I routinely check out the webpages of new escape rooms around the world just to see if anything interesting pops up. I happened to come across Puzzalarium (http://www.puzzalarium.com/) from San Diego, a mainly two-man operation run by Stevenson Streeper, the designer and overall mastermind, and Daniel Mackey, an engineer in charge of lighting and effects. A little chat box popped up and I got to talking with Daniel. He offered a behind-the-scenes interview and I thought it would be an interesting change of pace for the blog. I warned Daniel that my my modest viewership would be from Toronto, but he made a good point that search engines wouldn’t discriminate
So here it is. DM is Daniel Mackey, and ETO is me. I’ve tried to edit it for length and anything I think might spoil the experience. I’m also not a journalist, so I have no experience on what to ask.
ETO: Prior to opening this place, did you or Stevenson visit any other escape room businesses?
DM: No. Stevenson also runs a local hackerspace, which is the closest thing to a business we have. But nothing in the industry. Stevenson had actually only heard of three escape rooms in the world, when he approached me to do effects.
Now, we have found that there are many 🙂
ETO: What’s a hackerspace, if you don’t mind me asking?
DM: Not at all! It’s like a gym. People who like to make things (hackers, makers, .etc) often need equipment (like arc welders and CNC mills) they can’t afford, so we bought an aircraft hangar at a local airport, filled it with equipment, and people pay monthly dues for free access. We have fingerprint readers on the doors, so people can come and go as they wish.
ETO: So is it more hardware based like with arduinos and the like? When you mentioned hackerspace I assumed it was a software related. I am admittedly clueless!
DM: Haha. Not a problem. I was briefly an actual hacker in my tragically misunderstood teen years. But no, it’s hardware based. We have special equipment for testing and building circuit boards. Of course, there’s a lounge and a sense of community, so people ask questions like “how do I get x working on my linux laptop.” But the hackerspace is all about hardware for the most part. And we have small supplies in a store. So if you need headers or capacitors you can buy them at-cost. We also get a lot of donations, so usually we have free stuff to hand out.
ETO: Very neat. That’s a very nice skillset, especially for a business like this.
DM: Oh, having an aircraft hangar full of machinery you can never afford and people who know what they’re talking about REALLY helps when you’re building stuff.
ETO: So you work on special effects and lighting to make an immersive experience. Is your escape room story-driven?
DM: Yes! We spend a great deal of time on that. I can’t give away spoilers of course. But you might come across a record player for example, and you have to find the needle to hear the voices on it, to hear more of the story for instance. We hire voice actors for most work.
DM: Detail is important to us. We try to create a consistent experience. Even the intercom uses pre-recordings from the voice actors. So when we buzz someone in, they are almost always being welcomed by a .wav file, rather than a person. We treat everything like a science experiment. We track how many times an element was manipulated, and plot it as a function of time. If something isn’t testing well, we fix or replace it. We use a bug tracking system from Atlassian as though we’re building software. We track physical problems with the room, in a bug tracker.
I majored in psychology (the science, not the therapy – how the machinery of the brain creates the illusion of the mind) so we use the same principles they use. We try and track someones emotions throughout the experience. We look at their face, what is their posture, how much are they talking, what do they come back to.. etc.
It’s probably at this point I start realizing exactly how different this place is from the escape rooms I’ve seen. I’m browsing their webpage on another tab, when i notice their leaderboard. There’s a point system on it and unlockable achievements!
ETO: I’ve never seen a concrete scoring system before. Is it based on time, the amount of hints used, and the amount of progress into the game? Does it take into account the number of players as well?
DM: We take into account everything you have mentioned. We have to. Otherwise someone who runs the room solo could never score as well as a group of five. And then what happens if someone runs the room a second time? Do they get twice the points? Do we just keep letting them rack them up? We have to use a weighted system.
ETO: You guys take solo players?
DM: We do not recommend it, but we allow it. The problem is if you have to come back and do it again, it can be tricky. We want you to experience the whole thing at once.
ETO: Wouldn’t someone who’s done your room before have seen a portion of your puzzles?
DM: Yes, but the people that come back are very strange to watch. They don’t give away secrets. Even when the staff isn’t looking. There’s a strong desire to see how you rank compared to your friends. We’ve had requests for CCTV footage because people wanted to see if they were faster. We’re playing with the idea of allowing large groups to watch each other on the monitors, if they are so large that the room can’t take them all and they have to be split.
You’d think it’d be boring, but man, people lean into the screens when they’re watching their friends go through it.
ETO: Wouldn’t you run into the risk of ‘contaminating’ a team, so to speak? Like Team B sees John from team A point at a puzzle, and then at something else, giving a hint.
DM: Yes, and we treat everything like an experiment so we’re still gathering data on the effects of allowing one team to observe another. So far we have found out that if we restrict the cameras, and withhold audio and room diagnostic information (like if a drawer has been opened) the participants can’t gather clues. It’s something we’re still monitoring, but it appears that just the video feed from a single overview camera, is not harmful.
