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Escape Room Puzzle Design: An Interview With Brian Hoffman

(Last Updated On: March 17, 2019)

This week, we’re excited to share an interview with Brian Hoffman, puzzle master and owner of family-run, Just Escape Room in La Grange, IL. Brian reveals his approach to escape room puzzle design.

Enjoy!

Escape room puzzle design
Brian and his family

Can you provide me with a little history of Just Escape Room and what inspired you to start an escape room business?

My family started with an escape room that opened near us in West Chester, Ohio 4 years ago.  It was the type of activity that everyone loved: grandmother, high schooler, 6-year-old and we all had a blast.  We went on to do another 60 + rooms around the world.  Eventually, my wife was looking at going back to work, I had a background in control systems and IT, and it dawned on us that we could create an escape room.  We started creating a business plan and running the numbers.  In parallel, I had created most of the puzzles for our first to rooms in my garage, and five months later we opened our doors.  The business has grown nicely ever since.

How did you learn how to design puzzles for your escape rooms? Did you have any previous experience with puzzle design?

The escape room was my first entry into puzzle design.  The only thing I was armed with is the vast number of puzzles I had tested myself against (escape rooms, books puzzles, online puzzle hunts, online and board games, etc.).  I knew what my family enjoyed and what we didn’t.  When creating the puzzles for Just Escape, I took the features I liked best from past experiences and kept out the ones I didn’t enjoy. 

This included:

  • The puzzle flow – pattern of quick wins vs.  harder challenges
  • Focus on unique things not seen before.
  • Surprise.  Reveals that are unexpected. 
  • Keep the excitement throughout the game, eliminate dead spots.
  • People like to win, make sure they have a chance to win
  • The best puzzles are the one that you look back at and say “I should have gotten that sooner.”

What is personally the most challenging aspect for you when it comes to escape room puzzle design? What about running an escape room business overall?

Puzzle design biggest challenge – Game Balance: Designing a room that both escape room veterans and newbies love and feel like it was an appropriate challenge.  I always find it interesting how the slightest change in a prop or clue can dramatically change how fast it is played.  In one room we changed a small version of the prop for a bigger one and that change allowed people to solve it ten mins faster.  That caused us to add another puzzle to fill in that ten mins and get the right balance.

ER business overall challenge: For me it is time.  Finding time to run the business, build new rooms, maintain existing rooms, advertise, create growth plans and execute those plans, etc.  It doesn’t help that this is a hobby company for us and I have a full-time day job also 🙂

When designing puzzles and their accompanying stories and sets, do you find yourself having to quickly toggle between left (logical) and right-brained (creative) thinking?

Set design is one of my biggest challenges.  I can build almost anything electronic or mechanical, but don’t have the same skills in making the set look amazing.  This is one area where I need to lean on others for help. 

We were lucky in hiring game masters.  One of our game masters is an amazing artist, and another is a solid actor.  Both were amazingly helpful in set design and voiceover work. 

I am still looking for great contractors that can come in and help bring set design to the next level.  Further, I am still learning on how to best communicate the design I have in my head to these contractors for quoting purposes.

As a puzzle maker, do you ever find yourself feeling frustrated and reluctant to compromise when a puzzle doesn’t quite transfer from your head to real life? If so, how do you decide when to compromise and to what extent?

I have a storage unit of puzzles that didn’t make it into the final product.  Most of them were ambitious technology props that were not consistent enough to go into the room.  Some of them were cool puzzles but did not fit well into the story. 

My biggest challenge is that I love unique technology that folks haven’t seen before.  I tend to lean toward tech or physical puzzles vs. paper.  Unfortunately, that also means that many puzzles never make it to prime time.  I’m ok with that because the ones that do make it out end up being pretty cool.

When taking on the overwhelming task of designing an escape room, in your opinion, is it best to start with the story and build a puzzle around that, the converse, or something else?

Here’s my approach:

  1. I collect a huge library of puzzle ideas, Physical, perspective, logic, pattern, old games, riddles, electronic sensors, science projects, and interesting ways to hide information, etc.
  2. I come up with a story or concept theme that is interesting, and I haven’t heard of before.  I am not only thinking about the story but also the game flow.  I try to challenge myself with a way to build on the classic escape room flow of entering a room, find the secret room, and find the way out.  I love trying to find new ways of moving teams through the physical space in different ways.
  3. With the story in place, I then start slotting puzzles that fit with the story theme.  I create the puzzle flowchart and a room layout.
  4. With a story, puzzle flow, and room layout I then sketch out set design.  I may need to adapt earlier puzzles or flow to accommodate other design choices. 
  5. I go into construction.  I try to build as much of the puzzles and props offsite and then install into the room.  In parallel, I am building the base of the room, walls, electrical, control panel, doors, painting, etc.
  6. Then I install puzzles and do initial testing.  Making sure the puzzles are stable and work consistently.
  7. Beta testing.  Test with at least six teams of differing size and skill levels.  Make adjustments as needed for the game
  8. Launch game with a hyper care period to fix or adapt if any bugs are revealed.

