Last month saw the third edition of ERIC, the Escape Room Industry Conference, which took place over two days in the outskirts of London. For those of us who attended the previous two events, it’s hard to express how big a step up this was. That’s not to belittle what came before – they were great – but to highlight just how professional things were this time around. Of all the people I spoke to over the two days, not one of them suggested that this was anything other than the best conference they’d been to (and I talked to a good proportion of the 500 people who attended!).
The CEME centre may not have been the most glamorous (or accessible) location in the world, but it was a great conference venue once you were there. It was sufficiently big to fit everyone in but sufficiently small that you kept bumping into other attendees. The exhibitor space was in the middle, where some of the food was served, and so became a focal point for the whole event, something that Up the Game got horribly wrong this year. The team had managed to find enough content to fill all three stages for most of the two days – and left gaps in the schedule rather than adding in a talk that people didn’t want. I never got the feeling they were scraping the barrel, and the vast majority of talks were extremely well attended (including more than a few which were actually full).
With three tracks and a lot of people to talk to, I had to miss out on plenty of intriguing presentations, but I did manage to drop in on a variety of interesting talks. First up on the main stage was Creating Ghosts from Chris Lattner (from THE ROOM, Berlin), which was focused on creating immersive experiences. Lots of takeaways, but I loved the focus he has on not breaking immersion – all interactions with the room, from the initial emails to the point you turn up, and beyond, are done in character. They even go as far as pretending to ask the escape room if it’s OK for you to use their bathrooms. Even better, the players mimic that commitment to immersion when they’re contacting the company to ask for clarification on anything – taking on the personas of ghost-hunting interns.
Next up, I headed to a talk given by Shell Burton from Make Your Escape. She’s created an impressive pair of games that can be played back to back: Dystopia and Utopia. I loved hearing about what she’d created and the challenges encountered along the way. Something she echoed, that I’ve heard many times before was that they’ve reduced the numbers of different options to the game. They could originally set up differently depending on whether people wanted to play versus mode, an individual game or back to back (in either order), but they found it was too complicated and ended up streamlining the setup. As so many owners will tell you – keep the reset simple!
After lunch I headed over to listen to Aitor Sas Castillo talking about Unreal Room Escape‘s designs (where they also announced their two newest games: Endurance II and Worm). He shared, via an interpreter, five key things if you want to make your game as successful as possible. I can’t remember the exact list, but three quick things he covered were to use genuine props, get large spaces and extend the game time. They all made sense to me, although whether you have the luxury for that will depend on your budget and location. Creating long or large games in London is tough!
I followed that up with the Dimitrises from Paradox Project in Greece, a real treat for me given that I’d just come back from playing their games. I was sad that they couldn’t talk more in detail about their rooms because they were avoiding spoilers, but there was still plenty on the core subject matter: the trials and rewards of 3-hour games. The ability to tell an extended story was obviously key in that, but so was handling the players. For example, how do you cope with them getting tired? Their approach is to offer a break halfway through – even further extending their activity. It’s a good job that they allow people to book games at pretty much any time of the day or night or else there would hardly be any slots available!
The absolute highlight of the talks was from David Spira, one half of Room Escape Artist. There was so much good stuff here, but I’ll focus on two key takeaways. First, he came up with the hierarchy of escape room needs. I’ve been trying to articulate a similar idea for a long time without success, but this elegantly encapsulated it. Broadly speaking, it’s about the need to sort out each of these steps before moving on to the next: customer service, gameplay, set design, story, cohesion. For example, there’s no point worrying about the story if your gameplay is weak because you’ve got illogical puzzles. Obviously it’s not quite that simple, but it’s a great starting point. The second highlight of his talk was about building to your skill level: it’s far better to fully realise a less impressive experience than to poorly implement a “dramatic” location. Pro tip: if you think those are good points, then you may want to sign up to RECON 2020 in Boston, the convention that the team behind Room Escape Artist are running in August next year.
