Room Designer / Owner Tips

Room Theme & Visuals

  • If you're designing your very first rooms, you'll be tempted to fall back on the classics: prisons (filled with innocent people, of course), maniac-hiding basements, warehouses filled with explosives, and so on. If there isn't a lot of competition around, those are great themes to use. But trust me, a wholly original theme will draw the attention of seasoned escapists.
  • Be mindful of picking a great name for your room, especially if it's going to stick around for a while. You want something that's both original and easy to remember - and preferably something that does relate to the room itself.
  • Reusing an old room's theme can be a good idea, but if you're going through the trouble of a redesign, you should definitely change the name of the rooms as well. Turning "The Laboratory" into "The Lab" won't be enough - at the very least, start using subtitles (as a few venues do).
  • The wallpaper-as-scenery technique (that is, having wall-to-wall life-size illustrations in stead of mimicking a decor) can be used for good effect... within limits. The biggest drawback is that after just a few months, that wallpaper might start to wear out and peel off, noticeably spoiling the mood.
  • Even if a sign stating "Not Part of the Game" can spoil the mood a bit, opening a door to find out it leads into an outside corridor will spoil it even more.
  • If you're going to emphasize the fact that the room belongs to certain period in time, you'd better avoid any obvious anachronism. I could live with a 1960 Superman cartoon showing up in a room set in the 40s, but a Garfield cartoon showing up in 1947 is a bit hard to swallow.
  • The choice of material plays a big role in the believability of the room's setting. No wood in space. No aluminium before WWI. No plastic (nor rubber) before the 40s.
  • If you room is supposed to be a small apartment, you should come up with some believable excuse not to include the basic necessities. No bed? No even a toilet? Instead of an apartment, you could claim the room to be a "very small studio" with a folding bed and fake toilet. Either that or add fake "condemned" doors over the walls.
  • One of the big problems with corpses is that, well, making them actually look like corpses. No matter how hard you work at setting up a great crime scene, that mannequin in the corner will assuredly spoil the mood. Of course, realistic fakes are a lot more expensive - but the final result should be worth it.
  • Even if you're operating on a budget, don't forget that the "final polish" of the room matters. Yes, you could put green tape with "Don't Touch" notes on it, but having custom-made stickers will make it even more obvious. Yes, you could warn your players to "ignore that electrical contraption on the shelf", but it'd be much better to enclose it (even a wooden box would do). These things don't need to be expensive and make a big difference on the final result.
  • On the other hand, if you make the choice to offer your customers a "higher quality experience", keep in mind that every single element of that game experience will be judged accordingly.
  • Have you considered setting partnership with semi-public sites? Many locations that don't operate during nights or weekends might provide for thrilling escape experiences.
  • If your room is strongly-themed, you might be tempted to ditch that big timer showing the remaining time, just to avoid breaking the fourth wall. That's a perfectly valid rationale. But keep in mind that your players (especially the most experienced ones) might be quite pissed to lose a perk they take for granted. Besides, if some of the players are wearing wristwatches, will you take them away? If you don't, doesn't that give them an unfair advantage? Why not give the players a timekeeping device that does respect the room's theme, like a wall clock (showing the real hour, or set in game time, your call), or even a large hourglass?
  • Even if you don't have access to genuine scents, it's getting increasingly easier to find "mood scents" on the market. Initially made for haunted houses and similar venues, they can be perfectly suitable for escape rooms.
  • As nice as immersion is, you might want to provide alternatives to passageways, in order to be more accessible. Players unable to "climb up" into trapdoor can ask to be taken up there through a staircase. That still won't help you if you're in a wheelchair, but it's a big plus nonetheless.
  • If you're running short on office space but want to offer a new escape experience, why not consider the great outdoors? Depending your your business location, you might have access to something interesting nearby, such as a park, a busy downtown street, or even an abandoned backlot with potential. Could you leverage your surroundings into creating a new experience for your customers?
    • One caveat: If you set up an urban adventure through busy streets, try to come up with a "Plan B" or some alternate route that could be triggered whenever needed. Rather than getting extra minutes, I think I would've preferred just skipping the hard-to-reach "stations" - I could even have been left blissfully unaware of it.
    • Also note that even if it possible to send a bunch of players play a game out by themselves, it's preferable to have a human being in charge of the game start & end.
    • And for games where players are going outside, unsupervised, consider billing a fixed price per group. Think about it this way: if you business model is encouraging people to pretend that there isn't as many of them as there really is, how good of business model is it really?

