Interview With an Escape Room Designer: An Inside Look at Escape Room Design

We sat down with escape room designer Owen Spear to learn how he designs escape rooms and to get his thoughts on the current escape room trend.
Interview With an Escape Room Designer: An Inside Look at Escape Room Design

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Recently, we ran through a fantastic escape room called "Fractured: Remember Me" in Melbourne. After escaping, we had a chance to sit down with Owen Spear, the designer of the room, to learn a bit more about his background, how he designs his escape room puzzles, and plenty of other escape room tidbits.

WhatNerd: How did you get into designing escape rooms?

Owen Spear, Escape Room Melbourne: I went to Budapest with my ex-partner about six years ago when they had just begun (they started in 2011) and we heard about these escape rooms, and I finally got around to doing one. I thought it would be like a couple of Sudokus in a room and you know, like, some brain teaser or something.

I think it was kind of an average room, but it was incredible and as soon as we finished we're like super excited. We were like, "Let's build one in Australia." We looked it up and there were none here yet, so we started designing it and we came back to Australia and managed to be the first, which was cool!

Left to right: Nuwan (video production & editing), Owen Spear (lead designer), Torben (tech wizard & builder)

WN: What were you doing before you got into escape rooms?

OS: I was just finishing my Master's to be a clinical psychologist so I just started building escape rooms and working as a psych at the same time, which is a coincidence.

WN: How do you feel about where escape rooms are right now? Do you see them as a long-term trend or do you see them as a fad?

OS: Escape rooms aren't showing any signs of slowing yet, and it's been eight years now.

I think they're gonna keep being popular because if you think about corporate team-building and how incredibly boring most corporate team-building is, you can send someone to an escape room and it's genuinely fun and genuinely builds bonds between people. I think that will end up being the bread and butter of escape rooms.

I think they're going to have to advance. There are people either going on the tech side or they're going down the acting/interesting phenomenon side of things.

WN: I heard of the one [down in Melbourne] that's "The Legend of Zelda meets escape room" where you have these different masks that you wear with unique abilities.

OS: I haven't done it yet but I've heard that it's a bit less puzzly, but the story is very immersive. I think escape rooms are going to eventually have to keep doing different things. They can't be the classic open-the-locks-and-find-the-thing.

"Fractured" kind of walks the line with a little bit of a narrative while having the puzzles. Our first room has something like 12 locks in it whereas Fractured has three or four. That's where escape rooms are trying to head. A little bit is away from this unlock-the-box/find-the-item/use-the-item/unlock-another-box. I think they're going to keep going.

WN: The biggest issue that I've seen with escape rooms, compared to other entertainment activities, is that it's hard to get repeat customers. What do you think is the solution to that?

OS: When the next Flemington room opens, we'll have seven rooms that people can use. That's a lot of repeating.

You can just keep building rooms and it's rare that someone will do them all. We have Escape Room Melbourne "groupies" who will do every single one of our rooms; as soon as we open one, they'll do it. They're sort of dedicated to our company, but it's rare that you'll get somebody who does all seven of your rooms.

There are other alternatives I've never bothered with, but some people will have rooms in two parts. Usually you can't finish in the first try so you have to go back a second time to finish it off. The other alternative I've heard of is, you make decisions along the way that fundamentally change how the room unfolds. You'll open a different area which means you've got to have a separate area, but it's sort of like using the same space for a different thing. We were going to use the old Flemington room, but then change it so that it had gone through an apocalypse after the original setting.

But you're right, you can't replay it like you can laser tag or Mario Kart or whatever, I guess that's true. But it doesn't seem to matter too much, and they're pretty successful. There are nearly 30 [escape room] companies now in Melbourne.

WN: Can you give us a quick overview of your process from starting a puzzle to finishing a puzzle?

OS: I would come up with an interesting mechanism for an item. So I'm walking around a shop or a market somewhere and I see a little old billiard set, like a tiny one, and I'm like, "This is cool. I want that item in my room. How can I make it into a puzzle?" I think about the properties of it. It involves balls that move. Then I would think the balls could roll around. In the place where they roll, what if they left an imaginary line and that was how it worked? If someone got instructions on how a billiards game went and then you think of an output, a number is the easiest. That's why everyone uses locks. It's so easy to come up with a number answer.

I'll think about what would be interesting. I think about what information it holds or what information you could glean from that thing, and then make a prototype, test it, see how people find it, refine it, and then repeat over and over and over again until it's refined.

