A few months ago, I completed the DecodeXP teambuilding day with my workplace. Throughout the day I spent quite a bit of time discussing all things escape rooms with Jamie and had such interesting discussions I knew I had to interview him! It took a few months, but we managed to grab a coffee together and he gave me a chance to pick his brains.
Hey Jamie! Great to see you again. One of the things that struck me before was your interesting background. Could you remind me about it?
I was an army officer for about six years, and I still do some things with the reserves. When I was about 25 a group of us took a trip to Budapest and we did three or four more advanced escape rooms there. It made me realise three things – firstly, the complexity of the build in Budapest was way ahead of what there was in Europe at the time, which meant there was the opportunity for the tech to be used better in the UK. Second, we picked up on the fact that the team in the escape room really reflected what we were like in real life, and I was especially interested in the dominant and less dominant characteristics coming out in that environment. Finally, the time you’re in an escape room is completely unique and personal to you, which is an incredibly powerful time that has relevance in the corporate and business world. Earning a free sample or a team photo, rather than buying it or just being handed it, is a massively profound change on the way you think about that.
Long story short we decided to test these theories and we created the first room in the UK to be built in a shipping container! It was 40ft long, called “Heist”, and it allowed us to learn how to build experiences. From there, we kind of wanted to focus on not just commercial experiences, but whether we could get brands to offer this to their people as a retention or internal marketing strategy. We tested this with Dyson, who was our first big client, and I worked with their engineers to build a room harnessing different bits of Dyson technology.
There’s a really cool YouTube video you can watch here!
I saw the video of that! I think it was amazing how you worked the Dyson technology in, and I think it was Dyson’s most popular social media campaign that year? That was pre-covid though – I imagine the pandemic affected your business quite a bit?
Yeah, during Covid we obviously couldn’t run these in-person rooms anymore, but it gave us the time to focus on creating DecodeXP. We took the best we could find in the industry and the army and brought this team of behavioural analysts together to create a product we knew would be valuable once we came out of Covid.
Your experiences are always unique. Do you have a philosophy or method for designing your rooms?
We’re continually iterating on how to make problem-solving a learned skill, rather than just something we do day-to-day but don’t practice. We basically want to focus on the needs of the client first; understanding that and then developing the experience afterwards, which is a bit different from how others maybe do it. Our Samsung room was a great example of this – the initial brief mentioned that it was for an influencer campaign, but it was only after spending time talking to Samsung that we realised the intention was to livestream the room, which meant we wanted to have lots of puzzles which were quick and easy to solve (no one wants to watch someone sat there thinking for a while), and make sure there were lots of flashy effects and wow moments that would look great on camera and make great content.
Of all the experiences you’ve created, what is the most fun or satisfying puzzle you created?
We’re about to launch an escape in the Aviation Gin distillery, which I think is unbelievable. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Ryan Reynolds, but the marketing agency had a very clear vision which we’ve replicated in the escape room. There are some really fun things in that room, like having to make a cocktail. It’s definitely the most satisfied I’ve been with a room.
Assuming you enjoy escape rooms yourself, what is your favourite trope to see?
The element of surprise. Anyone who has done a few rooms realises there’s an element of continuity, so anytime I’m genuinely surprised by an outcome it’s really cool. There are some great moments in the latest ClueQuest room that kind of completely flip what it is to be an escape room on its head. I think that’s the next stage for more traditional escape rooms – finding ways to break off the narrative. There’s a need to continually innovate now, especially in bigger towns and cities.
What would be your dream escape room to play, and what would be your dream room to design/build?
Before Covid we were talking to Darren Brown for a while. I’m also a fan of how immersive ‘The Crystal Maze’ experience is and the way the actor and set are used there. I think there’s a market for an escape room that offers multiple endings, that you can do more than once as an individual and have different outcomes. We’ve got some rough designs for this already, but I’d need to get funding for it.
Do you find there’s much difference between UK and US rooms?
I think we’re probably still slightly behind America. In America, some of the rooms we did were just next level. Not necessarily in terms of puzzles or narrative, but in terms of set design. The stuff that these guys do is awesome and really immersive. There’s no need for reliance on padlocks anymore – you can get electronic locks and even full puzzles fairly cheaply, so there’s not really any excuse anymore.
What about theme? Is there one theme you haven’t seen that you think is being missed/slept on?
