travel

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.

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The Road Warrior

Picture if you will: a Road Warrior.

No, not this guy.

Is this reference too dated by now?

Is this reference too dated by now?

I'm talking about the traveling champion of business, a little something like this:

Give 'em the business, man.

Give 'em the business, man.

You see these entities all over fictional pop culture. They cruise around airports, airplanes, transit, and hotels in their perfectly pressed business suits. Confidently, they whip out their laptops and work for hours no matter the conditions. For a prototypical example, check out George Clooney's Ryan Bingham in 2009's excellent "Up in the Air".

I travel a fair amount for work. Last month, I was in Germany/England/Netherlands setting up and training on Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future and the first volume of our Royal Mystery games on Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas. In a week, I'll be in France doing the same for Escape the Rubicon. So far this year, I've flown 17 times in 4 months on one airline alone.

For my trip next week: This room will be the most technologically advanced escape room in the world. I'll get to see the fruition of months and months of intense work across 3 states. The public reception will be amazing. I love spending time on cruise ships. And with all that said: I am not looking forward to traveling.

Traveling destroys me. It is draining & stressful. Nothing is comfortable. You've got to drag your whole life with you, and may god have mercy on your soul if you lose your passport or wallet. Internet may or may not work. Delays. Delays delays delays.

If you play this game, know that I cried many travel tears to give you the experience.

If you play this game, know that I cried many travel tears to give you the experience.

How do people work in this environment?! I can barely think thoughts, let alone focus enough to accomplish substantive work tasks. On many airplanes, there's not even enough room to fully open a laptop!

The biggest problem I encounter is trying (and failing) to focus on two things at once. When traveling between your ultimate destinations, no matter what the context, you're waiting for something. And when you're waiting, you must keep part of your attention on making sure you don't miss that for which you are waiting. On the bus? Can't focus, might miss my stop. At the airport? Can't focus, might miss notification to board. On the plane? Well, it's hard to focus when you have negative personal space. If the Internet is working at all (spoilers: it isn't).

Arriving at my destination isn't much of a respite either. Once I'm snugly and securely in a hotel or back at my place, I'm demolished. I need hours and hours of recovery before I can feel human again, and that's not even factoring in the jet lag.

Thing is: I see actual road warriors all the time! I can never understand it. How do these superheroes do it? How can you sit on the hard floor of a crowded terminal and refine that presentation? How do you open your laptop 80% of the way and crane your neck down at a Kafkaesque angle to bang out those emails? My hat is off to you as I sit in the seat next to you trying not to explode from jetlag and soreness.

Do these people pretend? Are they faking it? Do they try to business and give up when I'm not looking? Or do they possess something(s) I lack?

What about you? Are you a road warrior? What's your secret, and can it be taught? I sure hope to learn one day. If not, I'll see you at the airport. I'll be the guy trying and failing to sleep.

-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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