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Planning an Escape Room: Beta Testing

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(Last Updated On: March 4, 2019)
First things first.

If you haven’t read Planning an Escape Room Part 1 yet, you should do so before reading Part 2.

Click here to read Part 1.

Done your work? Fix your work

Old saying:

If done right, then done forever.

Never happens, especially if that work then must be laid in front of the public.

In this part two of articles on Planning a Room, I will address all that occurs after that most frightening of days: first customer arrival. I say frightening because, after the initial excitement of having finished, which is a culmination of many, many decisions, doubt about the “rightness” of each decision takes hold. You begin to think:

“Too many puzzles that are too hard”

Or

“Too many puzzles that are too easy”

Sometimes you think both at the same time.

The only way to effectively avoid such thoughts is to buy a room already made. But even that has its worries.

The best way to avoid worry at all is to recognize that, even though you planned your work and worked your plan, “The best laid plans o’ mice and men aft gang aglay.” (In English: SNAFU rules.) Recognize that since things will go awry, expect them.

Own them.

Befriend them.

Beta Test is best

Everyone will tell you who has done it that beta-testing, or pre-opening activity, in a new room, is a great thing to do. However, as Time is Money, and Space Costs Money, beta-testing may seem poised to suck potential income out a window. To minimize how much Time must be spent, maximize the activity within a confined amount of time.

This may seem intuitive. It may also be easier said than done.

How to maximize activity in a minimum amount of time takes, well, planning. Set a goal of one to two weeks maximum for beta-testing. If you are closed for any days, as we are on Monday and Tuesday, schedule beta-testing on those two days as well. The “sacrifice” will pay off. Figure two hour intervals rather than your normal one-hour activity, half-hour cleanup, because you will want to talk to your beta-testers!

Now, who should be your beta-testers? Not your friends, that’s for sure, and not your employees either. If you have a bank of former customers, email them at least three times.

  1. Notify them of the room opening, and that you will be seeking beta-testers, but details are not yet firm. (Do this a week or so before you think you’ll be ready. You won’t be, but it will help with thinking “deadline”.)
  2. Once you feel certain of the actual “I am done” date, ask past customers to consider forming a small group of friends to come beta-test. We fully believe you can charge for this opportunity. After all, they will get an escape room experience at half or better off! Make it a healthy group discount. We charged $50 for a minimum four-person group, and $28 for a couple. We also made the experience private. You can learn a lot from just two people doing a room, and unmixed groups will tend to give better feedback.
  3. Set up your Booking software for a Beta-Test Only booking opportunity. Make it separate from what you will eventually set up as the room booking. Then send out a call with a link to that Beta Test Only opportunity with full pricing options. Past customers will be used to booking online.

For each room, we wanted no fewer than eight bookings, and no more than twelve. You’ll learn almost everything in the first three or four. An item to consider is giving yourself a whole day without beta-test bookings to fix, change or replace what the testers tell you to change. Over two week period, scheduling one day (we used Wednesdays) for changes will help.

Listen to your testers, but only after you have prepped them with questions

Expecting beta-testers to answer this natural question, “So what did you think?” will seem to them more like a challenge than an invitation, and they will lock up and/or hesitate. In every room build, there is one or two elements to a room you’ll have a gut feeling about that makes your gut rumble. Go there.

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For us, it was about a clue that required players to figure out the best score possible in a next move in a Scrabble game. There really was only one play, or so we thought, but we did not feel certain. The question we led with was:

“About the Scrabble clue, do you think it was necessary to have played Scrabble before?”

What makes this a good opening question is,

  1. It is specific
  2. It has a yes or no answer (although you’ll get more than yes or no.)
  3. Somebody will always have an opinion about the pros and/or cons of that particular element, and if they do not, they will about another aspect. (No, but I was confused by the X riddle…)

Have at least three specific questions to ask similar in design of the above. Memorize them, talk about them with your spouse, your friends, your staff, but know them. DO NOT read them off a notecard. That will suggest a test in which there are right and wrong answers, rather than a discussion where anything goes.

Above all, listen to you the beta-testers.

Keep it collegial, not competitive

Do not talk to them, especially defensively. “Well, I thought you’d do….”

Avoid putting the beta-testers in a defensive mode at all costs. Do this by asking them, after you heard their answer, “Do you have any suggestion that would make X better?”

The first time we asked about the Scrabble clue, one person said, “Well, you could make sure there weren’t two answers.” Two answers, show me! (I did not say that.) More than two of us who were good Scrabble players had looked over the board and the chips we had selected and were dead-certain we knew of only one possibility. We were wrong. But we also were not about to refute the claim, or defend ours as the better answer, or whatever.

You have asked people to pay to find fault with your work, let ‘em.

More importantly, once they have found a fault or flaw, fix it.

Then test the fix.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned overnight.

One of our rooms took five months to build. It should not have, and didn’t need five months, but life, you know? Has a way of going its own route. Consequently, we felt in or bones all five months of investment spent custom-fitting so many pieces. When our beta-testers pointed out a flaw that meant dismantling something that took weeks to perfect, we were reluctant, hesitant, resistant, damn right indignant!

But it had to be done, and after more time than we should have spent wrangling with the reality, it came down. Of course, two more beta-testers pointed out the same problem before we “heard” it.

