design

Nate Martin's Escape Room Pet Peeves

I’m frequently asked for escape room design decisions that I think are bad. I almost always dodge the question for two very important reasons:

  1. As a known entity in the industry, I’ve more than once made the mistake of voicing my own opinion without properly caveating it. This has had outsized consequences, and it’s generally better to keep my mouth shut. Life pro tip for everyone.

  2. Critically, liking something doesn’t make it good. Not liking it doesn’t make it bad. In all creative mediums, it is extraordinarily tricky to properly label criticisms (positive and negative) of designs made by creators. Two examples from recent films: I loved Bad Times at the El Royale, but recognize it had several elements that wouldn’t land with many audiences. I absolutely hated The Post. I normally love political thrillers, it was nominated for 6 Golden Globes, made several best-of-the-year critics lists. Good? Bad? These are subjective terms.

Now, that said, there’s plenty of escape room design decisions that I don’t like. Or even hate. As a player. It’s important to distinguish that these are simply not-my-thing. There’s surprisingly few designs that can be objectively labeled.

Nate’s Personal List of Escape Room Oh No No’s, Part 1

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

  • Permanent low lighting. Not to be confused with complete darkness, ambient lighting, or temporary-we-get-the-lights-up-later scenarios. My vision isn’t perfect, and I do not respond well to artificially inflating the challenge of a game by making things harder to see. It’s (often, but not always) lazy design, and frequently used to mask less-than-perfect production design.

  • Unlabeled Lock Orgies

  • Getting blindfolded/hooded before entering a room. I don’t have too strong a beef with this, but I also think it adds little to the immersion of an experience. Importantly, the teammates I most frequently play with have severe issues with improperly disinfected items coming into contact with their mouth and face. How often do they wash these things, we’re left to wonder.

  • Inattentive Game Masters. Not strictly a design decision, but an exacerbating factor. If an escape room design requires precise hinting (not necessarily a bad thing at all), an inattentive/inexperienced GM can immediately sink the experience.

  • Multiple color puzzles. I’m color blind. I cannot do most color puzzles. This is fine, my teammates can see color just fine and I can often find other things to work on during a color puzzle solve. However, if puzzle after puzzle after puzzle contains color elements, the experience is dead to me.

  • Red herrings. Ugh.

Also ruin things.

Also ruin things.

 

Stay tuned for parts 2 – N!

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

Puzzle Break at Sundance

Last month I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to travel from Seattle and speak at the Sundance Film Festival. Pepsi’s Creator group had a presence at Sundance and put together a panel titled “Storytelling for the Experience Generation”. Their mission is to explore the edges of culture and co-create innovative experiences across the cultural landscape. Escape Rooms tell their stories in very innovative and unfamiliar ways, and as the co-founder of the first American Escape Room company I was really excited to introduce these concepts to an audience of traditional filmmakers. Also on the panel were Jon Braver of Delusion, Nicholas Cooper of Victory Hills Entertainment, Michael Cruz of Skybound Entertainment, and moderator Kamal Sinclair of New Frontier.

Thanks to The Great Company for putting everything together!

Thanks to The Great Company for putting everything together!

We covered many topics throughout the panel. Some of the finer details from our discussion can be read on The Verge and Deseret News. Representing and encapsulating the storytelling of escape rooms was very challenging. Those who have played more than a handful of experiences know there’s no monolithic method to telling a story in the medium. However, there are some nearly-universal characteristics to storytelling in Escape Rooms, and they’re very different than telling a story in a traditional film. Below are some of the themes I touched upon.

Each and every player will experience the story in an escape room in a different way. We've seen this hundreds of thousands of times at Puzzle Break, and it is arguably the single biggest consideration when crafting a story to tell in an Escape Room. Not every player will read every written word. Players will experience different parts of the game at different times (or sometimes not at all). Players will have dramatically different expectations and sensibilities when it comes to story. The list goes on and on.

The most common “bad” implementation of story I routinely see in Escape Rooms: trying to do way too much in a one-size-fits-all delivery. Players are clobbered over the head with pre-written narrative. It gets in the way of the gameplay. Different types of players will experience the story at dramatically different levels of quality. Frequently, players will be forced to read lengthy & dry story bits in the middle of an otherwise cutting-edge interactive experience. It’s the functional equivalent of having to interrupt a supersonic jet flight to hand-crank the engine. I've sad it before and I'll say it again: "Poorly done story in an escape room is almost always worse than no story."