I’ve not yet done a space-based room, certainly in the UK, that I can look back on and go “That was really, really cool.” So maybe a cool space room.
(We here at The Escape Roomer recommend Spacescape at Ctrl, Alt Escape. We’ve also heard there’s a new space room at Co-Decode, and although we haven’t done it their other rooms are great!)
What’s your favourite room you’ve done? Or what is a room you’d recommend?
I hate this question! I always recommend ClueQuest – they’re the only rooms I’ve done in London that have the same standard as I see elsewhere. Other rooms I’ve done in London have unique narratives but are let down by the puzzles. Galactic Warriors in Prague was unbelievable and was probably the most immersed I’ve been.
When it comes to building puzzles, is it always solution first, or do you sometimes immediately know what you want to do?
I think we always have immediate inspiration about the types of puzzles we’re going to use, but there’s a lot to be said for not pre-empting what we’re going to design. Sometimes companies already have ideas, and then we have to explain why they won’t necessary work which obviously isn’t a great foot to start on. We spend a while in the workshop and have a relatively similar structure each time, where we try to understand what the client wants and then sometimes the solution presents itself, rather than needing us to engineer it. Often requirements like certain functionality or results, or time and budget, quite quickly narrows down the options.
After running so many sessions you must have some great stories! Anything you can share?
I think we’ve had a few storm outs. I think people tend to see it as a challenge of their cognitive ability, which it really isn’t – none of the puzzles are that complex, and they’re more designed to generate teamwork, or see where the natural teamwork comes to the fore. Often, we have people inadvertently leaning against clues or completely missing something. I’m a terrible watcher though – it’s hard not to jump in and I have to force myself to be more passive. It’s also interesting seeing how a room of officer cadets might behave versus a team of accountants. The more rooms we do, the more data we get, so we’re redesigning the programme to focus more on different types of puzzles solving, so moving the escape room to later in the day and focusing on individual puzzles and escape room boxes to start with.
Has there ever been a case where someone has behaved completely differently in an escape room than you thought they would be, or afterwards seemed completely different?
We actually ran a session where my ears pricked up because one of the girls in the room had found the perfect solution but just as she was speaking someone else spoke directly over her and said “we need to go and do this”, so I started a stopwatch. They carried on and around 18 minutes later they got back together and said “we can’t solve this puzzle”, to which the girl said “yeah, here’s the solution”, and I paused the stopwatch. In the debrief session (which we always do after a room) we pointed out that she’d had the answer way before and that it had cost them 18 minutes. That sort of thing is fine in an escape room context, but you take that into a meeting room – how many times have you seen someone’s idea in a meeting spoken over and ignored? What if that’s the idea that gets you to the solution?
What’s the spark that keeps you going? What do you really love doing?
Such a good question. I really like the creative phase. I’m really selfish and like the fun bits. My brother Sam, our Operations Manager, very much deals with delivering the product, the setup, making sure the right staff are there and that everything actually works. I’m not very good at that bit, but I like taking a new concept and working out how to get to there. That’s the bit that I really enjoy.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I’d probably still be with the army, or like a manager or consultant. I don’t know – maybe I’d start another business. I like the idea of getting up and being accountable for what I do each day, and if we have a good sales meeting we go out for a nice meal, and if we have a month of bad meetings we go to McDonalds. It’s kind of fun and a more interesting way of doing our day-to-day. We’re lucky – we work with some really cool clients, on numerous different projects, and the longer we keep going the easier it gets from that side.
Who’s been your favourite client?
It has to be Dyson. We were just two guys with a shipping container and they trusted us with this massive campus and project, despite not really knowing how we were going to do it. We got to work with their comms teams, and my fondest memory has to be explaining how to engineer a puzzle to a room of 200 Dyson engineers!
What’s next for DecodeXP/Challenger escapes?
For DecodeXP we’re about to launch residentials – 48 hour-long, more immersive experiences that really test people and take them out of their comfort zones.
For Challenger escapes we’re working on a big project which I can’t talk about yet, as well as launching a video game room at ComicCon and the Aviation Gin room that I mentioned before. We’re also expanding our work with Savilles to do more building-based rooms in the next six months. I don’t know what else we’ll do, but we’ll keep going!
Sound interesting? You can contact Jamie Pollard-Jones via the Challenger Escapes website