Mechanics Monday: Quizcape

Globe with question marks emerging from itThe World Quizzing Championships happened this weekend, and they were won by Kevin Ashman for his fifth championship, which is his first for seven years. Apparently there were something like 2,000 competitors from 25 nations, which is very respectable. It’s tempting to take a rather Going For Gold attitude to this (can a pan-European quiz hosted in the UK and conducted in English truly be fair?) but the WQC team do seem to go out of their way to make it a truly global contest, which deserves approval. The rostrum list may look a bit embarrassingly British (and the separate use of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland always smacks of needing to try too hard; this is neither the nineteenth century nor the Commonwealth Games) but the 2016 results table makes for much better reading. Even counting the UK as one, the top 16 is more global than the current top 16 rankings list for those notoriously British physical sports snooker and darts. Thumbs up.

At this point I’m going to get my retaliation in first and say that I dearly hope that there is never a counterpart global governing body for escape game competitions. Are there any global sporting organisation bodies that are actually popular with participants in their sport? (Genuine question, and I’d be delighted to be surprised to learn that there are.) It takes a certain sort of type A personality to declare yourself an authority, perhaps a type AA personality to declare yourself a global authority and a type AAA personality to make a career and a living for yourself by doing so. There’s a nuanced distinction here; if you contribute to a community and consequently others regard you as an authority, that’s a different, beneficial thing.

I like the thought of there being escape game competitions – even, theoretically, global ones – either to determine the most delightful designs or the most adept solvers, but there’s a difference between (1) people creating competitions and content for the benefit of the world at large then being well-regarded as a result of it and (2) people assuming authority first then using that authority to create competitions and content for their benefit. The puzzle world and puzzle hunt community generally do relatively well at staying on the right side of the distinction. Based on a mixture of first- and second- hand reports from people who have floated through my life, I tend to believe that there are elements in the world of competitive quiz organisation who are not on the side of the angels. No names, no pack drill.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that it’s a reasonably generally accepted truism that people like all the information to be required to solve an escape game to be available within that escape game. A recent Room Escape Divas podcast (specifically, episode five) had a glorious and righteous rant about a room that relied on terrible trivia questions, then expected people to search online for the answers once the game had concluded and use this information to play a second time. It also counterpointed this against a room that included a trivia puzzle but in an interesting way; if you didn’t know the answers then it was still a reasonable elimination-of-the-wrong-answers puzzle.

From there, I take the view that as much as escape games grow and spread and try different things, I tend to believe that there is scope to crossover and try to capture slightly different markets, if you can set people’s expectations in advance and then go out to attempt to appeal specifically to people who would enjoy this and would be less likely to enjoy a traditional escape game without the additional leanings. (The argument against this runs along the lines of “not many people buy picture books of horses; to buy one, you have to both be a person who buys picture books and who likes horses”. I do have a fab picture book of old pinball tables.) Quizcape would be an attempt to appeal to people who like quizzes first and foremost, escape room activities second.

An assumption of quizzes is that either you know (or can work out) the answer to a question, or you can’t. It’s generally considered cheating to use outside technology to look up the answer to a question if you happen not to know it. It could be fun to play with that assumption.

Quizcape sees a team of players stand under a spotlight in a room. Secondary spotlights point to a number of information resources (encyclopediae, phones, tablets, but maybe also some slightly more off-beat ones like PCs running Windows 3.1 with very old copies of Encarta…), each of which are available but obsetructed. A phone might be in a (transparent) box with an obvious lock. A computer might have a password that needs to be cracked. A book might be behind bars; manipulating it might be a physical puzzle, and so on.

The team are posed a series of questions against the clock. Ideally they will know the answers and can answer them. If they don’t, they can attempt to go to the resources, solve the puzzle obstructing use of the resource and, having done so, use the resource to look the answer up and then move on to future questions.

That’s the very simple principle behind Quizcape. I have thoughts of elaborations like a structure of rounds with meta-puzzles, rules for how the timer might work and so on, but it’s more fun to make them up for yourself. It’s the principle of the thing that counts.

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…

Mechanics Monday: Lost in Translation

Translation around the worldImagine that you’re playing a high-tech-themed room at a local branch of a global chain of exit games. You have seven or eight minutes left. Most of the loose ends that have been generated over the course of the game feel like they’ve been tied up and your gut feeling is that you must be close to the end. You have one crucial piece of information that hasn’t been used and one crucial piece of information that you’re missing. A major piece of furniture in the room is a large screen on a wall; on the opposite wall is your national flag and a clock showing the local time.