The title of the panel was no accident. Experiential storytelling is going to change everything.

The title of the panel was no accident. Experiential storytelling is going to change everything.

It is vitally important for designers and writers to think about “story” in an experiential way. When I discuss this to an audience, I like to talk about the game “Ultimate Werewolf”. For those unfamiliar: Werewolf is a party game where players are given roles. Some players are werewolves, others are villagers. The villagers must try to suss out who’s a werewolf. The werewolves must redirect suspicion onto innocent villagers and secretly kill villagers at night. That’s the entire pre-written story. BUT, Werewolf has some of the best stories you’ll find in any experience anywhere. The reason? Players craft the stories themselves inside a minimalist framework engineered by a careful and thoughtful designer. Each werewolf game is unique and contains moments the players will never forget.

“Remember when you were CONVINCED I was a werewolf and then….”

“OH MAN I can’t believe we got so lucky when we…”

"UGH I made such a huge mistake and you totally capitalized on it completely by accident!"

There’s absolutely room for more traditional storytelling inside of an Escape Room experience, but I posit that the games with the best stories will always contain heavy narrative elements fueled by player-interaction. This is one of the bedrocks of all Puzzle Break game designs.

Can you find me in this picture?

Can you find me in this picture?

Outside of the panel discussion, the highlight (and lowlight) of my trip came at a party at the end of the evening. Too late, I realized I was at a party with Bill Pullman. By the time I thought to awkwardly ask him for a photo and talk about Zero Effect (a wonderful mystery film from the 90s seen by about 17 people), he had already left. I hope to go again next year to both talk about interactive storytelling and do a better job mingling with the beautiful people.

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

The Best Escape Room in the World

I've got a confession to make: You won't find the best escape room in the world at any Puzzle Break location. Where is it, you ask? Good question, but first:

What is the best movie ever made? The best game? What's the best book ever written? The best painting ever painted? Unfortunately for Top X Lists everywhere, these things do not exist. The reason is subjectivity. Movies, games, books, works from all creative mediums, have subjective choices made to appeal to different types of audiences. From big decisions like genre (romance, action, horror, etc.) all the way down to cosmetic word/dialogue choices with a gorillion* variables in between.

*Pictured: 1 Gorillion Dollars

*Pictured: 1 Gorillion Dollars

Because of the enormous inherent subjectivity, identifying an objective best work is functionally impossible. Any critic/reviewer of a creative medium who would argue there's an objectively single best piece is either being tongue-in-cheek, dishonest, or has a fundamental misunderstanding of subjectivity.

Which brings me to the nascent world of escape room reviewing. As of this writing, there's well over 5000 escape rooms in at least 90 countries, and we're beginning to see some intrepid folks formally reviewing room escapes on dedicated sites/blogs. Many of these are excellent resources containing tremendously valuable insights with a vitally important awareness of subjectivity. 

Perhaps my favorite example of subjective-preference-sensitivity is the format of the reviews at Room Escape Artist. At REA, there isn't an objective scoring system. Instead, they analyze subjective design choices in the context of the experience. Each review ends with a "Should I play [this game]?" section outlining the types of players who will love/hate the game. As a player, I love puzzle-heavy experiences, hate horror experiences, I'm not a fan of interacting with an in-fiction actor, and I loathe low-light situations, etc etc etc. The best game in the world to me might be the world's most awful experience to someone else, and vice versa.

There's an unfortunate (and frankly dangerous) trend among some less experienced reviewers where subjectivity is ignored. Variables are not controlled for. Consider an unfortunate book critic who only likes young adult horror romance comedy, ideally with sexy vampires. Further, they don't grok the concept of "different strokes for different folks". Ulysses? D-. Slaughterhouse 5? D+. Twilight? The best book ever written.

For the record, I'm on Team Count

For the record, I'm on Team Count

So, where can you find the best escape room in the world? I'm afraid it doesn't exist. But all is not lost! Looking for an escape room recommendation? Don't ask reviewers/critics/friends/strangers-on-the-bus for "best". Instead, ask "What's your favorite?" or "What would you recommend for someone like me?" And if they respond with Puzzle Break, I bet they have excellent taste.