Components & Gadgets

  • A room that uses magic as its theme will strongly benefit from special effects and technical wizardry. If you ask your players to gather some items and place them in one spot, for instance, they will likely expect for something to happen once they have them all. They'll be disappointed to learn that they're merely clues for the follow-up puzzle...
  • If you design a puzzle around measurements provided by a device, you'll have to make sure that those measurements can be read & processed unequivocally.
  • If you're going to have special devices which aren't meant to be pried at by players, try to fully encase them in a locked container, then put a "Don't Touch" sticker on that one lock so players know to avoid it.
  • Even if it's not always easy to do, try your best to test each of your special components on a regular basis. Your mix your own invisible ink? Make sure it still works before using it. Your accessories are battery-powered? Use a battery tester on them every week, and replace them as soon as they get a bit low. A flickering flashlight, while still functional, adds undue stress on the players.
  • Also consider adding some "validation system" to be able to check, in real time, that every gadgets and electronic components are working properly. If you're discouraged at the idea of using electrical and physical sensors, extra cameras placed in the right spots should suffice.
  • Ensure that every scenery background piece (even a non-puzzle one) is in good working order. The main light source in one room was a table lamp, and it suddenly flickered out as we searched the place. A special effect to set the mood? Nope, just a worn-out power cord.
  • Make sure to keep a good stock of basic supplies: paper, batteries, and so on. You never know when they'll run out.
  • It's always a good choice to warn your players of possible malfunctions ahead of time, even if it hurts the mood a bit. For instance, an attendant once warned us "See this panel here? If you believe you've found out how to open it - and it's going to be obvious, and this little light here would turn green - but it doesn't open, just tap it gently and it'll slide off."
    • Having said that, even though it's nice to (somewhat ominously) warn players that "Any tile that's already placed is placed in the right spot.", it's definitely better to glue those tiles in place instead.
  • You might end up choosing cheaper, more fragile items, with the known intent of replacing them regularly. Keep in mind, though, that after warning your players to "avoid using excessive force", the more timid among them might get a bit upset when a knickknack crumbles in their hands. At best, they'll lose a bit of time, at worst it'll crank up their stress level needlessly. Why not preemptively douse those brittle items with a small amount of hot glue?
  • Speaking of fragile stuff, it's a good idea to put "Do Not Touch" stickers on fragile decor elements. It's not such a good one to install those elements in complete darkness, though. Once, with just one flashlight to share, I probably squeezed most of those fragile items while searching for a light switch that didn't exist.
  • If the end goal isn't to leave a room, but to achieve a stated objective instead, it would be preferable to include a clear signal to indicate that the players have won - like a door opening by itself, or a triumphal fanfare? If the players just stand there wondering if the game is truly over, the moment is lost.
  • If you have a special feature that isn't part of the room anymore (say, because it broke), try to take it out, and at the very least mark it as out-of-bounds. This one room had a large hourglass to measure the game time, but for some reason it ended up fixed in place and replaced with a digital clock. A few of us lost a bit of time assessing whether or not it was a puzzle to solve.

