Reality is a Game

Game thinking from Adam Clare

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Extrapolating Current Designs Trends in Escape Rooms

Escape room I designed in Hunstville

Escape room I designed in Hunstville (a Zig Zag escape room).

Escape rooms keep changing and evolving. Since I first started looking at them five years ago  I’ve seen the market grow from a couple games here and there to seemingly every city now having an escape room. They also have evolved from random logic puzzles strewn across a room to complex interactive experiences. In some cases modern escape rooms have more in common with classic ARGs or LARPs.

We witnessed great change in the last five years, but what does the next five years hold for us? 

Here I will outline some key trends in the escape room industry and speculate on what the future may hold. The popularity of escape rooms is still on an upward trajectory and certain owners are pushing the envelope on what’s possible in an escape game. We’re witnessing an increase in influence from other mediums while more people become designers; these ‘outside’ influences will make for better games.

Escape the Game cast of characters.When I wrote my book, Escape the Game, two years ago I did so because I saw too many rookie mistakes in game design in escape rooms. Thankfully, in two short years many of those mistakes no longer get made. Indeed, the average quality of an escape room in 2017 is greater than in it was in 2015. This trend will continue.

At Wero Creative, we’ve seen the wants of clients grow inline with what I’ve outlined below.

The growth of the escape room market has been stellar. As I was writing this post Room Escape Artist posted about the expansion of the industry in the USA. In 2014 they recorded only 44 escape rooms in the country, midway through 2017 and the number is already standing at 1,800!

Theatre and Performance

Star Wars Disney

In July, Disney announced that their new Star Wars theme park will be like a real life Westworld. Each visitor will be their own Star Wars character complete with their own storyline; every Disney employee in the park will also be in character. The ultimate idea is to allow visitors to explore the entire area in a game like experience. It’s a long-form escape game.

Disney isn’t the first to think of making experiences this immersive (as in having elements of interactivity, gameplay, and actors). Indeed, this has been going on for years and predicted in too many Sci-Fi stories to list.

Interactive theatere has been around for years with theatre groups creating plays that directly involve the audience or take place in unique locations. In the last  couple of years we’ve seen the theatrical and escape room worlds meet. In the early days of escape rooms their  might be an ‘actor’ present in the room. The simplistic characters within the escape provided little to the story while they gave hints and enforced the game rules. Today some companies push the boundaries of actor engagement in gameplay further.

One such company is the Brooklyn-based Third Real Projects. You can see on their projects page an evolution of interactive events that follow the industry trend. Their current production, Then She Fell, captures this well, just read the description:

Then She Fell is a fully immersive, multi-sensory experience in which only 15 audience members per performance explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into a lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.


Other companies doing similar work include Strange Bird Immersive with an intense Houdini themed guided seance. This is notable because it represents the traditional escape room approach with theatre added instead of the other way around.

Secret City Adventures is another escape room company that has evolved into producing more theatre-like experiences. Due to design constraints at their first series of self-produced rooms (located in a tourist destination) they used people to monitor the players in case of damage. Fittingly they incorporated them into the game as actors. A logical route. This year they are running an escape game in another tourist destination which spans the entire site of an old village. It involves actors to deliver the story and game while the teams scurry from the post office to an old school house and beyond.

In Nashville, the CMA Music Festival created an “outdoor escape experience” for festival attendees. It encouraged participants to explore Nashville in interning ways. In previous years such a game would be called a LARP or ARG, but the awareness of escape rooms have changed the way we talk about these games.

Here we have proof of the viability of escape games that incorporate traditional theatrical techniques and novel locations to get attention (and players). Expect to see more escape games like this in the future.

The ESC Game Theater in New York provides a series of mini-games to entertain players.  While not a proper escape room the facility provides us a window of what can be for escape games. The games are short, challengning , and plentiful while their business model is similar to that of an arcade. Worth looking at, and the Verge did just that.

