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Game design, rainbow hair, kickstarter and a lack of sleep. Interview with Mairi Nolan

Game design, rainbow hair, kickstarter and a lack of sleep. Interview with Mairi Nolan

Anna Kryśkow |

Certain names are so important to the escape room industry and its development that they should be known and mentioned at every appropriate opportunity. That is why today I would like to introduce you to a person that some of you probably know and thus start a series of articles 'Names you should know'.

For those who may not know my today's interlocutor yet, Mairi Nolan is UK based Game Designer best known for working on tabletop, escape room, and video game projects with companies like Wizards of the Coast, Mysterious Package Co, Eleven Puzzles, Curious Correspondence, Professor Puzzle, and more. When not designing puzzle games, she enjoys writing about them instead! As the Editor in Chief of The Escape Roomer, and the lead on the monthly Escape Industry Newsletter, Mairi is an expert in the UK escape room industry. Outside of work, her hobbies include illustration, reading sci-fi novels, drinking lots of tea, visiting aquariums, and dyeing her hair every colour under the sun.

Woman of many colours - Mairi Nolan

Anna: Mairi! How long have you been in the gaming & escape room industry and when did it start? Where did your interest in this area of entertainment come from? 

Mairi: Wow! Can I say, since forever? Just kidding! Escape rooms are actually fairly new - the first escape room arrived in the UK in 2012, and back then I was still at school. It wouldn’t be another 6 years until I played my first, but rest assured I was hooked from that very first moment.

Before I got into escape rooms, I worked in the immersive experiences sector and dabbled in writing murder mystery games on the side. Then, even before that I’ve been designing little video games, web games, and ARGs since before I can remember. One of my earliest memories was being in a Neopets guild (yep, remember when they were a thing?) and learning to code so I could write my fellow guild-mates a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game across my pet’s pages. I was probably around 10 years old, but I suppose the rest is history.

The stars aligned properly and I ‘fell’ into the escape room when I got a job in marketing for a big escape room franchise. I worked on a lot of campaigns that were puzzle / narrative led, across our website and sites, and at some point they said “Would you like to design some of our games as well?”. That was the first time I was actually paid to design something, so that’s where I like to say my career began.

Anna: How do you handle so many projects at once? You work with Eleven Puzzles, Curious Correspondence and Mysterious Package Co, you are editor-in-chief of The Escape Roomer website. Thanks to your Escape Industry News newsletter escape room fans can stay up to date. Probably that's not all, am I right? Is it just a matter of being well organized? What's your secret?

Mairi: Sleep? Never heard of her! Haha!

I think the phrase “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings true here, because none of those things really feel like work. Right now my main focus is with Mysterious Package Co. We have a lot of exciting projects and I also take care of the marketing for the company. That keeps me very busy for most of the week, since we work Monday - Thursdays. Every other project you mentioned… Including our 2 player co-op video games at Eleven Puzzles, writing the monthly Escape Industry Newsletter, and blogging at The Escape Roomer… Those are all projects for fun, and I tend to work on them in evenings and at the weekend. I’ve also done work for Professor Puzzle, Wizards of the Coast (Magic the Gathering, and D&D), Access Escape, Locked City, and many more little projects over the past few years as well.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick and choose between things that sound fun. So I guess my only secret is - don’t take on any work you don’t enjoy! For sure, sometimes the balance can be a little hard. I’ve had weeks where I’ve been “burning the midnight oil” and working late into the evening, but it’s all worth it in the end. As I’m sure other game designers know, there’s nothing quite like finishing a project and hearing that people enjoyed, or were inspired by something you worked on. 

In terms of actual organisation - lots of Trello boards! 

Anna: Oh yes, Trello is a great tool. I use it myself! How many escape rooms do you have on your account right now? When we last spoke, you had about 200 rooms. Do you still have time to play escape rooms in this rush of projects?

Mairi: Depending on how you count them, I’ve played somewhere in the region of 300 - 400! I say “it depends” though, because there’s a lot of discourse in the industry about “What Counts?”

