Earlier this year Professor Puzzle, the UK based puzzle game company, launched one of the snazziest looking escape games in-a-box we’ve seen in a while: Danger in the Deep. Set on a submarine, players are instructed to “navigate your way through the deserted sub, crack the shutdown code, disable the warheads, and locate the enemy agent. All in two hours!” You can read more about what to expect in our latest review, or head directly to Amazon to pick up a copy for yourself!
We recently had a chance to catch up with James and Elliot, two of the game’s creators to find out more about themselves and what exactly goes in to creating a game like Danger in the Deep. They’re both incredibly busy working hard on designing some fantastic looking games for the future and so we’ve tried to limit this interview to just a few key questions about their most recent game, Danger in the Deep. Though believe me, I could pick their brains for hours!
Mairi: Hey it’s so great to meet you both! Please could you introduce yourselves?
James: Ooh, shall I go first?
Elliot: Yeah, I mean I’ve never heard you say your name-
James: It’s James Smith, and we’re not just colleagues but actually long time friends as much as it pains Elliot. Haha! I’m the game designer for Danger in the Deep, so I wrote the story, designed the puzzles, and so on. I joined Professor Puzzle about two years ago, I spent the first summer tweaking a couple of their existing games, but Danger in the Deep was the first time I got to work closely with Elliot!
Elliot: I’m Elliot Humphries, a senior designer at Professor Puzzle. I’ve been with the company for over 10 years, from back when we were just a couple of guys in a room above a warehouse selling metal and wooden puzzles. But over the course of those 10 years we’ve grown from 4 or 5 people to well over 50 of us now! I’ve been involved in the design for a long time, but the escape room games only began around four years ago. That’s what I’m focusing on now. They’re pretty cool because they take the “Puzzle” part of the Professor Puzzle brand but make them a bit more relevant for the modern consumer compared to the puzzles we created 10 years ago.
Mairi: Oh wow, a long time! How did you both get into the puzzle game industry?
James: Me? Definitely not a typical trajectory. I graduated from studying Classics at university… So I’m responsible for 100% of all Greek and Roman references in Professor Puzzle! Then I worked at my local council for about 7 years, and another local council after that. I’ve always been into games, and one day Elliot suggested I come to work for Professor Puzzle. Back then the company was just beginning to focus even more on the escape room games. The thing that appealed the most was the writing aspect of it. So making something that’s not just a pick-up and play game, but a whole story you’re experiencing through the game. That’s sort of inherent in escape rooms in general and I wanted to take our boxed escape room games in that direction.
Elliot: As for me, I joined Professor Puzzle right out of university. I used to live in this small town called Shepperton and that’s where Professor Puzzle first started. The team was a five minute walk up the road, which was basically the other side of town! I started out helping with filling out invoices, helping at the warehouse, and then it became more and more about the design. I very much fell into it but it aligned so well with my sensibilities and that’s what’s kept me here for so long!
Mairi: Cool! And what kind of games inspire you both?
James: I’ve played a lot of Exit and Unlock games! They’re consistently good and very concise – I think my first one was the Pharaoh’s Tomb. But beyond escape room games I play a lot more video games than I do book or tabletop games to be honest. One of my biggest inspirations behind parts of Danger in the Deep was a fantastic video game by Lucas Pope called Return of the Obra Dinn. I think it’s the best puzzle game since Portal. Now I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but one of the puzzles in Danger in the Deep which I call the “Chain of Command” puzzle was inspired by Return of the Obra Dinn. Originally that puzzle was going to be the big finale, but as we came up with more ideas it evolved away from that and now it sits comfortably in the middle.
Mairi: How about you Elliot?
Elliot: Same actually, I’ve done a lot of the Unlock! games and I find those really fun. I do those with my wife and they’re not too hard, not too easy, nicely in the middle! Haha forgive me, I’ve got a little left over brain fog from covid, so the thought of doing one of the more difficult puzzle games out there and expending the brain power needed to solve them terrifies me!
Elliot: One game that really jumps to mind is again, like James, a video game. It’s It Takes Two – from a co-operative angle I thought that game was amazing, and I think that’s something we try to put into our games too. We want to give players stuff they can do together. We’ve even written the words “Collaborative Escape Game” on the box! As you know there’s three books in Danger in the Deep and players have to work together collaboratively as they work through all the information – someone has one piece of the puzzle and another person has another piece of the puzzle, and so solving Danger in the Deep requires a lot of collaboration and communication.
Elliot: From a design side haha, I don’t know. I’m probably the worst (or the best) at pulling inspiration from lots of places and putting strange visual references in these games and hope nobody pulls me up on it!
James: Elliot’s also got a reputation for sneaking himself into every product in the Professor Puzzle line! If you look closely you’ll probably find a photo of Elliot in there somewhere!
Elliot: Haha yeah, there’s only a small handful of games where I’m not in them in some way.
Mairi: Yeah I spotted those, are all the photos of the crew members in Danger in the Deep your colleagues?
James: Mostly! There’s one or two who were stock photos. Originally that puzzle was going to be illustrated, but then Elliot came back with a “What if we do a photoshoot?” It was unfortunately in the middle of the COVID lockdown, so we had some challenges there. The crew members you see in the game is everyone we could get into the office.
