What would, could, should an escape game world championship look like?

STOP PRESS! More DASH 9 London tickets are set to be released tomorrow!

A somewhat abstract champion among their competitorsImmediately after the Red Bull Mind Gamers finals show was broadcast, some people declared the games played on the broadcast to be “not escape games”. Most of the most excitable responses were apparently made within Facebook groups. Manda Whitney, of the Room Escape Divas, forcefully and articulately made the (small-l) liberal case for the breadth of the term.

You know how much I write about topics around escape games here: puzzle hunts, puzzle competitions and the like, as well as writing about games like Boda Borg, Koezio, The Crystal Maze, GoQuest and so on. I also note, with great amusement, that many of the best-received escape games deserve their praise in part because, rather than despite, how different they are to so many other games that reviewers have played. Accordingly, I absolutely take the viewpoint that the games which were played in the Red Bull Mind Gamers semi and final were very much on-topic here, and I would have no problem describing them as escape games. (Is there an agreed definition on what an escape game is? In some ways, I rather hope not.)

I will say that the games played did seem to have rather more in common with some escape games than others. Although I haven’t played it, I would draw comparisons in format to the global Adventure Rooms company’s Original Swiss rooms, and I’ve heard other people draw slightly more distant comparisons to Time Run‘s new The Celestial Chain. It’s probably also fair to say that the games in the final do not nearly fall in the centre of the set of games which are felt to have the escape game nature, and I don’t mind that in the least.

The impression I get is that the game was designed first and foremost as a standalone Red Bull Mind Gamers experience, and had the description of “escape room world championship” appended to it rather later. It was a competition that declared a champion, so I’m happy with the “championship” part, and it had notably decent global representation for a first try, so calling it a “world championship” is not at all unreasonable. It tested skills that could entirely reasonably be tested when playing an escape room, so I’m happy to see the words “escape room” in there. Put them all together, and do you get “escape room world championship”? Well, I can see why people feel not.

While the games at Red Bull Mind Gamers (hereafter RBMG) final was a competition testing skills that are called upon in escape rooms, it was also a competition not testing other skills that are tested in many, maybe even most, escape rooms. (Searching and prioritisation/sequencing of multiple solution elements, to name just two.) If you take the approach that an abstract escape room world championship “should” test skills relatively frequently found in relatively many escape rooms, implemented in ways similar to those found relatively frequently, you might well find it harder to get to “escape room world championship”. It seems quite possible that those complaining most strongly about the world championships adhere most strongly to those views.

I say “let a thousand world championships bloom”! There is no governing body for escape rooms; as I said in passing last June, I’m very happy about this. The term escape room refers to an experience that is, joyously, so broad that the escape room championship experience can be just as broad. At one level, every single escape room that keeps a record of which team escaped most quickly holds its own championship; should a team from the UK go across to Vienna or Budapest and break those records, then they are international championships. Trying to work out which championship might be considered most prestigious is another matter entirely.

A really interesting part of the joy and fascination of escape rooms is the way that surprise is, under most (? All? Almost all?) current implementations, part of the challenge. You don’t know what you’re going to face once you enter the room, and don’t know in advance what skills will be tested. In practice, most escape rooms will follow the good practice of somewhat trying to set players’ expectations in advance, to ensure that teams will be guided towards choosing to play the room that they will most enjoy.

As much as there can be escape rooms that have a relatively high emphasis on physical aspects, or a relatively high emphasis on horror aspects, I would not invalidate a world championship that chose to place such emphases in their own rooms. (Compare with Boda Borg‘s “Quest Master” title for a team who completes all their challenges in a single visit, or the Autumn 2015 £1,000 competition held by the three-month pop-up Panic! room.) On the other hand, they would feel like championships of some subsection of the wider escape room experience at large… and quite probably that’s how Red Bull Mind Gamers feels, as well.

Does playing in a world championship mean that participants need to be ready for anything that might come under the purview of the field in question? Suppose RBMG had heavily focused on horror elements, or even more heavily on physical elements, would that have been a problem? It’s tempting to look at the examples of courses in adventure races, which might test (from Wikipedia) “a range of disciplines including navigation, trekking, mountain biking, paddling and climbing”. Imagine that an adventure race choose to throw in, say, a tightrope walk, or a race through a cave. Would that deviate from the core adventure race experience? (This has happened in practice, as recently as last year.) Setting expectations in advance, and suggesting what skills may be tested, may well make for a player-friendly experience. If it’s intended that picking an ideal team for the test is part of the skill set to be tested, which seems reasonable, then let people know in advance if their self-selected team needs to include the fit, or the brave, or those with perfect colour vision, or the able-bodied at large.