Suddenly the screen sparks into life once more and the image is of a room from another exit game, with at least some members of a team looking in your direction. Looking at the image further, the background suggests that the game they’re playing looks an awful lot like your own. However, the flag isn’t yours. Wait a minute, isn’t that the flag of… Poland? No, it’s the other way up. That must make it… Monaco? No, Indonesia makes more sense. Besides, the clock is hours and hours out, so it can’t be anywhere in Europe.

They’re waving at you. You wave back. Does anyone here speak… er… you suppose, Indonesian? You know two more words of Russian (and one more word of Klingon) than you do Indonesian. One of your team suspects Javanese might be more help. The audio feed coming in starts off sounding like human voices, and as you try “hello” in as many languages as you can think of (and is that what they might be doing to you?) before ten or fifteen seconds more, it gets replaced with noises of voices that don’t seem to sync with the image. No chance of trying to find any sort of common tongue and communicate that way. Another linguistically-minded team-mate suggests that international sign language exists, but none of you know it. (Even if you did, do they?)

So it’s down to the global language of mime. (It’s not quite as bad as that – you have all the props in the room you can use, and hopefully when they see you using props, they might think of doing that as well.) So what are you going to mime? Are you going to mime the last stray piece of information you have? Are you going to mime the last piece of information you think you need?

The biggest question of all, and the one that must go unsaid: when one of you gets that last piece of information from the other team, are you going to stick around to make sure they get their information and can get out as well? Are you sure… if you’ve only got a few seconds left on your clock?

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!

Mechanics Monday: Could an exit game change the way you see the world?

Thoughts that rush through your headThe counterpart question to this is: has there ever been an exit game worth playing that didn’t change the way you see the world? Part of the appeal of many forms of entertainment is to help people feel good about themselves, and part of the appeal of puzzles, in whatever form, is that you can delight yourself by looking at a puzzle, thinking “I’ll never solve that”, then finding a way to solve it and prove yourself more capable than you thought.

Taking this further: is it plausible, and would it be cost-effective, that some charity, or some political party, or some cause might stage an exit game with the aim to deliberately raise a certain set of emotions in their players, or to change their misconceptions? Could an exit game set out to raise empathy with a particular group? All things are possible – a deliberate message to help people think about the human condition, as expressed through the medium of a live-action adventure with a time limit, might see the exit game as art rather than as craft. The challenge is whether one that could be made that worked on sufficiently many levels that it could be a stand-alone commercial proposition, rather than just an unusually participative medium through which to convey a message. Similarly, could there be such a thing as a flash (not Flash) exit game based on a recent news story? (Exit games based more generally on larger topics are well-known, such as “Cold War” stories.)

The history of art has been full of such position pieces, and the recent explosion in playable art has been no exception: arguable examples might include Blast Theory‘s Desert Rain, the National Theatre Wales’ Border Game, maybe Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like A Kiss. When the borders between different methods of expression are so blurred, it’s surely only a matter of time until someone comes up with something that identifiably has the exit game nature, or at least a decision mechanic to differentiate success from failure and provide an appropriate conclusion.

Let’s take an example. There’s no “this site” about what I’m about to say; this is a rare personal opinion. I am massively pro- migration, both immigration and emigration, more strongly so than any of the mainstream political parties in this country. (This is not really a subject appropriate for discussion in the comments, and unusual prejudice in this regard will be excised as I feel necessary. We’ll get back onto less controversial ground tomorrow.) As one starting-point, immigration has been massively positive for the exit game industry; furthermore, I conjecture that there is a positive correlation between exit games’ success in a city and that city’s willingness to accept and embrace migrants.

Without getting too partisan, and recognising that there are subtleties on all sides that cannot be included in a single paragraph, much of the current UK political rhetoric of the day is anti-immigrant, and some believe that recent immigrants are given immense practical advantages. It would be fascinating for an exit game to exist to provide a ludic version of the immigration experience – how difficult the language barrier is, how unforgiving the bureaucracy is, how expensive the process is, how disaffecting the attitudes of the unquestioning and misinformed are, how terrible and fearful the penalty that the enforcement officers are given to apply is.

Hopefully it could open a few people’s eyes – and stand up on its own merits as an exit game as well.

