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Escape room test groups - a blessing or a curse?

Escape room test groups - a blessing or a curse?

Hanna Kwaśniewska |

Probably all of us like to go to good escape rooms. However, before a room becomes playable, it requires months of work on various levels: after all, the scenography, puzzles or electronics need to be taken care of. A finished room, however, is not a guarantee of success - checking whether a scenario is suitable for a commercial client is one of the tasks of so-called test groups.

Imagine that you are the owner of an escape room (although I know that some readers don't have to imagine this at all). You have several months of intense work behind you - you would get up in the morning, eat half a sandwich on the run and run straight to your escape room full of paint cans, painter's foil and a ton of props. With the sweat of your brow, you painted walls, assembled furniture, built passageways, mechanisms, and deployed miles of cables on the floor. Until late at night, you ran around the company with a drill and screwdriver and came home basically only to sleep and to wash off the wood shavings. And here came the day. The day you screwed the last screw into the wall. Your room is ready.

Well, not quite.

Just an assembled room is still not a complete product that can be sold anymore. Testing on a living organism is necessary for that. Before the owner opens the room to attract a commercial customer (who pays for a ticket to the finished product), he should run test groups through the room.

Who is a tester?

What is a test group? In the simplest terms: it is a group that visits a room pre-release to check all aspects of it. And it's not at all just about whether everything in it works. The goal of the test group is to optimize the game, which is possible before releasing the product to the commercial market. The testers will not only check whether the puzzles work but also assess whether the creator has met his objectives concerning the customer profile.

For example - the creator has created a room in the horror category designed for 90 minutes of play, which he intended for a group of experienced players of 2 to 4 people. The tester's task, in this case, is to check the selection of these parameters. Being an experienced group, is 90 minutes enough for this amount of puzzles? Or are there so few that this time is too long? Is there enough space in the room that 4 people won't trample each other's feet? Is it possible for two people to finish the room on time? Is it a horror room, or is it an adventure room, but with a bit of horror? Is the price proposed by the creator adequate for the quality of the room's execution? As you can see, there are quite a few questions here, and the test group is tasked with answering them all with their tests.

Depending on the profile of the room and the needs of the creator, the test group can be tailored to meet expectations. Of course, it is a good idea to broaden your horizons and test the room in different configurations: by creating a room for up to 5 people, we will not test a game for 10 people in it, and for a room for experienced players we do not necessarily need to select groups consisting of only novices. However, out of sheer curiosity and a desire for optimization, we can do this - if only to better profile the target group that will be the final audience. Tests can surprise, and the owner can notice things he had no idea about before.

Who can be a tester? Anyone, depending on the needs of the developer. Nevertheless, the natural order of things is that the vast majority of test groups are those with extensive experience. Such people have a much broader view of escape rooms than just as a product - it can be summed up that they see things that others do not. That's why novice players are less likely to be invited to tests, even if they are a potential audience for the new escape room.

Specifics of the test game

We already know that escape rooms go through a series of tests before they are put into operation. But what are the specifics of the test game itself? What are its main differences from a commercial game? A standard test game:

  • is for free;
  • its purpose is not only to identify errors related to puzzles and their logic but also to optimize the game in the broadest sense (its time, category, player limit, flow, variety of puzzle types, etc.);
  • helps verify that the developer's thinking coincides with the majority of the "research group";
  • makes it possible to assess the room's readiness to accommodate a commercial client, gather feedback and implement it before opening.

It is no secret that the author of an essay often does not see his mistakes, while the person who reads this essay after does. The same is true of puzzle rooms. Many things may not reflect the owner's vision or have the ability to transfer theory to practice. This is verified just by the testing group.

Testing is a very important element that should not be overlooked under any circumstances. Is it hard to find a test group that can help bring a product to perfection? It depends. From the test group's point of view, such a game has more disadvantages than advantages (as opposed to numerous benefits for the owner) and not everyone will want to go for it. Nevertheless, I will try to make readers aware of the important role of test groups in the industry as a whole.

What can go wrong? Disadvantages of being a test group

First of all, it's important to remember that a test game cannot be treated as a full-fledged commercial game - this is the main principle from which many other side principles are derived. If the group is counting only on fun, it's not here - testing a game is more of a job that requires dedication in certain aspects of the game and commitment from both sides. You can't assume that there won't be too many things to improve in the room, and we'll get the game for free that way.

During the game, many errors in logic and consequences of puzzles can come out, and the risk that something will not work is very high, failures are an inherent part of test games. It is obvious that this is unavoidable and any errors should come out right now. As a result, the duration of the game itself may be extended if the crashes are fixed on the fly. In this case, an avalanche effect will be evident - starting with a snowball and ending with an avalanche in the form of a drop in game flow and general dissatisfaction.

