Taking Escape Experiences Online: A Pivot Due to COVID-19
Written by: Declan Dinnadge
December 7, 2020
NOTE: Specific details have been omitted to protect the confidentiality of the gameplay
During the preparation for the Abduction! escape room experience, the world got hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world scrambled to deal with the spread of the virus, the outbreak sent a shockwave through the business community as companies were forced to reduce operations or shut down completely. Here in Victoria, BC, the effect was no different as businesses were required to adapt as quickly as they could to minimize the loss of revenue caused by ceasing operations.
This obviously created a problem for our (Encompass) biggest project at the time, the Abduction! escape room experience. The game was a few weeks away from being complete but the regulations for how location-based entertainment businesses were supposed to operate were still vague. Being a brand new experience, and the first of its kind, this created uncertainty around the grand opening and reception of the new game. Our team had put in months of hard work and creativity to bring this project to life, and unprecedented circumstances put the whole project at risk.
Our client, Quest Reality Games, was searching for solutions to provide online experiences for customers during the height of the pandemic. Although several escape room operators around the world had begun to launch online experiences, the quality just wasn't there.
As an avid gamer growing up, I was used to playing triple-A titles on PlayStation and therefore had developed an internal standard of what makes a compelling experience. Granted, those titles often involve huge investments, which our client did not have the capacity for. As we had developed our relationship and demonstrated our capacity for software development and storytelling, we began the discussion of converting one of their existing physical rooms into an online experience that was accurately represented and also engaging for the player - all on a proverbial "shoestring".
Creating the online experience posed three main challenges:
The one upside was the game content was already there. Since it was a flushed out game experience, we had an existing foundation to work with. It was a matter of making a physical game into a virtual one. We had some video content to work with, a storyline, and a physical room with real props we could use for reference. The game wasn't an escape game, but a "who-done-it" crime scene investigation style game where the players are presented with a crime scene and have to figure out who the culprit is.
Challenge #1: Convert an in-room puzzle experience into an online game
We decided to keep it a "first person experience", similar to the real game. Players would walk around the room, investigating objects and finding evidence to analyze later at the lab. The game was to be played on a mid-range (or better) desktop/laptop and had to be compatible with PC or Mac to maximize accessibility.
Our first course of action was to figure out how we were going to do it. I have extensive experience with game development tools like Unity, and the Abduction! experience was coincidentally built using these tools. Therefore we were essentially creating another game, but instead of it being an escape room that runs on a PC game in a physical space, we were creating a more conventional "video game".
We took pictures of the room and measured the space to create a space-accurate 3D model that could be used in game. After designing and modelling the layout of the room, we added props and assets to start filling out the room and making it look the way it did in real-life.
This part was relatively quick as we had a reference to go from and tried to match it as closely as possible. Although, as it was a video game, we didn't have the physical constraints of a real building so we could take some liberties with areas that did not actually exist in real life - including sound effects and other rooms/doors. This included adapting the "crime lab" to a first person experience instead of an actual room.
Arguably biggest non-technical challenge we had was adapting the gameplay style to an automated, online experience.
In the physical game, players have to fill out a report to illustrate their understanding of the events that transpired based on the evidence they found. A real person (game master) has to manually review the report to confirm whether or not the players were correct in their analysis.
Automating this process created a variety of obstacles as we had to make sure players input the correct information so they didn't get penalized for using a different word even though the answer was correct, while also ensuring that we didn't inadvertently give the answer away based on the question. The answers then had to be analyzed with no human interaction and the players would be scored based on their analysis.
After deliberating back and forth on how to solve this problem, we decided a series of multiple choice, dropdown, and manual entry answers that automatically capitalized the user entries to ensure consistency, while penalizing them for misspelt words or incorrect answers. The process worked and created a cohesive gameplay experience that both challenged the players and adequately analyzed their answers to the puzzles correctly.
Another challenge to the gameplay experience was allowing for multiplayer gameplay for up to 10 players. As Quest's physical rooms were designed for collaborative experiences, creating a game designed to be single player wouldn't accurately represent that game we were aiming to replicate.
Our solution to this, based on the timeframe and budget we had, was to create a cooperatively competitive gameplay experience. Players were scored individually based on their analysis of the evidence, but their scores were combined to contribute to the overall "team" score. Players could assist each other in figuring out what happened and as long as one person correctly influenced the others, the team would do well. If not, individuals may do well but unless the team performed as a whole, the team would not score well on the analysis.
