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May 10, 2017

From Game Design to Escape Room Design: Richard Thames Rowan - Epic Team Adventures (Seattle, WA)

Richard Thames Rowan (left)

We had the pleasure of meeting Richard Thames Rowan while on our Seattle trip in April. We wanted to know what goes on in a game designer's mind and the background behind creating an escape room. Richard has helped design quite a few rooms at Epic Team Adventures with his latest project being the one day (May 20) game of Scotland Yard: The Baker Street Affair in Seattle, WA.

What is your profession?
I have been a game designer and producer for the last 20 years. I have worked for Wizards of the Coast, Microsoft Game Studios, Gazillion Entertainment, and Glu Mobile over the years as well as run my own companies. I’ve worked on over 50 titles including everything from massively multiplayer games to casual web and mobile games. For the last few years, I have been teaching game and user experience design at DigiPen Institute of Technology, one of the top-rated game design universities in the country.

About 15 years ago, I started designing puzzles for the annual Microsoft Puzzle Safari, an annual letterboxing-style event hosted on the Microsoft campus. From there, I branched out to start designing puzzles for other large scale events like Microsoft Puzzle Hunt (~1000 people) down to small birthday and corporate events, and even private commissions for weddings or private parties.

How did you get into designing escape rooms?
As I mentioned, I started designing puzzles and puzzle events years ago, so when my twin brother and other friends of mine started Epic Team Adventures in 2016, they asked me to help design some of their rooms. I helped build Vault of the Volcano God and The Sparrow Files, constructing furniture, building a lot of props, and contributing to the puzzle design.

What was the first escape room you designed and how was that experience?
The first room that I designed as the lead designer was a six-episode room called Alchemy Arcana. I spent multiple months designing this room and pushing the development of the technology when it became clear that it was going to take a lot more technology research to make that room a reality. As a result, I shifted my efforts to a simplified design that mostly used technology that we already knew how to build. In about three months, we were able to finish this room, Quest for Excalibur, which despite its straightforward design, I am happy to say has been very well received. Next, I designed the follow-up episode for Storybook Legends set in the same physical space, The Raven and The Red Death.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way about what makes an engaging escape room. A lot of people say that “games are only good if they have multiple physical rooms”, but I think that is a somewhat simplistic perspective as a designer. A more nuanced statement would be that escape rooms derive a lot of their enjoyment from a sense of discovery. Obviously, multiple rooms are an obvious way to deliver on that sense of discovery, but I’m very interested as a designer in finding new ways of delivering on that sense of discovery. Without spoiling anything, The Raven and the Red Death has one of those methods, but we have several more very interesting ideas that we still want to explore in future episodes and rooms.

How long does the process take to design and create an escape room? How many people do you work with?
Well, it really depends. I’ve created a 15 minute escape room in a single day for the Extra Life charity event we ran, and that was just my twin brother, Jesse McGatha, and I doing everything. We received our theme at 6:30 in the morning and had to design and build the entire room in a hotel ballroom including certain mystery ingredients by 9:30pm that night. We spent the next 3 hours designing the puzzles, 6 hours shopping for materials, and the final 6 hours in production.

For a normal room, I’d want one to three months of concept and design time, followed by one to three months of production. I think Quest for Excalibur was three months and The Raven and the Red Death was four. For those rooms, I had four to six contributing designers that designed some individual puzzles based on my direction, a general contractor for building out the room, a couple technology guys building all the technology and programming the applications, and half a dozen production assistants that helped me produce all the props. We had an artist come in to paint the room, another artist produce the marketing material, and a webmaster to create and manage the website. All told, it was about a dozen people, though many of those were only involved part time at different phases of the project.

What are some of the top escape rooms you have played outside of ETA?
I’ve mostly played rooms in Seattle, though I did get to play a few in San Francisco the last time I visited there. I’m hoping to start doing more “escape room vacations” over the next year or two, though! I think my two favorite escape rooms outside of ETA are Locurio’s The Vanishing Cabinet in Seattle and EscapeSF’s Blind Tiger in San Francisco. I’ve heard fantastic things about Palace Games’ rooms in San Francisco, so I’d really like to check those out. Later this summer, I’m planning to do a “weekend escape” trip by driving up to Vancouver, B.C. and checking out every escape room I can along the way.

What is the funniest or most interesting thing you have seen in an escape room?
Well, I’ve been watching the Escape! series by Geek & Sundry on YouTube, and I’d have to say the funniest/most interesting thing was watching the Escape the Evil Sorcerer’s Lair episode for the first time about a week ago. As I mentioned, I designed a room called Alchemy Arcana last year, and it was interesting how eerily similar their room was to my design. It wasn’t exactly the same, of course, but a lot of the key prop elements had a striking resemblance to what I had designed. The interesting thing to me is how certain puzzle ideas naturally lead to certain tech solutions or are constrained by the needs of the technology such that you end up with some very similar designs completely independently. Thanks to an off-hand comment one of the actors made about one of the props, I was able to completely reconstruct the hidden technology that they used because that prop feature is exactly like the physical feature on one of my puzzles in Quest for Excalibur.

If you had no constraints, what kind of room would you design?
I would design a whole island with an entire house and grounds full of magical things, kind of like a cross between Harry Potter and Spiderwick Chronicles! People would buy tickets for the entire weekend and attempt to solve the mystery of the island before the end of the weekend while staying as guests in the mansion.

What do you do like to do outside your professional life?
In my free time (ha, what’s that?), I like reading, playing games, playing escape rooms/puzzle events, solving puzzles, and sailing. I read many different genres of books, including science fiction, fantasy, general fiction, mythology, history, and transdisciplinary non-fiction like Guns, Germs and Steel or 1491. I have a collection of about 500 board games (mostly European style) that I’ve been collecting since The Settlers of Catan was first published in the United States in 1995. I also have a huge library of roleplaying games and supplements. Seattle and the Puget Sound is one of the best sailing destinations in the United States, especially if you don’t mind a little rain.

Favorite games (video, board games, any type...)?
Wow, this one is tough, because there are so many games that I love. In general, I love roleplaying games or any game with a strong narrative, turn-based strategy games, and puzzle games. Some of my all-time favorite video games are Myst, The Fool’s Errand, The Witness, and the Assassin’s Creed series. For board games, my favorites are probably Carcassonne, Catan, and Ticket to Ride (along with the many variants). Netrunner is my favorite trading card game, which is also a game that I got to work on during my time at Wizards of the Coast.

Favorite movies and TV shows?
My favorite drama movies are American Beauty, Fight Club, Hunt for Red October, and National Treasure (so lame, but scratches that puzzle itch!). My favorite comedies are Grosse Pointe Blank and Secret of My Success. I like a lot of TV shows, including Game of Thrones, The Newsroom, House of Cards, The Expanse, and my most recent obsession of Mr. Robot. I cut cable a few years ago, so most of my TV viewing is now based on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Red pill or the blue pill?
Red pill all the way! I love Wonderland, and as a designer, I’m wired to look for the true nature of the world.

Thank you for your time Richard!

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