Our team is now in the final stage of delivering a project we’re incredibly proud of. We’re developing an immersive mystery experience in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, home to some of the most renowned 17th century paintings in the world, including Rembrandt’s famous work, The Night Watch.
Last summer, the museum already pioneered with another game inside its building. It was a fun experience and after having played it, we felt a strong desire to design something for this magnificent space ourselves.
So we started a search within our network for possible connections to the Rijksmuseum clan, which eventually led us to the team responsible for last year’s game. We pitched them our vision for a new edition and invited them to experience our immersive games in Amsterdam. Some months later, we were given the green light to develop it for this summer.
By this time it was already April, with just over three months to launch. No time to waste. We started researching inside their magical library and interviewing different curators to get their unique perspectives on Rembrandt, looking for possible storylines for the experience. In one of these conversations, we stumbled upon a different artist, a contemporary of Rembrandt who was mentioned in the same breath. His technique was as virtuose as Rembrandt’s and his works were often so realistic that people at the time suspected him of sorcery. This, along with a debaucherous lifestyle and his alleged membership of a secret order, eventually got him jailed, tortured and sentenced to death. Miraculously, he managed to survive, but all his paintings were destroyed. All, but one.
This is how we found our story.
Of course, we can’t divulge too many details about the experience we’re making. Instead, we’d like to share a few experience design principles that we employed with this project.
Do let us know what you think in the comments, and whether you’d like us to share more of these insights!
The Art of Inception
As game designers we continuously face the difficult task of creating challenging-but-conqueable obstacles.
Make the obstacle too challenging, a player will experience a sense of failure, frustration or even anger with the game. Make it too easy, and a player will feel bored or even insulted. On top of that, you’re always dealing with different levels of intelligence, knowledge and life experience that can create massive differences in thought patterns.
One trick for making a satisfying challenge is to ‘give’ people the answer in a way they don’t know it’s a clue, or at a time when they yet don’t know what to do with it. We call it priming and it’s basically what the characters in the movie Inception are doing: planting a thought in someone’s subconcience so they will think of it themselves when the moment comes.
The goal here is empowerment. If you give people a difficult-enough challenge ánd the tools to overcome it, magic happens. They’ll enjoy both the obstacle as well as the triumph.
Beware: Moving Parts
As we raced to design the experience, we quickly came to realise that creating a game in a heavily secured museum comes with a special set of challenges. The Rijksmuseum, with its vast collection of art continuously changes its selection of what’s on display. Not only to show the public something new, but also because century-old artwork will get damaged if exposed to light for too long.
This could mean that after creating a puzzle around an artpiece, that piece could get moved or sent away for restauration. Walking routes through the museum have to carefully calculated to ensure the game’s expected 20.000 visitors won’t cause traffic jams in busy spots. That meant we had to create a storyline about Rembrandt while also physically avoiding the busiest spots in the museum, which is exactly where Rembrandt’s works are located.
It’s poetic justice that the development of a puzzle experience is one big puzzle in its own right. Everything is connected and all the moving parts can drive one mad if you’re not careful. When multiple stakeholders are involved ánd you’re dealing with an iconic cultural institution like the Rijksmuseum, things are bound to change along the way and obstacles will pop up unexpectedly.
The one thing that’s absolutely crucial in this, is having a project leader with an elephantian memory. Someone to keep track of every change and remember why every particular decision got made.
Test Early, Test Often
“If you’re not embarassed by your first version, you’ve launched too late”
Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin
As creatives, we’re often afraid to show our work to other people while we’re not completely satisfied with it. It’s human nature. We’re afraid to 'fail’.
When you make experiences that people interact with, like we do in the escape game industry, you can’t start testing soon enough. Until you do, everything is based upon what is often referred to as the mother of all screwups: assumptions.
You can’t assume that a player will think of the solution to a puzzle when you want them to. Or, that they will have the right insight at the right time. You have to test it.
In the 5 years we’ve been active as Sherlocked, we’ve often felt like we started testing too late. With this project, we forced ourselves to orchestrate the first ‘paper prototype’ run-through a full five weeks before launch. It was uncomfortable, and we had to say “imagine this here” and “we don’t know what happens here yet” a lot, but we learned heaps from it.
“No plan survives first contact with the user”
Steve Blank, startup guru
Immediately after the first test, we could distinguish our assumptions from reality. Since that run-through, we’ve changed a lot. And we keep testing: every tuesday morning we invite a fresh team to go through the experience and every time we discover new things.
Once we’re happy with the general gameflow, we’d start testing with different types of players. Families with children, families with grandparents, even company teams. This is a lot of work, but it stays fun and never stops giving new insights.
Tomorrow’s our next test game. Launch is in 3 weeks. See you there?
The game will run from July 13 to August 31 2019 and is bookable at www.rijksmuseum.nl/escapegame