Getting down to business

A few pieces of news arising:

1) Insider Media reports that “An AIM-listed investment vehicle has agreed a £12m reverse takeover for a live escape room business, with plans to bring the brand to the UK. Dorcaster has agreed to buy Experiential Ventures Ltd, the holding company of the Escape Hunt Group.” If you search for Experiential Ventures in the news, you can find other analysts’ viewpoints on the development; for instance, there is a slightly sourer opinion from Shares magazine.

I’m not sufficiently business-savvy to know the ins and outs of how the procedure works, and whether it’s all done and dusted and the cash-register bell is ringing or whether people are still relying on other people to supply money to make things happen. (If there is someone who can interpret, that would be very welcome.) I do like the thought of someone from the escape game industry Getting The Loot, though; while this deal might have arisen from what is, to some extent, an escape game franchise business, rather than an escape game business, I can’t imagine you could have a credible escape game franchise business without having had an escape game business first.

This site featured a couple of interviews from May 2014 and November 2014 with Escape Hunt principal Paul Bart. There’s more analysis to be done somewhere of this (and of business in general) down the line, but that day is not today; today is a champagne graphic day, as far as I’m concerned.

2) The much-missed Oubliette‘s Minkette kindly pointed to this thread on Twitter, in which Lee Shang Lun, also known as Harry, livetweeted (and translated) a talk given by Baptiste Cazes on escape room games at the Pompidou Centre. The thread is well worth reading.

3) Archimedes Inspiration‘s Kou Tseng is running the London Marathon a week on Saturday in support of Mind, the mental health charity, in an escape-themed padlock costume. You can donate directly to his fundraising effort. Alternatively, the site’s Facebook page states that “Book one of our games between now and 30th April and we will donate all the profits to Mind, an amazing charity that provides help and support to anyone experiencing an mental health problem.” Kudos! Immense kudos!

4) Shortly after that, the next UK escape room unconference will take place. “April’s UK Escape Room Unconference will be held at Summerhall in Edinburgh – a quirky and original venue close to Edinburgh Waverley train station and the bus station. The lovely peeps at LockedIn are running free sessions from noon on Monday to noon on Wednesday if you’re staying over, and on the evening of the event as well.” It starts at 10am on Tuesday 25th April; tickets are still available for under £34, including Eventbrite fee. Sadly I’ll be working the day shift and have to miss out this time, but some highly-regarded London types have suggested that the standard of games in Edinburgh is (almost entirely consistently) remarkably high, with the highest highlight at least matching anything England has to offer. A ringing endorsement, and these unconferences are always great days. Judging by the names on the Eventbrite, there’ll be easily enough brilliant people there that it’ll be worth your time and effort in terms of who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn, and not so many people as to overload the venue and become overwhelming.

5) A little further down the line is the next Up The Game conference on Tuesday 9th May at a remarkable abandoned prison venue in Breda in the Netherlands. Tickets are still available and won’t leave much change from €200, plus all the usual costs of travel to attend a conference, but the speaker line-up is stellar. I hadn’t realised quite how big the first Up The Game was – of the order of 500 attendees from 40 countries – and I’ll eagerly be awaiting news of this one from afar.

Also coming soon to London: GameCamp 9

GameCamp logoGood news! Hear ye, hear ye!

GameCamp will return for 2017! Tickets for GameCamp 9 are on sale now. ((…)) This will be the 9th London GameCamp Unconference, where we invite all doers, makers and thinkers from the broad community of “games” to gather into a freely organised series of talks, discussions and activities under the same roof for a day.

The secret ingredient is YOU; come along with a topic about which you’re personally passionate, write your session’s title on an index card and place it on the living schedule in a time slot and a room, then host the activity with your audience of fellow Unconference participants. Or spend the early parts of your day visiting other sessions and schedule your own when the inspiration strikes you! Other not-so-secret ingredients include lunch, a special giveaway, and after-hours drinks at a local pub.

The venue is London’s South Bank University, the time is 9:30am to 5:30pm (and then onwards), and the price is somewhere between £13 and £19 depending on how soon you book or whether you are eligible for a concessionary rate. Further details are available at the official site. I went to GameCamp 8 last year and had a corking time; indeed, I’m still kicking myself over missing one particular session whose existence I didn’t know about until too late. This year’s event has every reason to be at least as good and quite possibly better. So will I be going this year? Ah, well; there’s a bit of a problem.

