Reality is a Game

Game thinking from Adam Clare

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I Made a Game About Social Distancing, Apple and Google Didn’t Approve

Last month, when I went out for a walk I noticed that the social distancing put in place to help us hold back the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t being as respected as I had hoped. Groups of people were walking around as if there wasn’t a contagious coronavirus being spread by asymptotic people. I wondered what can I do about this?  So I tried making my first endless runner game in which the player needs to avoid people.

Making a simple game to convince people to stay apart turned into a larger endeavour than I thought it would. Apple and Google wanted to keep their distance from the game with gusto.

Why make a game about social distancing?

The primary motivation stemmed from not seeing people adhere to good social distancing practices. It would be nice if more people stayed physically separated so we can flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Even though nearly ever y country on Earth is experiencing very real consequences from the pandemic there are people who are risking lives by not taking it seriously.

Making my social distance game

The game is divided into two parts: an endless runner and a stay at home option.

Gameplay is predictable for the endless runner since it works well with the theme of keeping away from things. The other part takes place in the home in which the player can look outside or watch TV.

I create rules for myself for fun little side projects like this one; the most important rule is my self-imposed time limit. The time limit is there to keep me in check and, as you will see, is a good way to keep my sanity.

Anyway, I stated by making a prototype using a kit. At first it felt like a match made in heaven and got a quick prototype up and running.

But then the kit and I didn’t get along. I ran into HTML5 build errors I couldn’t fix, Unity collaboration issues (even though I was the only one working on it) and a myriad of tiny annoyances with how the kit was built versus how I build things. I reached my self-imposed time limit of the weekend and decided to pack up the project and put in my archive of failed ideas.

Everything changed when the United Nations asked for help.

To be very clear, they never asked me for help they asked all of us. And they are paying in exposure.

A few days after packing up my failed attempt I the United Nations call out to creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19 got released. I rebuilt my game from scratch the following weekend, thankfully I was able to reuse the home scene and models at least.

You can see on the right screen below a message directly from the UN call for creatives.

Finished and rejected

Keep Your Distance screenshot

Upon completion* of the game I submitted it to Apple and Google and got rejected by both.

I’ve never had a game rejected before, let alone one that gets flagged for “potentially objectionable content, such as nudity, pornography, and profanity.” At first I was shocked, but then I saw their rationale.

Clearly I have a Pollyannaish view of the world and I assumed my playful little game wouldn’t cause a fuss, heck it might even be a moment or relatable levity in a stressed-out world. I should have known better.

Obviously, I don’t think that what I made is offensive or is inappropriate otherwise I wouldn’t post this. It’s important to stop the spread by avoiding contact with other people. Don’t listen to me, listen to these smarter people.

It appears that any submitted app which mentions COVID-19 is rejected unless it is accompanied with evidence that it’s from a reputable source. And that makes sense to me. There is so much misinformation being spread that it’s rational to try and block any non-health app referencing COVID. I do see a problem that there’s no step to figure out what is unethical profiteering or spreading misinformation and what is somebody making a game just to commiserate with others (like mine). Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the reviewers end trying to filter through all the chum tossed at the respective app stores.

Each company reacted differently, with Google being the most severe.

Keep Your Distance logo

Google

Google went one stop short of the ban hammer for our entire account. Stating that even submitting the app was a strike against our developer standing and if we crossed the line again they might disable all of our accounts and related accounts! All hail the monopolistic flexing of Google.

Here’s the boiler plate text they sent:

Please note that additional suspensions of any nature may result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.

I honestly have no idea if hosting gameplay footage on YouTube (owned by Google) will only get me more punished.

Apple

App rejected by Apple

Apple let me resubmit as much as I wanted, so for about a week I got into a routine of getting a daily rejection.

The rejections were vague at first with nothing specific mentioned, leaving me unclear what exactly the problem was. I naively figured using copy suppled by the WHO would be ok.At first, I thought it was overt COVID-19 text flagging the app. For example, linking to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund (even though it’s legit).

As I submitted edited versions to Apple they finally narrowed down that COVID-19 was in the metadata. Fair enough, so for about 15 minutes each day (remember how I mentioned I limited how much time I’d spend on this) I would hunt down what I thought they found, modify it and resubmit. Searching Unity, then Xcode, and double checking all the non-game content for any mention of COVID provided zero results.

Ultimately, I gave up on April 18th when I got bored of the rejection routine and it became abundantly clear Apple won’t accept anything remotely connected to physical distancing. From the last rejection:

[Y]our entertainment or gaming app inappropriately refers to the COVID-19 pandemic in its concept or theme.

At least they didn’t threaten to remove my account and any related accounts.

So what now?

I heeded the objections from Apple and Google and updated the Itch.io page. It now warns people that COVID-19 is mentioned in the game. Play it for yourself and make your own decision about the game.

Removed from game

This was removed from the submitted game.

To be very clear: I’m not a victim in any of this. I just wanted to share this story about my social distance game with the world since I can’t effectively share the game itself. This whole episode also gets me thinking about how much cultural power Apple and Google have. I understand why they reacted to my app they way they did (well Google could’ve been more chill), but we must think about what other instances may exist in which these two American companies filter or censor what gets distributed globally.

*Obviously this can use more work and I would like to make it looks better myself but it’s the end of the semester and things like grading are more important.

tl;dr

Play Keep Your Distance

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.

VR

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.

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