Technological Integration

It is common for people within the escape rooms industry to get hooked on the “generations” idea of technology in games. Don’t fall into this trap. Just use the right technology for the room, theme, and budget. The very breakdown of generations doesn’t make sense when you look at escape rooms outside of North America.

camera feed

Instead, look at what is happening around you. Game designers are incorporating all sorts of technology into their rooms, sometimes a rope and pulley system is perfect and other times you might want to use lasers. As always, refer back to your theme to decide what to use (knowledge of the person building the room matters too).

A great example of this is a room made by two Disney Imagineers called The Nest by Scout Expedition. Within the room players need to find audio cassettes and listen to them to reveal the story. Instead of using some high-tech  solution they chose to use something that works with their theme and is a proven, reliable, technology.

Indeed, in an interview with the Verge the designers talk about the importance of designing the entire set and using it to tell the story.

It’s a testament not just to the narrative contained on the tapes, but to the storytelling done by the physical space itself — something that the creators’ work as Imagineers made them particularly suited for. “We are most confident in being set designers, and creating the set,” Leinenveber explains. “We wanted the set to be able to inform the story just as much as the writing.”

Technology provides cool elements to a room but a designer ought not to rely on technology itself to make the room interesting. Technology is just a way to deliver game content – not the content itself.

AR in Escape Rooms

It looks like augmented reality (AR) will finally become useful thanks to Apple’s AR Kit. Just watching this video about gave me a ton of ideas of how to incorporate AR puzzles into a room.

Indeed, finding AR being used in escape rooms is easy. With AR Kit the amount of cool puzzles featuring AR will only increase.

In Hong Kong an AR escape game exists already, Lost HK. The game incorporates AR into the traditional escape room experience. Time Out Hong Kong wrote about it and it sounds like a must-play room.

The AR used in this game, which is based on a tragedy that some Hongkongers will remember, sees team members viewing on the tablet’s screen how the living room where the fire started looked before the flames were lit. This is despite the fact that the real room the team stands in is actually set during the inferno, hence the game’s name. It’s a way to use the AR technology to view different time periods at exactly the same moment and work clues out in exactly the same room.

Some companies building AR technology for games already are banking on AR rising in popularity. Cluetivity, based in Berlin, have quite good looking tech (I’ve seen it in action at some gaming conferences). They are more like a treasure hunt than an escape game, but it’s indubitable the two shall merge. In Amsterdam you can play one of their games to explore the city.

In Toronto I met with *no campfire required who are working on similar technology for conferences and events. They expect their AR tool to be used in tourism and large scale events to encourage exploration and learning. This technology can be used inside a small space like a building or even just a room.

Every year, making AR experiences gets easier and we’ll see more escape rooms incorporating the technology into their rooms.  In terms of nomenclature I expect that phrases like “mixed reality” or “hyper reality” to be used more. We shall see.


A quick note on virtual reality (VR) in escape rooms: I think that AR will win out over VR because more people can see what’s going on. VR single player escape games are something else entirely.

Political Escape Rooms

Technological change in games comes as no surprise nor should cultural change. Like other forms of storytelling, escape rooms can be used to invoke emotions and share issues that others ought to be aware of. Thus, we get political escape rooms.

There are overt politically-themed escape rooms like this one on the Cuban Missile Crisis or a series on escaping Cold War Berlin. These use politics merely as a theme, what I find more interesting are rooms that are political.

In the Canadian oil city of Calgary sits an escape game that you can play in one of their libraries. Called Unlocking Homelessness and made by Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth the game focuses on issues impacting indigenous homeless youth.  The CBC has more:

Each room has a different theme. The party room is filled with props related to drug and alcohol addictions; the alley room, accessed by climbing through a cabinet, deals with death and grief; the nice house symbolizes success and explains how to maintain a happy life.

Political escape rooms will grow as more people get into designing escape games, which we are already seeing. Keep an eye on Breakout EDU and their massive community around making educational games.

Growth of the DIY scene

pics and camera

The truth is that anybody can build an escape room experience. The hardest part is making it look good and making it an enjoyable experience to play. Challenges of these sorts can stop the hobbyist, enthusiasts, and aspiring professional designers from making rooms – if only due to the cost alone.

