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The Future of Gaming: “Escape Rooms With Anyone Across The World” With James Warner of Paruzal Games
Paruzal brings people together. Even during these times of social distancing and isolation, we love the fact that people meet in online dating apps and play Paruzal games together as part of their first date
Asa part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Warner.
James Warner is the owner of the Denver based leading virtual escape room company, Paruzal Games. James holds an extensive background in network security and technology. His successful digital gaming platform has spread like wildfire ever since the launch in March of 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Mywife, Elyssa, and I each grew up enjoying puzzles and learning. She went down the road of studying biomedical sciences and I picked up several professional certifications in network security. We met in 2012 and married in 2014, but little did we know that we would end up making puzzles and games for each other. It’s just the two of us, so we thought that it might make for short holiday parties if we just sat across the table from each other and handed a present across, the other unwrapped it, some “oooh” and “aaaah” were exchanged, then the pattern reversed, and that was it — so we started making simple scavenger hunts for each other around the apartment as a part of the gift-giving (-finding?) process. That grew into ever-wilder experiences each year, including one year when I had to melt a clue for my present out of a block of ice that started as the size of my head; to sending her on a turn-by-turn quest through the city only after which did she learn that her GPS watch recorded the path she took, spelling out the word “Railing” on the streets of our city (and also gave the location where she could look for her present.)
Friends and family across the country learned of what we would do for each other and wanted to participate, but we couldn’t possibly make puzzles and games like this for everyone. So, in 2019, we decided to make digitally accessible, scripted, and illustrated adventures for each other in the format of escape rooms that we enjoyed doing. I am an avid scuba diver, so she called up an old dive buddy of mine, asking what dive sites I particularly enjoyed. Adam told her of some great adventures we shared when diving the wreck of the A. E. Vickery in the St. Lawrence River a few years earlier, so she built that specific shipwreck into her script for me. Come Christmas 2019, I was met with the story of going scuba diving on the Vickery again, but in Elyssa’s version, I was trapped inside by an iron grate, surrounded by a locked cabinet, the ship’s wheel, the propeller, and a few other objects, while Adam waited for me patiently outside the wreck. Only after an hour of working through the puzzles she had designed of what-fits-where, learning how to communicate with Adam on the other side of that iron grate, and coming up with ways to open the various locks, was I finally able to escape and breathe fresh air at the surface. It was a beautiful puzzle and meaningful for all the real-life details built into the game.
Those same friends and family loved playing that game, too, and encouraged us to share the experience with others. We liked the idea, so I set about the task of building a website and setting up our virtual escape room business, Paruzal — while Elyssa set about the task of writing more of her detailed and whimsical games. The plan was to launch Paruzal in August 2020 once we had about 8 games ready to play, but the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans. By March, I was sent home from my job and Paruzal only had 3 titles written, but there was also a whole puzzling community who was suddenly barred from visiting brick-and-mortar escape rooms or playing in their tabletop gaming leagues. So we launched early. Thinking that we might someday grow to run maybe five games a week, I turned the website live on March 16th and we had our first paying customer just three days later. Over the next six months, we are now running hundreds of games, serving far more and more-varied customers than we ever thought possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When Paruzal first started, we expected most of our business to come from individuals who enjoyed playing brick-and-mortar escape rooms. It was only toward the end of March when Elyssa and I were both on a game call and started chatting with the lady who booked the game did we start to realize the breadth of opportunities that Paruzal was bringing to the world. This woman had planned her daughter’s 13th birthday party for months, only to see those plans dashed when restaurants closed, and families were staying home. She so desperately wanted to give her daughter some fun time with her friends and booked us for the now-online party’s entertainment. Those girls giggled their way through an hour’s worth of underwater exploration and shared experiences and mom got a break from the “new normal” to which we were all still adjusting back in March. Since then, we have connected a family who wanted to be together for their son’s third-year sobriety party and even built a custom game to help a young couple enjoy a game built around their relationship, ending with a marriage proposal. We thought we would be serving the semi-professional puzzle-solvers of the world but ended up bringing the love of puzzle-solving to more people than we ever thought possible.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My wife, Elyssa, has written all of Paruzal’s games. I run the business development side of the company, but it’s really her genius that makes the stories so fun and compelling to gamers. I may rib her from time to time that she’s the “evil genius” behind the company, but her work is much more akin to angelic than evil. She puts so much care and thought into the games, building layers upon layers of jokes and puzzles into them. I may someday be able to string together some puzzles into an hour-long story, but I’ll never be able to put as much attention and care into the player experience the way she does so naturally
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Initially, we had defined success as running five games a week, but we blew past that in our second week and have grown wildly since then. It only took a few weeks of business before I learned that we couldn’t handle the amount of booking requests we were seeing. Because of this demand for our games, I reached out to some of our friends who run local brick-and-mortar escape room companies, knowing that they had temporarily closed and laid off their staff. I asked if any of their laid-off staff needed work, at least for the duration of their closure. Now, a full half of our staff come from brick-and-mortar escape room companies and are able to provide for their families again, in the field they love, even after being laid off because of the pandemic. And all of the staff now get to work from home, bringing critical thinking skills and adventures to our youngest players, team- and morale-building to our corporate clients, and playtime for generations of families in between.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?
