Mastering the Challenge of Difficulty: Our Approach to Escape Room Design

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Escape rooms are games, and games need to challenge players to be satisfying. At the same time, game designers have to make sure that difficulty translates into fun for players instead of getting in the way of it.

Escape rooms typically have built-in limits that contribute to difficulty, like the requirement that teams reach the exit within an hour. There are always subtler, less obvious issues that add to difficulty along the way, however. When we design our escape rooms here at Arcadia Adventures, we often ask ourselves related questions like:

  • Is this puzzle or room too hard? Is it too easy? Players who feel overwhelmed or frustrated by the difficulty of the challenges they face will rarely end up having fun. At the same time, a room or puzzle that is too easy will not require enough from players to be memorable and satisfying. Striking the right balance for a wide range of players and teams is never to be taken for granted.
  • Is this type of difficulty making the experience more enjoyable? Different sorts of challenge and difficulty can also be more appropriate for certain games than others. Escape rooms are immersive and exciting at their best, and they also have a distinct character not found in many other types of games. As escape room designers, we need to make sure our puzzles and rooms feature challenges that suit them and our players well.
  • Is this puzzle fair? There are some types of difficulty that can rightly be seen as arbitrary and unfair even by positive, open-minded players. A puzzle that relies too much on random luck or which requires knowledge of an overly obscure fact will rarely be all that satisfying to confront. Even though escape rooms ask teams of players to solve them cooperatively, fairness is still an issue.

It’s Not Easy to Get Difficulty Right

As these questions might make clear, arriving at the perfect level and type of challenge for the puzzles that make up a room is never easy to do. In most cases, there will not be one right answer, with a delicate balance needing to be struck instead.

That can sometimes make escape room design feel a bit overwhelming. In practice, what makes the difference is finding a way to break the problem down into smaller pieces. Fortunately, there is a well-established way of tackling the escape room design process, and we make heavy use of it ourselves here at Arcadia Adventures.

“Aha!” Moments to the Rescue

Just about everyone who has fought with a problem but eventually overcame it will have experienced an especially satisfying realization along the way. Known variously as the “aha!” or “Eureka!” moment, this burst of inspiration where the solution becomes clear repays in an instant all the struggle that came before.

Making sure that every puzzle provokes an “aha!” moment of its own is a proven way to create escape rooms that will challenge, satisfy, and entertain players without being frustrating or seeming unfair. There are quite a few different ways to set up “aha!” moments for players, including using puzzle features like:

  • Hidden images. A meaningful, helpful image that suddenly makes itself known to players features in many of the most satisfying escape room puzzles. Images can sometimes even be positioned in plain sight such that their significance will only be recognized later on.
  • Optical illusions. Room features that look like one thing but turn out to be another can be especially effective at making players say “aha!” Many two dimensional optical illusions can be adapted for this purpose, and it is even possible to create three-dimensional illusions that will work well, too.
  • Wordplay. One of the fascinating things about words is how their meanings so often vary in different contexts and constructions. Clever wordplay can provide “aha!” moments for players who suddenly see things from a fresh, new perspective.
  • Designing every puzzle so that it leads to an “aha!” moment makes it much easier to balance the difficulty of an entire room. That piece-by-piece approach puts our designers in control of what can otherwise be a truly formidable problem.
  • This strategy allows us to figure out when a puzzle has become too complicated and to simplify it or add more clues in ways that preserve the most important part. Focusing on the “aha!” moments of individual puzzles helps us add difficulty and challenge where it is needed the most without upsetting the balance.

The Importance of Putting Fun First at All Times

The “aha!”-focused approach to puzzle escape room design is a reflection of an even more fundamental principle. Some designers end up indulging themselves too much, and players pay the price in frustrating, un-fun experiences.

Our take on escape room design ensures that we stay true to the most important goal: Making sure players have a great time. All the individual “aha!” moments we carefully plan out combine for memorable, satisfying, enjoyable overall experiences for players.