“Having a supportive environment can make a big difference, so learn what types of space inspire creativity,” he writes.
Using the art of improvisation, The Second City has launched dozens of comic careers. The nimble form of communication is helping employees at Bluecore, a New York City-based email marketing platform, become more successful, too.
While me, Eric, and Noelle would all like to think that we’re the most creative, innovative, and all-around brilliant puzzle makers in the game, we’re very well aware of our strengths and weaknesses and are also aware of the fact that nothing is ‘truly original’ and inspiration comes from all over. While designing the Mad Hatter’s Birthday and Speakeasy rooms, inspiration was the linchpin to progress and came from the strangest places. I mean, who would have thought that during a planned discussion session about our ideas one of the most important moments would have come from a house outside the window where we were sitting? You can’t plan for that and it took us all being there for it to even be noticed. As the sole proprietor of Hidden Trail, I have no delusions about the importance of getting other creatives involved. Could I plan a room by myself? 100%. Would it be as good as having a team together for the ride with equal input? Not a chance.
“At every point in all of our games, we [are] able to see where you are, what you’re doing and what you’re working on,” says Anderson. “We [are] able to essentially program clues that are fed to you immersively–or scale them back if you don’t need them.”
Improv also helps people get comfortable dealing with ambiguity. “When you get on stage not knowing what story is and having new things thrown your way you have to be creative and come up with solutions on the fly,” he says.
“This training gives hands-on experience with the most popular connected devices with the goal of being able to provide knowledge- and experience-based tech support,” says Vincent Phamvan, senior director of innovation. “It also instills a sense of patience, empathy, and a team mentality, which is equally important to providing tech support to consumers,” says Phamvan. “Most of all,’ he adds, “this training is fun.”
The learning method helps employees understand where inspiration comes from so you can replicate it, writes Pferdt. It also encourages employees to think like a child, questioning the things around you, dive into something new, share your knowledge and perspective, seek out unusual materials when developing an idea, and invest in your physical space.
Even if Asia’s industry trends come to the U.S., Anderson says he’s optimistic his company’s technological sophistication will still set it apart.
For example, “Sometimes [people] will come into our game rooms, and they will bring screwdrivers in their pockets, and they start undoing things,” says Derek Anderson, the cofounder of Puzzah. “We don’t want that to happen.”
He decided to make improv lessons an employment requirement, and each quarter an instructor comes to their office to work with employees. “Improv teaches you how to communicate and articulate well,” says Mohamood. “It’s your goal to share your agenda to another person in room, and it’s common to see an engineer, for example, ramble on.”
As groups of players struggle with puzzles or race through a room, the escape room’s software can cue additional voice-recorded clues on speakers in the space to help players along, or introduce additional puzzles along the way. Players actions are also automatically logged for later analysis, he says, using sensors built into all the devices players interact with.
Now, just two years later, Blake’s company Escape the Room runs escape rooms at 10 locations around the country, and has plans in the works for seven more. A fan-submitted directory of escape rooms now lists hundreds of events around the country. People in the industry say the field has not only grown competitive, but has professionalized. Escape room operators are quickly looking to adapt practices and even personnel from the worlds of film, theater, and software development–and to develop techniques and storytelling conventions for their own new medium.
Improv also gets people working as a team. “You have to collaborate and make eye contact, he says. “It’s saying ‘Yes and …’ instead of creating objections.”
“We have our actors who are in character and costume—they create a context for people, and I think that immersive element really gets them into the spirit of the game,” says Chris Ricard, a cofounder of SmartyPantz, which operates escape rooms in Vancouver and Edmonton. “And then they’re really looking to solve the mystery and get out of the rooms at whatever cost.”
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“We’re sensitive about making sure we do things like use obscure screw heads,” says Anderson. “We make sure there’s nothing that people can interact with except what we want them to interact with.”