Elliot: I ordered a load of boiler suits too, all mediums and large, then two of the guys who I asked to come in are six foot four and they didn’t fit in anything!
James: In the end it was a ‘each person in front of a green screen’ sort of thing. Everyone’s a colleague except for two of them, the commander and the captain, they were stock images-
Elliot: Stock images, but they were your body! I just put an old man’s head on James’ body and no one could tell!
James: Haha, I’ve got the body of an old man!?
“If we put a detail into the game, there’s a reason!”
Mairi: So tell me more about Danger in the Deep! Where did the idea come from and how did you bring it to life?
Elliot: Ooh, big question! So with any new game we really start with the rough idea then start making loads of lists and ideas. We had the central idea for a submarine, so we knew we wanted a blueprints or a map, then it was a case of thinking “Ok, what is in a submarine and what can we make puzzles out of?” We come up with a quota for how many puzzles and what we want out of them.
James: We always start big and need to cut it down so that we’re left with the best stuff!
Elliot: From there we build a narrative flow diagram which is useful in allocating the story beats, such as where puzzles happen, and making sure it’s evenly paced. A flow diagram is a great visual way of telling how and when things interlink. Over time we build up these really crazy maps!
James: It can be a mess for a while but it gets better. It’s super important to establish that theme right at the start too. So it’s not just the setting. We began with ‘submarine’ but there were so many directions it could have gone. It could have been like you’re on the HMS Belfast in London and you’re stuck on it for example. The angle we went with was inspired by James Bond with a dash of The Incredibles as well. That vibe can really inform the puzzles that go in the finished game, so when you go “it’s a spy thriller on a submarine” you’re not just looking at mechanical wiring puzzles, you can have decoding puzzles, you can shutdown nukes, and use gadgets to investigate and interact with the submarine.
Elliot: From a physical standpoint as well, when we were designing Danger in the Deep we had a specific box format to work to with the internal tray fittings the same as the Starline Express and The Grand Hotel. So we thought “what can we do with this?” and started to think about all the things we could fit in and hide into the space.
James: One of the key things for us to to make sure everything has a purpose as well. That’s something we did with this game, a lot of the little details in the booklets and on the box give clues as to how to solve puzzles. There are many puzzles in there that can be approached in different ways too. One player may not pick up on all the details, but if we put a detail into the game there’s a reason. I won’t give any spoilers so let’s just say there might be more than one way to solve a puzzle!
Mairi: What’s coming next for Professor Puzzle?
Elliot: We finished work recently on a new game set in a Gothic castle called “Curse of the Dark“, or as I like to call it, it’s internal codename which James absolutely hates is “Spooky Castle”
James rolls his eyes and laughs.
James: So, many of our upcoming games follow a similar format, they’ll be tile based, have a scratch off symbol hint system, have a series of books, and a big centrepiece- like the blueprints. Curse of the Dark is a much bigger game. In Danger in the Deep there are 22 cards, in Curse of the Dark... Let’s think… There are about 60, 65 odd cards. So it’s big, really big! We’re really proud of it!
Mairi: When is Code Spooky Castle– haha I mean Curse of the Dark due to release?
James: We hope we’ll have the finished product back from the factory by April-May time, but it should be in stores by late May.
Mairi: Any others?
James: There’s also a kids escape room game launching this summer set in an aquarium, for ages 8 – 12, again I can’t give an exact time but very soon!
“Make games you’d want to play, make them good and be proud of them.”
Mairi: Okay final question, what advice would you give to somebody who wanted to create puzzle games like yours?
James: Big question! So I suppose we both kind of fell into this ourselves, but my biggest advice would be simple: Just make stuff!
Elliot: I’d also say it’s really important to make things you’d love, or games that you’d want to play. With Danger in the Deep we really wanted to create this game, but a few people had some uncertainty about the theme. We were like “I don’t know if this is going to be a success, but look we’ve got this really good idea and if you let us make this it may not sell well but it will be good.” As a creative person, you obviously want things to sell really well, but more importantly you want them to be good.
James: Yeah absolutely. Make games you’d want to play, make them good and be proud of them. One more thing I’d add is that our first versions of every game were on Word documents and Excel. They’re just scribbles, drawings on a whiteboard or silly cartoon people doing poses. Point being, you don’t need the best tools or funding or a factory to produce your game, your first version can be on paper and card and whatever you can find around your office. Don’t be afraid if the first version is rough. Nobody, certainly not us at Professor Puzzle get it right the first time. You go over your game with a fine-tooth comb and keep improving it.
Elliot: Yeah nobody springs into the world fully formed and makes a perfect game the first time. And if they have then they’re incredibly lucky and they probably won’t be able to replicate that effort the second time round. So yeah, just get out there and make stuff with confidence!
A huge shout out to James and Elliot for taking the time to chat to us. If you’re interested in checking out Danger in the Deep, you can head to Amazon – don’t forget to leave a review!
Aha! I could totally tell that the Chain of Command puzzle was inspired by the Return of the Obra Dinn. Nice work!