WN: Let's say you have a puzzle that you've designed, sticking with the billiards table as an example, would you already have a room theme for that or do you go the other way and come up with the puzzle first?

OS: No, I always have a room theme. I start with a room theme, and then I'd wander up to shops. I'd start with the theme idea, and then I'd look for items for it. I'd find something cool and think, "How can I turn that into a puzzle?" For example, I want a projector, that would be cool. When you stand in front of the projector, you create a silhouette. Okay, that could make the person use their own body to form shapes. Then you just run with that and work it, work really hard over and over. Each puzzle will see around 50 changes.

WN: What would you say are the most frustrating and most rewarding parts of watching somebody work on one of your rooms?

OS: Rewarding? Teams where they get it, and I appreciate that.

Most frustrating is the opposite of that, where teams just don't get it. I find it uncomfortable when a team can't solve puzzles. I feel like I've made it too hard. There are puzzles I've refined for literally 80 hours and they didn't make [the cut as a puzzle in the room]. Some I've worked on for 30, 40, or 50 hours that don't make it in a room and I just have to be like, "Oh well."

WN: Do you hang onto those for use in another room or do you just scrap the idea?

OS: I've tried to reinsert them in other rooms and they end up getting kicked out again. Like the first puzzle I ever made I thought was really cool. I thought it was really fun, but it just pissed everyone off. It's not working when you're making all these changes to make it easier and easier. I thought it would be really good, but it turned out it wasn't and I just had to dumb it down over and over.

WN: What are your favorite types of puzzles?

OS: I find the best puzzles you can design are multi-stage procedural puzzles. A lot of rooms draw on these quick fix puzzles, which is like one person gets to go, "Ahh! The thing goes there!" I like multi-stage procedural puzzles where about ten logic leaps are required, which means everyone can get involved.

If I can make a puzzle that has many steps involving many people, that's the hardest to come up with but my favorite kind.

WN: Do you have any specific stories or instances of players where you just had to sit back and laugh?

OS: When you finish the first room, we have you find this elixir, this potion that's like tonic water with glow-in-the-dark pink stuff in it. It glows from UV light. You find it and go, "Cool, we found it." [One person's] team thought it was a spirit to drink, so they drink this glow-in-the-dark liquid that's from those glow-in-the-dark sticks.

The worst I've ever seen was a group of seven twenty-year-old women who were led by this really bossy woman. Any time one of them would say the right answer, she would push them out of line. They required 36 hints and took 2 hours and 10 minutes. I ended up just saying, "Hey, that girl there actually had the right idea, run with her." I was laughing by the end. They were the last team of the day so there was no rush, and I just kept it running for the story.

WN: Was there a conscious decision to not put a timer in "Fractured" so the players aren't distracted by it?

OS: A lot of escape rooms boast about having lower success rates. I think a lower success rate just means you made clunky, unintuitive puzzles. I don't think they should be about winning and losing. I think they should be about using your brain in interesting ways and connecting with your friends to work together.

But the timer thing, I'm not really against it. I mean, people use it in other rooms to check how they're going. I find there's a real tension between gamifying something and making it feel authentic. If you have a timer in the room, every time you look at it you feel like you're in a game. Did you know you're in a game? I suppose you could make it part of the narrative.

WN: If budget wasn't a concern, do you have a dream escape room that you would like to design?

OS: You know Melbourne housing prices are so ridiculous, it is a fantasy to imagine opening an escape room in a house—but [my dream would be] a whole-house escape room, rather than just a room in an existing house.

I would love to be able to build in something that existed. I'd love an old mill or an old bakery. Just something that was already kind of creepy and odd, where I just add the puzzles. With unlimited money, they do this already in China. If public liability didn't matter, I'd do rooms that filled with water and you literally had water slowly filling in.

I'd love to have one in a truck so you were driven around and you didn't know where it would end up. It could potentially stop at different spots and you could jump out to grab stuff.

Another one I would like to do is buy a place where you would do a holiday escape room, so you solve a mystery over an entire weekend. It would have stuff that would get you to explore the area. A little bit like geocaching combined with escape rooms.

WN: Do you see virtual reality working its way into escape rooms?

OS: Someone will do it and I don't like it. For me personally, I like escape rooms because it's getting you off your couch into the real world. The only way virtual reality would work in a room is if you developed a sci-fi theme where virtual reality made sense.

Check Out Escape Room Melbourne

If you find yourself in Melbourne, you should definitely give Escape Room Melbourne a shot. Just check out our review of "Fractured: Remember Me" to see what we thought of their latest room.