When testing a room, it is important to pay attention to things that are often overlooked by the "ordinary group" when going through a scenario. A broad view of the subject is the domain of experienced groups that have already visited dozens of rooms and are beginning to take an interest in escape rooms "behind the scenes" - how a particular puzzle was technically made, what was used to make the scenography or how a particular setup triggers the corresponding mechanism. If we want to help the owner in any way with relevant feedback, it is necessary to have a certain package of knowledge (e.g. on how certain types of puzzles work or on the logic of their execution) and heightened senses, because everything can be important. Such an investment in experience is not only lengthy but also expensive, which in general is a disadvantage due to the economic aspect. After all, one needs to play a large number of rooms to be able to say something more about the standards of the game and be able to actively participate in counseling. And visiting a large number of rooms involves spending a lot of money on games.

Due to the previously mentioned breakdowns, the game itself can get longer. And it's not always about 20 extra minutes - pauses due to breakdowns are not infrequently longer than the test game itself. There are also tests that drag on for a whole day or even last into the night. This costs our time - for it should not be assumed that the test will last 60 minutes, we will talk for a while and go to the cinema for a pre-booked screening. The tester needs to be aware of the filmmaker's need for it and should not impose any time frame - feedback should last until the topic is exhausted, not until a designated hour. Simply put, you should set yourself up in advance for a long post-game conversation. Sometimes a very long one indeed. This can be troublesome for groups that come from another city or part of the country specifically for this purpose.

Some things are such minor elements of the whole that during a regular visit we don't mention them during the debriefing with the game master. Not so during testing. Here everything can make a difference, and we as testers cannot overlook it. As a result, we may think we are too meticulous and cling to the smallest things. Especially at the very beginning of the adventure of testing rooms, this can cause great remorse towards the creator, making us feel mentally uncomfortable. The owner invites us, and we cling to the slightest thing? It's natural, but for your own good, you should get rid of them as soon as possible. It is worthwhile to look at it from the other side - the owner has invited the group so that the group can cling. Only in this way will he be able to draw the best conclusions from his work, and thus the finished product will be of the best quality. Substantive comments presented in a cultured way are something the developer expects from us, even when we flood him with them. There are sometimes test groups that are related to the creator, in which case it will be much more difficult for them to draw attention to something they don’t like.

Some test groups decide to go to a particular room a second time, once the room has been opened. This way they will assess for themselves whether their comments have been implemented. However, does this make sense? This is a very individual question, but it should be reckoned with the fact that they already know the entire scenario, puzzles and room layout. Even if a few things have been corrected, there will still be a room that we have already visited. In most cases, this is the most common reason for the reluctance to be a test group - some people prefer to wait for a finished product of good quality and not have to focus on many details or the fact that something may not work. Re-visiting is more often associated with curiosity than enjoyment. Knowing that our game was incomplete and that someone else will get a finished and perfect product can influence reluctance to offer to test the room.

"Me before you". Advantages of being a test group

The biggest advantage of testing a scenario is that the group does not pay for it. Regardless of the target price of the room, the knowledge that one has gone through the room without investing a single euro significantly affects the number of groups volunteering to test. Having 150 euros and not having one, however, is quite a difference. Many people may treat it as a big saving.

There is a certain prestige in knowing that one had a real impact on the final shape of the scenario - and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The group asked to test can feel somewhat honored and "chosen," which in turn works in a certain psychological way - the invitation to test makes us feel appreciated, and this in turn encourages us to further self-development. A bit like something like an authority figure. In this case, it's about knowledge of escape rooms, a rather narrow field in comparison with others, which is distinctive. The tester also has an impact on safety issues and, more broadly, on the direction in which the industry as a whole is heading. This is not only a very important and responsible task - it is a privilege that will later benefit many later commercial groups. It is especially in matters of security that this assistance is invaluable. For example, thanks to testing, the developer will know which places and objects are better marked when they are not involved in the game (although it is worth mentioning that safe rooms are already safe for players at the testing stage). Subsequent groups won't put their hands where they shouldn't or move decorations that are just asking to be worked on. The test group whose comments are implemented can feel pride and pure satisfaction.

Participation in testing is also a unique opportunity to meet new people and integrate - extroverts, in particular, will see it as an opportunity to establish relationships, in addition to people who share their not necessarily daily passion. Not to mention that the owner can also teach a lot - after all, it's another person to talk to about puzzle rooms, which, compared to other possible interests like sports, cinema or cars, is a rather narrow field. So the creator is an ideal companion for conversation and experience building - after all, you can learn how to build a puzzle with a motion sensor on an Arduino, for example.