The problem happens to be the date: Saturday 6th May. Not only is that one of the dates for Horses for Corpses, as discussed in the previous post, it also happens to be the date for a certain puzzle hunt called DASH 9. There are few events for which I would throw GameCamp over, but DASH is one of them. Pity, really, but there must be something exciting of some different sort or another on every single week and the organisers would never practically be able to find a perfect date, not least because they must work around their venue’s schedule.

Admittedly tickets for DASH are not currently available, which might make your decision easier, but do bear in mind the well-placed suggestion that further DASH tickets may well be made available closer to the time. Whether you go to the ninth DASH or the ninth GameCamp, I’d bet good money at short odds that you’ll have a whale of a time!

Live from the latest Unconference in London!

It’s the biggest unconference in the UK yet! The attendance number is to be confirmed but possibly around ninety. Certainly there is too much fun to contain on a single floor! We have four sessions today, each offering six different options to choose from:


H and S, legal matters

Design for unusual groups

Sourcing

In game Monitoring and clue giving

Sales and marketing tips

Venues

Bad competition and crisis plans

Designing great experiences

Finance: pricing and costs

In-game automation technology

General marketing: what games rooms are

Pop-ups

Insurance

Suppliers and Premade Rooms

Scaling Up

Booking systems

Social media

Non-room games
Copyright information
Cyber security

Franchises

Using client information

Cross Promotion

Future of the industry

An exciting, busy day! ((Edited to add:)) Sadly too exciting and busy for me and I have had to call it a day at lunchtime, but I look forward to hearing more about it for those who could stick around for the whole day.

New year, new unconference

"The Steam Room" at Drink, Shop and Do in London2016 has undoubtedly been a spectacular year for escape games, but it has been such a bad year in terms of the way has gone that I’m looking forward to 2017 already. There’s something very specific to look forward to at the start of 2017.

Start 2017 with a fantastic meetup with like-minded Escape Room owners and enthusiasts. Your lunch and welcome and wrap-up drinks are included. In a gorgeous themed bar just five minutes from Kings Cross we can host up to 70 folks for the latest in our series of escape game unconferences. We will then segue neatly into Happy Hour (which goes on for three hours here, apparently)

The fourth UK escape game unconference, and the second in London, will take place on Tuesday 10th January 2017, at The Steam Room bar within Drink, Shop and Do, which legitimately is about five minutes’ walk from King’s Cross station. (Depends which exit you use; two minutes from the closest exit, seven or eight from the furthest one.) It’s just down the road from ClueQuest, Omescape and doubtless others. It’s also quite an interesting area in its own right, but more of that another day.

Tickets are now on sale. If you book very, very soon (by the end of October?) then there are still a very small number of tickets available for £28 + booking fee, representing a 20% cut on the standard charge of £35 + booking fee. That’s not a trivial sum, but as well as excellent company and incisive discussion that you’re not going to get elsewhere, the sum pays for lunch and drinks. (Take a look at the Drink, Shop and Do web site; the sum pays for pretty pricy lunch and drinks.) If you’re interested enough in the genre to be reading this, you’d very probably have a whale of a time, whether you’re a player or a professional. Take a look at posts about the first three unconferences to get a sense of what to expect.

The other interesting thing about Tuesday 10th January is that it’s the second Tuesday of the month, so it will be a Puzzled Pint night as well, once the unconference has finished. If you’re come from afar for the unconference, why not make a full day of it in London, and see what Puzzled Pint is about as well?

