PAX Australia 2017 Panel: Behind the Hidden Door

22179978_127486074575081_5900641369381559922_oLocation: PAX Australia 2017, Melbourne Convention Centre, VIC
When: 28 October 2017
Panel: Jesse and Chris (Riddle Room), Matt (Enigma Room), Rohan (Cubescape), Josh (Mystery Rooms), Pa! (where else?)

I can’t believe its been a full year since we last headed to Melbourne to cover the escape room panel for PAX Australia! Time has passed (too) quickly and many escape rooms have been played. Pa was fortunate enough to be invited this time around to sit Behind the Hidden Door and fly the flag for our blog at this year’s panel. Attending PAX as a panelist? Achievement unlocked.

With so much development in the Australian escape room industry through 2017, it was hard to nail down any single topic to cover. Matt from Enigma Room came up with an ingenious idea to spur discussion this year – the audience would submit their questions by paper plane. They weren’t given much warning this would happen and those who managed to land their question into a box got first dibs at being presented to the panel.

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The sight of so many paper planes was something to behold especially seeing as the auditorium had upwards of 400 people in attendance. Subsequent questioning of the audience also found that most of them had played escape rooms before and many had travelled interstate to attend the event. This reflects the growth and popularization of escape rooms over the last 18 months in Australia. In April 2016, there were 47 venues in the country according to the Escape Room Hunters, with approximately 120 rooms.  In October 2017, the number of venues was around 80, with 200 rooms. The majority were still concentrated on the East Coast (Sydney and Melbourne being the main areas), but there was considerable growth in other capitals and also regional areas.

The audience was extremely encouraging and so were the questions, which were very diverse. The panel discussed a multitude of topics including use of escape rooms in education;  virtual reality and other technology in escape rooms; escape rooms aimed at children; controversial themes; what the panel would build if there were no intellectual property or safety restrictions; weirdness of customers; how to raise capital for setting up escape rooms and much more.

For most topics, the panelists (Jesse and Chris from Riddle Room; Matt from Enigma Room; Rohan from Cubescape; Josh from Mystery Rooms; and Pa, from this blog) agreed in areas where common sense applied. For example, both high and low tech devices can be used in a escape room, so long as they suit the story and theme. While tech has the benefit of allowing room designers to create basically any desired ‘a-ha’ moment, it does not mean that a more low-tech hands on room will not be fun. The use of tech, however, is a developing process that will hardly be reverted and the challenge is with the game designers!

Courtesy of the crew from Riddle Room, here is a video of the panel and you can check the answers to most questions. Matt was a great moderator and covered a large range of topics in 60 minutes.

One thing that did strike me as we sorted through the questions was the level of interest in setting up escape room businesses. Questions about securing funding, how to set up an escape business, and how to select employees were definitely a thing. Riddle Room shared their story about trying to crowdfund their first room (and not succeeding, but they opened anyway), and Cubescape also added interesting points about commercial viability of business.

Matt announced, during the panel, the networking event for owners, future owners and enthusiasts, that happened that same day, at Trapt Bar. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the owners of the best rooms around Australia – it was quite crowded, extremely interesting and very, very fun. Puzzlingly, not many people who had asked about how to open a business during the panel turned up.

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To assist readers who might be interested in setting up businesses, we recommend looking attentively to what already exists in the market and accessing the following resources:

  • Now Escape specialise in writing about the business side of escape rooms: anything from puzzle design, promotional material, web analytics and improving search engine optimisation for your website.
  • Room Escape Artist: David and Lisa Spira are two of the top escape room reviewers over in the US and their room completion count leaves us for dead. Reviewing aside, they are regularly consulted for their expertise and a quick look at their Room Design section indicates a wealth of information and lessons learned by others – so you don’t have to.
  • Escape Room Enthusiasts (Facebook page): Although this page mainly discusses issues more pertinent to North America, this is still a great way to meet people, discuss and become aware of the latest controversies.
  • Escape Room Enthusiasts – Australia and New Zealand (Facebook page): Where all the cool people hang out – obviously.
  • Word has it that there is a Facebook group for escape room owners, who are a welcoming bunch. If you’re a smart cookie looking to set up a venue, I’m sure you’ll figure out where it is.
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The force is strong in this one.

With PAX this year, we’ve also noticed a sharp increase in the promotion of virtual and augmented reality technologies. There was a question about it on the panel, and we gave several of these games a try, including the upcoming Star Wars Lightsaber Battles.

Unlike our previous experience in Barcelona, the VR and AR on display was much more polished. However, we are still not quite a fan of this technology. For all the talk of a virtual world with 3 dimensions, movement still feels quite clunky for most of the platforms we tried. Most of the games we saw and tried engaged players laterally but ‘up, down’ as well as depth were quite limited. That and much of the lateral movement was engaged using buttons rather than my legs. Pa described it best – most of them felt like the Nintendo Wii on steroids.

Moreover, one of the things I enjoy from live experiences is the ability to move around whilst engaging with real environments. I just don’t get that momentum with VR. On the panel, Rohan from Cubescape also elaborated on how many VR experiences hadn’t quite captured the spirit of group activity and much of it still left players feel like they were playing alone. Maybe I’m a Luddite who fears the future. I try not to be, I’m just not convinced the technology is there – yet.

With regard to puzzle games, Pa and I were intrigued by the independent game designers from Australia, who had developed a number of puzzle and stealth games with interesting concepts. These included HEIST, a top down film noir infiltration game, and The Eyes of Ara, a highly artistic Myst-inspired puzzle game which we bought for cheap (we’ll let you know how it is in a future review).

PAX Australia was a great experience. We thank the other panelists for giving the opportunity of Lock Me If You Can to be there, the owners who shared so much of their experience with us, and the people from Labyrinth Escape Rooms and Enigma Room, who helped sorting questions and collecting paper planes. We hope to see everyone again next year!

 

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