Published on March 13th, 2018 | by Dean Love0
DesignER: Gimmick versus gameplay
DesignER is a semi-regular column where we look at escape room design and figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what we would like to see in the future.
Gimmick can come across as a harsh word. It’s something that comes across as cool or interesting, attracting attention or creating a buzz, while ultimately lacking any real depth. Yet some of my favourite moments in escape games have been gimmicks. The explanation for that is quite simple: most escape games are an hour long, and by the time it becomes apparent that there’s no depth to a gimmick, the game is done.
So does that mean when designing a game it’s fine to just throw in cool things for the sake of making the players go “that’s so cool”? Well yes, of course. But nevertheless you can do so much more if you think through how to turn a gimmick into an integral part of the game.
Here’s the obvious example that most games get right: when you have teams split up and starting in different places. You could just make this a case of each player having to solve their own thing. That’d be sort of interesting. A cool little gimmick. But most designers realise that if you do this, it’s even more fun to have each of the players have access to clues that the other players need, forcing them to communicate with each other. At this point the gimmick of a split start becomes its own communications puzzle.
Fictional example: imagine a game with two rooms. Between the two rooms is a shallow chasm with a rope hanging down from above. You can swing from one side to the other on the rope. If you don’t make it you can just scramble up the other side. It’s a shallow enough incline you can just run down and back out. But swinging on a rope is fun. A neat gimmick.
Now imagine instead there’s a shallow incline only at the far end, and a steeper drop on the end you depart from. Again, everyone can get across and climb up on the other side but getting back is suddenly harder. Then at some point, the players discover a need to go back. Now it becomes a matter of figuring out who best to send – not everyone needs to be able to do it, but someone does. That’s an interesting choice. Then maybe you need to move a difficult object over the chasm, so you need to attach something to the rope to help you do this. The rope swing is now part of the game, rather than just a cool moment.
(Note that, yes, you would need to have some sort of bypass in the game for if you had a team where no-one could physically do it. That’s fine. We shouldn’t shy away from including physical or skill challenges in a game because people might not be able to do them any more than we should shy away from difficult puzzles because people might not be able to solve them. As long as you have an equivalent to “just send them the code via the clue system” it’s fine.)
Laser mazes. Somewhat of a staple of escape rooms, and also good fun. But generally they’re just there as an entertaining physical test. A gimmick. But what if I have to navigate an awkwardly shaped item through the maze? What if the maze has two different configurations, controlled from a panel by one team member, while the other has to navigate through, with the configuration switched to open up new areas as appropriate? It’s now not just a physical challenge, but a puzzle.
And that’s key here: if you’re adding in cool moments to your game, be they physical challenges, skill challenges or dramatic effects, think about how they can actually be more than that. Be part of a puzzle, require the players to think rather than just do.
For UK players, a couple of concrete examples that won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t played ,as I don’t want to spoil, but imagine LOOP where what you can hear in the second part of the game is necessary to solve a puzzle, or Escapologic’s Curio where the end of the game sees you “piloting” the device itself to return to a specific place that you know you need.
I’m not opposed to gimmicks. The two games I just mentioned are two of my favourite ever. But if you’re going to do something that cool, then give the players some agency over it. Don’t just have it be something that happens to them, or a one-and-done challenge. Let it be something that requires them to interact with it in some way. To figure out how it works or use it to solve a puzzle.
Because when you give the players agency over something like this, something quite neat happens. The players stop thinking “that was so cool” and start thinking “we are so cool for doing that”.