During each class, groups are tasked to answer a challenge, such as: “How would you change the commuting to work experience?” The process involves taking surveys, posting ideas to a white board and ultimately choosing one idea for expansion. Employees are then provided with an array of building materials that include Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, LEGO blocks, and feathers, and are asked to create a physical prototype.
Once we hash the story line out with little to no focus on actual puzzles, we can move on.
“If you want to have a touch-these-paintings-to-open-the-door puzzle, they’ll sell you all the components all wired up,” he says. “You just insert your picture into the frame, and you’re good to go.”
[Photo: Maciej Bledowski/iStock; App Photo: Lionsgate Pictures (“Saw”, 2004)]
Going back to the WHY in the last section, the room should be designed to make sense. If it’s a medieval castle, should there really be electronics or even power outlets? Probably not. Get it outta here. Most escapists won’t ask questions if it was there but we’re pretty picky about making you believe that you’re there for a reason. If it wasn’t against fire code, we wouldn’t even give emergency keys just to add to the room’s believability. That said, the look of the room is important right off the bat. It should almost catch the players off guard how close it is to the real thing.
Workplace training often feels like something to check off a to-do list. Companies spend about $130 billion each year on corporate education, according to a study by Bersin by Deloitte, yet research has found that the average adult forgets 40% of what they’ve learned after just 20 minutes, and 64% by the next day.
“CSI:Lab is all about reaching an end goal through brainstorming, getting your hands dirty and an ‘ensemble’ performance,” writes Frederik G. Pferdt, Google’s global program manager for innovation and creativity, on the company blog.
Like video games–which have for decades offered virtual puzzles similar to the codes, hidden keys, and mysterious objects now found in escape rooms–the rooms require a mix of storytelling, design, and engineering. But while video games allow developers to digitally encode and limit the rules of play through precisely crafted lines of code–and fix bugs with the push of an update—escape room creators effectively have to encode the rules of play into real-world, three-dimensional objects. Every conceivably interactive feature of every object in one of escape room Puzzah‘s rooms in Denver is effectively part of the puzzle’s player interface–whether the designers intend it that way or not. This can get complicated when players bring human variance into the room.
Why are they doing it? This is such an important question that I’ve seen some rooms answer and others not care about at all. If you watch a movie, you need to know why the characters are doing what they’re doing. We will always focus on giving our players the reason why they’re locked in a room. If the story could make sense without the players being locked in, we’re scrapping it.
Asurion, a Nashville-based mobile technology company, has created a unique training program for its new tech recruits using the popular Escape Room style. The company set up a space that includes a living room and kitchen that holds a series of connected digital devices that are all locked. To unlock and escape the room, the employees have to troubleshoot and reconfigure the devices so that they work properly. And they have 45 minutes to complete the task.
“There will be guys like us who have teams of technologists,” Blake says. “Then there’ll be the guy who finds like the awesome nuclear missile silo in the middle of Iowa and just does it on weekends.”
Google is known for its education programs, as well as the now-defunct initiative that allowed staff to use 20% of their work time to pursue projects and learning opportunities that are important to them. To boost creative problem-solving skills, the company started CSI:Lab in 2010.
In addition to getting a hands-on lesson on employee culture, the task has some side benefits. “Usually what happens is that the rest of the team comes over, says ‘hi’ and offers to help. But it’s really about setting the tone that everyone’s expected to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.”
Generally, making sure escape rooms work as coherent stories is critical to their success, says Escape the Room’s Blake. “The hard part of about writing any of these games—it’s not any individual puzzle,” he says. “It’s getting it to work together in a way that’s like any book or movie.”
From its start in July 2014, SmartyPantz has relied on professionals from Vancouver’s strong film industry and has developed rooms by thinking first about overarching themes and stories, then about the puzzles that go into them, says Ricard.
Even with how simple Cherry Meadow Asylum’s setup is, there was a massive underestimating of how hard it would be to find the set pieces. Eric and I decided that some of the things would have to be in the room no matter what because the puzzles we thought of would be so important to have in the rooms. Unfortunately, finding certain puzzle and set pieces got to be so overwhelming that we had to open later than expected simply because we couldn’t find them. So, now we look at what’s available, what we can get or not get, and then design the room accordingly. Even with the Speakeasy and Mad Hatter rooms, we made the same mistake and regret not thinking that some things, no matter how simple you might think they would be to find, are out of reach.