Instant reaction from the Unconference in Leeds today

Photo by James Curtis

Photo posted to Twitter by James Curtis

I very much enjoyed my time at the latest “The Great Escape UK” Unconference in Leeds today. There were about 27 attendees by the end of the day; I enjoyed catching up with some from previous events and just as much enjoyed meeting others for the first time, some of whom had been on my “it’d be nice to meet some day” list for quite a while. The venue was Dock 29 in the Leeds Dock area, which looks very smart; while there is a water taxi giving free rides from (very near) the train station, there isn’t a good system for letting people know when the water taxi isn’t running, and sadly this contributed towards me only being able to attend the last four and a bit hours or so. (Unconferences are a little stranger when you can’t attend the planning-on-the-day stage at the beginning… though I probably could have stuck a session note onto the board if there was something burning that I had wanted to discuss.) Jason Stroud of Thinking Outside The Box was the only known person to travel from the UK to Chicago for the Room Escape Conference last month and I was disappointed to miss him presenting his findings; the rest of us will have to settle for this review video.

I believe that organiser Liz Cable will be putting together a more formal description of the sessions at some point, as well as co-ordinating the collation of the notes that people took. After a buffet spread that looked as good as it tasted, Liz took eight or nine of us around her Code-X pop-up game, a few doors down, that sadly has to close on Sunday 18th and clear out shortly after. The aesthetic is distinctive and likely very effective, and there are as many surprises as you’d hope for. A tour can never match up to playing the game for real, but this did look like a treat.

In the afternoon, there was a session on potential for interaction between escape rooms and academia; without wanting to get too “one weird trick” about it, there do seem to be revenue streams that might be able to be tapped by escape room creators who can reframe the advantages of what they offer in ways that universities will want to hear, far aside from the obvious one of having students coming and playing your regular open-to-the-public game. There was also a fascinating session comparing academic models proposed over the years for game players’ motivations, discussing the extent to which they may or may not apply, and giving practical applications of the most promising-looking of these models to the escape room context. Escape game web sites often tend to promote their offerings in fairly similar fashions, which may be relatively generic when something more tailored to differently motivated groups of players may speak more directly to them.

Past unconferences have often generated a spirit of “sure, it would be great to work together!” which has not generated practical activity. The end of the day had some attempts to be slightly more concrete about initiatives which seem to have common purpose: a smarter approach to insurance (are some people paying too much? Do companies’ insurance policies really cover you?) as well as potential to investigate group buying where it makes sense, and places where the industry as a whole might promote itself more usefully than individual brands doing so.

Exciting times! Lots to think about; many thanks to Liz and the attendees for putting the day together. The next unconference will be on Tuesday 10th January 2017 at The Steam Room, part of “Drink, Shop and Do” near King’s Cross Station in London; it too should be a treat and booking is already open. Being the second Tuesday of the month, of course, that will be a Puzzled Pint night, so don’t forget about one really good, relevant opportunity to socialise afterwards!

Unconferences past and future

unconferenceJust quickly:

The second “The Great Escape UK” unconference took place in London on April 25th. People took notes from many of the sessions at the time. A few sessions remain unscribed and attempts to chase the sessions’ scribes have proved fruitless. However, as something is much better than nothing, please enjoy the notes that have survived from most of the sessions; if you are in a position to add to them, please do so.

The third “The Great Escape UK” conference will take place in Leeds on September 6th, also known as next Tuesday; specifically, it will take place at Dock 29 between 11am and 7pm. Take a look at previous unconference coverage on this site to see whether it sounds like your cup of tea; if so, book your ticket now. You’ll need to pay for your ticket at the time of booking because (a) booking includes lunch and (b) there were many people who booked free tickets and didn’t turn up last time, so there were plenty of other people on the waiting list who wanted to go but couldn’t.

This third meet-up for the UK Escape Room Industry welcomes anyone involved in running, designing, or creating Escape Room Games in the UK, or associated industries. We also welcome keen players, as long as they promise not to rip out the fixtures and fittings in search of clues. We also allow suppliers to attend in the spirit of sharing not selling. ((…))

Our quarterly Unconference returns to Leeds. Everyone can propose a session on the day, on anything they like, people signup for whatever tickles their fancy, then the agenda is decided as we go along. ((…))

Some offerings include a report back from the first Chicago Escape Room Conference, and an offering (from me) on Curiosity and Player Motivation and how it impacts Room Design – a summary of a week-long symposium on Game Design at Utrecht University (actually more fun than it sounds).

Unrelatedly, but still excitingly, on the day after the London unconference, 32 escape room owners, staff and players visited the The Crystal Maze attraction in London. Yesterday The Sun suggested (and, today, reports have reached as far as the BBC) that there will be a one-off revival of the show on Channel 4 for their Stand Up To Cancer night on October 21st. There won’t be a full-scale maze made for a single show; Buzzfeed report that the event will be filmed at the attraction in London. This is an extremely spectacular setting for an event you’ve paid tens of pounds to play in person and a somewhat unspectacular setting for a TV show featuring a team of celebrities. We shall see, and hope that it proves a prelude to a full-scale, big-budget soup-to-nuts revival of the series at a later date.

“This one time at GameCamp…”: a grand day at GameCamp 8

GameCamp logoAs previously discussed, today saw the eighth almost-annual GameCamp in London, at a campus of South Bank University near Elephant and Castle. The day saw something like 200 or 300 attendees enjoying an ad-hoc programme between 10am and 5pm (and an afterparty in the pub…) with people offering talks and activities on the half-hour, along with an extensive board game library and digital game demonstration lounge and occasional social games in the hallways. There were plenty of very knowledgeable, smart people there and an awful lot of fun ideas.

I enjoyed the event not only as a random attendee but also as a student of unconferences, having had only the Leeds edition (as an attendee) and the London edition (as facilitator) of The Great Escape UK. In truth, I had rather a shy day. The night beforehand I had grandiose plans for running a chocolate-tasting game with a box of tiny Green and Black’s flavoured chocolate bars, but (a) the bars are so small that the game wouldn’t have been fair and (b) the chocolate was out of date and some way past its best. (Maybe next year, though, with more preparation and more chocolate; in context, it would have fit in quite well.) I had also thought about trying to run sessions about puzzle adventures outside locked rooms or The Genius (or, more generically, “proper games on game shows”…) but it quickly became clear that the standards were so high – session attendances varying from approaching ten to more than fifty – that I wouldn’t have been able to busk the sessions. Again, maybe next year, with proper preparation.

What I did do, though, was play one published board game (Mr. Jack, a two-player detective-vs.-Jack-the-Ripper deductive chase game… not bad, though needs more than one play for each player to get the hang of the strategy), a late-stage prototype board game (very mechanically satisfying, sort of an inside-out version of one of my favourite early Reiner Knizia games), a late-stage prototype of Fabulous Beasts (which compared very favourably to the early playtest version I enjoyed in mid-February 2015) and a handful of prototype social games: a very simple, silly card/dice game that didn’t outstay its welcome, a real-time play-via-SMS negotiation game (cute medium, well worth exploring) and the mighty, silly, playful, rule-changing Cat On Yer Head mob party game. Half an hour of each was the exactly correct bite size. I also attended a number of talks, more of which than I had expected having a common theme of mental health. (This development is to be applauded; the more talking about mental health that happens, the better.)

The talk I most enjoyed was Oubliette‘s Mink ette on Designing Escape Games. This had a few dozen attendees. Adrian Hon had spoken on the genre at GameCamp 7, two years back, as mentioned at the time, and the audience (heavy on game developers, but game developers in many media) were much more up-to-speed now than they were then. Mink had given a talk at Strange Tales to an audience who were focused on narrative; this talk – completely off the cuff – was much more development-focused, and hit the mark completely with the audience.

As this is Ex Exit Games rather than neutral old Exit Games, I can say that Mink absolutely nailed it; I had a huge smile on my face for 26 minutes, and a covered mouth and furrowed brow for the other two. By the same token, I am of the opinion that Mink’s breadth of multimedia storytelling game experiences means that she gets it much more than most – she has a variety of perspectives, approaches and understanding of the modern story game aesthetic that I have heard infrequently elsewhere. Here’s a slightly silly analogy based more on feeling than anything else, but with at least a grain of truth behind it: Punchdrunk is to Myst as Time Run is to Monkey Island as Oubliette is to Gone Home; all great, in different ways. As discussed, Oubliette won’t be around for long in its current form. It would be a terrible shame to lose Mink’s experiences and vision from the world of escape rooms (yes, this is pretty much a direct HIRE MINK, SHE’S GREAT plug) but, if it happens, we can be sure that something not very far away will gain instead.