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

Generation X: A Study in Room Escape Taxonomy.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of sitting on the “Future of the Escape Room Industry” panel discussion at the first Chicago Room Escape Conference. The panel was moderated by Shawn Fishstein of Escape Games Canada, who gave an important interview with Room Escape Artist that I will be referencing at the end of this post.

Bill I swear if I see another 1960s tape drive puzzle I'm going to lose it. 

Bill I swear if I see another 1960s tape drive puzzle I'm going to lose it. 

One of the first questions of the panel asked us to define the “generations” of rooms. I.e. What makes a generation 1 room versus a generation 2 room versus a generation 3 room versus… etc.

As a thought leader (Puzzle Break is the first contemporary American room escape company), I have an enormously strong opinion on this, and I accordingly lept on the microphone and launched into my tirade, which I will paraphrase for you now:

For the most part, trying to apply any generational classification to room escape experiences is an exercise in futility and nonsense. Further, anyone who claims authoritatively to have a definition for Gen3+ is a bit of a charlatan and they are not to be trusted.

My argument for this is simple, and boils down to three fundamental points:

  1. Having a universally accepted taxonomy for generation classifications requires meaningful consensus. Put differently: A large majority of experts must agree on definitions. And we don’t have this. Ask 25 room escape experts to define a Generation 4 room and you’re going to get 25 different responses.
  2. Meaningful & useful taxonomy must have objective definitions. How do you classify an experience with 37 rudimentary technology pieces versus an experience with 1 bleeding edge technology piece? How can we even define “technology”, let alone “rudimentary” or “bleeding edge?” The amount of subjectivity here is staggering, and until it can be fully wrangled, there can be no objective definitions.
  3. The contemporary room escape industry is less than 4(ish) years old. The idea that we’re already seeing “Generation 4” rooms is nonsense. Where are we going to be in 2020? 2025? “Oh I won’t go to any room under generation 17, it’s 18 and up for me thanks.” Of course not.

Related problems: Does “generation” speak strictly to technology? What about story? Fit & finish? Flow? Can there be a universal nomenclature controlling for all these parameters? I think not.

Much content defies classification. Also logic.

Much content defies classification. Also logic.

Now, a couple points of order:

I do think we have a pretty universal consensus and objective definition of a “Gen1” room. These are rooms with little/no technology, little in the way of story, and generally pretty low polish. It is only once we go beyond Gen1 that we reach murky waters. IMPORTANT: This is no commentary on the quality of the experience. Some of the most entertaining room escapes out there are firmly Gen1.

Back to the CREC panel discussion. After going on a tirade railing against generation definitions, Shawn took the mic and explained his positions in the Room Escape Artist post. You see, Shawn sells technology solutions to room escape companies. For his business, it is vitally important his clients are able to troubleshoot and maintain their purchases. And to that end, it was useful to create a classification system for his business to ensure folks were buying to the right level of technology. This is totally righteous. Unfortunately, the industry at large took those definitions out of context and a monster was born.

In sum, we’ve got Gen1 rooms, we’ve got rooms beyond Gen1, and spending mental cycles trying to firmly and meaningfully classify experiences beyond that isn’t possible at this stage.

 

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

I love locks.

I love locks.

There’s a war going on. It’s mostly invisible, the stakes aren’t high, the combatants are few, but that doesn’t matter! Today I will discuss my allegiance to an increasingly maligned core component of the room escape revolution.

Room escapes are evolving very quickly. When the industry began a few short years ago, the highest technology you might find in a cutting edge room was a laser pointer. Now, we’re seeing all sorts of advanced gadgetry and Hollywood-caliber set design from some of the larger players in the industry. Not all of this advancement is good or necessary, as I wrote in a previous blog post, but the general trend is, in my opinion, a very positive one for players.

Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon contains multiple locks.

Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon contains multiple locks.

An unfortunate side effect of the industry’s rapid growth in popularity and complexity is the rise of what I call the “Enthusiast Echo Chamber”. There are a handful of folks out there who:

  • Love room escapes, likely having experienced dozens and dozens.
  • Have extremely strong opinions about design as it pertains to them only.
  • Are unaware of the existence, or even the possibility of the existence of opinions/perspectives that aren’t their own, particularly those of completely new players.

