Ever wondered how we design our games? This is the first post in a new blog series about how we approach the challenge.
On Tuesday night, at our weekly all-staff meeting, we had our final discussion to set the direction of our next game, which will launch “in June” (we hope!) as a replacement for one of our Space Stations. For those of you interested in how the design process works, here’s a little behind-the-scene glimpse of the first stage: choosing a scenario.
What is a scenario? Initially, we used the term “scenarios” to refer to what we now call “games” (the Crypt, the Gallery, the Space Station, etc.). Now, we use it internally in the context of game design to refer to an aspect of that design. The operative “scenario” questions are:
- What kind of world do we want to build?
- What kind of story do we want to tell?
- What do we want people to feel when they enter and as they play?
- How is this different from what we’ve done before?
From the beginning, Max and I had an unspoken philosophy of “puzzles first.” Our approach was to create a mentally stimulating team challenge; our puzzles and game flow were the meat and the bones of the experience we were creating. The trappings it wore (décor, light and sound, and lastly narrative) were dictated by the game’s underlying form, and to be honest, they were secondary to our design.
Fast-forward two and a half years. We’re still unabashed puzzle mavens – and, having played a lot of other escape rooms around the country, we’re still pretty convinced that the quantity, diversity, and creativity of our game “skeleton” is second to none – but we’ve also had the chance to learn from other designers, from the perspectives and talents of our growing staff, and from the tens of thousands of players who have come through our doors.
It turns out that different players place very different “weights” on different parts of their experience. Some groups are well-oiled puzzle-solving machines: to these players, Escape New Haven is a personal challenge, or a mental gym, or a creative outlet. Others come primarily to connect with their teams – to be put in a situation where they’re forced to work together and communicate in new ways. Still others are here to be immersed in a fantasy land: they’re looking for a tangible version of the type of world, narrative, or story that can otherwise only be found in a video game or a book. And for enthusiasts who have played lots of escape games (I think my count is somewhere in the 40s, but I’ve lost track), what we’re looking for in an escape room as players has probably evolved over time, or might even change day to day depending on the situation and who we’re playing with.
So as we’ve grown as a design team, we’ve come to see décor and narrative in a new light. We’ve given more weight to its intrinsic importance, and our emphasis on production has evolved dramatically from the very first game we beta tested in 2014 (who remembers The Workshop, aka “the game we didn’t want to bother decorating”?) to an experience like The Crypt, which (without giving too much away) regularly gives teams the chills as they progress from the dressing room into the movie set itself. And we continue to evolve. In our upcoming game, we have new goals for storytelling:
- Make each major plot development important and unavoidable. Everyone should experience every major piece of the plot. Unless you’re truly in tunnel vision mode, you won’t miss or misunderstand what’s going on.
- Make sure that plot and puzzles are interconnected. Understanding the plot helps you solve the puzzles, and it’s also clear to everyone (within the context of the plot) why each puzzle needs to be solved.
- Include Easter eggs. (Not #eggscapenewhaven Easter eggs. Sorry. That’s coming up, though, so keep an eye out!) Design some small, non-compulsory interactions for those who are less interested in solving the puzzles than they are in exploring the world.
So these days, when we sit down as a full staff to pitch ideas for our next game, our first order of business is to figure out what kinds of scenarios really excite us. Besides answering the four questions I posed above (world, story, impressions, uniqueness), we also need to make sure that any scenario that makes the final cut is something that we can believably create. “Let’s do a room where they’re falling into the Sun” sounds really fun, and it might merit a second look, but if we can’t come up with a way of making players feel like they’re there, we’ll probably pass over that idea.
Tuesday was our final set of scenario pitches, which we’ve honed in on over the past few weeks from an initial set of 5 or 6 ideas. By this week, the team had sort of coalesced into two major camps, each working on a different pitch. We went over slides, drawings, concept photos, Pinterest collections, product specs, videos, voiceovers, 3D models, and had a rousing debate over questions that ranged from, “Can we do this in a way that would excite kids as much as adults?” to, “How can we use noise pollution to our advantage?”
Ultimately we came to the conclusion that we want to proceed with both, one at a time, and that their stories will be interrelated. Of course, I won’t tell you what the two finalists were, or which we decided to go forward with first – you’ll have to wait until the launch party to find out. Just know, for now, that we’re very excited about the idea. It’s going to be different in a few major ways from any of the games we’ve designed or played before, so there’s an element of risk – I’ll talk about this, in very general terms, in a future post – but we’re also drawing on a much larger pool of talent and combined experience than we have in the past, so I’m confident we’re up to the challenge.
Next staff meeting, we’ll be talking about puzzles, which sounds like a good topic for the next post in this series.
Until then, keep on puzzlin’,
(and the rest of the Escape team)