Following a good lunch, activities resumed at the ER Industry Conference. Many had taken the opportunity to eat at the venue and meeting new faces and catching up with old, was the order of the hour.  The venue was buzzing as we resumed in the main room to listen to:

Alex Souter of The Panic Room

“We look at what everyone is doing and ask how can we do it differently” was Alex’s opening.  He has created 14 unique rooms, and opened 18, in less than two years at The Panic Room (Gravesend and Harlow).

Alex’s talk was primarily focused at helping owners to be creative and inspired. Being different is an inner driver for Alex. He says “I design based on what really interests me, not what necessarily the customer would desire to see.”   That’s ‘origin thinking’ where the inspiration comes from within. It’s also the style of thinking that allows people within an industry to innovate and explore and really push the boundaries of what may be possible.

Alex explains he finds inspiration everywhere and writes everything down. Then over a period of time, he explores the intricacies of an idea.  “It takes time to process how the idea works” he told us “you have to analyse what you want from your idea to see if it will work in practise.”  Once the idea starts to formulate, he says to talk about it to others. “When an idea is still in its kindling stages, you don’t know what people are going to ask about it. It helps to flush out the eventual product.”  Alex is carving a strong and adaptable way towards the development of his business. “Look at what you want to see, and look at the stages you need to achieve that” he said.

The confidence within Alex’s creative mind is unusual.  He strikes me as a prolific creator and inspiriter and may not realise it, but he’s using an intuitive method we call ‘Seeding’.  “Don’t set anything in stone,” said Alex “you keep making changes in the original concept and evolve it, let it grow.”  I consider it’s this fluidity that makes rapid headway in developing an idea (seed) to potential build (seedling).

Hot tips from Alex included “Decide what makes your idea so special.  If you have a set theme, then make sure your puzzles are unique”.  And “create a story worth telling.  Use it to immerse, involve and interact with the customer.”  On the matter of designing puzzles Alex suggests analysing the environment to create what should be there and what should not.  He said “a good puzzle is interactive, unique, entwined within the environment, and rewarding”.   As a player, I think it’s the ‘rewarding’ bit that means so much.  We can play some very testing or challenging puzzles, but it’s the good feeling upon the solve that we are really looking for within the experience.

I found Alex to be an inspirational and positive presence.  He is just ‘getting on with the job’ and is using a wide array of natural skills and talent to achieve it.  His focus on what the customer feels and needs was insightful. I often think this gets overlooked in a room design and build. “What do you want the customer to feel,” says Alex “you want them to have that wow moment as soon as they enter the room.”

Alex gave some key bullet points about the stages from idea to build, which he called ‘The Art of the Build’, and that showed the level of detail he puts into the design, script, puzzle path and decoration. What’s quite amazing though, is that he is managing this on an approximate budget of £15,000 per room, and he is continuing to plough the investment in to expand and continue his creative generation of good times.

The Enthusiasts Panel

When it was announced that the enthusiasts panel was commencing in the second talk area, vast numbers got up and headed that way, myself included.  As an enthusiast, I really wanted to see what the panel’s thoughts and insights were about escape room games and the industry in general.  The Panel consisted of Ken Ferguson, Mark Greenhalgh, Amy Duggan, and Sharan Gill (of S2) and they delivered humour, common sense, and valuable insight to the audience.  Some highlights  included:-

How have you seen the industry change?

Sharan – “the rapidity of the number of rooms open. The starting level of new rooms is trending upwards.”

Amy – “set design is going up. I see similar puzzles, but set design is changing.”

Mark – “There is now a minimum expectation of a room, and if it isn’t going to meet that, don’t spoil things for the players. We have a minimum standard now.”

On a least favourite mechanism:-

Ken – “Taking time off to get a clue.”

Mark – “The gamemaster entering the room.  Immersion is lost instantly.”

On least/most favourite puzzles:-

Amy – “Jigsaws, least.  Anagrams, most”

Mark – “Counting puzzles, least. Being surprised and getting caught off guard, most.”

Ken – “Counting puzzles, least. UV done well, most.”