For lack of a better term, I will label these folks “Comicbook-guy-enthusiasts” or CGEs. I want to be very clear that this group is hardly representative of the otherwise awesome core group of room escape superfans (without whom this industry wouldn’t exist), only a small subset.

 

Fun fact: Comic Book Guy's real name is "Jeffrey Albertson"

Fun fact: Comic Book Guy's real name is "Jeffrey Albertson"

CGEs tend to dominate online discussions about room escapes with their extremely vocal opinions. The net result is that there emerges a sort of “groupthink” about certain topics, labeling subjective choices “good” or “bad”. This is not a good thing, and I want to focus on a particular topic near and dear to my heart.

 

Go ahead, try and open me.

Go ahead, try and open me.

Somewhere in the past year, the basic (pad)lock has fallen out of favor with the CGE. And you know what? They have a point. There can indeed be correlation between a room having old fashioned locks and the room being a bad experience.

  • Basic locks are often a lazy designer’s tool. Don’t know how to craft an interesting experience flow? Can’t think of a way to gate progress interestingly? Throw some more locks at the player. This can get old.
  • Locks can be used in a very frustrating way. A very common (and enormously valid) complaint from lock haters comes from what I call a “lock orgy”. This is where the players currently have access to 27 locks, often many of the same type, and they solve a puzzle to receive a three digit code. Which lock does it go to? It’s hard to argue that trying a correct combination on 26 incorrect locks is fun.
  • Locks are low-tech. Some CGE folks won’t give rooms the time of day if there aren’t dozens of pieces of tech and gadgetry, no matter how faulty. I don’t subscribe to this argument one bit despite having put out arguably the most technically complex room escapes in existence. Low tech isn’t objectively good or bad, and shouldn’t be judged as such.

I stand before you today with a full-throated defense of the use of basic locks in the room escape experience. I love padlocks. I love combination locks. I love number locks. I love finding keys. I love word locks. I love ‘em all, can’t get enough of ‘em.

Used properly, locks in a room escape experience are amazing. That dopamine rush of gaining access to a previously forbidden container or space cannot be overstated. The tactile sensation of turning that key, of lifting that shackle. Mmm. Yes. As a player, I love entering a new room and seeing a bunch of juicy locks, waiting to be opened. As an owner, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen players explode with joy when they bust open a lock. And from a design perspective, granting that rush is fairly inexpensive. As long as their presence in the game flow makes logical sense, and a bad lock-orgy is avoided, locks are simply great. You'll likely find locks of assorted variety (even the high tech kind) in most every Puzzle Break experience for years to come.

Basic locks might not be the coolest kid on the block anymore, but they bring the fun. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

Technology failure in escape rooms

Earlier this year, I was in Los Angeles and decided to make the trip a bit of an escape room marathon. My co-founder and I played 7 escape rooms across several companies. We learned a lot from our trip, but my biggest takeaway was the technology. Technology failures, that is.

Care to hazard a guess how many of the rooms had some sort of glitch that impacted the experience negatively?

100%. I was blown away.

Not from an actual escape room. Or microwave.

Not from an actual escape room. Or microwave.

Some context: Escape rooms are outrageously new. There was literally only *one* in the United States as recently as 2013, and it contained exactly zero pieces of technology more complicated than a lock. Since escape rooms have exploded, there’s been a sort of arms race amongst companies to roll out rooms with the most gadgetry humanly possible.

Three short years later, many escape rooms are filled to the brim with all sorts of technology-driven puzzles. Problem is, painfully few designers/owner-operators think about two incredibly, outrageously important things:

  1. If this piece of technology fails, will it fail gracefully?
  2. Just because this puzzle can be a gadget, should it be a gadget?

I go back and forth about which of these makes me more upset as both a player and a figure in the industry.

Failing to fail gracefully bludgeoned me relentlessly during my LA trip. Containers failed to electronically open remotely. Physical clues failed to appear when conditions were met. Displays had the wrong information. And when these things happened, I (generally) as a player didn’t know they failed. I had done the right thing and the game halted. It wasn’t until later that a remote monitor would belatedly catch on and give a “whoops sorry that happens sometimes” and un-stuck my team. In one case, the GM never caught it, and we were stuck for about 20 minutes until game over. It utterly devastated an otherwise wonderful experience.