Puzzle Design

  • Players will appreciate if you have a broad variety of locks - and I'm not just talking about their shape. People can tire pretty quickly of "trying every code on every lock". If you have, say, a 3-digit lock, a 4-digit one, 5-digit lock, 4-letter, 5-letter, and so on, they'll quickly be able to figure out what to do with a newly acquired code.
  • Most players like having to make decisions that make them feel like they have some control over their strategy. Allowing them to choose between two bonuses, small as they might be, will definitely please them.
  • I was once told "Don't hesitate to ask for clues - nobody ever makes it out without". That lit a little warning sign in my head. Folks, different players can struggle on different puzzles, but if more than 85% of every team needs help on a specific puzzle, then it's a bad puzzle. Fix it.
  • You might be tempted to add a number of "red herrings" in your room, to complicate matters and make the room harder to solve, without having to add more hints. Be weary that this is a very fine line to thread - players hate to be bluntly misdirected.
    • Of course, if you just happen to add a few "flavor" items, you know, just because they fit in the room thematically, then players can hardly blame you for imagining that a rag is more than just a rag (or that a bloody body part is more than a bloody body part)...
    • ...but if those elements sport strange letters or numbers, and those don't pertain to any puzzle, your players will likely get peeved. Same thing with strange markings found on a poster.
  • You don't need to come up with your own custom-made gadgets to add some technology to a room. A CD/DVD player, a TV set, a tape recording... All these things can be used to build some original puzzles.
  • When designing your puzzles, don't lose sight of what will happen if players opt for brute force. Will it short-circuit the whole game experience? There are some mechanisms to prevent brute force, such as electronic locks that shut off (for a while) after too many wrong guesses. You could come up with similar tricks.
  • Try to design puzzles that players can solve in any manner they see fit (save from breaking things, of course). Try to put limitations within the game environment itself, rather than setting arbitrary rules that they must follow.
  • It shouldn't be possible for players to solve the final puzzle through sheer luck. Near the end of one game, we assembled this mechanism and started fiddling with it, when a voice called out from the walkie-talkie to warn us that "it wouldn't count as a victory unless we opened all the locks". Turned out the only part still missing were the instructions, and we were very close to opening that darn door by accident. A funny anecdote, sure, but still a mood-breaker.
  • If you've set up a puzzle with a clue such as "Put X on Y and note the result", but as it turns out, putting X on Z or W or whatever would give the exact same result, it might lead players to think they haven't figured this out that puzzle right. Good puzzles should be a perfect fit for their own clues.
  • If you design a puzzle where players have to notice the differences between multiple images, and draw a conclusion from those differences, then every noticeable difference should relate to the puzzle. If every picture but one shows a certain object, and that object has nothing to do with the puzzle, that's lame.
  • Know that a "physical" puzzle, one requiring a certain amount of dexterity, should ideally be safe from mishaps. If the puzzle can be utterly ruined by a false move (as opposed to deliberate mishandling), then the puzzle is faulty.

Player Support - Before the Game

  • If you hand out tools to the players, make sure that they fully understand how they're used. In one game where we had electrical lanterns, some players noted that one of lanterns was much brighter than the others, even referring to it as "the good one". After finishing the game, one attendant pointed out that the lanterns actually had dimmers on them. 😕 A humbling footnote for us, but not necessarily something you want for your players.
  • Don't hesitate to provide verbose directions beyond sending your players off. It might seem superfluous to provide warnings such as "you never have to touch the ceiling" or "here's how to reset a directional lock", but every detail known to players ahead of time will reassure them that they're on the right track.
  • If your room uses any sort of system where players can "fail" (say, a motion detector they weren't supposed to trigger), you should properly brief them ahead of time on whatever steps they need to perform in order to "undo" their failure and resume playing.
  • If you want to provide the best possible experience to your players, do warn them of any detail that might come up as an accidental red herring. Let's say your room requires flashlights, but the flashlights you just got as replacements have extra features (like multiple colors) that have nothing to do with your room. Making sure to warn players of those useless extras is the right thing to do.
  • It is of utmost importance to thoroughly search the room to ensure players don't find something they shouldn't. In one game we played, a container was supposed to hold two copies of a tool allowing us to progress further, but my kids found one of them before the compartment was open. The attendant ended up calling us and asked us to wait a bit before using that object...
  • Even if it's perfectly acceptable to ask for players to arrive in advance, and all be there on time, it will only be natural for players to expect the same from you. I once feared for my parking meter because of a room that shared its sole attendee with... an ice cream counter.

