Saturday, September 5, 2020

Thoughts: In Search of the Best Room - A Tragicomic Saga In 200 Chapters

"Player Me" LOVES room-ranking websites...

Spring last year, as I started planning our family trip to the UK, I ended up spending a lot of time on review sites such as Escape the Review and The Logic Escapes Me, trying to figure which rooms I should focus on during those vacations. After all, this was a one-time opportunity for me.

Likewise, I've asked people in Toronto for room recommendations (either for myself or for others), and I remember how annoyed I was at getting generic cop-out answers such as "Well, it depends.", "How many players?", "What type of rooms do they like?", "What themes are they into?" And the worse part of all those comments is that I could easily picture myself saying them to someone else. 😶 After all...

"Blogger Me" HATES ranking rooms...

Seriously, what a pain. Having to put a score on an experience? If the scale is too small, then you can't really differenciate a "pretty good" game from a "really nice" one. If the scale is too detailed, then said score becomes increasingly dependant on factors that are likely to change with every game session. And if the middle of the rating scale corresponds to a "typical" room, how many rooms are really going to get lower scores than that? After all, "median" rooms are likely "plain" rooms that aren't significantly better than the "lame" ones. Aren't you wasting half of your grading scale, then? And what happens when new rooms push the envelope beyond what you used to think of as a "perfect" score?

Want in on a secret? I actually do give grades to every room I play! But I primarily do it for filtering purposes.
Cat's out of the bag!
No, I won't give those to you. 😛

Yet another autobiographical segue

Freud said it: it's all their fault
People who knew my parents (I use past tense because my dad passed away more than 15 years ago) generally agreed on two things: they were very likable (had to say it ❤️) but were also oddly assorted to one another. While they both thoroughly enjoyed life, they had very... complementary approaches to it.

Mom - Every Escape Room is Amazing ("♫ Everything is awesome! ")

There's a French Canadian expression I like. It basically says "having a knack for happiness", and that's definitely how I'd describe my mom. Not only does she have a friendly and cheerful disposition, she has a natural gift to process the bad stuff and focus on the positive. And that's something I got from her, at least in regard to enjoying myself.

Really, there's no point in asking me "if I had a good time" when I leave an Escape Room. Of course I had a good time! I was doing an escape room! 🥳 I got to spend some time doing stuff I love, with people I enjoy. 🥰 Do you really think that some broken puzzle is going to hinder my fun? Heck, even a truly terrible room is bound to become a glorious memory, something we'll be able to make fun of for months to come. 😏

Dad - Every Escape Room is Terrible ("♫ Oh yer so bad... ")

My father, on the other hand, had a tendency to notice - and emphasize - the flaws in everything and in every plan. In fact, grumpiness was almost a family tradition, one that his sons keep on to this day.

So yeah, look buddy, I understand how your room is renowned as "amazing" to and fro, but I hope for your sake that nobody else said that to me already, because otherwise I'm pretty sure that my expectations have now been set too high and the best reaction you'll get from me is "yeah, it's nice". 😕 You got fancy special effects? Well, I sure hope they all work correctly, right? 🤓 (45 out of 200 rooms with the #technicalproblem tag) Yes, I'm sure your puzzles are particularly clever... but let's just hope that the person in charge of resetting them didn't make a mistake. 🤪 (13 out of 200 rooms with the #humanerror tag) Oh, you pride yourself in offering the most immersive experiences ever? Sounds nice, but I care more about mimesis than diegesis, plus I fail to see why the FBI would use a family of sandal-wearing tourists as consultants, so your point is kinda moot, isn't it? 🙄

On another note, I've noticed that I often look slightly concerned and/or uninterested when I complete rooms. That's because I'm focusing deeply on the room I just played! Will I remember everything when I make my tallies? Is there something important I should bring up in my blog? Mind you, this also means that a single room will bring many more minutes of entertainment than the time I spent playing it. Guess I just need to tell that to my face... 😐

Me - Every Escape Room Reviewer is Terrible ("♫ Maybe they're right when they tell me I'm wrong... NAH! ")

Now, one interesting thing about inheriting from those two opposite viewpoints is that I've grown a tendency to get upset... at people getting upset. In the context of Escape Rooms, this means disagreeing with most of the complaints I end up reading on social networks. Just as I tend to push back against any claim that a room is "amazing", I also push back against claims that some part of a room was "terrible".

Here are some examples of what my "inner voice" might end up responding to complaints, in full Quebec-style bluntness/vulgarity. You have been warned. For entertainment purposes only. Talk to your doctor.

Look, I'm not saying that these aren't legitimate reasons to dislike a room. (Nonsensical puzzles, for instance, can be quite the turn-off, for both newbies and veterans.) All I'm pointing out is that, while being deal-breakers for you, any of the above concerns can be completely inconsequent to other players.

By now, you might be wondering: "So Gilles, if you get pissed off by people complaining about rooms, does that mean you get pissed at yourself?" Well, kinda 😅, to some extent. That explains why my blog, while giving a general sense of enjoyment, tries to always come up with at least one actionable piece of feedback, either for the owners or for their competitors.

What do we know, anyway?

"He says he's a 'water enthusiast'"
Original credit: Andrew Toos

In the past, I've seen some Escape Room owners stating that "you should not design rooms with enthusiasts in mind", and honestly, it's a compelling argument. Considering that any given room can only be enjoyed once, enthusiasts will only comprise a small percentage of your player pool. Besides, enthusiasts are, well, a weird bunch.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to us, though. Escape veterans can have a pretty good idea of what type of puzzles are popular or not, and which technologies are the most reliable and effective. And having the enthusiasts on your side can be a very good thing. After all, they can generate a lot of visibility for your business over social networks. Having just one room specifically intended to pique the interest of hard-boiled players can ensure that you'll get talked about, and if your rooms are as nice as you think, this can only be a good thing, right?

