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How to Design an Escape Room Part 1

We don't have a story this week unfortunately. Check back next week! I did want to start a new series of articles about the design of Escape Rooms, as much for myself (we are designing our second room) as those who might come upon this article. Here it goes:

How to Design an Escape Room Part 1

Step 1: Pick a Starting Point

Escape Room design can be intimidating. You can pick almost any theme, any story, any puzzle as a starting place. Should you make the puzzles first? The theme? The technology? I believe that your first focus should derive from the strength of your (or your group's) abilities. 

Do you come from haunts and have sets that could hang at the Louvre? Start there and think about what theme inspires you. Are you good with business and human resources? You might want to think about how an actor or two would fit into a theme and build a theme around that idea. Are you broke but a strong puzzle designer? Think about designing a series of puzzles that involve physical elements that are easy to procure like second-hand furniture or even old things lying around your apartment.

The starting point will be different for any team, but I would recommend playing to your strengths. Once you know what you are good at, you can think of how to feature those things to your customers. At Enigma HQ, we have a game design background so we felt confident building our puzzles into a narrative, so we started with the idea that our rooms would all be tied together in an overarching story. We worked on a world that could accommodate multiple different rooms and making room narratives and puzzles that fit that world. Before we had any physical or graphical elements, we were already working on the things that we knew we could execute well.

Step 2: Design Toward Your Weaknesses

This may sound weird, but the weakest part of your room is going to be the part that you will want to iterate the most. You'll probably need to change that element several times before launch. For most groups, puzzle design will be the trickiest part, because puzzles are difficult to know how easy/hard they are as well as knowing if there is enough for everyone to do, etc. prior to testing. Not to mention that few people will open an Escape Room from a puzzle making background. However, other groups will have trouble with things like physical layout, object design, technology, theme cohesion, etc.

For instance, at Enigma HQ, we had little experience with the physical parts of Escape Rooms and didn't have the expertise to build things ourselves, so we started with a lot of proxies for what we expected the experience look like. Once we had people test the room with proxies and got a feel for what would work, we then went to outside artisans to make the actual elements for us. Your experience will obviously be different, but I would recommend testing and iterating many versions of the things you are most nervous about.

Step 3: Test Early, Test Often

This is related to step 2 somewhat and it's also a precept of any good design, but it's hugely important in Escape Room design as well. There are so many elements in a room, that things can and will change dramatically between tests. You don't want to commission that beautiful piece of artwork until you know that it works with the other elements in the room. You don't want to commit to a piece of technology until you know that the technology works consistently and in the manner you thought it would. 

The only way to know is test ... A LOT! Thinking deeply about different designs and puzzles is no proxy for even a few minutes of testing. People will see things that you didn't intend as well as find virtue in places you weren't even looking. The only way to get accurate information about the strengths and weaknesses of your design is to test the hell out of it.

I'll go into more detail about all these things more in later articles, but I want to give this general overview to start. Are you designing a room? Did you find this helpful? Do you have a different process that works for you? I'd love to hear about it. Write a comment below or holler at us on Twitter at @enigmahq or Facebook at facebook.com/EnigmaHQ 


 

Brian has been in the games industry for over 20 years, first as a professional Magic player. He went on to become a professional poker player and game designer. In an effort to understand obscure technologies and lose what remaining free time he had, he opened Enigma HQ!