With the highest number of escape rooms per capita, Colorado’s market is close to saturated. Now one of the state’s earliest players in the game, Puzzah, is expanding its operations to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in mid-March, where it will face less competition.
Puzzah is known for software-driven, high-tech gameplay rather than the lock-heavy games other brands offer. In fact, the company hasn’t produced a game with locks in over four years,
“We don’t need to hide information behind locked boxes,” says Ryan Pachmayer, the company’s co-founder. “We can use screens and audio and clues from other puzzles. There are all sorts of different ways to progress the game, and that’s what’s fun about it.
“There’s nothing wrong with locks,” he admits, “but people get fatigued by constantly having to open up locks, by encountering stuck locks and by getting a four-digit code with three different locks in the room and having to figure out which one it matches up to. It all feels arbitrary and takes you out of the game, so we try to avoid that by making everything smooth and seamless with our technology.”
While other escape rooms set the scene with a short story, Puzzah incorporates narrative throughout the experience.
“We convey story through clues, and even if you don’t need the clues, we try to make them flavorful so that your voiceover actor in the game is giving you some storyline and context,” says Pachmayer.
All Puzzah rooms are automated, so you don’t have to worry about distracted game masters ruining your game, either.
“The system will change if you’re slowing down or going fast or asking for more help,” Pachmayer says of the company's proprietary software that allows rooms to run automatically. “The system is going to adapt to you. If you’re finishing puzzles really quickly, it’s going to unlock extra puzzles.”
Not everyone enjoys this non-traditional approach to playing an escape room, though.
“A lot of people love our games, but people who do not love our games feel that we guide them too much,” Pachmayer acknowledges. “Our rooms are puzzle-heavy. You’re not just looking at the color red and then looking at the other wall and trying to match that color red. They’re real puzzles. So if people aren’t as good at puzzles, even if they’ve played fifty escape rooms, they get frustrated sometimes, because we help people and guide them with automated clues. They’re used to not having to be guided through, because they’re used to not having to solve as difficult of puzzles, or as deep of puzzles.”
Puzzah is constantly tweaking its offerings, working on technology to help users discover next steps in the game without having to be explicitly instructed.
“We want to give them more choice on who they’re communicating with and how the game plays,” Pachmayer says. “Maybe they take a more daring choice, so their puzzles are presented in a more daring way. And if they take the safer choice, maybe their puzzles are presented more traditionally. So it’s a way to make the game fit their personality and immerse them even more.”
Puzzah’s software was built by Derek Anderson, whom Pachmayer calls “a software whiz.”
“He was building automated trading programs for finance companies on the stock market," Pachmayer explains, "and now he’s programming escape rooms for us, boasting a 99.99 percent uptime on software. We aren’t using micro-computers, which can be fussy. Instead, we have servers and switches and relays that are all hardwired and not relying on wi-fi.”
Puzzah also employs professional puzzle designers. Todd McClary, Puzzah’s lead game designer, has designed crossword puzzles for the New York Times and been spotlighted in Games magazine, among others. Marilyn Dorn, assistant puzzle designer in charge of visuals, built and designed escape rooms in Asia before joining Puzzah.
Pachmayer says that he and his partners researched thirty different cities before deciding to expand in Santa Fe. Aside from an unsaturated escape-room market (there’s currently only one other company in town), the Puzzah team likes Santa Fe for its tourist population, plentiful corporate and government businesses, and lots of families — all demographics drawn to escape rooms.
Santa Fe is also a walkable city, with Puzzah opening in a trendy area called the Railyards, on the outskirts of downtown. There’s an REI next door, a farmers' market, coffee shops, a movie theater, and even a train station that connects Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Since Puzzah’s space is being built from the ground up and has been designed for an escape-room company, passing inspection should be a breeze.
“The bad thing about building from scratch,” Pachmayer explains, “is that it costs more money, because you’re building from nothing and paying 2019 market rates. But the good thing is that everything is up to code. They’re inspecting along the way. It’s all already approved.”
Puzzah is bringing its standard games to Santa Fe, but will also debut a new game, giving die-hard fans a reason to make the drive. The game, called Knight Shade, is a bubble-gum mystery set inside an early-’90s pizza restaurant haunted by a ghost.
“In that game, we’re experimenting with parallel solving, which means having more than one puzzle open at one time,” Pachmayer explains. “This will facilitate larger groups and more active groups. What we notice now is, even though we’re in the two-to-six-player range, the groups that are really active and want to just go crazy and be aggressive with everything, they need more to do than one puzzle sometimes. But this way, we can also still accommodate the groups that want to do one puzzle at a time.”
Puzzah games are typically linear; this will be the first that is not. And as soon as the team verifies that the parallel solving is working seamlessly, it plans to incorporate the concept into some of its classic games, aiming to appeal to an even wider swath of escape-room players and allow for choose-your-own-adventure experiences.
Pachmayer compares escape rooms to bars: “Most escape rooms you go to serve one beer. And you drink that beer. And if it’s a style you don’t like, you’re kinda screwed. If you like a lot of different styles, like me, you might be happy enough. But Puzzah is like a flight of beers. If you really love a couple of the beers, you’re not gonna mind the couple others you weren’t crazy about. And you’re gonna walk away feeling much more satisfied.”
Cheers to that.
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