Another interesting session was a crowdsourced instant awards show: a very simple, elegant, effective design for a facilitator and at least a couple of dozen players. The protocol is simple:

  1. a player suggests an award category;
  2. other players can make nominations for the category, offering brief reasoning in favour;
  3. after each nomination, anybody can briefly rebut it;
  4. once the flow of nominations dries up, there’s a vote among the players (today using Approval voting) to determine which nomination wins the category.

I suggested the GameCamp 8 award for GameCamp 10’s “That’s so GameCamp 9”, which I should have more neatly called this year’s next year’s last year’s thing, and which was not unreasonably elided to “flashes in the pan”. VR games were nominated first and much discussed. The fourth nomination – obviously not by me – was that of live-action escape games, described in some most unparliamentary language. Oddly enough, I rebutted the nomination, to a decorous round of applause from the nominator; when it came to the voting for the award, VR games won, but escape games did come a pretty close second. On balance, I don’t mind the nomination at all; one of the ways you know your genre has made it is when there’s a backlash against it.

If there’s a negative criticism to the day – and this, I fear, is one where the committee had worked long and hard on the practicalities – it’s that the lunch was merely serviceable (and I’ve juggled a few alternative adjectives here) with three thin slices of very moderate pizza and a merely competent salad, when previous GameCamps have had the communally broken bread as a highlight. Plus points for free water, minus points for no dessert. I nearly said in the debriefing session that “I’d have paid a higher entry fee for the budget to cover a lunch that included dessert” – but, when I went to the café afterwards and looked at the prices charged for dessert there, I internally said how much? and bought a cheap banana instead. That position of mine is not quite inconsistent, but it’s certainly incongruous. (That said, I nearly bought a cake just for the purposes of taking it to a session taking place in a room that had been renamed Cake for the day, but decided it a gag not quite worth the money.)

Many thanks to the committee for all their hard work, to the overseers of the board game library and to all those who contributed, either by leading a session or just by contributing to one. (Playing games definitely counts here.) It was lovely to see people from both Puzzled Pint and from the London The Great Escape UK unconference – no name checks, but you know who you are. (It’s also great to start to bump into people more and more frequently; that’s how you make friendships!) It was also lovely to get something that had been weighing on my mind somewhat out into the open, and it was received as well as I could have hoped.

The unexpected conclusion that I came away with from the unconference is that it was absolutely the right decision for me to move from Exit Games UK to Ex Exit Games. Just as well, really!

“The Great Escape UK” unconference in London today

"The Great Escape" unconference in LondonIn London today, the second The Great Escape UK unconference for exit game owners and enthusiasts took place at the Pavilion End pub. Though I do say so myself, I reckon it went pretty well.

The schedule started with an icebreaker and a panel where six attendees at the recent Up the Game conference in Amsterdam shared their highlights; the main body of the day had four rounds of discussions, each featuring four parallel discussions on topics devised by the audience. The photo above was taken between the third and fourth round of topics. There are just over forty faces on the picture above, and there were other people out of shot (getting drinks, using the facilities and so on) which feels about right.

The topics were as follows:

CROSS PROMOTION: collaboration, referral, team-ups, sharing resources and suppliers NARRATIVE AND WORLD BUILDING: making hints part of the narrative HIGH-LEVEL GAMES DESIGN: picking a number of players, linear and multilinear designs STAFF PLANNING AND RECRUITMENT
CORPORATE SALES: can small sites make them? Can big (20+ player) games work in the UK? MAKING ESCAPE GAMES A “SHOW” TECHNOLOGY IN ESCAPE GAMES: platforms, electricals, mechanics WHAT CAN THE COUNCILS DO FOR US?: planning and set-up challenges
MARKETING: when? Where? How? Social media, local ads and voucher sites MAKING LOSING FUN: what’s a good success rate? How do you balance a game? LIVE ACTORS IN ROOMS GAMES DESIGNED FOR TEAMS OF KIDS
LEGAL ISSUES FOR UK ESCAPE GAMES: health, safety and risk management TRANSITIONS: closing, selling, moving or expanding your escape room.
Also: Animal Facts.
HI-TECH VS. NO-TECH: rooms and puzzles without padlocks and combination locks GAME THEMES

Thank you very much to James, Ken, Jackie and Mark, to Liz Cable who ran the first such unconference in the UK, to the staff of the Pavilion End pub and to all the guests who came up and supplied their expertise. More details of the talks will be made available as soon as possible.

