Ten Lessons for Escape Rooms as event activities
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
To be honest many conventions, introduction sessions at work or uni, keynotes etc. are very old-fashioned experiences. One or two people talking and the vast majority of people just silently watching. There is often no real advantage from being physically present over watching a live-stream online. It is a huge lost opportunity, as being together with a large group of like-minded people allows for memorable moments of playful interaction. One of the things you can do with your audience is turning the entire event into one large Escape Room. But if you have experience with making regular Escape Rooms you might underestimate some of the challenges that are unique to this kind of experience. Here is a list of our most important lessons for designing Escape Games for large groups at events.
1. Be intentional in your design
What is the intention of your experience? Do you want to get people to engage with the theme of the event? Do you want them to feel like one big team? Do you want them to roll up their sleeves, form a team with their neighbors and out-compete other teams? Do you want them to fail? Do you want them to succeed?
It is important to answer all those questions as they will guide your design. The event you are designing for will almost certainly have a higher purpose than just entertaining people, so make sure your game ultimately serves this purpose as well.
2. Logistics Logistics Logistics and... Logistics!
The more you want to scale your experience, the more important the logistics associated with each element becomes. Every little step in your production can potentially result in hours of work if you don't think beforehand what its ramifications are. Just something as simple as designing an unusual shape which the printing house cannot fully produce can result in a huge amount of manual labor if you have to make it by hand for hundreds of people. Consider the production times of large amounts and when you want to buy props, make sure that the shop has those quantities available. Many online shops will show you available products but don’t have hundreds of them in stock so it increases shipping time. If you need to perform actions at the event, even small things like spreading envelopes among the guests, you need to make sure you have enough people to help with this, as those seemingly marginal things can eat up a lot of time at the actual event.
In summary, think about every step of the production and think how it changes if you multiply it by the number of players.
3. Try to get to know as much as possible about the location
The location will be a key factor determining the constraints of the experience. Is everyone seated in an auditorium? Do people have access to tables? Are there windows in the room? Are there multiple entrances? Is there a sound system available? Are you allowed to hang things on the wall? Are there certain restrictions due to fire-safety? All those factors can ruin your game if you do not take them into consideration when you create your design.
4. Try to be as independent as possible from the location
Even if you think you know everything about the location, restrain yourself from trying to use your environment too much. We know that some of the coolest interactions come from engaging with the environment, but this is also one of the factors that you usually have the least control over. For the organization of the event your game is likely not the most important concern, so if they need to change things they might not understand that those details can have a big effect your design. Unexpected changes do often occur and if you don’t have full control over the room, it might be better to play it safe and reduce your risk by not relying on elements that might not be available due to last minute changes of the organization.
Especially one-time events need extensive play-testing. Test as early as possible and as much as you can. Each change in your design might have unexpected ripple effects when scaled up. In a regular Escape Room you have much more chances to actively influence the game flow and the experience of your group than if you have hundreds of players at the same time. If you have enough players, every little flaw will effect some of them and quickly small mistakes can become big problems.
6. Have a backup plan
It is impossible to predict how every element of your game will play out. The more agency you give the players, the more unpredictable the outcome gets. It will be your job to make sure this stays in the realm of what is acceptable. While in a regular escape room you see a big variability in skill level and engagement of the players, on a large scale this will be even more obvious. Some people will rush through the game easily while for others it is an insurmountable challenge. With the scaling of the game you also scale the range of outcomes and the differences between them.
So look at your game and think about which are the most challenging puzzles, in terms of difficulty or in terms of production. Which puzzles use the most elements, which require tech, sounds etc. Make back-up plans for those puzzles and interactions in case the circumstances change.
7. Don’t ignore the hint mechanic
Maybe you are designing a game where not everyone needs to succeed. Maybe it is a competitive event where some teams will shine and others will be crushed. In this system it is tempting to think that a hint system is not necessary. Anyway, whatever you do, make sure you still have a hint system in place. This system is your main tool to influence the flow and optimize everyone’s experience at the event. Not everyone needs to be able to solve all puzzles, but still nobody enjoys being stuck on a puzzle for too long.
8. Properly script the beginning
The beginning and the ending are some of the most important moments of each experience and these are also the moments where you are most in control. Especially for a big group it is even more important that your instructions are crystal clear as you usually don’t get a second shot at explaining what your game is all about. So make sure that whatever you have in mind is accessible enough so that people will understand it easily. Just think back on how often the teacher at school gave everyone an assignment and the first thing that happened afterwards was that half the people turned to their neighbor and asked “what is it again that we have to do?”. To avoid this make sure you grab the attention of your players while giving instructions. For instance you could surprise your players to get their attention with an outlandish character or music & light effects and give them clear instructions about what they have to do after all eyes are where you want them.
9. Properly script the ending
When you design an experience, it is very easy to start with the beginning. It is a lot of fun to set up a compelling mystery or to create tension, but it is much more difficult to resolve it in a satisfying manner. The ending is usually one of the most memorable moments of every experience, so it needs to be satisfying even for those who did not complete all the puzzles. On top of this the ending needs to be aligned with the intention that you had in mind when you created the experience (see point 1). The feelings that you evoke during the ending will stay with the people and can influence how they react to everything that will happen afterwards. Do you want to leave them with an interesting question? Do you want to send them celebrating? Whatever you do, make sure you provide people closure by properly ending the experience. For example, even if it does not fit the scenario, make sure you give room for them to give applause. Applause is not (just) for your ego, applause is also an important collective ritual to express themselves and a valve to relieve the tension that you set up at the beginning.
10. The misunderstanding about immersion
Many people talk about immersion as set-design, music, lights and isolation from normal life all coming out of game elements. While this helps players to immerse into the scenario, it is not necessary for them to be immersed into the game. People get immersed into a game of chess or get immersed into a game of cards, even though there is very little audio-visual design. Immersion is also created when the puzzles are intuitive, the challenges are on the right level of difficulty and the game has a good flow. People will lose themselves in the activity and immerse themselves into the tasks at hand. On some events, this might be much more the kind of immersion that you are aiming for as often you don’t have many options to influence how the environment looks.
If you have further questions or points to discuss, feel free to comment and or contact us.