In Search of the Best R...anking System?

In past years, I've been looking for the "best rooms out there", but I've also been trying to assess which ranking systems are the most useful and reliable. Like many of you, I started off using TripAdvisor, and while it has helped me pick local attractions in the past, the ranking for escape rooms turned to be completely useless - most people, it seems, loves Escape Rooms, and the number of 5-star reviews a company get doesn't really lead to anything reliable when trying to identify rooms worth playing. So instead, let me tell you about a few websites which are worth looking into.

Case study #1 - The TERPECAs

Imagine 4 Escape Rooms - we'll just call them A, B, C & D. Nobody has actually played all 4 yet. Some people have played A, B and C, and a few people rank them in that order, while most think that C is better than B. Others have played B, C and D, and again most of them prefer C, while everyone agrees D's the worst. Well, how would you rank those rooms overall? It's fairly obvious that A should be on top, and D on bottom, and then since more people prefer C over B, that leaves us with A-C-B-D, right? Now, imagine a room X that a handful of people played. They say it's better than C, but none of them have played A. How do you deal with that? Well, it probably makes sense to go with A-X-C-B-D, at least until you gain additional opinions on the matter...

The above is, more or less (I'm not that smart myself 🤯), the principle behind the stack ranking algorithm, and that's what Rich Bragg had in mind when he launched the "Top Escape Rooms Project" back in 2018. Hardcode enthusiasts from around the world are invited to nominate their all-time favorites rooms, and then even more enthusiasts get to order the ones they played, in order of preference. Simple as that. The algorithm does the rest.

I've been a fan of this entire project (and its process) since I found out about it. I was a voter in 2019 and have upgraded to nominator this year - the nomination process for 2020 is going on as I write this. Yes, even getting approved as a voter is a lengthy process, but that's necessary in order to avoid turning this into "which ER owner has the most friends". 🤥

That's not too say it's a perfect system. I've already stalked contacted Rich to discuss some concerns. For instance: a popular room that decreases in quality (for any reason) will likely get its ranking "corrected" within the year (as plenty of people try it and judge it poorly), while a room that increase in quality will take a lot more time (years?) before its ranking reflects that improvement. I'm wondering if that won't convince owners to ditch their "Top 100 worldwide" room if they think they can put a "Top 20 worldwide" one in its place...

Another problem, much closer to my heart, is that if traveling enthusiasts decide to visit an area, they might end up relying on the TERPECA rankings to choose what games they should be playing. The thing is, not only do the rankings lose their accuracy the farther down the list they are (that's why Rich takes a "TOP N" number of rooms to flag as winners), but great rooms might end up requiring a lot of time before getting the recognition they deserve. And if visiting enthusiasts decide to check the TERPECA standings rather than a reliable local list, well, it won't help generating that needed visibility. I've been nagging suggesting to Rich that people having played a lesser number of rooms in their area of residence could possibly register as "local nominaters/voters", which in turn would allow for the creation of "local tops", but of course, that would represent a lot of additional work...

Case study #2 - Escape the Review

I already mentioned Toby Powell's website at the beginning of this post. ETR helped me plan my UK vacation, but it doesn't only focus on British rooms - it also offers reviews of escape-in-a-box games and remotely playable rooms. For those same reasons, my primarily Quebec-Ontario blog has suddenly become a regular contributor to it.

A snapshot from the Home page
Nice logos you got there, folks!

Escape the Review offers a number of features I appreciate:
  • A scoring system that takes into account both the total number of scores a room has, but also the level of "experience" of each source.
  • "User reviews" allowing logged-in visitors to leave short their comments about a room they played.
  • Direct "blog links" allowing blog writers (like myself) to be registered as such, and add links to the listed rooms themselves.
  • A focus on newer content (since new reviews also tend to align with new releases).

An example of a Room-specific entry

Whenever visiting ETR, I really feel like I can quickly get a feel of which games are the most popular, then prompty get additional feedback, from varied sources, about individual games. I think that's great.

Case study #3 - Escapedia

You might recall my mention of Guillaume Benny's brainchild in my previous ramblings. A couple years ago, my intent was to add external references to my own blog, like links to other reviews on other sites, and possibly come up with "cross-blog recommendations". That's what I had in mind when I created both my Ottawa & Quebec maps. However, I never got around to it, and Escapedia came up with its own map, its own listings, with collected user scoring to boot. Nicely done, too!

Still, I've been trying to stalk get in touch with Guillaume since then, to discuss some concerns I have with the website. (Unfortunately, he's been quite consistent in only attending the events I don't - you'd think someone warned him against me. 😁 😳) Honestly, my concerns aren't quite clear... It's more like I have this nagging feeling the site isn't as enjoyable to use as it could be. Is it the layout? The overall navigation? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that a major "selling point" of the website is about being able to directly look for room availability, and then book through it. Maybe what I really want for Christmas is just a Quebec version of Escape The Review? 🤔

And since we're back to ETR again, another thing I'd like to see would be an aggregated list of the best rooms in the province. One that would compound user rankings with some experienced reviewers. Luckily, one does exist, thanks to Mr. Patrick Pilon - although it exists as a Google Spreadsheet (see "Notes Consolidées" here). Ah well, it's a start.

Will I change my own maps & directories to reflect compound rankings and link to other sources? Will I give up and fully defer to Escapedia? We'll see. Guillaume won't be able to evade me forever, after all. 🤣


  • The opinions on this blog are crap... 👎
  • ...but hey, that's ok, so are yours! 👍
  • Being able to rapidly collect & congregate multiple opinions is likely the best way to find rooms you'll like.
  • Owners should listen to enthusiasts. However, they should NOT necessarily do what they ask. Those are two distinct things.

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