The current explanation is poor resolution. If you get audio, the group gets all the secrets. But a single NSTC (so 480 interlaced) camera, with all the problems of bloom, and distortion, and poor color, just doesn’t seem to deliver enough information to corrupt a team. But we’re still monitoring it.
ETO: Does anyone ever want to keep/buy the video from you? I could see people finding that to be a very novel keepsake.
DM: Yes. They’re most interested in pictures with the staff, team pictures after with their score, and seeing how OTHERs did. But we’ve had requests.
ETO: Do you guys have a general idea of how difficult you want your room to be?
DM: The difficulty of the room responds to the skill of the player. In almost any event, at 45 minutes of a 60 minute session, you should be feeling a certain way. A sort of urgency, but also knowing you’re close. You know how video games do that “hurry up” music, if you’re about to run out of time? We recreate that with visual and audio cues.
So we keep the process moving along.
ETO: That’s a perplexing answer. You said the difficulty of the room responds to the skill of the players. Does it adapt somehow?
DM: Yes, everything is electronic.
Wow! A game that’s adaptive to your skill level. That’s awesome. It made me think about the Real Escape Game and how they try to manage your experience so that players aren’t too frustrated. This seems like a much more subtle electronic variant.
DM: Without human interference, the room is linear. You need the key to open the box. You need what’s in the box to activate the item. But if we’re doing a group of say, young children (a day care has asked for a quote). We can let people leap over elements, IF it will make them enjoy the experience more. Some people enjoy the challenge, others want to struggle and then win.
ETO: I’ve never seen or heard of anything like that.
DM: Often the group will have the GM (Game’s Master) in the room. He has a number of signals from his tablet, or by radio, or by visual (there are codes that can be observed over cctv because the radio interference is something we’re working on)
ETO: The GM is often in the room?
DM: Yes. He is optional, but most groups prefer to have him. Even the “pros” who have been to dozens of escape rooms and come with a team, seem to request the GM.
Stevenson is an actual genius. He has a flare for game design like einstein did for physics. He does what feels right, issues the commands, and we react. I am always impressed when his intuition was verified as correct by data after the fact.
Course he’s been doing D&D and similar things for his entire life. He’s well versed in pacing, and reading people, and creating challenges that are the right level for your skill set. He’s not the DM (dungeon master) who kills off the players.
ETO: I read your thread on reddit and you guys have an adjustable fear factor as well?
DM: Oh absolutely. I don’t know how much I can go into that. I should probably say that we have not yet, to date, made someone unhappy. Eventually we’ll scare someone too much I’m sure, but we’re understably careful about it.
ETO: Does the fear level factor into the score? Are you rewarded for braving the scariest room possible?
DM: No… but that’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time. The scoring “algorithm” is a bunch of module ruby scripts that run, and then it weights the results and compiles. I am going to see to it that fear reward module is installed. Fortunately our system allows for us to factor that into old scores. That’s a remarkable idea.
ETO: I mean, I don’t know exactly what you do to your room when you up the fear level even if you messed around with the lighting, at the very least there’s an added logistical difficulty to working in a slightly darker room.
DM: We do have some atmospherics factored in. Like we lost power in a very early group, and the systems are on battery backup, but not the lighting. So the group finished in the dark, and they did get a higher score.
It’s at this point we start talking about generating fear and some interesting ideas on how to do it beyond jump-scares. I randomly stumbled across an effect they used. I had previously considered the idea during an idle thought, but I wasn’t sure it was something that was possible/feasible. I’ve cut it out of the interview, but if anyone’s a fan of horror, request the maximum setting!
DM: I had to run so much cable. All these magnets, and sensors, and cameras, and infrared, and ultraviolet, and relays, nothing in that building is up to electrical code I’m sure.
ETO: I’ll leave that out
I didn’t! Although, nothing mentioned inherently violates the Canadian Electrical Code. I don’t know what differences the NEC has compared to the CEC. Stevenson chimed in at a later point that he is knowledgeable on Californian building codes, and that everything is up to snuff.
DM: Hahaha. The neat bit is that our building will be demolished in three years. So the landlord doesn’t mind when we need to knock out a wall.
ETO: Well, I assume it’s not load bearing, or you’d be dead, so that seems fine. Is the plan to eventually move?
DM: Stevenson knows construction like I know electronics. He’ll just tear down a wall and rebuild it. It’s impressive.
DM: Yes, the building will be torn down eventually, and we’ll need more space eventually. But that’s not a problem for years. And we’d like to open more all over the place. That’s part of the reason we put so much effort into automation and electronics.
That’s it for the interview. We exchanged contacts and said our goodbyes. Puzzalarium (http://www.puzzalarium.com/) sounds like an experience heads above most of the places I’ve heard about so far, and if you’re in the area you should give it a try and let me know how it goes.