Edit: This article synthesizes ideas from Don Norman’s influential book, The Design of Everyday Things, which is a fantastic resource on user experience design principles. As a disclaimer, the principles described are not claimed to be Company & Co’s. The intention of this article series is to apply general design principles to escape rooms, specifically how to design a great escape room with the user needs in mind. We hope you find it informative!
Have you ever been so close to escaping a room, but time ran out because your team was still figuring out how to open the lock to get the key? even though the final combination had been solved?
Have you ever had your experience ruined because you wasted time on a piece of tech, and after buzzing the Game Master, was simply told to ignore it? Even worse, when the Game Master implies you’re not doing something right, despite already trying their idea 10 times?
Have you ever felt stupid during these moments, and that it was your fault for failing to escape?
It’s not. Nor are you – or anybody on your team – stupid.
Your failure to escape the room was due to a failure in design.
If you’re an escape room enthusiast, designer and/or producer of escape rooms, you should know the five principles of good escape room design: affordances, signifiers, constraints, mappings and feedback.
In Part 1 of our Escape Room Game Design series, we’ll talk about the importance of affordances and signifiers in designing challenging and engaging puzzles, and avoid frustrating your players with poorly-designed ones.
Affordances are the possibilities the player perceives for interacting with something.
It’s the relationship between an object’s perceived properties and the player’s capabilities that helps them understand how the object could be used. For example, a table affords support, therefore it affords putting objects on top. Some tables can also be moved around by one person, but large and heavy tables can only be lifted by a physically fit person. For children or the elderly, they may not think they’re that strong, therefore the table doesn’t afford the possibility of lifting.
Choose objects carefully. Just the way they look or the way they are built can send implicit signals to your players about what they can and can’t do.
If accessibility is an issue or the demographic of your players are not muscle-bound weight-lifters, design your puzzles and navigation of the room to align with the player’s needs (i.e. abilities). Sticking an important clue underneath a massive sofa in a room that is playable with two people is a poor design choice, for instance, because neither player readily sees the possibility – affordance – of lifting the sofa due to a perceived lack of personal strength (or they don’t want to break their partner’s back trying).
Therefore, affordances must be visible to help players figure out what actions are and aren’t possible without direct instruction. How do we visually communicate to players what to do? Signifiers.
A signifier is a visible clue that communicates to the player what actions they can take, and where.
Signifiers can be labels or symbols. For example, if you wanted players to find a clue underneath a sofa by moving it, then a pair of handprints painted at the side of it signifies to players that they can place their hands against that part of the sofa to push it out of the way. Signifiers also can be arrows or diagrams guiding the player to where they need to go or a sequence of gestures they must perform.
The big yellow and black hazardous sign above may be a signifier that deters players from trying to enter the door without being explicitly told not to.
Signifiers can help players understand what not to do. If you don’t want players wasting time on something that isn’t part of the game or isn’t accessible yet, cleverly place clues to discourage action. A sturdy door with a large steel electronic lock indicates to players that they can’t just bust down the door to get through. They must, instead, input the appropriate numerical code to open it.
If preventing certain player behaviours becomes a problem (e.g. they’re being destructive with puzzle pieces), then make the signifiers that encourage the desired action be more visible to direct player attention away from what they shouldn’t do.
Affordances vs Signifiers: What’s the Difference?
Affordances and signifiers have much in common and, according to Don Norman, a designer and cognitive psychologist who coined these terms, designers often misuse both.
In the context of designing escape rooms, affordances are the possible actions a player perceives they can take in their environment. It’s the relationship between the object’s perceived properties and the player’s ability to take action on that object. We understand what we can do. Signifiers, well, signal things. They’re visual indicators that communicate where we should take action.
If you’re wondering why your players are continuously frustrated with your games, it’s time to evaluate shortcomings in your room design and apply the principles of affordances and good signifiers. Or, if you’re a reviewer wondering why you hadn’t escaped from a room, or even if you did, why you had spent an unusually long time on a certain puzzle, think about what aspects of the room could’ve been improved to make it a little more doable.
The design concepts from this post are from The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, a great book on user experience. If you want to learn more about general design, please check out his great book here.