What are they doing? This one’s pretty easy… they’re trying to get out. Heh.
The rooms pull paying participants into scenarios they’d otherwise only see in Hollywood movies and video games and challenge players to work together to unravel carefully plotted mysteries and find their way out of the space within a limited amount of time. To make their way through the door, participants might have to uncover hidden keys or play particular tunes on makeshift instruments or anything else the escape room creators have been able to think up.
The success of CSI:Lab led Google to offer the program to employees worldwide. “One Googler told me that after the Lab, he used his experience to develop a prototype for a solution to one of his team’s issues,” writes Pferdt. “He described how good it felt to take a risk to reach a solution, and ultimately he convinced a team of other Googlers to work with him to refine and implement his idea. Ultimately, seeing these ideas absorbed by participants and put to use within the company is what CSI:Lab is all about.”
The rooms aren’t just conveyor belts of puzzles, though—they’re also stories, with plots and characters, either portrayed by recorded voices and movies or by live actors.
“It maps back to the company’s ‘all hands on deck’ work culture,” says CEO and cofounder Nick Huzar, who adds that the exercise started out of necessity. “As a small startup, I was tired of building all of the desks and chairs,” he says.
CSI stands for “Creative Skills for Innovation” and is held through its “Googlers-to-Googlers” program, in which Google employees teach other Google employees about topics that interest them.
Pferdt started CSI:Lab to show coworkers how to “experience innovation.” “I wanted to get a diverse group of people together in one room to solve challenging problems by learning from each other’s experiences, and by developing their own inner strengths. The goal was to enable Googlers to experience an approach to innovation where one learns by doing, rather than by listening,” he writes.
Four companies have adopted some unusual ways to train employees on everything from technology to culture to get a better return on the investment. From comedy to DIY, these unique methods get employees to expand their skillsets while having fun.
As the escape room industry matures and moves toward bigger budgets, it may well see some consolidation. That’s what has already happened in much of Asia, where the rooms first appeared, says Anderson. He estimates the number of room operators in heavily saturated Singapore has shrunk by about a third over the past two years.
“It also instills a sense of patience, empathy, and a team mentality, which is equally important to providing tech support to consumers.”
The company generally builds its rooms as sets of discrete “subgames” that players effectively interact with in sequence, he says, which make the games easier to beta test (beta testers are usually previous customers or friends of the game operators). Modularization means those individual parts can then be fabricated by the game designers on their own, before they’re integrated into a larger puzzle. Each subgame can also be beta tested on its own to make sure it is comprehensible and enjoyable for players—and resilient enough to withstand attention from the most enthusiastic audiences.
“It’s just a factor of, some people aren’t interested in scary stuff, so we have a variety of room concepts that appeal to a wide audience,” he says.
“The first person I connected with, he’s a propmaster, but he also likes putting together haunted houses, so he has a very creative mind,” says Ricard. “We worked with him on developing a number of ideas—sort of conceptual ideas for room themes.”
And, says Blake, there will likely always be room for innovative small-scale operators–people who decide to put together one-off pop-up events when the opportunity presents itself.
Where is it happening? You’d think this would be simple to answer but really detailed looks at everything in the room is important to us. It’s a big reason why we tend to stay away from designing rooms with locales that don’t make sense in our space. A lot of what is available in terms of spaces in the city have pretty basic layouts with plain walls and the fire code disallows a lot of things that we would love to do like put boards on the walls or hang things from the ceilings. To put it simply, our locations determine our themes.
