Behind the Scenes, Part 7: Crunch Time

Ever wondered how we design our games? This is the seventh and final post in a blog series about how we approach the challenge.

Someone once told me that “tasks expand to fit the time.” So it always seems to be with our games: even at the end of our longest build cycle yet, all of a sudden it’s crunch time again. (This is also the reason for the dearth of recent blog posts. I’m sorry!) Yes, that means… it’s build week again!

What is “Build Week”?

What we euphemistically call “build week” is in fact roughly a ten-day period in which we scrap an existing game and install a new one. This time around, we’ll be losing one of our two Space Stations (Betelgeuse), and replacing it with A Game Whose Title Will Be Announced Very Soon. (Stay tuned! We’re still working on the scheduling and promo materials.)

“Build Week” actually starts with demolition: before anything new is built, we have to remove the old props and furnishings, discard what we can’t re-use and organize the rest, tear up the floors, pull most of the old wiring, patch the holes, and sand and spackle the walls.

The challenge of running an escape room with a fixed amount of space in a smaller population center is that we can’t rely on a steady stream of new customers: we always need to be creating, so that people who had a great time will want to come back. Unfortunately, this means that each of our games only has a limited lifespan. It also means that games need to be taken offline for a certain amount of time while they’re being replaced — and in the case of an 8-player game like the Space Station, that means our total capacity decreases by over 30% while the game is offline. Every day the game is unavailable carries a major cost to us in terms of lost revenue, so we have a strong incentive to make our build weeks as efficient as possible.

Project Management

Our patented sticky wall: “The finest in project management technology.” ®  Now with built-in spoiler-removing auto-blur capabilities!

As build week approaches, certain issues start coming into focus: project (inte)rdependencies, problems that haven’t been fully defined, solutions that haven’t been specified. Time is suddenly more valuable, so we start to cut the “fat”: puzzles or game mechanics for which the difficulty of fabrication is disproportionate to the delight they add to the experience. When build week arrives, there’s no time for ego: you have to know when to compromise on a project, or even abandon it if it’s threatening to crowd out others.

As our staff has gotten larger, it’s also become more important that everyone has a reference for what they can and should be working on; the last thing we want is for someone with hours available to be sitting on their hands during build.

So Max and I play at being project managers. I can’t say we’re spectacular at it — our team has grown faster than our organizational strategies — but we’re getting better. By this Tuesday’s staff meeting (the last before build), we had every remaining “to-do” item that we could think of entered into Asana (a free online project management tool that we like), with details/dependencies and responsible parties named for each task.

We’ve also replicated a shorthand version of everyone’s Asana list on sticky notes on the wall of our office. (Everyone but Max and me, that is. Why waste a whole packet of sticky notes?) That way, anyone can tell at a glance what’s next, who’s maxed out, who has free time, what’s a priority, what can be done now vs later, which projects other people are working on that we might be able to help with, etc. It’s also pretty satisfying to steal a sticky note from someone else’s column and say, “This project is mine now,” and even more so to remove a completed sticky note from your own column and toss it in the trash.

And That’s a Wrap

This will be my last post in this series. Build Week is going to take all my attention, and anyway, there’s not much more I can add without going into specifics — and who wants spoilers, right?

The good news is that the next post on this site (which will also be replicated on Facebook/Instagram, and sent out to our mailing list via e-mail) will be the official announcement of our newest game, including the theme, opening dates, launch event, and how to book.

A few days ago, I got a call from someone who had recently played the Space Station. He had a few questions about the other themes, but mostly he wanted to tell me how much fun he had and find out when we’d be launching a new 8-player game. The call made me very happy, especially because I was able to answer, “Very, very soon.”

So to anyone who’s also eagerly awaiting this launch: thanks for staying with us thus far. We appreciate that you see value in us bringing you new games. Hell, we appreciate that this is even a real job that we get to do in the first place!

See you on the other side of Build Week,

— Ethan, and the rest of the Escape New Haven team