Apologies to people who wanted to go and couldn’t attend; despite a reasonably high no-show rate, the room was pretty cosy as it was. Keep your eyes peeled for the next event, likely to be back towards the north of England, probably in another three months or so; the UK Escape Room Owners will be one source of information and the blogs will surely be another.

A little mid-April news

Rolled-up newspaperVery little, but more than none.

After yesterday’s post and a few nudges, the remaining tickets for the exit game unconference in London in a week and a half’s time have all gone. A waiting list has been opened and that’s already filling up quickly as well. If you have a ticket and end up not being able to attend, please cancel so that it’s possible to invite someone on the waiting list who really can make it. Thank you!

Further down the line, the eighth nearly-annual edition of Gamecamp on Saturday May 21st in London has started selling tickets. This too has an unconference, themed around games of all sorts and in all media, but “As well as talks and workshops, GameCamp has a lot else going on. The ‘Run What You Brung’ playtest/demo area is open for anyone with a prototype game to show off. There will be live games of all sorts kicking off around the venue throughout the day, and a library of board-games for anyone to use. Plus lots more to be announced before the event. Keep checking the website!

If you’re disappointed about not getting tickets to the exit game unconference this month then, honestly, this is likely to be better; on the other hand, (a) they’re bigger, (b) they’ve been doing this rather longer and (c) they aren’t specifically about exit games. (That said, Adrian Hon gave a talk about exit games at GameCamp two years ago, back in the days when there were only a double handful of them around.) Take a look at the Gamecamp site for details of the crazy stunts they’ve been able to pull in the past. They’re very good at this. Tickets are limited, but two more batches will go on sale at a higher price in coming weeks.

Lastly, Mark at Really Fun has started a podcast about exit games called Escape From Reality; the first episode was posted a few hours back. Guest starring Ken from The Logic Escapes Me, they provide a highly enjoyable half-hour-plus of listening. Hurrah!

Upcoming Unconferences

The Great Escape UK topic board

There will be an unconference about exit games and related topics happening in London on the afternoon of Monday 25th April. It’s a sequel to the one in Leeds in January, with further quarterly-ish editions around the country (and maybe beyond, some day?) to follow.

You might have seen the announcement already. This site hasn’t talked about it because only now have the details been absolutely finalised. Some people have registered already only knowing that it’s in central London on Monday 25th April. Those haven’t changed. Other changes have been forced.

The venue has had to be changed. The event now has a basement bar to itself in a lovely pub. (It’s a past Puzzled Pint pub, so it’s easy to vouch for the pub, its staff and its food.)

The time has had to be changed. The event will be happening from 1:30pm to 6:30pm, because the room is only available for certain hours.

The number of places has had to be changed. There is a limit, but it’s rather higher than the limit was in Leeds. (Again, because it’s a past Puzzled Pint pub, it’s clear how many people can fit in in practice, as well as in theory.)

The organisers have had to be changed. The event volunteer team is, well, most of the UK exit game blogging community: Jackie from Exit Games Scotland, Ken from The Logic Escapes Me, Mark from Really Fun and me.

The price has had to be changed…. downwards. A hat will still be passed, and there’ll be a request for a voluntary contribution to pay for the venue and associated costs. What this will be will depend on how many people turn up (if people buy food and/or drinks from our private downstairs bar then this will help considerably) but it’s now possible to put an upper limit of £14 per person on it.

Considering the number of tickets that have gone already, the limited number of tickets may well be reached, in which case there’ll have to be a waiting list. If this sounds like your cup of tea, please register as soon as you can. Site operators and staff are very welcome. People who want to get into the industry are very welcome; there will be few better opportunities to get the chance to pick the brains of many different site operators at the same time. Players who just want the chance to talk all afternoon in good company about these games of ours are also very, very welcome!

The event is on a Monday, mostly because it’s traditionally the quietest day of the week for the industry. Whether you can make it or not, the more general Gamecamp has said that it’ll be running on Saturday 21st May this year, after a year off. That should be spectacular, too!