PAX Australia 2016 Panel: The Past, Present and Future of Live Action Escape Games [Commentary]

Location: PAX Australia 2016, Melbourne Convention Centre, VIC
When: 6 November 2016
Panel: Joan (Labyrinth), Jesse (Riddle Room), Matt (Enigma Room), Tom (Cubescape), Robert (Pop Up Playground)

After completing an escape room marathon in Melbourne, we rushed from Xcapade to PAX Australia 2016 to hear about ‘The Past, Present and Future of Live Action Escape Games ‘. There was a solid turnout from the audience and given that this was the very last panel of the event, it was very encouraging to see. Another positive sign was that, different from last year, most of the audience had experience with escape rooms as well. Upwards and onwards for the Australian live escape game industry!

The main areas discussed by the panel mainly revolved around the future of the industry and how technology could affect it in the coming years. We’ve taken the liberty to sum up some of the key points below.

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The panel from right to left: Joan (Labyrinth), Jesse (Riddle Room), Matt (Enigma Room), Tom (Cubescape), Robert (Pop Up Playground)

Escape Room Technological Generations – What did the panel think of these classifications?

For those of you not familiar with the terms ‘Gen 1’ to ‘Gen 4’ of escape rooms, the Room Escape Artists cover this quite well in this article. Essentially, this is a method of categorising escape rooms based on the level of technology they employ. Discussions around this have made for heated debates in the escape room community over the last couple of months.

Matt from Enigma Room was very forthright in his views against these labels, and kicked off the discussion by articulating how he found it too restrictive to pigeon hole rooms by technology level. He noted that although he wasn’t anti-technology by any means, he thought that escape rooms could not rely solely on technology. Tom, the designer of the Cubescape, also pointed out that the industry is only two years old and we are already in ‘Gen 4’.

In our opinion, there isn’t two much between Gen 2 and Gen 3 either. Cubescape makes a substantial jump by employing AI managed structure and gamemastering and what they are doing should rightly be considered a significant advancement in the industry. It makes sense for them to be considered a genuine progression in ‘gen’, however there really isn’t too much of a difference between opening a door manually and one opening itself for you is it? Of course, we’re not against tech either but we do find the whole method of classification rather too specific. A landline phone and a smart phone are still phones aren’t they?

Our thoughts on this discussion aside, the panel agreed that there is a need to for genuine human engagement regardless of technology employed and this element was what made the live action escape game genre take off.

In responding to a later question about the importance of design, Matt stated the importance of providing players agency in determining their own actions and Robert continued this line of thinking by indicating how Pop Up Playground created scenarios which would allow players to settle into their own roles.

Later in the panel, a question arose regarding puzzle design. Robert brought up the interesting observation that live action escape games had a core conceit, which was that players were ‘locked’ in a room. He then elaborated how the escape to this was a social experience requiring human interaction. To illustrate this, he recounted a hilarious moral dilemma created by a particular group of players of Small Time Criminals, where their own actions had direct consequences at the end of the game. None of it was pre-planned, all of it was reactive from Robert as a live actor. (Turns out that you can do a hell of a lot in Small Time Criminals!!!)

Jesse from Riddle Room raised the imperative of having stories progress smoothly through games without overly verbose / text heavy expositions and how good games provided motivations for players to care about their actions. He also stressed how Riddle Room would start with the the design process with the premise of a game and ask ‘what would be natural in this environment?’

VR and AI? What is the future of integrating these technologies into escape rooms?

Joan from Labyrinth, having tried escape rooms using VR, found it to be a ‘solo’ experience which did not provide sufficient human interaction. From what we understood of her explanation, players are still too trapped in interacting with the technology to truly have a social experience with other players of VR escape rooms. Tom concurred with this sentiment and noted that VR technology only provided a ‘single player experience’ at this point in time. He continued by indicating that people played live action escape games due to the desire for interaction with their family and friends but that he could see augmented reality being used and looked forward to it. On a separate point, Matt brought up the randomness of escape room players and the propensity of some to break items no matter how robust they are. This random element is a huge financial risk for owners to take up this technology. (Which is understandable given some of the crazy stories we’ve heard from gamemasters!)

When asked what AI could do that humans could not, Joan expressed how impressed she was with the seamless hint mechanisms provided by the AI of Cubescape. Later in the discussion, Tom gave a memorable answer to this question: ‘AI will never be better than the best person (as gamemaster), but will always better than the worst person’. He also indicated that AI-run escape rooms made sense as a business option as they were replicable (to which Matt asked if Tom was building the Skynet of escape rooms 😀 ).

Robert also made the observation that AI could scale better and Jesse noted how it could improve the flow of games by bypassing puzzles to assist player progression. It turns out that this is in fact a feature of Cubescape as Tom highlighted how the room would provide in-game situations / reasons to manipulate the puzzle flow for maximum player experience.

‘Megagame’ in the works!

Towards the end of the panel, Joan indicated that Labyrinth is working on a large multiplayer live game (with Zombies!!!) planned for April. They looked at the way SCRAP had previously run these events in Japan and San Francisco, and were looking to develop something similar here in Australia! We’ll be keeping on eye on this for sure so stay tuned!

For reviews of some of the venues mentioned above, check Enigma, Labyrinth, Riddle Room and Pop Up Playground (coming soon).

Riddle Room has kindly recorded and posted a full video of the panel here.

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4 thoughts on “PAX Australia 2016 Panel: The Past, Present and Future of Live Action Escape Games [Commentary]

  1. Interesting to see that Labyrinth is planning to put together a large-scale escape experience. The Escape Hunt franchisee here in Brisbane did one of those last year because the famous Boggo Road Gaol was about to be turned into apartments or something. I did an escape experience with something like 84 people escaping the gaol. It was amazing, though part of that was the novelty of being in a real gaol with such a rich history. It’ll be interesting to see what Labyrinth comes up with – especially as you describe it as a “live game” rather than a straight-up escape experience, which could suggest it works a little differently than a scaled-up escape room?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From what Joan was saying, they are looking at a relatively outdoor design where group dynamics matter. Apparently one of the main aims will be to survive with as many team members as possible.

      – Trapspringer

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  2. Great coverage of the escape games panel at PAX this year! Super excited to hear about Labryinth organising a potential zombie event too – can’t wait to hear more about it. 🙂

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