To round out the first day, I headed along to the “Market Toppers” panel with representatives from Paradox Project (Athens), Crime Runners (Vienna), THE ROOM (Berlin), Time Run (London), Sherlocked (Amsterdam) and The Chamber (Prague). I’ve played 19 games from those companies, including at least two from each. All of them are amazing companies that have created some of the very best immersive experiences. There were some interesting questions and answers, but none more so than the response to the question “How does the UK stack up against Europe”: “There are no good games in London”. Perhaps a little harsh, but I think it does highlight that there’s a shortage of truly amazing games in a city that has really lacked the premium offering since Time Run shut its doors. Let’s hope that changes!
Day 2 kicked off with an interesting talk by Alastair Aitchison on game design theory. There were lots of interesting snippets, but I was particularly intrigued by his description of player taxonomy and the observation that we lack games aimed at individual players beating the rest of their teams – let’s hope that idea doesn’t become a normal thing in escape rooms! He also observed that in films, after the climax, there’s a stage where things calm down and the plot is tied up. Escape Rooms miss a trick there although, interestingly, many of my favourite games either have an epilogue at the end, or a few small, easy puzzles after the most exciting part of the game. I definitely think he’s onto something here.
From there I jumped straight into the lightning talks – a few minutes of chat about smaller subjects in a much more informal manner. It was also the chance for more eclectic conversations, with edible games definitely not being something I’d expected. I’m not convinced of how useful that was in an escape room context, but it was still a fun thing to listen to, and I got to eat a pair of dice too… Plastic Robot were there talking about categorising ERs. I was distinctly dubious at first, but they won me over. This isn’t an academic exercise; it’s about setting expectations for customers. Don’t sell your escape box as an escape room or you’ll find customers disappointed. Similarly, horror or physicality: those are enjoyable experiences but, if you don’t advertise them right, you’ll end up with poor reviews.
Yan Xie from AI Escape was up next with a fascinating insight into the Chinese ER industry, which was part industry analysis and part enthusiast stories. I loved hearing about the players’ union founded by a team that’s played several thousand games between them, as well as games that last several hours, occupy an island or involve a meal. It’s also great to hear the market is still growing and evolving – there’s nothing from China to suggest that we should worry about the industry over in the West.
After hard facts it was on to a more emotional session, with Lukas from Crime Runners talking about what he’d learned building his most recent room. I’ll admit to welling up at some of the sadder moments of his tale – I know Lukas and his partners, and it was clear they’d had some tough times on the way to launching Going Underground – one of the best games I’ve played this year. Fortunately, there was plenty to learn, but he summed it up as this: have awesome partners, solve problems, don’t panic, have spare money, have a network that you can lean on in emergencies, have a backup plan for everything, and improvise if you need to. And the great news is that there was a happy ending!
The last talk I sat through was from Fire Hazard, an urban gaming company that I know well. There was some great stuff from them, but the key points were: these are games, so people must be able to win and lose; digital devices should support the experience, so any interaction with the screen must also then draw you away from it; physical spaces are the game board, so layer it on top of the real world; be the hero, so give players agency; and create cinematic moments. Although they are not all directly applicable to escape rooms, I think there is definitely food for thought here, especially in the last point. People remember those cinematic experiences, so make sure you throw in some moments that will stick out in their memory.
After that I was out of action, first giving a talk on escape room statistics and then being part of the enthusiast panel. Both were fun experiences for me, even if the first was a little stressful. Of course, there was a bunch of other talks that I couldn’t head along to (or, on occasion, missed because I was engrossed in conversation…). I heard great things about Escape Plan‘s Brendan Mills’ introduction to photography for escape rooms. It never ceases to amaze me that escape rooms don’t take this kind of thing more seriously given that word of mouth is the most important driver of business for them. Nick Moran (freelancer and the designer behind Time Run and Sherlock: The Game is Now) gave a talk on pipelining that certainly involved plenty of audience interaction and got lots of positive comments. James Hamer-Morton from Deadlocked talked about creating puzzles for books but by all accounts put on a show that was more like a stand-up routine. I also heard good things about Lewis’ talk (based on his experience setting up the Escapement) on 50 things he wishes he’d known before he started and David Middleton’s on being a design consultant – it turns out he does a lot more than work on Bewilder Box.
And, well, congratulations if you managed to get this far – that was a lot more writing than I expected when I sat down. I think that’s testament to how much fun I had at the event. So many great people, so many great talks, so many great memories. Can’t wait till the next one!