Our first few games were built with brick-and-mortar escape rooms in mind, and hold closely to those themes of puzzle-solving and exploration inside a single room or two. By the time we released games three and four, we had learned that incorporating imagination and whimsy into our games is really what sets us apart. Utilizing simple tools like Zoom gave our company the opportunity to offer gamers this unique and live-hosted experience with the ability to play along with anybody across the map. We expect that our brick-and-mortar counterparts will all be able to reopen someday and they provide a valuable service for the people who enjoy the tactile feel of tugging a lock open, but with detailed storytelling from the Paruzal staff and the imagination of our players, the world is really our oyster, able to immerse our players in a fanciful game, full of smells, sounds, and feelings from anywhere in the world.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
Elyssa and I have done well over 150 brick-and-mortar escape rooms together. They are wonderful experiences and definitely a fun pastime with friends in town, but shortly after opening, Paruzal soon learned the value of bringing together teams from across the world. Very early on, we had an events manager for a company reach out after seeing us listed in an article about “best online escape rooms” and asked if we had some way of bringing that shared experience to her team, even if they all lived and worked in different countries and time zones. That is exactly what we do! Paruzal offers live-hosted games more than 13 hours a day now, so it’s very easy to book an experience for your far-flung friends, family, or coworkers and see everyone on their own video feeds, working together. No longer is it necessary for everyone to be together in the same place, at the same time, to work together to share an experience and laugh together while collaborating on solving puzzles. Games like ours aren’t just for the coffee table any more.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
Paruzal brings people together. Even during these times of social distancing and isolation, we love the fact that people meet in online dating apps and play Paruzal games together as part of their first date. Grandmothers beam with pride and brag to our staff when their 11-year old grandson, living several states away, solves puzzles faster than she does because she gets a chance to see him grow up, even at a distance. And nurses in COVID wards of hospitals get to keep up date night with their spouses, even if they are self-quarantining in the garage, 30 feet away. No matter how much we miss being able to hug our friends and family, Paruzal gives teams a chance to see each other, laughing and working together, enjoying the shared experience of immersing themselves in a new world, free from the stresses that 2020 has brought.
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?
A parents’ group for profoundly gifted students recently featured Paruzal in their discussion of structured thinking time outside of the classroom. The children we have had in our games seem naturally inquisitive and love the idea of being locked inside a Broadway theater with the goal of getting backstage to meet the rockstar in one of our games — or in another title, they are proud to be selected as the employee of a pizzeria who gets to open the store alone while the boss is on vacation, only to learn that their key doesn’t work in the front door and they have only an hour to find a way in and get the store ready for opening time. There is a definite need for the traditional reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the softer skills like team-building, group leadership, listening to others’ viewpoints, and developing consensus also serve a valuable role in education. Whether the student is 10, 50, or anywhere in between, it remains important to develop, hone, and use those softer skills — skills that can’t be picked up simply from reading a textbook, but by getting into groups and practicing them in a fun and memorable way.
How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?
As a child, I always enjoyed Transformers. The movies hadn’t yet come out and TV time was severely restricted in my family but learning how to transform a physical toy from one shape to another still resonates with me. What started out as a vehicle with attributes like any other that I would see out on the road could easily transform into a human shape capable of doing much different things, and even mores in my imagination. That transformation, the using of a normal object in a completely unexpected way, still makes its way into Paruzal’s games decades later.