Testing the room is certainly a new experience that some will even find exciting. However, it is still an element of entertainment that is meant to be fun. Something new, something different than before, something distinctive. It can be viewed as pushing one's limits or exploring new waters - but it's still an advantage associated with taking steps forward. For many people thirsting for self-realization, this will be a very big advantage.

For groups thirsty for puzzles, the fact that they don't have to wait for the room to open like the rest of us will be an added advantage, as they will get the opportunity to play it pre-release. In a way, they will bypass the extended wait for the game to be released for use (we all know that in the escape room industry the opening date is usually postponed a minimum of twice). While they have to reckon that not everything may work, for many this is one of the most important advantages. Playing "first" also involves the test group playing it "before everyone else." Test players are assured that everything is fresh and new, the decor isn't tarnished by the teeth of time, and the puzzles aren't worn out by previous groups (not counting other test groups who may have played in the room not long before).

In the world of escape rooms, numerous forums for enthusiasts often ask people to recommend a game tailored to the group's requirements. Thanks to the fact that the testers played the chosen scenario before everyone else, they will be able to recommend or advise against the room in question, and even before it opens, which will be important for those planning visits away from home months ahead (that is, when the room in question will likely already be receiving customers). If someone with a heart condition asks if they can play the XYZ room despite their illness, and as a test group we know that an actor is running around in the room and appearing 6 times during the 60-minute game at very unexpected times, we have the opportunity to suggest they choose another room. In addition to the aspect of mutual help, we can see again in this example the concern for safety issues - and this is very important among the enthusiast community. Again, as testers, we can feel proud of having just saved someone from a heart attack. Test groups are thus an important part of the grapevine.

An important element associated with each escape room is the time limit. Although one of our main tasks is to test whether the time limit set by the creator is appropriate, once it is exceeded, we will not be asked to leave the room. This is because we are testing the entire scenario and interrupting the game is not an option (or at least I am not aware of such cases). If the test group is already sitting for the third hour in an escape room originally intended for 60 minutes, this is very important feedback. Testers do not feel the pressure of time at all, which - depending on the individual's preferences - can work positively or in some conditions destructively.

Seven things about being a test group

To make everyone's life easier, it is useful to know a few tips that will be useful for any group invited to the tests. These few rules can influence the testing process and whether the test group decides to participate again.

  1. Be aware that the room will not be perfect. There will almost certainly be errors and shortcomings in it. Set your mind to the fact that it will not be a perfect game and under no circumstances treat it as such.
  2. Be honest. As a test group, this is what you were invited by the developer to do. Don't leave information for yourself on the basis of "we like them, we don't want to make them uncomfortable, so we won't mention it." Don't. You're supposed to tell everything, according to your conscience, even if it wouldn't be a positive review - or maybe especially for that very reason.
  3. Tell about everything. Literally everything. Anything can be relevant to the flow of the game. Every observation is important, it can even affect the safety of other players. Cling to each other - that's your job.
  4. Try to propose a solution to the problem. If there is a difficulty or error, it will make it a lot easier for the developer. It doesn't have to be a perfect solution - as a test group, share your vision and knowledge, even if technological factors ultimately prevent its implementation. For the creator, this is very important.
  5. Have fun! Nevertheless. Evaluating the fun itself is also an important element to assess. Although it's clear that it's more your work than fun, derive pleasure from it. This is the only way you will know if the room actually brings joy. Combine business with pleasure in this way.
  6. Don't put time limits. Try not to schedule the tests for a certain hour assuming that after 60 minutes you leave and go to the cinema for a pre-booked screening because you don't know how long they will actually last. If the test is to be reliable, allocate as much time as necessary. Don't rush, because haste is a bad advisor.
  7. Be understanding. If something doesn't work or doesn't look the way it should, don't get upset. That's what tests are for, to catch errors now.

Seven tips for the developer adopting a test group

There are two sides to the coin. Behind every test group stands the room creator who invited them. For the owners, we also have some simple advice that will make the work of evaluating the test game and the subsequent implementation of the required changes easier.