The growth of the DIY escape room scene is great to see! There are tons of puzzle ideas you can use scattered around the web (like this list of 101 puzzle ideas or the company Lock Paper Scissors). Like other DIY scenes many people get their ideas from experience followed by modification.

One individual is blogging their DIY escape room building experience here. I’m sure in the future we’ll see similar efforts and documentation to help even more people get into designing games.

Combine the growth of DIY escape rooms with the desire to add meaning (like politics) into games and we’ll see some cool new rooms.

Escape the Name

Escape the Game by Adam Clare

Escape the Game by Adam Clare

To be blunt: escape rooms is a horrible term. In my experience people don’t like the implication that the word ‘escape ‘ has. Escape from what? Is it like those Saw movies? I’ve talked to educational clients who about want an escape room, however, it can’t be called an “escape room” because parents wouldn’t approve of it.

Personally, I’ve never made a room that actually requires players to escape. I find it more fun to design experiences to motivate people to do something out of interest than out of fear.

Boda Borg is a great example of a game that is pushing some of the boundaries mentioned above and changing the name. They simply call it ‘questing’.

As escape rooms diversify in what they do and what kind of experience they provide (like theatre) then the term escape room becomes less appropriate. I’m at a loss to think of an appropriate alternative.

If the industry wants the next five years to see the same growth as the previous five then it will need to come up with a better term than escape rooms.

Any suggestions?

TL;DR of the Future of Escape Rooms (Conclusion)

  • Competition is getting more intense in the escape room industry.
  • Use of AR will increase.
  • In the next five years we’ll witness a growth of interesting, meaningful, and technologically advanced games.
  • Designs and ideas from outside the escape room world bring new life to escape games.
  • Immersive experiences beyond the game are an attraction unto themselves.
  • Technological gizmos are present in a lot of escape rooms. Use whatever is right for your theme.
  • The DIY scene is growing and we’ll see more artistic/political games.
  • Change the term ‘escape room’ to be something more palatable.

Looking for custom escape room designs? Feel free to contact me.

Bruce Sterling in 10 Minutes Summarizes State of AR

In the shortest keynote I’ve ever seen, Bruce Sterling sums up what’s up with augmented reality (AR). This is from the Augmented World Expo which ran earlier this month.

Via bOing.

Augmented Reality: An OS Attempt Plus Some Canadian News

Dekko is a new company that is trying to create an operating system (OS) for augmented reality (AR) glasses and other devices. Importantly, they don’t seem to be working on hardware and are focused on software; similar to Microsoft’s approach with Windows. Gamasutra has a good introduction to Dekko and their plans. They seem to understand the current limits of AR and are directly addressing them:

By the time the technology is released, the aim is to provide the OS with the capability to map surrounding rooms, streets and wherever else you choose to go in full 3D, and use this information to potentially reconstruct surroundings to suit each particular app.

“If a physical marker/image is needed to use the app, no one will use it twice,” explains Miesnieks. “Dekko works anywhere that your camera can see something.”

“The content needs to be truly in the world, not floating on the screen,” he continues. “Dekko’s 3D tracking and reconstruction allows game content to truly be part of the 3D world with occlusion & collisions between digital content and real structures.”

In Canada, there are some efforts to improve the world of AR. In Edmonton there is a company focused on modifying the Moverio (Andriod-based wearable tech) to be used for a training device. Being Edmonton-based they are looking into ways the AR can be used for companies working in the tar sands. Similarly, Vuzix has the same plan to go after industrial training – neither company is looking into gaming.

While we wait for this AR tech to become more accessible, the CBC has a good rundown on what’s going on in Canada when it comes to AR companies.

Thanks to Dave! Who is working a neat AR game (more on that in a couple months).