It was also over this despised criticism that we learned why one does not put the beta-tester on the defensive. We said the wrong thing, and the entire group clammed up. They simmered and we boiled. Okay, I am sure they left a tad disgruntled, but we were gruntled to the max, and not because we had a flaw to fix. We felt badly because we had not taken care of our saviors.

That, in a nutshell, is what a beta-tester is, a savior. Each and every one of them saved our business.

What to do next

Even though we had asked for suggestions about how to improve, that’s not a beta-tester’s job.

Pointing out flaws and fixables is.

We did sometimes get excellent suggestions, but integrating the solutions remained a challenge.

As we set aside Wednesdays to implement fixes, we could not leave until Wednesday to derive a solution. We had to get on it immediately. Rarely did we have back-to-back beta-test bookings, so we could convene and canvass for solutions. Immediately is the best time to kick around solutions, and it only worked because we had a system to weigh suggestions.

We measured solutions by how well they fit a prescribed set of criteria:

  1. Is it “do-able”?
  2. Can it be done in a reasonable amount of time, (Like, say, by Wednesday?)
  3. How expensive, in money, would it be?
  4. Can it be made more efficient?
  5. Does it fit the narrative/flow to the room?

We also only discussed the “What” not the “How”. Discussing the “How” not only leads the conversation into meandering and argument (No, do it this way) but it precedes the decision to even go that way. And, generally, the “How” is usually undertaken by the person or few who did all of the “How” work already.

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The “What” is pre-eminent among the elements of the solution.

After determining the “What”, and making the decision to do that solution, whoever is boss must then consider delegation. Delegate who will be responsible for ensuring that the How, When and Who get met. If you are a one-man band, the decision becomes easy. But whenever there is a possibility of delegation, take it.

Fix it again

Possibly the most annoying aspect of having to fix something is having to fix it yet again!

Be prepared to do that. Same process.

Perhaps the best attitude to assume is that things are inherently imperfect, no matter how hard or how diligently you applied yourself to making the room as great as your vision allowed.

Expect the Ooops.

A Word about “Voyeurism”

Almost all escape rooms have monitoring devices such as surveillance cameras. Don’t only use them, but prep your beta-testers on the employment of the cameras. Let them know ahead of the event that you will be watching in order to see how the room flows, how people engage with the elements of the room.

In our latest room, we set up a large monitor and a database-driven program to supply clues, lock codes, directions, etc. We knew it would be a major component in the room, because no team could move forward without engaging it. What we did not figure was that everyone in the group would want to engage it. There are many artifacts, as it is an Antiquities Shoppe themed room, with many curious objects scattered about. Think “Antique Store.” Our belief was that the objects would be engaging.

Partly, they were. However, the first several engagements kept calling people back to observe the monitor. This was not something that beta-testers would notice, but we did by watching their actions. The fix, by the way, was simple. We re-arranged the sequence of computer-driven events in such a way that some, if not most, of the players would have to go look at the elements.

We also learned that there were hot spots of activity in which numbers of participants gathered and huddled. We had to rearrange some of the furniture to prevent breakage, potential harm to a person, and upset.

Had we not been lurking, we never would have caught on.

And in the end…

We provided places for components to be placed when taken from their original spaces, but did the testers use them? Not in the way we wanted. We put out a box for the removed locks, but a third of the testers rehung them where that had been, or laid them on the nearest horizonal surface, etc.

Same with the objects in the room. It seemed the more fragile were the most handled. We segregated those piece and locked them in a cabinet. Could still be seen but could not be handled. No harm to the game, and no replacement required.

In the development of the physical room, we always kept at the forefront the ease of reconstitution. Resetting the rooms has always been the most harrowing minutes of the day. Eventually with every room, some rhythmic systematizing developed, but we built that into the last two rooms. Can’t say how we dd it, but without keeping that notion, ease of reconstitution” at the front of our thinking, it never would have happened.

It takes eight minutes to reset. Yay!


About the Author

Charles Bechtel is at present the owner and operator of Escape Rooms PHX in Mesa, AZ. He is 65, married to Manuela Mary Bechtel, with two grown daughters and three granddaughters.

Professionally, Charles has been a published author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, owned and operated his own publishing & consulting firms, and even had owned a charter fishing operation out of Cape May, New Jersey. Click here to check out some of the books authored by Charles.

During his consulting days, he specialized in developing new products for the newspaper industry and developing what had then been the industry-altering desktop publishing replacement for many composition firms.

He has years of marketing experience, wearing many hats on both the production and administrative sides of publishing.


1 thought on “Planning an Escape Room: Beta Testing”

  1. Thank you for this article and the Part One portion as well. Your insight has helped reassure me that the struggles I’ve faced with beta testing are not unique to me. It also is so hard and disappointing when something that looks so good on paper (or in your head) does not work out in reality. Like your Scrabble example… you think “of course there’s only one way to do it!” And that sinking feeling when someone comes up with a dreaded alternative.

    Thank you for keeping your games analog, too. I am not really into this trend of making rooms super tech-y and it seems like places feel like they need to keep “upping” the next guy/gal with more and more tech. We have a couple places here in San Diego where there are no “traditional combo or key locks.” This is a bragging point for them and it just makes me shake my head. I love me some second hand furniture and props and good old fashioned keys and combo locks. Best of luck to you. Can’t wait to try one of your rooms when I’m next in the Phoenix area for Spring Training!

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