In early May 2017, I was fortunate enough to be invited along to Up The Game in the Netherlands. Those of you who haven’t heard about the conference before can read a detailed report on last year’s edition on exitgames.co.uk. Broadly speaking, it brings together creative minds from across the industry and adjacent spaces, putting together a programme of topics targeted at owners.
As a non-owner, I was curious to see how interesting I’d find the experience – there are plenty of parts of the business where I have little desire to know more, so the question for me was, would I be able to find enough to keep me interested for the full day.
First off, though, let’s talk about the venue. The Prison Dome in Breda is an amazing location for any conference: it’s huge, it’s beautiful and, to be honest, it’s slightly intimidating. For an escape room conference, it seemed particularly appropriate to use a location that was designed to lock people up…
As well as a huge central atrium for ad hoc discussion, there were four separate rooms in use at any one time, varying from a capacity of 250+ down to around 50 or so. At times, attendees were turned away from some of the rooms because they were just too full – some talks really were that popular.
I chose to attend Scott Nicholson‘s talk about designing the Red Bull Mind Gamers’ escape room, Lisa and David from Room Escape Artist, talking about the player perspective, Gwyn and Amy from Fire Hazard talking about imaginary worlds in public spaces, and Nick Moran from Time Run on the tools of immersion. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that there were around seven slots on offer, so I must have skipped some. There were a variety of reasons for that: one because I was involved in a panel, one because the talk I wanted to attend was full and one because I didn’t find anything of interest. In fact, I should say of more interest than talking to the random people hanging around in the dome. The talks were certainly interesting but I really enjoyed those ad hoc conversations with random owners and enthusiasts.
Scott’s talk on the RBMG championship was interesting – covering some of the pitfalls of working with many stakeholders and the problems that occur when there isn’t a single designer that oversees the project from beginning to end. For me, it was particularly interesting to hear an “official” version of the story from him after hearing various off-the-record comments from people involved in the event. I’m sure there were many more stories that he didn’t share, but I was surprised at just how open he was about some of the difficulties they’d encountered. Certainly, I hope whoever takes on the project next year chooses to watch the recording (which, along with all the talks, will hopefully be made available fairly soon). I’m not sure whether it was useful to the wider escape room world, although I’m sure one or two of the points mentioned were relevant, and anyone that gets tempted into working with the media should probably take note!
David and Lisa provided a fun look at various issues they’d encountered while playing their 300+ escape rooms. Being an avid reader of their blog (you really should check it out if you haven’t already – it covers plenty of general topics that are interesting to non-US readers), I’d already heard many of the stories they recounted, but it was still fun to hear things first hand and, obviously, I hadn’t heard everything before. This was probably one of the most useful talks for owners to attend because they’ve really experienced a huge breadth of what the industry has to offer and their approach of taking individual problems and illustrating with a good example worked well.
Amy and Gwyn talked about some of the challenges of running events outdoors, how to retain immersion and how to handle larger groups. As a past player of various Fire Hazard games, I loved hearing about some of the obstacles they’d had to get past and the small things they did to improve the experience for their players. They also ran a game during the presentation via hidden codes in the foils, which was a fun idea although it did result in a few distractions as players rushed to be the first to find…
Nick waxed lyrical on how to build an immersive environment, and I was impressed at how well he handled the audience. Having talked to him on several occasions on the subject, I already knew he had a deep understanding of the area, but on this occasion he went in at a much more accessible level, giving attendees some simple rules to apply to their room design. If you’re thinking of designing a game, then it’s well worth tuning in to the recording at some point to pick up a few simple tricks that will significantly improve your players’ experience.
The Small Talk
As I mentioned above, the best part of the experience was hanging around chatting to the owners in the main hall. I bumped into Sam from Escape Boats, a new venture in Dublin which sufficiently intrigued me that I’m now very tempted by a quick trip across the Irish Sea to check it out. I got to talk to the owner of Tulleys Farm, a farm and scare attraction that is looking to open up (non-scary) escape rooms over the remainder of this year. Great to see that they’re taking the idea seriously and had brought along the whole team to find out more. I always enjoy chatting with Danny from Escape, and this was no exception as he updated me on a couple of projects he’s been involved with – I wish I could tell you more, but what I can tell you is that it’s very worthy of excitement!
One of the escape rooms that I couldn’t visit in Amsterdam was Escap-o-holics, but I got the chance to spend a few minutes chatting with the owner about them moving to a new venue and their ambitious plans to create an escape room with a 1 or 2% success rate by making a series of progressively harder “spaces” (I’m not convinced that’s a great idea but it’s still an interesting angle). During one of the skipped sessions, I talked to another Amsterdam owner, Mikhail, who’s behind MyEscape.Club, where we’d played two great games a couple of days earlier. At the after party, I had a long chat with Bob Melkus, the CEO of Fox in a Box, in which he talked about the RBMG competition, the challenges of running a large escape room and how he got into the industry in the first place. I also bumped into Tomáš Kučva from The Chamber and got the chance to thank him for creating the great rooms we got to play in Prague recently – I’d dropped them an email afterwards but there’s nothing quite like getting to say it in person.
I could go on and on – I talked to puzzle designers, immersive theatre creators, games masters, suppliers and a host of other people about, well, whatever they were interested in. It was a great experience from the start of the pre-conference party on the Monday evening to when I finally left the after party in the small hours of Wednesday.
If you’re an owner, I highly recommend heading along at least once – meeting people in the industry is a great experience and you’ll pick up plenty of tips for your business in the future. If you’re a player, then it’s probably not as useful but for the uber-enthusiasts, tack on a trip to Amsterdam (my review will be out soon but I can tell you now that it’s well worth the trip!) and then head over to the conference and spend as much time as possible chatting to owners, designers and people from the adjacent industries – it’s a pretty special experience.