rubicon

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.

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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.

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Packing.

Hello!


My name is Nate Martin. I am the co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break. And tonight, I am packing. More accurately, I am preparing to pack, which is at least 50% of the process. For what am I packing? Good question.


Back in late 2014, I entered discussions with the folks at Royal Caribbean Cruise Line about putting our games on their ships. To my mind, it was a great fit. Having cruised several times in the past, I knew first hand how hard it can be to meet like-minded folks on a floating cityscape. Escape rooms and team puzzle games are enormously fun group activities and a great way to meet new friends. The Royal folks wanted to take our stuff for a test drive before they made any decisions, so we packed up an entire escape room in a few boxes and flew to beautiful, exotic, and tropical New Jersey to do a demo game for their Captain and Cruise Director conference.


This was a real trial-by-fire. You see, each captain and cruise director are effectively CEOs of massive organizations. They answer to no one, and generally have extremely strong personalities.


EDUCATIONAL ASIDE: You might call them "Type A" personalities, but I hate this term. True fact: Type A and Type B personalities were invented by doctors hired by the tobacco industry as a way to demonstrate people who smoked a whole bunch were having heart attacks because of their personality, rather than, you know, smoking a whole bunch.


ANYWAY: Strong bullheaded audience. This is particularly relevant because a successful and entertaining room escape experience is almost always hallmarked by prodigious teamwork facilitated by the willingness to take orders. These folks were not in the habit of taking orders, and their having a great time was going to matter a great deal; Royal wouldn't want our games on their ships if we couldn't demonstrate how amazingly fun they are (which, as it happens, they are).


My team and I schlepped our escape-room-in-a-crate all the way from Seattle to the deck of Quantum of the Seas, docked in Bayonne, New Jersey. After some confusion with the security checkpoint (we brought a lot of metal with us). We set up the game in one of the dance halls, and after a not-terribly-long wait, the first group of captains arrived. They were grumpy. This was not unexpected; spending all day at a conference can often rate "Kafkaesque nightmare" on the fun-on-a-bun scale. And let's not forget: We were in New Jersey.


After a quick intro, they trudged into the room, reasonably determined to not have fun. I was starting to get nervous, but I had failed to make a critical assumption. You see, playing an escape room with your peers is a stupendous opportunity to demonstrate how smart you are. The captains instantly latched onto this fact, and immediately bought in to the experience. They tore into the game with a fervor, exhibited amazing teamwork, and escaped the room with a healthy margin.


Our game was a hit, and we shortly inked a deal with Royal Caribbean to offer Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future on their Anthem of the Seas ship. We launched in early 2015. I type this on an uncharacteristically warm evening in April 2016, as I pack. Or rather, am preparing to pack. In two days, I am flying to Germany, where I will be overseeing the installation and training for Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future and Puzzle Break: The Mansfield Museum Mystery, coming soon to Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas (not to be confused with Harmony of the Seas' Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon, which rates several blog posts by itself).

 

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.

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