“That’s why we made Escape Academy,” quipped Salyh.
“Escape Academy” is an adventure game about a student at the eponymous academy, which has a sprawling campus filled with environmental puzzles meant to train the next generation of escape room masters. It also directly draws upon Coin Crew’s experience developing in-person escape rooms.
Bushnell and Salyh first met in 2017 at Two Bit Circus, an amusement center in Los Angeles with arcade machines, carnival games and real-life escape rooms. The pair were hired to design the escape rooms for Two Bit Circus before it opened. Since then, they’ve worked together as Coin Crew making games intended for nights out with friends or family gatherings. And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Coin Crew started developing “Escape Academy.”
The pivot was a logical one. Prior to Two Bit Circus, Salyh worked as a game designer specializing in mobile games at Disney, Zynga and Age of Learning.
“I went to school for animation and I thought I wanted to do animation for games, but I quickly found out that I’m just a terrible animator,” Salyh said, laughing. “I really enjoyed the design aspect a lot more. I started making Flash games on websites like Newgrounds … That was the first time I thought ‘oh, I could do game design as a career.’ ”
As for Bushnell, it was in his blood. He is the youngest son of Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari. Video games — the fun, the design and the business of them — were regular discussion topics at the Bushnell dinner table.
“I’m a Bushnell. That’s like pocket aces in games,” he said. “I just have a lot of connections in the industry. Also, besides the crushing work, making games is the most fulfilling thing you can do. It’s great.”
“Escape Academy” is still intended to be played with friends (there’s a solo mode, but the game is better as co-op experience) but it’s the first time that Coin Crew made a video game designed to be played in your own home, which posed some unique challenges.
“With a real world escape room, we’re designing 45 minutes to an hour of content for people,” Salyh said. “In ‘Escape Academy,’ we’re designing six to eight hours of content. … The scale of what we’re doing is just so much bigger than anything we’ve ever done as a single product.”
The team wanted to authentically evoke the feeling of real world escape rooms, which Salyh described as a combination of time pressure and urgency. If that equation is present when an escape room participant finds the big item that leads to freedom, then the payoff is a satisfying eureka moment.
To make that sort of video game, Coin Crew expanded. Art director Michelle Huttunen joined during the beginning of the project.
“Going from doing location-based games to games for console and PC just requires so much higher fidelity of art and artistic direction,” Salyh said. “Being able to add somebody to our leadership team who had those chops was so key because going into this, that was one area where we found ourselves quickly out of our depth.”
The team also felt it was important for the game to have a story with characters. But what sort of narrative frame could explain why a protagonist would find themselves constantly trapped inside a sequence of unique, elaborate prisons? Among the concepts that came up during brainstorms, such as time travel and parallel universes, only one seemed to fit the bill.
“Why are you escaping from a room?” said Bushnell. “Oh, it’s a classroom! Done. We’re teaching critical thinking. Done, full stop.”
School is also widely relatable. For Salyh and Bushnell, school was mundane and not that interesting. But the pair said that common experience of banality allows players to fantasize about what school could be, citing the fantasy series “Harry Potter” and the hit anime “My Hero Academia.”
Thematically, school is also a place with a variety of ability and commitment levels. Some students aim high, some have no interest and the rest are somewhere in between. “Escape Academy” is going for all crowds. It’s a game for hardcore players and casual players. It’s even a game for people who don’t want to play at all and prefer to watch the action instead.
“If we’re going to talk about what Coin Crew’s guiding philosophy is, it’s social accessibility,” said Bushnell. “And that doesn’t mean a casual game. It doesn’t mean Bejeweled or something like that. It’s more about how we build an experience that’s fun for the not-super gamer and the gamer.”
There aren’t a lot of virtual escape games on the market. Coin Crew developed “Escape Academy” as an opportunity to make a splash in an uncontested space — but also as an invitation for other companies to make more titles in a genre that has been largely ignored.
It’s also poetic. The modern day escape room, part of a broader genre of location-based games, was actually inspired by video games such as the 1993 adventure game, “Myst. In “Myst,” players explore the eponymous island and unlock its mysteries by solving a series of elaborate mechanical puzzles spread throughout the landscape. But unlike today’s escape rooms, “Myst” was strictly single-player and had no time limits on any of the puzzles, meaning individuals could enjoy the game at a comfortable pace.
“Escape Academy” is, essentially, a pizza effect game — the sociological term for when a foreign adaptation of culture returns to its origin nation to then influence the native culture. By taking the mounting tension and group problem solving mechanics developed in modern escape rooms and boomeranging them back to the original video game genre, Coin Crew is hoping to create a virtual experience that captures the magic of a real world session.
“It’s such a social experience,” said Salyh. “It makes you feel smart. It makes you talk. It kind of pushes you. You might think, can I do this? And by the end you’re like, yeah. I can do this.”
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