We talked to Nicholson and asked him some questions for a more in-depth look at the topic. Here is our interview!
Adventure-Treff.de: Prof. Scott Nicholson, thanks for taking your time. How did your interest in escape rooms come about? Was there a certain event that triggered it all?
Prof. Scott Nicholson: I’ve been involved with live-action roleplaying games since the 1980s, and my first published game was one of the authors of Cthulhu Live, 1st edition. When I saw escape rooms, I related them to the same kind of things I’d been doing for decades – a group of people working together to solve puzzle and accomplish tasks in a limited amount of time. The main difference is that people playing in an escape room usually don’t take on a persona (although this could be a direction to explore).
When I was in Singapore last year, I was surprised to see Escape Room facilities in most of the (many) shopping malls, so I decided to explore the phenomenon more in-depth.
A.T.: When we visited the escape games convention in Suttgart this year, we were surprised to see nearly no one from the virtual gaming world. Do you think there is enough collaboration between the two worlds?
Scott: I don’t see enough collaboration between the escape room world and any other gaming world. There seems to be a belief that escape rooms are unlike anything else that has come before, but the reality is that it’s just an evolution of what has come before. In my white paper, I explored six precursors to escape rooms: Live-action roleplaying, point-and-click adventure games, puzzle hunts, interactive theater/haunted houses, adventure game shows and movies, and the themed entertainment industry. I feel that the latter – the themed entertainment industry – offers considerable value as a model for escape room facilities wanting to do more than make a quick buck off of the escape room fad.
A.T.: A question that was debated recently was: Is the computer gaming community a possible target group for escape games and similar physical games? Or is it better to address players, that normally wouldn't play virtual games but would do escape rooms, because they have better accessability and are easier to understand for all kinds of people.
Scott: I don’t think we need to spend limited marketing resources on digital gamers, as they already understand why games are motivating and engaging, and make the connection to what is going on. In addition, many of these people are already in online spaces where games are discussed. Since there are limited funds for marketing, it would be better to reach out to those people who don’t engage with games on a regular basis.
Escape Games Convention 2015
Prof. Scott Nicholson is one of the few academics thinking about live escape gaming in their study. During the 1st Escape Game Convention in Stuttgart, he was holding a talk about the industry. It can be watched here:
A.T.: Escape rooms often seem a little bit like a combination of computer games and theme parks. It's physical gaming with a theme. While gaming people seem to be interested a little bit in the topic, people from the amusement industry are not quite yet as open towards the topic.
How is your take on this? Do you think escape gaming might be something we'll see popping up in theme parks on a larger scale?
Scott: I would disagree with the assumption that theme parks are not interested in escape rooms. The challenge with an escape room in a theme park is throughput of guests. We see this challenge during Halloween events, where parks open up haunted houses, which stream hundreds of people an hour and still have long queues.
But Disney, for example, has been incorporating themed puzzle-based attractions for years at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. In games such as Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure and A Pirate's Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas, players go from station to station with searching tasks and light puzzles, which lead to changes in the physical world. We will continue to see a growth in puzzle-based attractions in theme parks. MagiQuest, which started in 2005, is part of the Great Wolf Lodge franchise that is across North America.
Escape rooms are not new; they are just an evolution of other activities. It’s important to look at the experience conveyed and not focus on the padlock-and-blacklight tropes as what goes into an Escape Room-like experience.
A.T.: How important it throughput for the future of live games? How important is automation?
Scott: The current escape room model is a luxury gaming experience – a space reserved for a small group with a personal gamemaster. As such, it is also one of the most expensive gaming experiences that is widely available. Therefore, one model is to play up the luxury aspect – ensure there are nice places for waiting and debriefing, and making the players feel special. This is why I put so much emphasis on making the players the center of the experience and narrative.
This is in conflict with low-budget escape rooms, those where the designer sees themselves as an antagonist to the players, or stories where the players really don’t matter. To survive as a luxury experience, escape rooms need to help the players have the best experience possible and realize that they are a luxury gaming experience.
The other route (which still can incorporate some of the ideas above) is create something more like a theme park experience. The players don’t feel as special and pay a lower cost, but the focus is on throughput (like a haunted house).
A.T.: How important are brands in your opinion? Do you think, translating computer games into physical interactive experiences could be interesting on an economical level?
Scott:Tying into other entertainment properties can be valuable. A movie or TV show tie-in can be a great way to bring people in and have a pre-set world in which players can enter. If players already know the characters and world, then they can immerse themselves much more quickly than if everything is new. However, this also can set up players for disappointment, as there may be high expectations for technology and show integration.
A.T.: How interesting is combining escape room principles with other physical interactive activities (lastertag, crime dinners etc.)? Would it be reasonable to create one larger experiences put together by that way?
Scott: The underlying concepts of escape rooms come from other forms of interactive activities. It is a mistake to focus so heavily on escape rooms as being something unique or new; it is a combination of interactive activities that we have seen and will continue to see. Escape room companies can work with other organizations providing interactive experiences to find connections and grow their income opportunities.
A.T.: And finally, a question we already asked some escape room providers and I need to ask you too, of course: How would you rank puzzle design/interaction design, storytelling and theming/design in terms of importance for a good experience. What comes first and what follows?
Scott: In my opinion, none of these comes first.
The player comes first.
The first question to answer is “what is the player experience we want to create?”
Then, every decision comes out of that answer. Once you know the answer to the player experience, then you can decide a starting point – theme, puzzles, or narrative. From that starting point, every decision you make in the other two need to support that player experience.
Too many rooms start with a cool technology, a set of random puzzles, or a theme, and then they don’t support that with the other elements.
This is my current writing project – a guide to designing rooms that are consistent in theme, challenges, and narrative that all support a player experience.
This is called “Experience design”, and those wanting to learn more can explore this topic on how to design starting with the user experience.
A.T.: Prof. Scott Nicholson, thank you very much for your time!