Developing Virtual Escape Rooms

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What is an escape room? | Who plays escape rooms? | Why make a virtual escape room? | Going digital | Digital platforms | Developing your own virtual escape room | Making your games fun for everyone | Examples for inspiration

What is an escape room?

An ‘escape room’ is in some ways a misnomer; The implication being that there is always an ‘escape’ involved, and that it always happens in a ‘room’. Neither are in fact the case!

Escape rooms loosely describe a huge number of different immersive experiences. These are normally timed ‘games’ where players (often in teams) work to solve a set of puzzles in a themed environment. The goal might be to ‘escape’ the room, but many games will have other outcomes such as diffusing a bomb, stopping a criminal, saving the world or halting the spread of a computer virus.

Whatever the case, most escape rooms ask their players to spend a period of time collaborating on a single narrative, held together by tasks which are designed to be a balance of challenging and fun. The reason these games are popular is down to the joy of the sense of completion and the contained ‘safe’ excitement that these experiences encourage.

There are a few things that most escape room experiences share:

  • A time limit to complete a set of tasks
  • A sequence of puzzles, clues, riddles and problems to solve
  • Some semblance of teamwork
  • The intentional creation of a fun but ‘high stakes’ environment
  • A theme or narrative contrivance as to why a set of puzzles must be completed in the time limit
  • Both a ‘win’ and a ‘fail’ state depending on the player’s success
  • A few additional elements that are common in many (but not all!) escape rooms include:
  • A mixture of puzzle types that require different kinds of problem solving
  • Surprises, twists and exciting unexpected events
  • A hint delivery system, where the person/people delivering the game can occasionally help (or hinder!) the players
  • A particular visual feel or aesthetic to fit the mood/narrative of the game
  • The ability to score a team’s success, for example measuring total time taken
  • Classic experiences last 60 minutes (Players complete the game anytime within this time limit, but most games will aim for a 45-59 minutes of average player experience)
  • Tension which amp up through the game through audio or in-game cues.

Who plays escape rooms?

The escape room industry is an incredibly popular one, over the past 10 years escape rooms have appeared in nearly every city in the world. In larger cities you will find dozens if not hundreds, of different escape rooms offering competing experiences to enthusiasts. The audience for these experiences is hugely varied, but it is particularly popular amongst younger adults; from mid-teens through to mid-thirties.

Most players will choose to play in a team of friends, family members or coworkers. Escape Rooms are seen as fun bonding experiences. There are also groups of enthusiasts and completionists who will play nearly every new game that opens. This genre of experience has also become increasingly popular with corporations looking to run fun team-building experiences or socials.

Why make a virtual escape room?

Going digital

Digital or virtual escape rooms have arguably existed longer than their physical counterparts, but there has been a real resurgence in virtual escape rooms since the Covid-19 pandemic. Many traditional escape room sites have had to reinvent themselves and release virtual offerings. Beyond simple necessity there are some real benefits to online escape rooms including:

  • No requirement for space, set-up, operations management
  • Reduced resource to deliver
  • Can be cheaper to develop
  • Larger numbers can be catered for on a virtual platform at any one time
  • Large audiences can be reached beyond the location of a single physical site

Virtual escape room style experiences have therefore become a popular offer and many have found huge success in running these events. Here are some examples of virtual escape rooms currently available:

But there are a few specific challenges to navigate with this kind of experience:

  • How do you keep the experience fun, fresh and exciting when people aren’t leaving their home environment?
  • How do you ensure you are doing something special, and unique compared to other digital offers?
  • What about tech issues, how will you navigate these if they happen?
  • How can you get people to buy into a narrative without the use of props and set-dressing?

Digital platforms

One of the first key decisions to make is where to build your virtual escape room. There are many ways to develop and share an escape room, each has its own challenges and benefits:

Social media has been used to deliver escape room experiences, for example over Instagram and Twitter. The positives are the huge usership you can access. The main downsides are you are limited to the functionality of the platforms and will need to think innovatively to make it work. (How would you create a simulation of a locked door using Twitter posts?). Also it would be very difficult to charge or ticket for such an experience. Here’s an example from Hastings Museum.

Another common escape room platform would be a Zoom or other video conferencing software. This might be paired with a website with puzzles and password locked pages. For this you may need someone to be available on the call to oversee the experience for each group that plays, here’s an example from Onigo Escape rooms.

Many other platforms have been used and there are unlimited options; Anything from a Google document with puzzles and links to websites, to bespoke designed experiences with animations and immersive Youtube videos.

Consider what you want to offer in terms of reach, and what you can afford in terms of cost and resources to run it, before deciding what platform might work best for you.

Developing your own virtual escape room

Making your games fun for everyone

Remember that just because you are using a digital platform, which potentially has a lot more reach, you still need to consider accessibility if you are to actually be accessible to as many people as possible. Here are some things to consider:

  • Any pre recorded video will need subtitles and/or close captioning. (You can use free subtitle software like MixCaptions which work on a smartphone)
  • Live events may need live captioning.
  • Any audio will need a transcript.
  • Consider creating an audio describe track if it is a very visual game. This is a track of audio that describes in detail what is visible for those who are visually impaired.
  • Consider making a ‘storyboard’ walkthrough if you are to make the experience playable for those with learning difficulties and or neurodiverse audiences, particularly children.
  • You could create different access points for different abilities and play styles. For example the option to remove the time limit, or get unlimited hints. (This gives ALL players more choice on the kind of experience they want to play)
  • Fonts and diagrams can all be made more legible for those with dyslexia or with visual impairments using simple stylistic and contrast changes. Here’s a useful resource from British Dyslexia.
  • Consider asking a ‘critical friend’ to look through your game. This is a person with lived experience of specific access needs who can help you build a better game for players.

It’s a brave new world, but a fun one that offers incredible opportunities to get new audiences excited about what you have to offer!

Examples for inspiration

Whilst you start thinking of what kind of escape room you might build here is some food for thought to inspire you: