Because puzzles and challenges are the heart of an Escape Room, there’s plenty of potential for frustration, stuckness and bad experiences. Some traps in Escape Room design are easy to fall into and make for an experience that isn’t fun for players, or prevents them from learning.
Some tried and tested ways round these issues can save a lot of hassle and make your Escape Room a smooth experience. And make it stand out and really pop, so that players think about it afterwards, and digest the learning.
Playtest, playtest, playtest
Your Escape Room – as you first designed it – is probably too hard. It’s really easy to forget how much the players don’t realise, but which you’ve internalised. Some of your puzzles probably have plausible but ‘wrong’ solutions, or blind alleys that will frustrate players. Some of your story beats probably don’t work.
That’s not because you’re a bad designer. It’s just impossible to avoid on a first design. And literally the only way to be sure of fixing these and many more issues is playtesting. Get relevant people to try out your individual puzzles, and get them to try out the whole Escape Room.
They will show you ways to improve your design. Make the improvements, and then playtest it again. Iterate as many times as you can afford to. I guarantee you, this tip for smoothing out your Escape Room experience is worth more than all the others combined.
Work out your hints strategy carefully
The simplest way to avoid players getting stuck is to offer hints. But many Escape Rooms don’t have a great system for this. Making players request a hint when they feel stuck seems pretty safe but many players will refuse, through pride or competitiveness, even if it takes away from their enjoyment of the game.
There are plenty of other options, though. You can build in timed hints that unlock and present themselves without need for a request after a certain time. You can trigger a hint each time there’s an incorrect guess. Or you can give teams a certain number of hint ‘tokens’ – this makes them more likely to use them.
Make sure hints build from subtle to strong. Early hints might just rephrase the question, or point at a general area of importance. Subsequent hints on the same puzzle might give part of the solution, or present an easier version of the puzzle.
Avoid or take care with known sources of frustration
Some things are a recipe for frustration. Timers and time penalties can seem like an obvious way to build excitement, but in a learning escape room, they often make people take short-cuts and avoid hints.
Red herrings and blind alleys are also worth avoiding. It might seem like a good way to up the difficulty, but if a player spends time investigating something that was never going to lead anywhere, it can be an intensely frustrating experience.
Getting stuck on a minor detail will often frustrate, so if you’re using form validation, be sure that you won’t end up in a situation where you’re only accepting words that are correctly capitalised, or a puzzle that can lead to two very similar words, only one of which is accepted.
Make sure things are working on many levels at any given moment
It’s almost guaranteed that what you find most exciting about your Escape Room will be different for others. Some people enjoy:
- World or setting
- A high level of challenge
- Being the hero
It’s almost guaranteed that different players will prefer different things. So give them as many different things at a time as you can. If something is going on with all or most of these at any given moment, then people will always have something to enjoy, whatever their preference.
Make it stand out with something interesting or unusual
If you want to make your escape room pop, think differently and include elements or ideas that will be novel or delightful for your players. You can get ideas from lots of places (some of which we mentioned in Part 1), but here are a few ideas:
- Use a ‘level’ structure instead of a pass/fail series of puzzles – how high a level can they get to?
- Use a branching choices set-up, where their decisions change the path of the story
- Pivot on the story or theme in an unexpected way – the detective story suddenly becomes a love story, or the historical drama a sci-fi
- Include physical elements in a virtual game – send players a series of boxes or envelopes in advance that they’re only allowed to open at certain points
- Offer variable difficulty settings and the ability to switch between them
- Use fake receipts, tickets and other documents (there are lots of sites online where you can create these)
- Allow the players moral choices – will they be the heroes or make off with the loot? Will one player betray the rest?
Don’t forget the debrief
It’s not much of a stretch to say there’s no learning without reflection. Your Escape Room will help people learn (if it’s well put together). But debriefing on the experience will help cement the learning. I tend to structure a debrief around three areas of questioning:
- What happened? (review the experience)
- So what? (what does it mean? What patterns or lessons are there?)
- What now? (how will we apply the learning?)
Round up to fun
There can be so many moving parts, so many things to balance, that it can be easy to create an Escape Room that forgets a key element: fun. Rober Leveille has a great quote: ‘round up to fun’.
In other words, if two things conflict, or if you’re not sure about how to balance everything, go for the thing that’s fun. If people aren’t engaged, they won’t be learning anything.
Earlier parts, and going beyond the article series
I hope this article has built on Parts 1-3, and developed your appetite for Escape Rooms for learning. There’s plenty more in the rest of the series if you’ve not read them yet.
The series is intended to help you if you want to design your own learning escape room, or just learn more about how they work. If you’d like to talk about having a bespoke Escape Room created for your learning experience, please get in touch.