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There is a garage in Edmonton that takes you to Mars. Sounds weird, right? Tom Robinson, who built this very successful escape-experience, told us about his ideas.
Not a single day goes by without hearing about the newest escape room concepts and innovations. The industry is in good hands, no doubt about it. You can always bring something new to it. Tom Robinson reached back, and placed his escape-experience in a garage. It's a success story. We had the chance to interview the Edmonton-based escape room owner and he proved that creativity and hard work pays off, especially in the case of Red Planet Expeditions.
escape-rooms.com: Were there any inspirations (actual rooms) from the escape room industry when you started to work on this project?
Tom Robinson: I heard about escape rooms while I was away travelling, and I played one room while I was visiting another city, and thought is was fantastic. I think at that point I wanted to build one myself, so I came home and invited some of my game playing friends out to try another, and after that we went for a drink and decided we should do it.
We brainstormed for a bit, and found we all liked the sci-fi theme, and the Martian was coming out that fall (2015), and we figured we should tie into that pop-culture idea and decided to put the story on Mars.
I was really interested in making story an important aspect of design. Initially I had problems with having the scenario be in a situation where the players were supposed to be trained astronauts, because they SHOULD know what to do, and I eventually hashed out the idea of the tourist trip - tourists would have no idea what was going on, just as the players don’t.
escape-rooms.com: How would you describe / classify your garage escape room? People have started to talk about generations. Do you believe in the rise of high-tech rooms or classic themes will stay?
Tom Robinson: I was pushing for a future or at least modern theme, while we were trying to come up with ours, so electronic tech would not be out of place.
So perhaps I would say it is a newer generation room? But while we have some electronic gadgets, we still worked hard to make the puzzles tactile - you must put together a tangram style puzzle, you’re tracing wires and connecting them to terminals, you use a bunch of 2 inch PVC piping to shift blowing air from one hole to another, and you must physically insert, turn, remove a real sized hubcap into a tire set-up several times.
escape-rooms.com: You have somewhat reached back to the beginnings, where owners set up rooms in garages and chambers. In an era where rooms are sometimes getting bigger and bigger, you'have managed to offer something new and cool in a garage. Why did you choose to set it up there?
Tom Robinson: Practicality, mostly. We wanted to see if we could create a competent and fun room, but didn’t want to be spending money on a commercial space because we didn’t know how long it would take and whether it would be worth showing to the public. My partner Sarah and I had just moved into a new home, and the garage was completely bare - no shelves or work benches - so it was a perfect place and time to build this prototype. Thank goodness we weren’t paying money, because it took far longer than I was hoping. It did, however, turn out as well as I’d hoped.
escape-rooms.com: Did you set up the room all by yourself?
Tom Robinson: There were three of us who created the room. Chris Proctor was instrumental in getting the puzzles and gadgets working and helping me with the major construction, and Paul Goebel, who helped with the story, puzzle design, and has helped present and market the room to the public.
escape-rooms.com: What about the marketing of the room?
Tom Robinson: By word of mouth, and about three weeks ago we opened it up to the public digitally. Chris, and especially Paul, managed to get our digital systems up and running, and now we have a booking system in place, linked from our social media (we are using Facebook exclusively for our campaign), which has made life incredibly simple.
escape-rooms.com: Who are your guests? Is there a certain age group that stands out or it's really random?
Tom Robinson: We set up our FB page, and began inviting people we knew through the platform, but we invited a pair of writers who have the blog #yeg Escape Room Roundup, and were lucky enough to get a great review, which spread through local internet. This was picked up by local media, and then the most distant response has been from you.
We get a range of guests: to begin with, a lot of friends, then a few friends of friends, but after getting all the media attention over the past couple of weeks it has been a variety of folks. Lots of first-timers, although I suspect that's pretty common everywhere, as the escape room industry has really only taken off in Edmonton over the past year or so. The media coverage reached a number of people who had never heard of escape rooms, and were curious to see what it was about. Regarding age, we've had a range from as low as 10 up to folks in their 70s, but most tend to be in their 20s. We've actually had quite a few artists of various kinds come through recently, and I've found I enjoy running the room for them the most.
escape-rooms.com: What do people like the most about it?
Tom Robinson: People seem to like the story aspect of it, which is what I was really focused on from the start. I think its so much more fun if the puzzles are integrated into the story and make sense in the situation, so we developed the story to the point we could start imagining the objects and systems that would exist in the environment. I was pleased when we settled on the sci-fi scenario, because it meant basically no limit to the choice of machinery and technology that could exist, and we didn't have to disguise gadgets like we would have with a room that was set in the past.
So once we began figuring out some of the systems aboard our imagined Mars rover, things like air filtration, a power plant, wheels etc., we tried to come up with puzzles that would make at least nominal sense with each system. They are very tactile - you pick up and adjust a variety of object - and involve very different puzzle challenges. We really tried to avoid codes, we only have one code-lock puzzle, and people seem to appreciate that as well.
We also worked hard to have a video component to the room. There is an introduction that sets up the dangerous situation your group is in aboard the rover, and what you could try and do to survive. There are number of other videos that occur throughout the 45 minute game that present new issues and confirm successes. People like being told they are progressing.
They also like the set design. We kept things simple but effective - finding interesting objects and shaping them into the various systems and puzzles.
escape-rooms.com: What do you think of the future of the industry? Your game in a garage has been a success story.
Tom Robinson: It's still relatively new, and I heard a lot people refer to it as a fad, but I think escape rooms could have a permanent place in popular culture, if the industry is smart and evolves with new technology and public taste. There is still a great deal of experimentation and figuring out of best methods in room design happening, and figuring out how to market and run the business of escape rooms effectively is also developing.
One of the biggest hurdles at the moment is the public's general lack of knowledge. I think a lot of education and enticement of the public, on the part of the escape room owners and proponents, is needed to get and keep people interested. The term escape room is a bit frightening, and I still meet a lot of people who are absolutely sure they don't want to try anything by that name, so if the industry wants longevity, it needs to continue to broaden its appeal.
I've heard a few different titles for the game, and I'm partial to escape adventure, as it's a little less menacing, and evokes more of an escape from reality rather than escaping a threat. To get a wider user audience, luring people in with fantasy, whether it's in our past, present, future, or in another world altogether, and story, rather than just appealing to avid puzzlers and game players, could expand the industry's interests. And a lot of creators are doing that, and those are my favorite rooms to play. The more immersive, the more fun people seem to have.
I'm sure there will be, or already is, a splintering off of room creators. Players have different tastes and certain creators will prefer and be better at particular genres and style of game. These different styles will require different things - rooms for people who just really like a variety of puzzles, probably don't need as much room or fancy gadgetry as rooms that are more focused on elaborate story and set design.
I don't have a lot of knowledge on the subject, but one thing that has always come to mind when I'm thinking about escape rooms is Virtual Reality. I'm not sure how the coming of better and cheaper VR, which seems closely related to escape rooms in it's philosophy/purpose, will affect the future. Players really seem to enjoy the tactile fun of physical rooms, but the potential for creating incredible environments in VR is very appealing in regards to creating escape games. I feel like these two industries will end up closely intertwined - there will be a shift back to the electronic origins of escape gaming.