, are also offences that are penalised by buying a round of drinks.

If the team succeeds at the room, each player bets one drink against the betrayer as to whether their vote can identify the betrayer’s identity correctly or not. A correct identification earns the player a drink from the betrayer, an incorrect identification earns the betrayer a drink from the player – and the player must also buy a drink for whoever they incorrectly nominated as the betrayer.

If the team doesn’t succeed at the room, the bet is shifted in the betrayer’s favour. If more than half of the non-betrayers identify the betrayer correctly, the betrayer buys the others a round of drinks. (Exact 50% splits are broken in the betrayer’s favour.) Otherwise, every player whose vote does not correctly identify the betrayer must buy a drink for the betrayer and another for whoever they nominated – and a successful betrayer who isn’t voted for at all deserves to be bought drinks all night.

If the team doesn’t succeed at the room and it turns out that there wasn’t a betrayer at all, you’d better all just drink to forget…