Designing Ultimate Xscape:

Published on 13th November 2019

At the start of the year, we were engaged by Saturn Imagineering to work with them to design Aberystwyths first escape rooms at The Silver Mountain Experience in Wales. Already an established tourist attraction located at an old Victorian Mine, they wanted to open a new business venture on-site on an unused section of their car park. 


This project was interesting not just because it was the first escape rooms we had designed but because of the incredibly quick turnaround. From our first meeting on 21st January 2019, Ultimate Xscape was fully designed, constructed and opened to the public on the 8th of April, just 77 days later! This timeline was reduced further for myself as my daughter was due to be born at the end of March so I had to ensure that my parts of the project were all completed before then.

I have written this article to provide some insight into the different steps in the project and the challenges and obstacles we faced and how we overcame them and hope that you find the process as interesting as we did.

The Brief:

"To design the layout, themes, puzzles, narrative and gameplay for two separate escape room experiences for Aberystwyths first escape rooms!"

With this in mind, we began to decide what we wanted the two rooms to be. We wanted to ensure the rooms weren't too similar and that there was a nice contrast between the two so that both gave a unique experience to encourage players to return and try the other room.

During our research stage the most popular themes time and time again were horror and crime themed rooms. We decided to try and merge the two and came up with the concept for Room 13. A dark and dingy Aberystwyth Hotel where guests have been mysteriously disappearing. This story puts guests right at the heart of the crime committed as they try to solve the mystery before they become the next victim. Room 13 continues to be the most popular choice for teams with older players and adults.

Spellbound was the second room we created and had a more magical theme that is more appealing to families and those with young children. Players (or prisoners) are locked up in the castle and have to use their cunning and intellect to escape the clutches of an evil warlock.

Naming both rooms was an important decision as they needed to do as they say on the tin so that the themes and narratives are presented clearly to guests when booking and that they have a good idea of what to expect just from reading the name.

Room 13 was easy to name as a room number makes people instantly think of a hotel and the number 13 is widely known for being unlucky. This alongside the visual assets used lets players understand that this room has quite a dark theme. We found Spellbound harder to name and we struggled to decide for some time. The room was called Spellcaster for a while but in the end, we decided on the name Spellbound as it conjures up imagery of magic and being bound or trapped.

The Design:

Layout:

Designing the rooms was a challenge in the space given as Ultimate Xscape is housed using two 40ft x 8ft shipping containers with a lobby area and control room built onto the front. The original plan was to stagger the containers slightly to give us a more interesting layout to play with. However eventually we decided that having the two containers parallel was the best option and made the space simpler to design in.

 

The widths of the containers didn't leave much room to play with when designing the rooms as they needed to be large enough to comfortably hold a team of up to 8 players as well as any puzzles, furniture and theming items. To work around this we overlapped the rooms into the neighboring container to make the rooms larger when needed when the space in the game next door could get away with being smaller (i.e. a cell or a corridor). This allowed us a lot more freedom in the design process and also made the layout of the rooms more interesting to the players and avoided the feeling of just going in a straight line from one end of the building to the other.

Puzzles:

Puzzle design was one of the highlights and most fun aspects of the project although also presented its own challenges. Each puzzle not only needed to fit the theme of the game but it also needed to slot into the narrative and have a reason for being there. For example, if something was locked then it needed to have a reason for being locked such as one of the characters trying to hide something away from prying eyes.

 

All the puzzles also needed to vary in difficulty to give the teams a fun challenge without feeling too frustrated. It had to be clear what needed to done with all the clues they needed to figure it out for themselves in the room with them.

 

It was important for us to make a variety of different puzzle types to keep the games fresh and exciting for the players. This meant that it wasn't just padlock after padlock and the puzzles would vary between finding hidden objects, cracking codes, physical games, logic puzzles and thinking outside the box with the room itself.

 

The main challenge with the puzzle design was trying to ensure it would fill the whole hour of the players time so that most would complete it or get to the final puzzle. Too many puzzles and it would be too hard to complete in time but too few and players would get out too quickly and wouldn't have as much value for money. It's very hard to account for how well each team will do as well which will drastically affect how quickly they solve the puzzles.

 

To work around this we designed enough puzzles to fill the room and the game time but we also designed additional puzzles that could be added in during playtesting if we found players were finishing too quickly. Likewise, if we found teams were struggling to escape in time then we had the option of removing a couple of puzzles and adjusting the game to make it a bit easier. Once we found a comfortable level that worked for most teams then it would be up to the game master controlling each game to be able to effectively deliver hints and clues to keep groups moving through the game at a good pace.

Tech:

When designing the escape rooms we had to decide how much technology we wanted to involve. Some escape rooms are bog-standard and just use paper, padlocks and items around them whilst others go advanced in technology with sensors, computers, programmed puzzles that run off microchips and other electronics and even the use of VR and projection mapping.

 

When designing the puzzles for Ultimate Xscape we wanted to keep the first two rooms simple and give the players an experience that felt natural like they were actually there. Apart from using computers and CCTV to control the games and deliver clues the only tech involved in Room 13 and Spellbound were a few magnetic locks that 'reveal' something once a certain puzzle or task is complete. This gives a couple of 'wow moments' to the players in the game as something opens up and makes them feel like they've taken a big step forward in progressing through the game.

Bringing the Plans to Life:

Once the layout and the rooms were planned we began to build it all in 3D. This helped us and The Silver Mountain Experience see what it would look like to scale and being able to walk through the model in 3D was invaluable. The design not only showed the layout of the building and where all the wall panels needed to be placed but it also showed how the rooms would be decorated and themed and even what the lighting would look like. In the images below you can see what the image looked like in the design process vs how it looked once it had been constructed.

The Construction:

Due to a delay in the delivery of the shipping containers they didn't arrive until the start of March, exactly one month before we were opening! Luckily, as the ground in the car park had already been prepared it meant that when they did arrive it was full steam ahead getting it all built.

 

Once the containers were in place work began on the framework and building a roof. When this was completed work could begin inside on the rooms themselves. Once all the wall panels were installed the set dressing began to bring each room to life.

The Opening:

Ultimate Xscape opened on time and has received amazing reviews from guests so far with a lot of groups playing both rooms. Everyone involved did a fantastic job to get things looking great in the short amount of time we had before it opened.

The Reviews:

"We had a fab visit. The puzzles were great and well thought out."

"Excellent escape room, we did Room 13 and escaped, we have done loads of escape rooms all around the country and this is on a par with the best of them, highly recommend, you won’t be disappointed"

"Having done others in Cardiff thought we'd give it a go. Ended up doing both rooms. Loved them both. The people running the games were great and we're keen to get feedback as it was a new venture. Would definitely recommend."

"Have been to Wales many times on holiday and was excited to see an Escape Room had opened up in the area, having played rooms before. We did Room 13 yesterday and enjoyed it so much we came back for Spellbound today! Good story and really well-designed rooms. Definitely recommend a visit."

"Have been to Wales many times on holiday and was excited to see an Escape Room had opened up in the area, having played rooms before. We did Room 13 yesterday and enjoyed it so much we came back for Spellbound today! Good story and really well-designed rooms. Definitely recommend a visit."

"Loved it! Really fun and clever how it all is figured out. We had a great time with the family "

"We had a fantastic time today in Room 13. We managed to escape with just 1 min 14 seconds left in the clock! Definitely worth going."