At one of the first escape rooms I had been to, the owner told me that anyone can create an escape room that nobody can solve and it’s true. Escape rooms all over the world have to deal with others trying to come in and make a quick dollar by opening rooms with no attention to detail that have a few quickly thought out puzzles or stolen ideas. Put those ideas together that take a lot longer than an hour for the average person to solve and you’ve got an escape room, right? No no no no no. This all ties back to why the puzzle design comes last. I could even make an amazing puzzle from scratch but if it doesn’t fit the bill for the story or the room design, it’s gone.
Escape the Room now prototypes and beta tests its rooms in a 15,000-sq.-ft. warehouse in New Orleans, another city with a native film industry. The tests uncover overly difficult or fragile prototype puzzles that need to be fixed for production–but they can also reveal when a plot just isn’t engaging enough to the audience, says Blake.
With all of that in mind, designing puzzles for a room should incorporate all kinds of thinking levels to accommodate people from different backgrounds. Maybe you’re all about logic and would love to see a super dense mental puzzle set but your friend thinks way outside the box. We’re going to try to cover it all in each of our rooms and we will hopefully have puzzles that you’ve never seen before (which is why the HT team can go to other escape rooms and write it off 😉 Don’t want to copy anything!).Now you see in to our brains. We’re still expecting to trip you all up when you come in!
“The biggest players right there are multinationals that are hitting all of East Asia,” he says.
CEO Fayez Mohamood took an improv class for fun and was surprised how the experience helped his professional life. “It was one of the best things I’ve done; it’s on par with the professional education I took in engineering,” he says.
“Having a supportive environment can make a big difference, so learn what types of space inspire creativity.”
Employees of the Seattle-based startup OfferUp, a mobile marketplace for local buying and selling, start their first day by assembling their own desk and chair. From entry to C-level, employees unpack the box, gather tools, and build their workstation.
The Asian market has also seen the rise of wholesale vendors, mostly operating out of China, that offer pre-built, ready-to-install puzzle components, he says.
When is it taking place? Mostly the when ties in to the scenery of the room. Set pieces, paint, etc. We also will try to avoid using puzzle ideas if it doesn’t fit the time period.
“Now, for better or worse, we have entire teams of people” designing the games, says Blake. “We have engineers that work for Disney, and they consult for us.”
In Vancouver, where the company opened its doors to the public in March, rooms vary not only in difficulty but in terms of storyline and degree of explicit content. A Cold War-themed room called “Spies & Lies” is advertised as “family friendly” and tricky, but not too scary–while a haunted house room is scary but not too difficult.
In October 2013, Victor Blake created what he says was New York City’s first escape room as a weekend popup.
“Sometimes it falls flat, and it really sucks, like [if] you get to the end of a movie, and it’s like, that’s it?” he says. “You can kind of see the disappointment in their face.”
Within the last week, I expressed to Eric (who helped design the first room) the idea that we could plan our future escape rooms with a planned process and that process should start with a believable story. Within that story, we follow a fairly standard process to figure out the who, what, why, when and where of the room.Who are the players? Detectives? Hospital patients? Chefs? There’s no limit unless it stops making sense to the situation.
“Once you have 11-year-olds bashing around on it for six months, the story kind of changes,” Anderson says of the beta tests.
Imagine being locked in a roomful of strangers, where the only exit has been hidden by a raving mad scientist who’s muttering half-incomprehensible clues under his breath. It sounds like the start of a horror movie–but for customers in hundreds of “escape rooms” around the country, it’s just another fun night out.
If you looked around the room you’re in right now and pointed at the first item you saw, I’d be willing to bet that me, Eric, or Noelle could find a way to turn it in to a puzzle. Game mechanics and puzzles were at the heart of entertainment for me as a kid and it still rings true today. The real trick is making sure the puzzles can’t be cheated in any way and that they are interesting to solve. And again, they should make sense to the theme. Is there going to be a math puzzle in the mad hatter room? Probably not.
“The first pop-up was literally stuff we could fit in the back of a cab,” recalls Blake. “There was nothing technically elaborate about it. There was nothing you couldn’t replicate by going to a thrift store by spending a couple of hundred bucks.”