What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Game” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Paruzal games are built around the need to be relatable, engaging, imaginative, whimsical, and collaborative.
Relatable: We want to give players a break from everyday life. Whether it’s kids separated from their friends, young adults suddenly torn from their social circles, or seasoned professionals staying home from their office routine and coworkers, it’s been plenty hard for most people to adapt and juggle the needs of everyday life these days. If a school or HR department institutes “mandatory fun time,” we do not want to further tax players by requiring they imagine themselves in a setting where they are some strange five-legged beast on a foreign planet. We want them to picture themselves out on a boat with their friends or maybe sneaking backstage after a concert, something fun that they *want* to be doing.
Engaging: Each of our games has both overt and covert puzzles. Sure, we advertise one game as set inside a pizzeria where you have to get the store open on time, but beyond that, players quickly learn that they will be baking five pizzas as the game unfolds. In another title, you’re collecting the information necessary to get an abandoned boat’s motor running, but the answers are found among a string of 80s movie references. Most recently, one of our games was literally engaging after we built a custom game based on details of a couple’s relationship so that the final puzzle would result in a marriage proposal — her engagement in the final puzzle was so complete she got all the way through the puzzle’s solution of “MARRYM_” before realizing what was happening. We find that players tend to book their first game based on the title or the synopsys on the website, but it’s those unexpected jokes-within-a-joke that is so successful at keeping them coming back.
Imaginative: Anyone could build an escape room around the drama of the day (and many have!) but a great deal of Paruzal’s success has come from creating fun and immersive adventures that take players into their own heads, where anything can happen, and we narrate and illustrate the players’ ways to success in their chosen adventure.
Whimsical: It is especially fun for us to help out with corporate team-building exercises. I, for one, have had more than my fair share of “mandatory fun” where some dry lecturer stands behind a podium to tell the team about the importance of recognizing different roles among cohesive teams. No amount of lecturing can accomplish the same results as practical implementation of those skills among your peers. Picture yourself in a realistic world where you’re doing something you enjoy, and your team is there with you — you’ve got a pretty simple task at hand, find some beans and brew a cup of coffee in one of Paruzal’s games. It’s up to you, maybe you want to stay silent and maybe chat a few text ideas to the team, or maybe you want to be the one gathering ideas before working through implementing the possible solutions, or maybe you’ll be the joker who saves the day by suggesting some really off-the-wall ideas that might end up working? A successful game gives everyone an opportunity to grow.
Collaborative: Every Paruzal title comes with an objective. Get out from the shipwreck, get the motor running, sneak backstage, open the pizzeria on time, find the treasure map, brew a cup of coffee, and so on. To achieve those objectives, there are a ton of puzzles that need an even greater number of creative solutions. We all have our strong suits when it comes to puzzle-solving; maybe that’s spatial reasoning for some players, or numeric problems for someone else, or possibly even language or text puzzles. The best way to get through Paruzal’s titles is to build a team and work together. All of our game introductions talk about the need to speak ideas out loud because what you think might be a crazy idea might work, or might be what’s needed to spark some creativity in one of your teammates. Working together is a great lesson for all of us and a true hallmark of a successful game.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am extremely proud of what Paruzal has become. When we started the company, we thought that a few people who were temporarily barred from spinning dials on physical locks might come play our games for a couple months during quarantine, but it has grown into something far more meaningful than that. If I were to inspire a vastly positive movement today, it would be to bring meaningful life skills to the masses in an imaginative, collaborative, and playful way. If everyone could step out of their own body as they play through Paruzal’s games, they’d see the immense benefits that can come from cooperation, friendship, and collaboration. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but working together makes the group of us stronger than any single one of us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m sure this answer comes up a lot, but I’ve long been a fan of “Carpe Diem.” Elyssa and I were accidentally prepared when I was sent home — we had only three of the planned eight scripts we wanted to use when launching the company. There is something to be said for making a plan and sticking to it, but we saw this as an opportunity to serve the puzzling community and launched early. Some of those early games were pretty rough by today’s standards, but seizing that day and launching “early” has allowed us to celebrate engagements, birthdays, and sobriety; helped children develop critical thinking skills and explore leadership roles; and even seen remote workers share creativity and laughter with teammates they hadn’t seen in weeks or months — all while employing some wonderful folks who had been laid off because of the exact same hardships they are now helping others endure. It was a big step that has paid off in many ways we never thought possible.