For example, everyone counts escape rooms, right? But during lockdown many of them were digitised using platforms like Telescape, which allow you to capture 360 views of your room and add the puzzles in so they can be played like a point-and-click game. During lockdown I played a lot of these. With my team (Escaping the Closet) we must have done about 3 or 4 of these games a week, every week. Most of these are also real life escape rooms, and it makes sense that once you’ve played the digital version there would be no point playing the physical version!

Mairi Nolan (Right) - Playing Cased Closed Escape Room in Edinburgh

Similarly, many escape rooms run ‘outdoor activities’ which are just like escape rooms, but they involve walking around a city. Do these count? How about digital games which are physical spaces, but are only designed to be played online and never open in person. Do these count?

Anna: Of course they count!

Mairi: In short - it’s a really tricky question, but let’s go with 300-400 rooms.

Whether I have time? Well, that’s another question! I have time if I make time, and yes - I always make time to play. I try to go to one, maybe two a week in a normal week. Every Sunday my team gets together and plays a few digital ones together, which is a lot of fun. Sometimes I like to book holidays just for escape rooms. For example, I’m going to the Netherlands in May and hoping to play around 5 - 10 rooms a day, every day whilst I’m there!

Anna: I read that you collaborated with Netflix - what was that project?

Mairi: Oooh, I would love so much to talk about this but unfortunately I’m under a pretty strict NDA, even though the project has now been released. So I’ll just say it was a consultation on a film that involves a lot of puzzling. There was a tie-in promotional event to celebrate the launch of the film, for which I did a lot of the design work.

Anna: Now you have piqued my curiosity even more! However, I understand that the legal aspects cannot be circumvented. But you also have other big projects on your account that you might be able to talk about. One of them - your recent Kickstarter projects, Doomensions, was a huge success! Can you tell me when the game will be released? Can't wait to get my hands on the game!

Mairi: Yes! I’m incredibly pleased to be one of the designers on the Doomensions team. It is a wonderful, unique and innovative project and we are all so excited for the launch. The amount of success and popularity the Kickstarter campaign got was amazing, and it goes to show what an incredible community of puzzle enthusiasts there are out there.

For the most accurate timeline of Doomensions, I’d recommend keeping an eye on the official updates here - we’ll be posting around once every two weeks keeping all the backers in the loop.

Anna: If you had to name your greatest achievement, what would it be?

Mairi: Wow! Very big question! I think I would love to be able to list an award, or some kind of academic accolade - but the answer is probably a lot more boring than that: Completing my first game!

My first game was the biggest achievement because quite simply, I didn’t know I was disciplined enough to take an idea and bring it to life! It was really difficult, but a big learning experience, and a massive achievement at the end.

The game in question was a murder mystery called “A Sharpe Distinction”. I was just out of university and working my first job. I had this idea for a murder mystery game since I couldn’t find anything quite like it on the market. So, for many months over many evenings and weekends I decided to create the game - writing the game, building the documentation, creating characters, learning how to use Photoshop, recording and creating video content, I even learned a lot of the legal side of it - how to set u and run a business, and how to get suppliers for packaging and so on. Doing (and learning) everything from the ground up was a massive achievement for me. I eventually put the game on Kickstarter and I’m sure the only people who backed it were friends and family, but I’m still proud of myself.

I’m not sure if the game would still be good by my standards today (although a group of friends did recently play it and said they loved it), but that’s okay because nobody’s first game is any good. Making mistakes at the start is a learning experience and allows a game designer to grow into their own unique style!

Anna: Mairi! Thank you for this extremely interesting talk! On behalf of the entire Escape Buzz team, I would like to wish you continued success, because your impact on the gaming and escape room industry is noticeable, and I can't imagine that the industry could lose a person like you!

Dear readers!

If you have questions for Mairi, ask is in the comments, maybe Mairi will find a moment to answer them and there will be another article in the future - Q&A with Mairi Nolan!

Anna Kryśkow

Anna Kryśkow

Editor-in-chief, Writer

Journalist and indologist by profession. Writer, marketer, tarantulas keeper and urbex explorer by heart. In the meantime I’m playing escape rooms and board games, and I wonder how I find time to sleep (still dunno). I was born to write - my favorite forms of expression are extensive articles preceded by a long research, and horror stories (for some it’s the same).

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