Manual Escape Room Automation (Wait…what?)

(Last Updated On: April 2, 2019)
When creating escape rooms there are many things to consider: location, size, themes, Gen 1, Gen 2 (if yer into that sort of thing), and the list goes on.

One of the biggest things to consider is how the game is going to run.

Will it run all on its own?

Will the GM have to interact directly/indirectly behind the scenes?

A mix of the two?

I have seen both extremes of running a room and it can go smoothly or TERRIBLY wrong.

Let’s explore, shall we?

Fully Automated: The Easy Way?

I think the dream of any escape room owner is to have a room that can almost play itself. No one has to interfere in any way, the puzzles reset themselves and it might even make you coffee.

This is why you see so many backend interfaces like Houdini and Clue Control which tout a fairly automated experience. They allow you to reset most or all of the puzzles and other various features at the push of a button. You do tend to be fairly limited by not only your knowledge but theirs as well. The programs don’t do EVERYTHING and if you are not hip to coding Arduinos or Raspberry Pis to interact with a closed wireless network, it’s even more limiting. YIKES!

Then you have the iPad rooms. These are where a single tablet delivers the clues, the time left, and if you remember to do it at the end, the high score of your escape. (This is my least favorite way to automate escape rooms, by the way)

“Step into the fantastical world of Alice in Wonderland where down is up, white is black and apples are androids. Here is your tablet that is completely out of place and breaks the immersion. Enjoy your experience!”

I don’t fault owners for wanting things to go smoothly and not having to rely on human error, however, it smacks of laziness to me. If you can’t trust your employees that much, you need to hire better people. Perhaps at the very least, disguise the tech to match the room somehow. A magic mirror, a futuristic scanner, etc. Anything except what it actually is.

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The Upsides:

  • It takes very little to reset a room.
  • It removes some human error from the equation.
  • You can track certain stats from the computer easier.

The Downsides:

  • Some aspects of automation break the immersion of a room.
  • If you use a content management system that is tied to an off-site server and their (or your) internet goes down you are BONED! Refunds are no fun for anyone.
  • To take full advantage you need to be versed in tech/coding or spend more money to hire someone who does.

Manual Triggering: Remaining Diligent

Recently the other Test Subjects and I went to an escape room where the owner was triggering most of the sound effects and some of the puzzles. We had no idea until we talked to him at the end. I myself was baffled about how some puzzles activated when there were no visible means in sight. It didn’t cross my mind that he was triggering things himself when we did something “right” because it is so rarely seen.

It didn’t occur to us that there was a man behind the curtain because I am too close to the source and so many people want their rooms to be idiot proof. They only hire warm bodies to put people in a room, send clues, and try not to screw up resetting stuff. In the above scenario, they only had the one room so it was easy to keep an eye on things. You tend to see this kind of set up when it’s the owner(s) running the room. However, some businesses make one employee run multiple rooms simultaneously. This can only lead to a bad experience at some point. Clues not delivered in time, certain things not triggered properly etc. One GM per room is my preference. That way everyone gets their full attention.

Since they are there for the duration anyway, why not give them more responsibility? Have them push some buttons, let them decide when things happen. Give them a sound effect board or the ability to make the experiences unique for each playthrough by having extra “moments” should the players get close to a prop or in a certain area of the room. If you hire employees who have more qualification other than “has a pulse” you can trust them with more duties. Hardwiring a button is a lot easier than hoping your Arduino or computer isn’t going to fail.

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The Upsides:

  • Things happen when YOU want them to.
  • Less reliance upon complicated tech in favor of less moving parts.
  • You have the ability to make the player’s experience more unique.

The Downsides:

  • You have to be a little pickier about who you hire.
  • It requires much more diligence and concentration on the part of the GM.
  • You need one GM per room on the clock (which isn’t a negative to me but it might be to you).

Escape Room Automation

I don’t think so Mr. Stark! I have played rooms where the employees were working hard behind the scenes to make the magic happen. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were pulling ropes, sliding notes into safes, and doing more than just hoping we asked them for a clue.

I think striking a good balance is key. In my other profession as a magician, you can use pure sleight of hand or you can put in a hidden gimmick. At the end of the day, it boils down to selecting the right tools for the job. Whatever has the best/biggest impact on your audience is the right way to go. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other and sometimes it’s a mix of the two.

So the next time you are designing a room, just remember it’s the player experience that matters most. If having the GM trigger the final door from a button in the hallway for players to escape is easier than having them scan it with an out-of-place piece of tech, just do that. No one will know…. or complain.

About the Author

Escape Room AutomationBizzaro has been seen on TV shows and creates props and magic for other performers.

He is the resident mad scientist at “Test Subjects” and creates many of the props and puzzles in his secret laboratory in Las Vegas. Want to see Bizzaro perform live in Vegas? Check out his performance schedule at www.bizzaro.ninja.

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