It’s hard to know what’s on the record and what’s not, but specifically taking Red Bull Mind Gamers into account, I am inclined to give the very strong benefit of the doubt to Dr. Scott Nicholson, who was one of the principals on the creative team, but not nearly as personally responsible for the design, implementation and particulars of game organisation as the show implied. I get the impression that he included a very great deal of original, imaginative, thoughtful and player-friendly practice in his design that was not brought to life in the product that made it to the TV show. He also included a great deal of practical science, as befits the association with a science fiction movie, in the gameplay that fell along the wayside. His intentions, and the results of his tests and designs with his students, came up against the practicalities of what might be realised and what Red Bull thought might make for good TV and the results of this multi-way clash were… variable.

That said, Scott definitely deliberately designed for something that was not at the very centre of the current escape game experience, not least in terms of the extent of the involvement of story (expressed in terms of the unfamiliar associated media franchise). The inclusion of a co-operative section in the final is particular evidence of this; it’s hard to imagine many other world championship competitions with co-operative sections. (I can think of one moderately obscure one; perhaps you know others…)

I get the impression that he designed for a Red Bull Mind Gamers event first and foremost, rather than for a straight-down-the-middle escape room world championship; I’m not sure if he would have designed things the same way if he had been told to prioritise the world championship nature more highly and the movie association less highly. That’s fair enough. Crucially, I don’t know if Red Bull would have funded a relatively conventional escape room world championship without a link to a media property of theirs. Going back several paragraphs, I come down on the side of concluding that these design decisions make the event no less credible or valuable a world championship.

I don’t agree with all Scott’s design decisions. I’ll quote Scott as saying “In Escape Rooms, knowing when you are in over your head and need to get assistance is an important part of the play.” This is generally a wise, player-friendly policy, appropriate in 99% of cases. I would be inclined to say that world championships are among the 1% of cases that are an exception to that general principle and would have preferred a different treatment of the hint process in the semi-final.

It’s tempting to wonder what other approaches might work; the only explicitly competitive one I am aware of to compare against is Escape Run in Malaysia in 2014, held by the chain known here as Escape Room UK, as described at Enigmatic Escape. There wasn’t a media property to associate with; the business case for the event is that all the participants were drawn from branches of one particular business. I find it relatively easy to imagine a single chain with wide international visibility, like Escape Hunt or Adventure Rooms to name just two, hosting a championship to raise visibility of their own brand.

All the assumptions I’ve made in this post are easily capable of being played with, but this is long enough as it is. Another post to follow – possibly the next, possibly not – is one I half-finished months ago playing with one of the biggest assumptions of them all.

On podcasts

A microphone by a computerI recently very much enjoyed an old podcast about escape rooms and haunt attractions. (Haunt attractions are the generic name for haunted houses, noting that they’re not necessarily restricted to houses, whereas the term “escape room” seems to have won out over “escape game”, despite a related issue.) It’s episode 11 of No Proscenium, and one of the reasons it’s delightful is because it dates back to July 2015 and yet people who don’t seem to be in the escape room community seem, even then, to have independently reached the same conclusions as the rest of us.

It also has some really exciting ideas at the end, which I’m reasonably sure haven’t caught on in the UK and I’m not sure have caught on elsewhere. If you own a game, or series of games, and pride yourself on a continuous narrative, or set of characters, or game world in which they take place, there are interesting things that could be done to provide what this podcast refers to as “additive narrative”; your games would still stand alone, but there could be optional extras for people who want to dive further into the game world if they wanted to. The podcast suggests the possibility of an optional scavenger hunt beforehand, visiting a series of local businesses or locations, with the promise of extra information about the game world. It also points to the different escape-room-like-boxes-by-mail / puzzle-crate games that exist, and suggests that this could be a good way to extend a game world and hence a brand. There’s at least one game world where I’d love people to try this and surely others as well.

No Proscenium covers all manner of immersive entertainment, thus features escape rooms, their creators and their bloggers reasonably frequently, though the other topics they cover – while less familiar – are often at least as enticing. I discovered the podcast first through episode 73, an interview with Lisa and David from Room Escape Artist; they go in-depth on a particularly interesting room which I’ll never get the chance to play. They’ve cropped up on other podcasts in the past and are always worth listening to, notably the most recent episode (at time of writing) of Room Escape Divas.

Speaking of which, the previous episode of Room Escape Divas features an interview with Ken, who runs The Logic Escapes Me and also runs Exit Games UK much better than I ever did, and me. There are points in it where I give Ken quite a hard time for no good reason whatsoever. Sorry about that!

Could there be a really good puzzles and games pub?

Scenario bar in Dalston by Loading. Used without permission, adapted from unknown photographer.I took a bus, earlier today, that went down little White Lion Street, right past The Crystal Maze; this will always make me smile.

I’m dreaming out loud here, but is the world now ready for a really good puzzles and games pub? If someone were to make one, would it be able to stay in business? This flight of fancy comes from observing a number of different, apparently successful, business models:

  • Loading Bar, as pictured above, has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “games” and “pub”;
  • Lady Chastity’s Reserve has a couple of examples which support a business model which intersects “escape room” and “pub”;
  • Draughts and Thirsty Meeples, among others, support a business model which intersects “board games” and “licensed cafe”;
  • Noughts and Coffees doesn’t have a fully developed web site, but has two locations, one of which is a straightforward board game cafe, and the other of which hosts escape games and also features a board game cafe, though currently only at the weekends.