Regarding sprinkling in easy wins and feel good moments, have you found a formula that works? Is there a magic number or ratio (time spent or quantity) that you feel hits the perfect sweet spot between boredom and frustration?

I like to ramp up the energy at the start of the game.  This usually means an early phase of easy wins that results in a surprise reveal.  I equate it to the same equation online games use to hook people.  The first levels are easy, and the players acquire things quickly. 

From there I go into phase 2 which the players now know what to expect, and they go out and solve a bunch of medium difficulty puzzles.  This phase at a slightly slower pace with slightly higher difficulty.  Teams feel a sense of accomplishment at each win because they had to fight for it.  The risk is that this can become frustrating for the team and the energy level could go down as frustration raises.  To counter this, I try to put another major secret reveal in the phase.  Something that gives the team a whole new set of props to explore.  This helps keep the energy level high.

In the final puzzle phase, I put the most difficult puzzle chain.  Ideally, the team gets to this point with – ten mins left.  The clock ticking and the closeness to finishing the game provides the heightened energy level.  Ideally, the final puzzle solution triggers a theatrical climax (lights, sounds, etc.).  I don’t always achieve this.

On JustEscapeRoom.com, you mention that your rooms require players to use all of their senses.  Does this include smell and taste? If so, how do you accomplish this?

I have stayed away from taste so far (because it is either gross or a reset nightmare) although all other senses are fair game.  This goes back to finding unique ways to transfer information.  For example, there are a wealth of scented oils out there: everything from blue slushy to skunk.  You just need to find a way to build it into a puzzle.  I can’t reveal more without giving away too much info 🙂

On forums, when owners ask design or puzzle building questions, you tend to see answers like “it depends” since each situation is so different.  Given this, are there ANY universal truths that can be generalized across all escape rooms?

Here are the major principles I use:

  • Avoid red hearings.  Everyone hates them.
  • When told the answer to the puzzle, people should feel like they should have gotten it.  If they are saying I would have never have gotten that it is a flaw in the design
  • Tech adds a great effect when it works.  When it doesn’t, it adds great frustration.
  • Don’t repeat puzzles.  The first time is new, the second time feels like busy work.
  • Be unique.  If you’re going to use common puzzles, put a new twist on them.  Don’t just make someone solve a sudoku puzzle.  Make them do it with a checkerboard or a giant version etc.  Anything different than the norm.  This goes with the room story also. 
  • Mix your puzzle types.  This allows the diversity of the group to shine vs. having the same person solve all of the puzzles.

How do you use customer feedback and data to inform your design decisions and business decisions overall?

Absolutely critical.  We recently got our first 4-star review (Previously we were all 5 star).  Tracing back the reason it was because we had gotten so busy we weren’t able to give the full greeting and post-game celebration we had been doing previously.  These customer interaction moments are just as important as the game to have people leave loving the experience.  We immediately put in changes to address the issues.

Multipart question time: Have you ever heard of anyone pulling off an escape room theme aimed to help people empathize with folks dealing with depression and mental illness? Autism and intellectual disability too for that matter? Do you think abstract or symbolic-based themes like this are feasible without being a total drag for customers? How might you design puzzles for a room that tackles less concrete subject matter like this?

I love this idea and haven’t heard of it before.  It sounds like a great way to grow awareness for a cause and would probably generate some PR.  If I would to go after a room like this, I might try to put the players in the mind of the hero character who has the disability.  The goal would be to overcome the challenges that these folks face to be successful in life.  I would probably look to partner with an organization familiar with the cause to make sure I was sensitive to the issues and to help me pick the puzzles that fit the theme.  You would also need to donate some of the profits to the cause.  Perhaps you could use the pay for hints approach with the money raised for hints donated to the cause.  Just some thought off the top of my head.

From a puzzle & design perspective, what’s something that you think escape room owners put too much money & energy into that most customers don’t really care about?

Just like video games, gameplay trumps the story/set.  Having a great story motivates people to pick your room.  Having a great set gives the room great bonus points.  At the end of the day, the room needs to have great puzzles and flow otherwise none of the other stuff matters.

The other calculus I am always wrestling with is how much to invest in set design.  The perfectionist in me wants a phenomenal set.  The practical side of me realizes that there are diminishing returns.  I don’t necessarily generate more traffic with a $100k room vs. a $10k room.  There is a sweet spot in there somewhere that is hard to nail.  It depends on where you’re located, how much competition is around.  What kind of foot traffic you have, etc.

What mistakes do you see escape room owners making that is perhaps the most avoidable while also being highly detrimental? This can be from a puzzle/design perspective, overall business or both.

Hmm, good question.  Some common mistakes I see:

  • Seeing escape rooms as easy money and not putting the time into creating a great game.  Just throwing something together.
  • Not getting a location that allows them to grow.  Getting boxed in with no space for a new room.
  • Not seeing how other local room owners can be a partnership vs. a competitor.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:  Problematic Escape Room Themes (and how to avoid them)

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