Ive recently been exploring the idea of using the game genre known as the "Escape Game" for educational games. The best examples of games test your puzzle-solving skills, and include hints that you have to explore to find. I thought I would talk to fellow Flash game developer Merlin Gore about escape games, since he has developed so many of them.
Merlin started as a flash developer a few years ago when his friend introduced him to the world of Escape Games. He is still making games to date, but is now also a staff member at FlashGameLicense.com. He’s studying Computer Science in the UK and is going on to do a Masters next year. He aspires to be a game developer later in life and work for some big names like EA or Blizzard.
For those who don't know, what is an "Escape Game"?
An escape game is a very different kind of flash game than most are used to. Basically, the general theme of an escape game is you wake up somewhere and you're trapped inside, (Has anyone played Silent Hill 4: The Room?). You basically have to search the room for objects to help you get out. Some rooms are simple, you go around, look under the sofa, find the key, and get out, (okay not quite as easy as that). While others are a lot tougher, where you have to solve certain puzzles to get the items you need.
You’ve made a lot of escape games. Why do escape games appeal to you as a designer-developer?
Escape Games is where I started as a flash developer, and I think it's a good starting point for anyone who is learning flash. The coding is pretty simple, and it helps you get to grips with manipulating objects in flash, and navigating around the timeline. Another reason it appeals to me is because I think escape games are hugely undervalued, and I want to change that way of thinking. A lot of sponsors aren’t interested because they think it won’t attract a lot of traffic, but for a simple escape game, they do surprisingly well since it caters for a specific market that doesn’t get much attention, but more on that later ;). Simply put, Escape Games are a great starting point for budding flash developers. You can earn some money while getting to grips with flash to move on to bigger projects.
What's the story behind your escape games? Is there a central theme?
My first series was called Hotel Escape (HE). The first game I made the player was stuck in a hotel room with no explanation. You just had to go around the room, find what you need, and escape. When I made HE 2, I added a strange note at the beginning of it, which read something about “reacting well to tests” and “if you make any mistakes you will die”. It sort of took off from there. I decided that it would be based along a story line about you being a test subject for some evil scientists who were testing you and your reactions. After HE 3 it took a turn and I started Hospital Escape, which follows on from HE, but this time you’re almost one step ahead of the evil scientists, and you’re trying to escape their evil clutches.
Do you know the demographics of who plays these games? Who is the “typical” player of your games (as best you can determine)? How popular are escape games vs. other types of casual web games?
Of course I get players of all ages, but as far as I know, the people who most enjoy escape games middle aged men and women who like to solve puzzles and use their brain more while playing flash games. It’s actually a sector of the market that is relatively untouched, since they’re not as much into shooters and action games, but prefer puzzles. It’s difficult to compare escape games to other causal games because they’re so different, and cater for an almost separate market. I think escape games do reasonably well though; I’ve racked up almost 3 million views for Hotel Escape 1. As I said, it’s a good starting point if you’re thinking of entering the flash game market.
How do you come up with the puzzle design for your games?
Haha, good question. I usually have to mull over my puzzles for quite a while. I start by writing some things down on paper; usually I’ll start with the room I’m planning to create. Once I’ve furnished the room I think about how I could use the furniture to make a puzzle that makes you think. For example in Hotel Escape 2, you needed a code to get through a door. I decided to place a painting of Fibonacci on one of the walls, and have a plaque explaining who he was. The user would then have to look up who he was and about his famous sequence, or look for the extra clue in the room which explained the sequence. The puzzles in my rooms come from sheer deep thought, (and sometimes the help of my flatmates!).
Do you expect players to have the math or science background needed to solve these puzzles, or do you provide the educational content somehow?
I try to always include the clues needed to solve the puzzles inside the game, so that the players don’t have to resort to Google, or give up because they can’t be bothered. Like the Fibonacci puzzle I explained earlier, if you already knew the sequence you could go through the door straight away, but if you didn’t the clue explains what the sequence is and how you can construct it yourself.
Do your games feature any other potentially educational content?
I’d like to think so! Though with escape games sometimes you have to stretch reality a bit, or make players construct things they wouldn’t usually make in every day society. For example in my latest game, Hospital Escape, you have to make Ipecac Oral Solution, (A solution that makes you throw up), to get a key out of your stomach. In a future game, you have to make a fire using tissue, metal wire, and a 9v battery. I should hope you don’t do this at home! I do however include logic puzzles, like using numerical clues to find a code that you have to construct using clocks. Anything that challenges your brain and makes you look at things differently is educational in my opinion.
Is there a puzzle you're most proud of?
Haha, I’ve actually partly mentioned it in the last question. I’m quite proud of the puzzle in Hotel Escape 3. Under pool balls are different numbers. You have to find two notes with scribbles resembling the location of the pool balls on the tables and numbers next to each location. The numbers on the notes resemble the order of the numbers on the pool tables. So let’s say you have 3, 9, 12, and 6 after decoding the notes. Now go get your clock in your room and have a look at what’s special about that code. Each pair is on opposite sides of a clock face. You have to go to the clocks in the hotel lobby and rotate them until all the numbers line up horizontally. Still with me? :) That puzzle was also my downfall though, it’s the best I’ve come up with so far, and my other puzzles just don’t satisfy my sponsor anymore!
Are there escape games by any other developers you would recommend for someone looking for inspiration in making an educational escape game?
Pastel Games make really good Escape Games. They have the art as well as great puzzles. I wish I had as much dedication to the games as they do! You should definitely check out Space Oddity if you have a few hours to spare.
Play Hotel Escape