Mechanics Monday: Tutorial Mode

Video game "Tutorial Mode"The excellent Shut Up & Sit Down board games review site sporadically releases podcasts; one of them discussed, among many other things, the question “What can board games learn from video games?” Good question, and the obvious parallel question runs “What can exit games learn from video games?“. Especially because, arguably, the answer could be the same.

Many video games have tutorial modes which briefly introduce the mechanics of the game, often one at a time, often by making players learn through doing them. Not many board games have such a tutorial mode and there is an argument that that could be as good, or better, a way to learn a game’s rules than a rulebook. So the question is: could the same principle be used by exit games? Could an exit game start with a tutorial mode… or, perhaps, a tutorial room?

A tutorial room might have as few as three or four puzzles and be designed to be beaten within low single digits of minutes. It could be extremely small and would be designed to be extremely easy to reset, if work is needed to reset it at all. It would help the less confident teams out so that they might hit the ground running when they go into the “real” room. It could help people learn what they’re required not to do for safety reasons. It would offer a perception of extra value. Lastly, it could be used to… not mislead, but explore design choices that were deliberately not incorporated in the real room.

Yesterday, this site discussed Dr. Scott Nicholson’s white paper, which has been updated since the last post with even more content. One particularly interesting suggestion in it is that hiding information by writing it in ink that might only be seen using a supplied blacklight is something of an exit game cliché in this day and age. Perhaps it might be appropriate to use this mechanic in a tutorial room and not actually in a main room, in that case.

On the other hand, given that exit games have thrived already without needing tutorial rooms, perhaps this is a solution in need of a problem. It may well be that part of the thrill is exploring the possibilities for the first time in your first room, being dropped into it and discovering for yourself what you can do. Perhaps a tutorial room could be an optional extra for the most marginal and least confident participants.

Returning to the overarching question of what might be learnt from video games, Dr. Nicholson also writes: Since escape rooms are hoping to meet the needs of many different player types, they should allow the players the ability to set their game mode. This will provide a way for a group of players to communicate to game staff what kind of game experience they are seeking. ((…)) Facilities with a human gamemaster can easily adjust the difficulty of the game experience by giving more frequent or more cryptic clues. ((…)) Another tip to take from videogames to enable a better player experience is to allow teams to switch to an easier mode while playing the game, so that if they are frustrated, they have a way to resolve that frustration before the game is over. There is some established practice in this regard: De Code Adventures of Canada offers a choice of three levels of difficulty in this regard, though it’s not clear whether the extremely sensible “jump down a difficulty level while the game is in progress” option is possible.

One way for an exit game to conclude, which wouldn’t be appropriate for many themes but could be hard to beat thematically for others which nod more directly at video games, would be for the countdown clock to count down to zero and then display the familiar “GAME OVER” motif. People would expect that. However, if beneath “GAME OVER”, there were to be a secondary message of “CONTINUE?” and then an additional short countdown timer, that would surely play with a few sets of expectations, maybe in just the right way!

Mechanics Monday: mobile phones and mixed reality

mechanic In the style of the Themed Thursday series inaugurated by Toronto Room Escapes which has spread elsewhere, the occasional Mechanics Monday series looks at individual elements of an exit game that are, more or less, taken as read as established practice, ask “What if…?” and ponder over the possible consequences of playing with the assumptions.

To a first approximation, it’s standard that exit games don’t let you take your cameras inside the rooms and don’t permit photos to be taken there. There are rare exceptions, especially if you’re a star of stage and screen performing in a touring show, taking in an exit game on a day off. Quite often you’ll read terms and conditions promising that bringing a mobile phone into an exit game is cause for disqualification without refund. Mechanics Monday asks: need this be the case?

Mobile phones are often powerful beasts these days, with theoretical deal-breakers being the abilities to (a) call someone and ask them for help, (b) devise solutions that might circumvent the intended solution processes, (c) take photos which might act as spoilers or (d) cause players to be less involved in the game and more involved in what is happening in their life outside the game. While (c) is certainly a reasonable concern, this site would argue that it might not be as big a stumbling-block as you might expect.

There’s nothing stopping people from writing about the contents of exit games as it is; people tend to be well-behaved enough to understand, and live by, the reasons for the societal prohibition. Would they follow by the same prohibition if they could take camera shots inside the room? If you’ve got some particularly cool and unusual (and selfie-worthy) items or decorations inside the room, perhaps it would raise the bar on how exciting the designated photo area outside the room would have to be in order to make it the photo location of choice, but otherwise it would seem likely that people would play fair.