Player Support - During the Game

  • Most rooms now have cameras, and keep an eye on players at all time. That's good, but having sound as well is a big plus. Once, I said out loud: "Ok, we're pretty sure that the first three digits of this lock are 1-2-3. Let me try every possible option... Hmm, nope, that didn't work." A few seconds later, we were contacted to confirm that the first three digits were indeed 1-2-3. Seems the lock had a bit of slack. Nevertheless, I would've been quite annoyed if I'd found that out much later.
  • It's a good idea to send regular reminders of the time remaining. That's especially true if you're not providing the players with a digital clock display, but even if you do, a friendly "hey folks, heads up, only 10 minutes left" is always appreciated.
  • Have you considered calibrating your hint-giving according to the number of players? Most venues will take a wide range of players but always offer the same number of hints. Is that really fair? Having a multiple-hint system (where you give small hints automatically, through several increments) might help providing a better experience for everyone, and have the added bonus of allowing you to subtly tweak the hint-giving ratio with less (or younger) players.
  • Getting hopelessly stuck isn't fun, anybody knows that. Many venue will therefore allow players to get unlimited hints... except that they won't be considered winners if they do. It's a simple trick, but if players have clearly bitten more than they can chew, why leave them miserably stuck forever? Having fun is what matters. Do remind your players that they'll have more fun losing to clue abuse, than losing after 30 minutes of staring at the wall.
  • It might be tempting to volunteer your own clues to a group that appears stuck, yet make no request for help. I think that it's better to hold off if you know the group to be experimented (it's their choice, after all). If you still want to help out, just check with them beforehand, making sure your help really is welcome.
  • It's not easy to keep track of the next puzzle that players should tackle, especially when you cover multiple rooms and/or when puzzles follow a non-linear pattern. Try to make sure your attendants remain on top of things, and always know which hint to give at the right time. If possible, get them cheat sheets they can easily follow.
  • If your players have to run tallies and make computations based on items found inside the room, and they're asking for a hint, you should start by asking them: how many items have you found yet? If you're afraid your clue will be too obvious ("How many yellow paper slips? How many blue ones?"), start off by being more generic ("How many paper slips have you guys found, total?")
  • Make sure to keep a tight eye on every team's progress. We once got out of a room and there wasn't anyone expecting us on the other side. We walked all the way back to the lobby to meet with an utterly befuddled attendant. She was keeping an eye on us through a camera, but she was relying on game elements (tiny lockboxes we all needed to open) to track our progress. Since one of us kept closing each box after we opened it, said attendant thought she still had plenty of time...
  • When handing clues, your game masters can use their own judgement to try and provide the best game experience there is. As we first gave up and asked the attendant for a hint, we were told: "Well, you know what? You guys still have plenty of time, and you're doing pretty well. How about you keep trying, and in 5 min I'll help if you're still stuck." Indeed, thanks to her, we can now brag about our no-hint victory.

Player Support - After the Game

  • After the game's over, each of the attendants / hosts on location should be able to answer the question "How does that clue relate to this solution?".
  • When players fail to escape, most venues will give them some sort of "postmortem hint", showing them a couple of the things they missed. Of course, most venues don't expect them to try any room more than once. If you do intend to have players return more than once, make sure they feel like they have something to do return to. I once read that the art of game design is to "annoy players just as much as they can tolerate it, but no more". Wise words.
  • No matter how many warnings you give, people will eventually damage some of your material, whether or not they were careful, whether or not they had a case going for it. Get ready for that to happen. By remaining calm and showing understanding, you're more likely to convince those people to come back, hence giving more opportunities of getting that money back. 😉
  • Your room could likely benefit from a "Reset Bible" document: a step-by-step guide to remind yourself (or your employees) how everything should be when the room starts, with any details necessary, even pictures if need be. As an example, check out this Repacking Guide for room-in-a-box "Mystery at the Stargazer's Manor".
  • When cleaning up the room, do pay attention to telltale grease marks. Sometimes players will end up using their own finger marks to write on top on walls (!), where visible marks can be seen if the lighting's right. Once, one of our players noticed that symbols on a wall had digits already written on top of them - not that we needed those. 😎
  • There is more than one way of "compensating" players for any shortcomings, beyond the traditional rebates. Let players have a bit more time, show them things they didn't get to see, etc. Keep an open mind.
  • Not only do I encourage team pictures, I also do believe that they should be taken with care. If you use a small cell phone to take them, they might turn out pretty crappy, which might cheat a group of players out of a memento they were looking forward to.