Sharan – “Maths puzzles, least, when there’s no calculator.  And also, darkness when it’s irrelevant to the story.”

There was plentiful suggestions on the Gamemaster:

  • Gamehost needs to have passion in the briefing.
  • Deliver the brief with sincerity and to match the theme.
  • Enthusiasm at the beginning and the end.
  • Drip feed pockets of information as the games goes on.
  • If the GH is reading something, then enhance the story with more intrigue.

On the issue of length of game preferred, there was general agreement on 60 minutes, with less than 60 minutes feeling less value for money.  Sharan mentioned that 90 minutes was about the maximum for attention span, and Amy concurred that longer than 90 minutes could lead to brain fatigue.

There was complete consensus that games should be private and not public. Mark said “more than anything for me, it’s a good time with my friends. It has got to be a social experience.”  In a quickfire question round, all four agreed that technology is NOT the way forward.  All four consider escape rooms to be ‘Art’.  And on the key question of whether UK escape rooms are reaching market saturation, Ken considered this could be in about 18 months time.

There is no doubt that this group of very experienced players and contributors to the industry are a valuable asset to helping owners move forwards with player insight and understanding, which will help to develop good, and better, rooms.

Other sessions that I had some time in included:

Sera Dodd and Ken Ferguson gave a talk on ‘Players Perspectives’. They shared a really useful presentation on how players perceive things within room play and what owners can do to better the game experience.

Early mention was of the role of the GameMaster. “Empower your GM’s” said Sera “they are the person in charge of this experience. You (the GM) must make sure the customer enjoys it”.  They explained that the GM is the first impression for the customer, and the last impression; should be adept at solving things that go wrong; and be able to interact as a 5th teammate.  Ken said “the entire reason I play is I want to feel clever.  I want nudges, not answers.”

The wealth of experience that these two enthusiasts have to offer is both useful and supportive. Ken explained “enthusiasts are your ambassadors, they will bring other people to your game. If an enthusiast says it’s great, then you have something to hook customers.”  I can totally relate to that, because after playing just a few games I soon realised the rooms we should be going to were the ones that were generating buzz among the enthusiasts. I realise it may seem like a double-edged-sword for owners – what if the enthusiast doesn’t like the room.  But you know, use their experience then. Get feedback and suggestions and do your best to improve and adapt the game.  Enthusiasts can be a great resource for owners.

Mink Ette is a games designer (creator of Enter The Oubliette) and her presentation gave great insight into staging the puzzles and the presentation of the theme.  She referred to it as ‘puzzle plotting’ and her understanding of the technical and psychological components within a room was fascinating.  “What are the clues?” she said, in describing how players find things. “What activity do they need to do and what confirmation do they get that they have found something that creates action.”

Mink was offering an opportunity to take the understanding of puzzles and their presentation into a stronger context. “How deep is the puzzle?” is something that should be asked, and “How long will it take to play with?” She continued, “How much attention from how many of the group does it take?” I really enjoyed her approach to the puzzle analysis – she was particular in her method.  “What information does solving this puzzle put out? Is it the end of a thread, or does it feed into another puzzle? Does it unlock something new?” Overall, I came away from this talk feeling that a deeper technical analysis is useful in both creation and development of puzzles. And of course, in correcting the player experience for better outcomes.


The Conference overall was a great success.  Well presented, valuable and useful, and wide in its scope of offerings. Some of the talks that I couldn’t get to included:

Nick Moran – on ‘Tools of Immersion’

Simon Stokes & Conrad Jago – on ‘Tailoring the game ot the individual’

Daniel Hill – on ‘Franchising and Scalability’

Brendan Mills – on ‘Handling difficult situations’

Alasdair Willett – on ‘Creating Mystery from History’

Mica Deacon – on ‘Design by Agenda, and agenda by vision’

Jane Norris and Jason Stroud – on ‘Think of the Children’

Two sessions of Owners Panel

Evening networking

The entire team of producers and contributors should rightly be applauded.  May I take this opportunity to thank you all. We can all look forward to the next wonderful event.

To See Part One for Morning Sessions – CLICK HERE