  1. Take notes on absolutely everything. Even if something seems insignificant on the surface, it may come in handy later when you sit down over a piece of paper after testing (and after the emotions have subsided) and read your comments again.
  2. Write down your assumptions. Before testing, make a list of the goals you want to achieve - what you assume is the default game time, category, player limit, and difficulty level. Based on your subsequent observation of the test game and the post-game conversation itself, check whether the feedback you get matches your assumptions.
  3. Pay attention to safety issues. If you notice a group doing undesirable things, consider how to avoid it in the future. Don't be afraid to intervene when someone puts his or her hand in a hole that is a technical cache - admonish the test group and add to your comments that you need to mark this place as not participating in the game in some creative and non-immersive way.
  4. Don't plan several test groups on the fly. You never know how many comments your test group will have or if breakdowns will prolong the game. It is better to plan one group a day and devote all your time to it.
  5. Don't stress about failure. If something breaks or the room has a lot of comments, don't forget that testing is precisely for breaking down NOW, not during regular play. Above all, you gain time to diagnose and fix the problem that occurs.
  6. Approach a large number of comments with detachment. It may happen that a group takes 40 minutes to play, and they exchange their comments for another twice as long. Do not perceive a large number of observations as an insult. The test group must "cling" to everything. This is for your benefit and future success. They are not doing it maliciously, but to help you.
  7. Choose the right target group. If you are creating a room for experts, focus on selecting such test groups. It won't hurt to select groups outside this group and see if the room isn't easier than you anticipated, but distribute the proportions to the dedicated group accordingly.

And what about #me? Through the eyes of a tester

As a professional in the escape room industry, I quite often take part in testing rooms and other peri-escape room entertainment like VR games or escape room board games. I am aware that being part of a testing group is not always easy, but over time I have managed to develop a certain system of testing that makes me enjoy doing it. This has shaped what I am like as a tester.

By far the most difficult part of being a room tester, in my opinion, is to make your points in such a way that you don't offend the developer. It's a hard task if we know in advance that we have to be very critical (especially when we don't like something and don't want to offend the creator), and I relate this to myself as well. This is somewhat due to my own character - it's just hard to get around it. Nevertheless, it's worth reminding ourselves that taking a critical look at an escape room is for someone else's benefit - both the creator and every single person who visits the room commercially.

This is always a very responsible task for me. Especially if we are talking about safety issues. Knowing that I am influencing it by checking the performance of systems or with comments to improve them is extremely motivating for me. Not every tester will share my enthusiasm in this regard, but nevertheless, for me it is a very important advantage, influencing in a way this aforementioned prestige. For me, a less important element will be whether in a given place the mathematical puzzle should be changed to a manual one (although I will also refer to this in the feedback), while I will devote a lot of my attention to analyzing whether the tested room meets all safety standards.

I try not to let my personal preferences and tastes influence the design of the room - after all every player has a different opinion. I will not rate lower a room that includes math puzzles, although I prefer scent puzzles. Nor will I declassify an all-electronic room knowing that I love classic, padlock-based rooms. A very important aspect of being a tester is to properly balance one's observations and center one's conclusions so that comments are fully factual, yet neutral.

I will admit that sometimes I would prefer to go into a room as a customer, pay for it and get a finished product. Nevertheless, I really like to help, and being part of a test group is nothing more than a form of helping and sharing my experience in a particular field. The awareness that I can help someone (both the developer and the customer who comes to the room after me) is definitely stronger. Especially in terms of safety and comfort for future gameplay. I also enjoy human contact - as an extrovert, I devote a large part of the conversation to explaining my point of view, and the awareness of making changes according to my comments is additionally satisfying in the process.


The evolution of a room from the moment the last nail is hammered into the commercial opening is quite natural. Rooms have been known to undergo it even after opening. However, this comes with a certain risk - the room may be out of service for some time, thus not earning money. This can be avoided by scheduling the tests in such a way as to gather detailed feedback before the launch and implement a package of solutions before the room's doors open to customers.

Tests are a very important part of building a room. The developer needs them badly, and the willingness of test groups to go through the scenario pre-release and share their observations, often very critical, is essential. It's very important that a sufficient number of groups go through the room before it opens - only in this way do we have a chance to put the best quality product into service.

Being a member of a test group has its drawbacks: our game will never equal that of an already tested room. While this will be quite a sacrifice for many, it is worth breaking through and offering your experience to a developer who needs a tester. Knowing that thanks to the comments of testers, someone can enjoy a fully safe, balanced and enjoyable game is, in my opinion, priceless.

Hanna Kwaśniewska

Hanna Kwaśniewska


Lock.me team member. Germanist and scholar of German literature - German language is also her superpower. Besides escape rooms and board games, she loves Dragon Ball, Star Wars and cynology. After work she likes learning foreign languages, writing texts and planning her next trip to escape room, probably with rap music in the background. Totally extrovert.

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