Challenge #2: Making the Game Accessible to the "Casual Gamer"
As a gamer myself, picking up any video game title and playing it requires a relatively small learning curve. I understand button layouts, general game mechanics, and can figure out the basics of any game relatively quickly. However, not everyone is a gamer and we didn't want to limit the scope of the game to people who were already comfortable playing video games. We also didn't want to alienate actual gamers by introducing strange game mechanics or an unfamiliar concept.
We accomplished this in a few ways:
W-A-S-D Keys to Move
One of the most common ways to move a player in a computer game is by using the W-A-S-D keys on the keyboard. Although the arrow keys make sense conceptually, using the letter keys keeps your left hand on one side of the keyboard and frees your right hand to push other buttons and use the mouse. Therefore, we allowed the user to move by using both the arrow keys AND the W-A-S-D keys on the keyboard. That way, gamers and non-gamers alike could understand how to move the player.
Orange Markers on the Floor
You know the virtual tours that real estate websites use to show a house from a 360 perspective? The concept is very simple - click on a button at a spot on the floor and the camera will move to that location. It's simple to understand and removes the need to use the keyboard to "walk" to a location. We implemented this feature as well so players could essentially move around the room by clicking on the floor and using the mouse to look around. We made sure to keep the markers random enough so it didn't look like that was where you were supposed to go to find evidence.
Click, Click, Click
The goal of the game is straightforward - explore, find, analyze. When exploring the crime scene, we wanted to keep it simple and ensure that the average player would be performing actions that they were already familiar with when using a computer. Therefore, aside from moving the play with the keys or markers, locating reading evidence involved clicking on items in the room to determine if they were evidence or not. Some evidence was marked, other items were not. This kept it somewhat ambiguous as to what was evidence and what wasn't.
While exploring the scene, players don't have to think of anything else except moving and clicking. No complicated key combinations, no hotkeys - just move and click.
One Game Fits All
Although we built the game for PC and Mac users, we kept the game simple and chose not to include adjustable settings or parameters. The experience you get is the experience we designed for you and therefore, the issue of accidentally changing settings doesn't exist with the game.
The game is also light, meaning that it doesn't require heavy graphics processing to run. There is lighting and shaders throughout the game to add some sense of realism, but keeping it simple meant that the average user could play it and still have an enjoyable experience.
Challenge #3: Purchasing Game Sessions
Quest Reality Games currently uses Bookeo to manage the bookings for their experiences. It's a simple tool that allows customers to purchase time slots for specific games, and the whole process is managed automatically through their service. They show up at their purchased time slot and away they go.
An online game, however, doesn't need to be purchased for a specific time slot. It be played at any time throughout a 24-hour time period. This opens up several possibilities as there are no staffing, logistics, or operational concerns to worry about (minus server capacity). So how would be make the Bookeo system work for an online game?
We took the concept of "rooms" quite literally. In a physical escape game, players purchase a time slot for a specific room and they have effectively booked the room for a certain number of people. We used this same concept for the online CSI game, while removing the constraint for time.
To purchase a game, players have to:
- Select a "time slot" from the website. The time is irrelevant, it's just how Bookeo works
- Choose the number of players and enter in the information
- Confirm their purchase using a credit card and the order is placed
- They receive a booking number via email that can be used to grant one person access to the game
To play a game:
- One member of the group (the purchaser) opens the game and starts a game session by entering in the booking number they received
- The game references the Bookeo database for Quest and searches for the booking number, which also contains information such as which experience they purchased, and for how many players the game was purchased
- If the booking number exists and the criteria matches, the host is allowed to create a session (room) for the allotted number of players
- The room name is then shared with the other players and they can join the newly created session
- The host starts the game, and everyone has up to 90 minutes to complete the session
This process integrated nicely with Quest's existing system and allowed customers to find the online version the same way they would a physical game. No separate processes, no human intervention having to manually issue access codes, and a simple, consistent experience.
The game integrated with the Bookeo API so they could talk back and forth and automate the game verification process. It also helps eliminate piracy or unauthorized playthroughs, while disincentivizing "cheating" as there's not much point in purchasing the game just to know all the answers.
Building the CSI online experience was a challenging and rewarding project. It involved thinking a little differently about how video games are conventionally developed and sold, and allowed us to create a timed, collaborative experience that represents the core elements of a physical escape game.
Our goal, moving forward, is to continue to improve and expand on this type of experience by improving gameplay and offering other unique titles that are recreations of existing rooms or completely original ideas.
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