The Set Design of Cerebral | The Three Rules of our Sets
We are making great progress on Cerebral, Next-Gen Escape’s upcoming new horror escape room in Fresno!
Our team thought it would be a good idea to share some info on what our design, build-out, and testing of the room looks like for anyone interested in learning more about our fun industry!
This dev log will be focussing on the rules that we put in place whenever we are designing rooms. The following blog will offer some much-needed context for why we place such a big emphasis on our escape room sets. For more info specifically about what Cerebral’s set looks like join us on the next dev log!
Now that things are falling into place like puzzle pieces (how appropriate) we have time to take a look back at the development of the room and discuss the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
An often overlooked aspect of escape room development is the set! It’s easy to dismiss, it is after all a long process and can easily eat up a room’s budget! But as in everything in life, balance is key. While certainly some people could make the argument that it would be better to put all of our efforts into making the best puzzles possible, you will only play a puzzle once, but you will be in the set for an hour. While we know it’s not the sexiest thing to talk about in regards to escape room development, it’s a huge factor for us whenever we design a new room.
Our focus on the set goes back to the first escape room we played. It was 2016, escape rooms were just barely becoming a thing in our area so I decided to try something new with my partner and finally see what all the fuss was about! The place that was recommended to us had a selection of rooms to choose from, but what stood out the most was the Russian spy-bunker mission. It only had a brief description of what to expect; break into the top-secret Russian missile bunker undetected, stop the nukes from firing, and get out in one piece!
The two-sentence description got my blood pumping with excitement! My ideas of what to expect ran wild; would we have to stay undetected the entire time and make sure we don’t trip a noise alarm? Would we need to interrogate a guard we got the drop on? Would we be able to choose where to fire the missile at the end of the game? The list of wild ideas goes on.
Ultimately what I thought the room was going to be was a far cry from what it actually was, an hour-long game with an assortment of various kinds of interlinked puzzles you need to solve in order to get out in time. While the game design makes a whole lot of sense after thinking about it (I mean it would be pretty cool to get the drop on a Russian intelligence agent to find the clues we need, but from a business perspective I can’t think of something more dangerous than that!), there was still something that failed to connect with me, the set.
Realistically speaking I understood that the wild ideas I had about the game mechanics were unlikely, the room’s description was primarily focused on discussing the set. Based on that description I had expected concrete-looking walls to imitate an underground bunker, a 2nd room full of computer screens analyzing the missile trajectory, and maybe even an elaborate crawling-through-the-vent section. The room had none of these features, so we were disappointed.
It was the first time that the marketing of service made me dissatisfied with the product! If I had known what we were signing up for it would have been a different story. It’s for this reason alone that from day 1 we have allowed players to take photos of the room, with nothing off-limits.
From the escapes I’ve been to, many try to keep the rooms themselves a secret, which is a position I think is actively hurting those businesses! Sure, you may want to keep certain puzzles or moments a secret, but if players can figure out how to solve a puzzle just from one photo, and this may hurt to admit, but it is probably a lousy puzzle.
What really happens when escape businesses refuse to let photos be taken of their room they are relying on the two-sentence description of the room to sell it. What this does is mess around with the player's expectations. If I had known that the Russian bunker just looked like a random office space I may or may not have purchased my tickets, but at least I would have a far better understanding of what to expect. Expect to hear more about photos and phones in the room in an upcoming article, this is a topic I am passionate about!
In short, we took the lesson we learned from that first experience and applied it to all of our rooms moving forward.
Our first rule on Set Design: Whatever goes into the room has to be a good representation of its real-world equivalent.
One of the earliest rooms we played was an old shot-up saloon set in the wild west. Now I don’t know about you, but having carpet in the room really doesn’t do the game any favors. Having it be the same carpet from the lobby doesn’t help either! Obviously you are pretty limited in terms of what to include for flooring, dirt floors would work but would be dirty, and laminate or vinyl floorboards are more costly than the carpet which is already installed. But from our experience with set design, going the extra mile to sell a more authentic experience has always been worth it. (Ok one last thing that really bugged me; there was a puzzle where we had to count up bullet holes throughout the room, except it wasn’t actual holes, they were cheap stickers tacked onto the bare walls which were painted the typical ugly office beige!!)
For us, it doesn’t make sense if a part of the wall in Clancey’s Lodge is painted to look like a forest. In my opinion, it would take far too long to get the wall to look halfway good and even then the illusion of you being in the middle of the woods is destroyed the moment you reach out and touch the drywall. I would never want people to enter our room and have our Game Masters be like, “just pretend that wall is a haunted woods.” Isn’t that both just extremely immersive and spooky? Why not pretend that this body pillow is actually a dead body! Well you shouldn’t, because that sir is a body pillow!
King’s Keep, for example, took about 6 months to complete. The walls took an absurd amount of time to complete, but the results are well worth it for every “Holy crap” we get to hear when people enter the dungeon.
The frustrating rule of 80/20
About 80 percent of the furniture, props, and set pieces that we need to source are easy to find, overall it takes about 20% of our effort in making the sets for our rooms. However, the remaining 20% of items we need are SO difficult to find, taking up about 4x the amount of effort.
While this doesn’t help us make a room, it’s important for our team to be reminded about it. 80% of the puzzles we make are easy enough to implement, but the remaining 20% of puzzles take up 80% of our time! The reason why these items are so difficult to source is thanks to our next rule.
The survival rule
This rule is the one we reference the most when it comes to the set design. Everything we throw into the room has to have some robust qualities to it, which makes sourcing props and furniture difficult and follows the 80/20 rule.
When choosing a prop, almost a million different factors have to be considered; how much is it, how long would it take to make it usable, would it survive an irate 3 year old, would it survive an irate 38 year old, how easy would it be to fix, do we need backups in case of failure, oh and what color should we get it in are all factors that we consider whenever purchasing something for a room. Most of the time Amazon products won’t cut it so we have to venture out to the many thrift stores throughout the area to find the specialized furniture and props we are looking for, and further reinforce them to be able to stand up to the wear and tear they will be receiving.
Do you know that a VHS player costs something like $70 on Amazon, or $10 at a good thrift store? We’ve had to do this before for Clancey’s Lodge where you need to use a set of classic novels for a puzzle. The books had to be in good condition, and would need to be hardback if they were to be expected to survive for more than a month. About 12 months after the room launched they were barely held together by duct tape and Elmer’s glue. Sourcing exact replacements for the books we had was hard to do without spending a ludicrous amount. We have since replaced all the books with updated titles, but from now on, we know to always look for replacements when we go thrift shopping in preparation for the fateful day when the books get ripped in half for the sake of hoping it was hiding a clue.
Thanks for reading this dev log! This week we talked about the rules for set design that we force ourselves to follow when we design a set. Come back for the next dev log when we talk about the set itself!