Marketing - Web & Advertising

  • Know what your strengths are, and leverage them. Yes, players like technical gadgets. Yes, most players like live actors. But players want to have fun, so ask yourself: what do we do better than others? How can we showcase our best skills and turn it into pure fun?
  • When shopping for an online booking system (as I take for granted you will - having none is bad, making one is crazy), you should be as careful as you are making any other purchase. See what other places use it. Does it seem to work fine? Try booking something for yourself (as long as the place allows you to cancel afterwards). How easy is it to navigate? Does it work on a phone? With a low bandwidth? I once was unable to book a room because the wifi of the campground I was in just couldn't cope. I also got double-booked even though I had successfully booked on-line.
  • I'm not going to try to convince you to allow private bookings (even if I really think you should). However, if you don't, please keep the maximum number of players reasonably low. Saying "This room is best played with 6, but we'll let you book for 8 if you really want to." is a very different thing from saying "This room is best played with 6, but unless you book for 2 people you don't need, then we might allow 2 complete strangers to squeeze in with you."
  • When setting up your website, make sure to pay attention to spelling and grammar. Overall, I corrected one mistake in the above English description, and four in the French one. Even the French room name has a spelling mistake! For Heaven's sake, don't you guys have a "stuck-up old aunt" who could proofread your content?! Web pages are like resumes - poor spelling can majorly impact the way you're being perceived.
  • There's a fair chance that the number of players who could comfortably inhabit your room will be higher than the number of players required to handle the puzzles. There's no real harm in allowing in a group of players of that first number's size, but even if you do, the second number should be clearly advertised.
  • Consider the idea of keeping up-to-date statistics on your rooms, and broadcast them on your website. What's the success rate? The best time? The best time without any hints? It doesn't have to be in real time - although this should be quite achievable these days.
    • Along the same lines, players love to keep score, and compare their times with others'. Anything you might come up with as an "alternate scoring" is likely to grab their attention...
    • ...but some scoring systems can also be criticized for being too obscure and/or arbitrary. If every scoring component is stated in advance, your most competitive players will be grateful.

Marketing - Audience & Management

  • In the first opening months of an Escape Room venue, there should be always be someone with a vested interest (a designer, co-owner, etc) present on site. Salaried employees just won't have the same incentive.
  • If you're adding an escape room as a "side" to another business, you should still think of it as a separate "company within your company", with a stand-alone booking system and dedicated attendants.
  • Be aware of your limitations. When I tried booking Remue-Méninges' "Donjon & Démons" room, I found out that it was marked as unavailable for an entire week. Turns out that the game master was taking a vacation. After double-checking with him, they agreed to book it for me. I'm extremely grateful that our host agreed to tweak his vacation plans for us... but I'm equally glad to see that they never tried to "work something up" with a replacement GM. Better avoid providing your customers with a lessened experience, under the pretense of answering their needs.
  • Having a "meta-game" that links your rooms into a common narrative (or even just having a reward system) can provide an additional incentive to get players to come back and play all your rooms.
  • Seriously consider creating video clips to use during introduction. Some companies make an introductory video for each room, which is awesome, but others have a single movie used to provide general rules, and that works well too. My second viewing was just as agreeable as the first, perhaps even more.
  • Having said that, if your fancy upscale room starts off with some recorded audio(/video) bit which lasts several minutes, it should absolutely be recorded by someone with professional experience (a voice actor, a radio host, etc). A designer recording his own blurb is like a salesman making his own TV ad: rarely as good as expected. And if you really think you can pull it off, make sure to get an honest second opinion.
  • If the game setting allows for it, why not give out a small promotional gadget to your players? In Obsidem's Dynamic Duo, the sleeping masks used to cover each player's eyes were theirs to keep afterwards. I gave mine to my daughter, who loved using it.
  • Coming up with a "temporary room", whether if it's one-time-only (for a single event) or recurring (to promote your venu in trade shows) can be a great promotional tool, and it can even be a way of trying out a couple ideas you're just not sure about.
  • Let it be known that, without a doubt, kids can enjoy escape games. Of course, designing the room will be trickier. You might require extra testing to ensure you've got the difficulty level right. And you'll have to design your room using sturdier components than usual, but in the end you'll create an experience youngsters will talk about for days.
    • When designing a room that might host younger children, keep in mind that they don't have the same reach as adults... and vice-versa. My 11-year-old son easily retrieved a key from an "impossible to reach" hole.
    • Even if younger kids aren't your intended demographics, consider whether they could participate in your venue, and if that's the case, think about what you could do to accommodate them a bit. For instance, we were once told that the soundtrack volume would be reduced during our play session (a nice gesture).
    • Customer service can take many shapes. Offering a somewhat scared 8-year-old to come visit your control room? If you're ok with that, why not?
  • Take advantage of social networks to see what's being said about your business. It's a good idea to keep a quiet eye on what's being said about your company, even when you're not directly involved...
  • If you're about to close down a room for good, why not allow your customers to take a bit more pictures than usual? Even better, make your own photo shoot to keep your room alive for posterity.
  • Learn to identify what's no doing great in your rooms, and even if you're unable to fix them in the short run, leverage that insight in your next design.

Other Links

  • The Escape Assist company has a blog where it published a couple interesting tips on protecting the players from themselves.

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