Thoughts From the OARN Conference

The Ontario Augmented Reality Network (OARN) at their annual conference recently and I was fortunate enough to attend. The main thrust of the conference was to look how augmented reality (AR) is currently being used and how we can use it in the future. An ongoing theme from the day is what are the cultural implications of AR and what non-cultural impacts does the technology have.

Without further ado, here are the notes I took over a month after the actual conference:

Bruce Sterling‘s keynote

  • He has a lot of AR stuff on his Wired blog
  • He mentioned the new aesthetic, which is not referenced often enough for me.
  • He loves the Gartner hype cycle and Layar (the AR companies are still around and making money). See Digifest 2012 notes.
  • We’re on the downward slope right now and most implementations of AR are more like interactive design elements.
  • Claims the future is all HUD. When he recently tried an AR HUD he got “simulation sickness”
  • In Hollywood they make the sets in fully 3d then the director can see the set before its made, insanely practical.
  • Nokia’s “collapse is the biggest failure in the tech industry.”
  • The technical boundaries are seething that only programmers care about, consumers don’t care abut the technical boundaries. Consumers don’t see boundaries as their impression of computers and computer enhanced vision is altered influenced by the movies
  • I need to look into the PlaceRaider app that hijacks a phone that can create a 3d model from random photos
  • Intel wants more AR on a pc to sell more chips that suck more juice
  • He wants omnipresent registration systems for AR but never mentioned privacy concerns (except for the spying app)
  • When asked about surveillance he says that people are subtitled if they are doing wrong things. “If these are issues you need to engage with a technical literate political people ” Would love to see him go up against Steve Mann. (I have no idea what this notes means, but I’m not going to remove it as I’m sure it means something)
  • Aside: he gave his presentation using paper notes and a PDF of only images.

Noteworthy projects:
This list doesn’t include the “traditional AR” (that term was used throughout OARN and I love the thought of that term in an industry less than 5 years old) of image overlays as there are many examples of that.

Digital Delta design makes junaio which is a AR browser for iOS

  • This is very practical for showing off locations that area unique or is closed access to public. Showing medical facilities

Rob MacDougall from western

  • He made Tecumseh Lies Here using open source tools
  • One part of the game had people physically move a box to a specific location to unlock it
  • Incorporate the modern hardware into a story about the past
  • The plaque is a lie – look into augmented plaques that subvert the original plaques

XMG Studios

  • Ghostbusters uses the four square API, they built it as a tech showcase more than anything
  • Designed for 180 degrees instead of having the person spin around
  • Augmented reality 1.0 is ghostbusters, placing games over the world
  • 2.0 is virtual tag, multiplayer FPS, physics based angry birds style, all multiplayer really (that’s the Wii U)
  • 3.0 is the future 5+ years virtual and real avatars meet. Essentially second life in reality, which is reality? It’s Snow Crash
  • Find it isn’t working well with freemium model, not as many design opportunities to tap into
  • Little Android presence, iOS users 3-4x more profitable, piracy is a concern

Helen Papagiannis

  • A designer, PhD researcher and artist specializing in AR
  • Her blog on AR.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • All these AR tools can be used for fast 3d modelling, will the future of modellers be in p
  • Most speakers think that the capability to make augmented reality experiences is there and now we need the artists and other creators to get on board.
  • I think it comes down to engaging story over technical limits, but there are technical limits that still exist which impede people from using AR. The main problem is there is no standard device or app.
  • Vuzix is already making “smartglasses”, I wonder how this compares to the google effort. Vuzix has lost money (~3 million) three years in a row.
  • Most AR things discussed seem focused on individual interaction with little to no group/shared experiences. Maybe the big thing in AR will be able to create a large group experience and an individual one at the same time.
  • There are no standards in AR, there’s no HTML equivalent everything’s custom. This will slow adoption of the technology, but the technology is changing so quickly that standards are nearly impossible to write. Give it time.
  • AR is great for doctor training, can get the look and feel of bodies. Haptics are insanely important to this.
  • We should be able to use AR to make cramped spaces feel more open; a small apartment can feel like a mansion.

Tools to create AR experiences:

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