Issues (a) and (b) might be considered issues of “cheating”. However, if players can be assumed to have access to modern mobile phone technology, then the puzzles inside the room can be designed to take advantage of that technology. Mixed reality applications are becoming increasingly popular, where digital images are overlaid upon physical items. The first of these have been quite crude, but it’s definitely possible that future generations of technology may be much more sophisticated. Permitting access to phones would also enable research-based puzzles, which could also help engage people in the narrative you have established.

It’s true that not everyone has access to a smartphone, and there are several varieties of operating systems (and even different versions of the same operating system). Perhaps it might require presenting a standard simple mobile phone (or some similar device using at least some of the same technologies – a generic technological magic wand) to be used as a prop in the game whether a team have access or not. Yes, these are valuable, but it’s likely that the team will be dealing with expensive equipment whether it includes a phone or not. This would also neatly bypass issues of different user experiences.

This would be an unusual angle to take, but it’s not necessarily one worth dismissing out of hand. Perhaps a site with many different games could include one which permitted the technology, as well as the majority that do not. If this is a step too far now, is there ever a point in the future where this will change – will disallowing access seem like a deliberate retrograde step to a former era?

Mechanics Monday: high-score rooms

mechanicOne of Toronto Room Escapes‘ biggest contributions has been his Themed Thursday series, discussing possible exit game themes that haven’t yet been used, or that have been little-used, and how they might be used in the future. It’s been so popular that other blogs have posted their own similar entries in the series, notably one from Liz at Escape Games Review and a string of them from Mark at QMSM.

Perhaps this site will contribute its own at some point, though there’s a long way to go from “here’s a cute thought” and “here’s a fully fleshed-out idea”. Instead, or as well, this site will inaugurate (the not necessarily regular) Mechanics Monday where it looks at individual elements of an exit game that are, more or less, taken as read as established practice, ask “What if…?” and ponder over the possible consequences of playing with the rules.

The general principle of an exit game is go in, solve the puzzles and get out. If you solve sufficiently many puzzles and get out in time, you win; if you don’t solve sufficiently quickly, you don’t get out in time and you don’t win. It’s as pass-fail, win-or-don’t as that. If there is an element of degree or comparison between performances, people compare their teams’ escape times, and a quick escape is to be considered superior to a slow escape. Does it have to be that way, though? Are times even necessarily as meaningful and comparable as they are considered to be? In a certain sort of room with a vast amount of content where the challenge is only partly to work out what to do and partly to get as much of it as possible done, might they enable replay value and give a team a reason to come back and play the same room more than once?

It would be possible to award a score based on puzzles solved, particularly if there are parallel routes to unlocking all the content in a room, on the number of hints taken and on the time taken to solve the puzzles and perform the tasks. (And, surely, other reasons as well, such as the number of players.) Taking this further, one concept is a room where players might have a reason to stay in the room and keep doing things to score as many points as possible, once they have fulfilled all the requirements to qualify to escape the room. (And if players might be deprived of the ability to keep a track of the time remaining once that happens, and just have to keep track of time themselves and risk spending too long before they leave, that might be even funnier.)

It’s interesting to see what might be happening in this regard. This site really enjoyed this excellent interview by Toronto Room Escapes with one of the two principals of Puzzalarium, who do a few unique things, of which this is one of the more distinctive. This site also has a suspicion that at least two UK games are touching on this aspect, to a greater or lesser extent – and, indeed, that is the reason why this is the first topic to be covered on Mechanics Monday.

That said, one pitfall with this issue is the context that scores are only really meaningful in context, perhaps compared to other players’ scores. “Escaped with nine seconds remaining” is immediately understood and pretty universally recognised to be “close”, whereas whether “escaped with three minutes remaining” is close or not depends on the game. Might a score be more inherently understood on a familiar scale – say, as a percentage or a grade? While nobody likes getting a bad grade, nominally offering percentages but in practice everyone scoring between 80% and 98%, or using a scale which started at B+ and went up to, say, A***, would quickly be found to be deceptive. Use the whole of the scale… and just don’t tell the teams who have grades that are less to be proud of what they scored, beyond the usual “you were within two locks!” or “you did it, taking just a minute too long!”, unless they really ask!