Putting it all together, I’m envisioning something that isn’t a pub but is in fact a licensed cafe with board (and potentially, subject to appropriate soundproofing, digital) games very readily available, at least one escape game on the premises, at least a couple of regular quizzes, room enough to host interesting events like a Puzzled Pint and encouragement and sponsorship of game-themed clubs who want to meet there – chess, Scrabble and the like – and so on.

A licensed cafe would mean that there would be no minimum age restrictions on the participants, and it’s not unknown for cafes to host the types of event commonly known as pub quizzes. There’s also a cultural difference in that a bar (and, even more so, a pub) has a connotation of the function of the trip being repeated purchase of drinks, whereas a themed cafe has a connotation of the function of the trip being purchase of food and drinks, as well as participation in enjoyment of the theme – here, by playing games. Could you hang out at a cafe in good company for hours? Certainly so.

Could this survive and make money in the long term? Certainly it would need the right hand at the tiller, and that hand is not mine. Getting the atmosphere right would take some careful balance; the atmosphere would need to support playing games – quite possibly, people who are at the venue with quite different sorts of games in mind – and also support the continued existence of the venue as a cafe, selling enough food and drink (and paid-for gameplay, and games, and other ancillary products) in mind.

You’d also have to be very careful about whether the venue were to develop regulars or not, and what effect regulars might have on those who are attending and less familiar with what the world of games offers. This is a known and solved problem at board games cafes already, so I don’t consider it insurmountable. It would definitely need some deliberate welcoming policies to keep the atmosphere convivial and accessible to those who consider themselves more casual attendees. In my mind, I don’t want an exclusive Private Members’ Club – and, as much as I enjoy reading about the likes of San Francisco’s Jejune Institute (see also HuffPo and The Bold Italic; the cardhouse.com write-up is amazing), that’s not what I’m after either.

There’s also the potential that I could be falling for at least one or two of the Geek Social Fallacies – would people who regard themselves as gamers of one sort or another really want to share a space with gamers of a different sort? That might be trickier. I used to attend a games club which featured people playing minatures wargames, RPGs, trading card games and board games under the same roof – often, in the same large hall. I get the impression that that’s pretty rare. Adding more into the mix – escape games, quizzes, clubs for specific games – might only make things trickier. While there are plenty of examples of business models with the intersection of two different things, perhaps there’s good reason in practice why the limit seems to be two.

Lastly, what might be a good name for the whole thing? How I Met Your Mother got there first with a fictional bar called Puzzles

INSERT COIN

Generic arcade game graphicThere may be less distinguishing the world of escape rooms from the world of coin-operated arcade games than appears at first glance, at least if you can stretch to accepting partial manual operation of the games, and if you can consider notes to be fungible to lots and lots of coins. (Isn’t there at least one game that claims to be completely free of manual operation? The line there must surely be less distinct still.) It’s almost an application of the reverse of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. This thought was inspired by Tim Hunkin on running an amusement arcade, albeit one like no other.

Part of the reason that I feel happier blogging at Ex Exit Games than at Exit Games UK is that the number of UK games has gone remarkably quickly from 50 to 80 to 109 to a-hundred-and-I-dread-to-think. As it has done so, I feel less and less comfortable with any sort of viewpoint that could be taken as a recommendation without increasing – and already considerable – amounts of qualification that people plan to try to make their living from the industry. People still can, and still will, beat the odds, but the odds are increasingly not in your favour. (Seattle’s Puzzle Break‘s Nate Martin has a really good – and nuanced – take on the effect of competition between sites.) Every game that starts, struggles and folds is a disappointment from the player’s perspective, but a tragedy from the proprietor’s perspective.

About six months ago, I heard a cracking quote that has stuck with me. Naomi Alderman quoted her Mum on the excellent The Cultures podcast (episode 126-ish) saying words to the effect of “Almost nobody can make a full living just from making and selling their art, but almost anyone who wants to can make a life in and around the art form that they love.

Can escape rooms be art? Can escape rooms, like coin-operated games, be considered more-effectively-monetised-than-most forms of art? I’ll leave the distinction between art and craft, and where escape rooms might fit into the spectrum, to people who have a clue what the hell they’re on about concerning the topic. Not me!

Nevertheless, I wonder if there’s merit in considering creating and operating your own escape room to be, first and foremost, an artistic job? (The second half of the quote might refer to working on someone else’s escape room… or whatever escape-room-like game business might come to follow in the years to come.) What sorts of artistic jobs that have existed for decades, or longer, might offer lessons to proprietors of escape rooms?

GAME OVER

CONTINUE?

9

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.

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 escape.sg dives deeper into Namco and their Nazotomo Cafe games.

Following on from the latter, J at escape.sg 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 escape.sg 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!