Technology failures happen and there’s precious little a designer can do about it, but one of those things is failing gracefully. At Puzzle Break, we have multiple redundant measures to ensure that if any of our technology fails, the players’ progress will be seamlessly uninterrupted.

My second high-level complaint with technology in escape rooms stems from lack of restraint. Too many times I’ve seen escape rooms decked out in dozens of tech puzzles. Frequently, they are:

  • Thematic nonsense
  • Significantly and needlessly over-complicated
  • Obtuse/Confusing
  • Cheap
  • Obviously worn out and like as not to fail
Dr. Reynolds agrees that the crossword didn't require an arduino.

Dr. Reynolds agrees that the crossword didn't require an arduino.

In case after case after case, I see these and think “this would work so much better on several levels as a low/no tech puzzle”. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of groupthink out there that “more tech = better experience”, and for all players’ sakes I hope that goes away sooner than later.

Actual pic of Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon. Not pictured, failing hard (yet gracefully) the following test game.

Actual pic of Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon. Not pictured, failing hard (yet gracefully) the following test game.

Now, all that said, technology in escape rooms can be amazing and drop your jaw to the floor again and again (look no further than our Escape the Rubicon), but it has to be appropriate, and it has to fail gracefully.

-Nate

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

On the Definition & Importance of Actual Puzzles in Escape Rooms

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio famously said on pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

I was chatting with Puzzle Break co-founder Lindsay Morse about a topic on which we both agree: Escape Rooms with a greater number of actual puzzles are more fun than those with fewer puzzles and more "tasks". As the discussion continued, we discovered that neither one of us had a great way to put language to the definition of "puzzle" in this context. What is a puzzle? Well, that's hard to say, but we know it when we see it. Unsatisfied, Dr. Morse hit the dictionary:

Lindsay:  1st def: "to cause (any one) to be at a loss what to do or how to turn; to embarrass with difficulties; to put to a non-plus; to perplex, bewilder, confound"

that's for the verb, for the noun:

3a "something contrived or made for the purpose of puzzling, or exercising one's ingenuity and patience; a toy or problem of this kind"

so I think that actually hits what I'm trying to get out

the need to bewilder, perplex or confound at first

otherwise there isn't really much pay off for "solving" it

and it's really just a "task" and not a "puzzle" with that component missing

Ancient Greek has this amazing word "aporia" which means "to be at a loss" or "to lack the resources needed" and they talk about it a lot

partially, I think, because it feels so good to get out of that feeling

and I think the need for "ingenuity" to solve a puzzle ends up being key for the satisfaction

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it is about humans that make us like solving puzzles so much, and I sadly haven't come to an answer

back to the etymology...

they think the verb might have come first, and it might be related to "pose", e.g., "to pose a question"

All good stuff, but I'd go even simpler. In escape rooms, most objectives can be broken down into two primary components:

  1. Figuring out what to do
  2. Doing it

"Tasks" are extremely focused on #2 and almost completely ignore #1. "Puzzles" focus on both. Ironically, traditional jigsaw puzzles (as in the image accompanying this blog post) fall into the task category. At Puzzle Break, we like to focus more on puzzles and less on tasks. The "A-ha!" moment (and it's accompanying endorphin rush) when a player figures out what they need to do has been described as similar to crack cocaine, and I think the comparison ain't too far off.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), many escape rooms are eschewing meatier and more rewarding puzzles in favor of easy-to-grok tasks. Spoiler-light examples from some rooms I've played:

  • Using a blanket to retrieve an out-of-reach key.
  • Using a spoon to unscrew a screw.
  • Using pairs of sticks to manipulate an object in a maze or out of a container.
  • An electric maze game.

In a vacuum, there's absolutely nothing wrong with tasks in an escape room (except when they are frustrating and unfair to execute). Well designed tasks have a time and a place, and they can definitely enhance an experience. However, experiences that sacrifice puzzle content, A-ha! moments of discovery, and general mental acrobatics in favor of exclusively "do-this-objective" tasks are missing out on a vital component of what makes escape rooms so very fun.

 

-Nate

 

Dubbed the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?