I’ve had a haunt-style game idea kicking around in my head for a while. A small team of players would be let loose on a large piece of land out in the woods somewhere. They’d have several hours to explore the area, search for clues, and try to solve the mystery. Maybe they’d first stumble upon a dead body and retrieve a map of the property. Maybe there would be a central cabin the players would need to gain access to. They would probably need to split up at some point to complete an objective, communicating via walkie-talkie (and certainly something spooky would need to happen to one of the parties while separated). The sun would go down, the air would grow cold, and some narratively-significant event would bring all of the players back together for a big finale. Ideally, there would be no losing in the game, and all teams would enjoy a complete experience by design.
The part where I’d always get stuck in my brainstorming (which happens to be the same part where I always get stuck in all of my brainstorming) was how to make the game affordable to run without it also being prohibitvely expensive for players. If you’re only sending 6-10 players through an experience once per night, or once every few hours, it isn’t going to be sustainable. It is The Problem with trying to make high quality, intimate, and long-lasting experiences.
This week I saw Intervirals’ post about Hunt a Killer, a haunt-style game coming up in Maryland this weekend, which sounds pretty much exactly like the game I’ve been thinking of. In the company’s own words, “A 200-acre living crime scene, Hunt A Killer is an immersive thriller experience where teams complete mental and physical challenges to help solve the mystery surrounding a serial killer.”
Hunt a Killer‘s answer to The Problem is to increase capacity. The game will support up to 200 teams of 6 players each (1,200 players), all starting the game simultaneously, and playing for three hours.
But does a solution that involves 1,200 simultaneous players come at the cost of intimacy? I’m reminded of a similar mass-player haunted event, the Great Horror Campout, which was apparently not well-received. One of the main complaints from those who participated was overcrowding. Players were standing in line to complete objectives, which totally drained the immersion (and all potential horror) out of the experience.
For Hunt a Killer, one side of the crowd-control issue is handled in the size of the playing field itself. 200 acres is massive. For context, Disneyland is only 85 acres. Disneyland can reportedly accommodate over 50,000 people in the park at once. Imagine being at Disneyland when there are only 1,200 people there. And the park is twice as big. And instead of buildings and rides, it’s mostly just trees. Suddenly, this event is feeling a lot more intimate. Another team might be a rare and welcome sight.
The Hunt a Killer team address the other side of the crowding concern in a blog post, explaining that the game is designed with multiple paths that teams can hit upon, and that teams shouldn’t find themselves crowding except when intended by the designers. I’m really curious how this multiple path gameplay works out, and how players will have a complete (if they are successful) and coherent experience regardless of the path they take. It’s fun to speculate how this will play out.
I would imagine that a lot of the gameplay is just going to involve investigation and observation, which works better for potentially accommodating multiple teams than would elements like interactive physical puzzles or object collection. Will primarily investigative gameplay be compelling enough for a three hour game? I think it’s definitely possible. The Last Express, one of my favorite games, is basically a game about listening to people talk. And most of the meat of the gameplay in Murder in Small Town X was about observation and making connections. It’s a more cerebral form of gameplay that I think can also lend itself better to immersion. A challenge in any immersive puzzle game is to justify why the puzzles are there. The more closely this game resembles an actual crime scene, the less contrived those justifications need to be, and the less the player has to suspend their disbelief.
The gameplay element that gives me pause is “completing mental and physical challenges,” also referred to as “earn[ing] clues.” These activities will almost certainly need to be staffed, or else have some sort of explanatory signage. It will be tough to keep them thematic, fair, and uncrowded. I suppose one example might be a victim’s body hanging from a high branch in a tree. The tree itself could have some kind of hand/foot holds installed, non-verbally communicating that players will need to climb up and observe the body to gather more information. Something like that could work. Doing 20 push-ups for the cynical sheriff so he’ll give you a key piece of evidence, maybe not so much.
And then there’s the question of how the meta game itself will play out. The goal of the game is to “catch” the killer before time runs out. What will be game-winning input here? Maybe something cool like a secret location players need to find on the map where the killer will strike next, rewarding all of the correct players with an acted-out scene by the killer at the end of the game? Or something less cool like a checklist with details about the killer that players turn in for confirmation at the end? It’s easy to overlook the game design element of an event like this, and without knowing the background of the organizers, trust may be an issue.
Back to the business side of things, another interesting facet about this event is the post-game experience: a huge after-party with a DJ, food vendors, a bonfire, and camping. Running the game adjacent to a campground, which already has so much assembly-based infrastructure in place, is a great idea that helps make the event much more viable. I also wonder if involving additional merchants also helps offset the operating costs. And an after-party is the perfect opportunity to froth (can we please pick a new word?) with other players after the game, especially if everyone is going to have a different story to tell.
I appreciate that the ticket price for this event is relatively high (at least by haunted house and escape room standards) at $160 per Person, or $960 per Team. Although, those are the last-minute prices. In May, tickets were $100/$600. Without having great concept of how much it will cost to put on this event, I think the pricing is fair, but maybe a little low. Players are getting a lot for their money, including a highly immersive 3-hour game, an all-night party, parking, and camping. I feel pretty strongly about sustainable pricing models after reading about how Slingshot, the folks who used to run the 2.8 Hours Later zombie runs (and had some really really cool stuff in the works), folded largely due to undercharging for their events, which were expensive to run and crazy expensive to insure. (And that brings us right back to The Problem.)
To wrap things up here, this game fills me with so many questions! Will all of the players start in the same spot? How will the initial dispersion of teams happen? Who are the people behind the event? How do you control a game across 200 acres? What safety precautions are in place? How close are they to selling out? How close are they to breaking even? Are they going to do anything with spooky lights and sounds? How many s’mores am I allowed to have at the after-party?
I really hope this event is being coordinated well and sees a successful run. It sounds like an awesome game, with a really fun time afterward. It’s kind of my dream game? And the FAQ mentions the organizers wanting to bring the game to other states, so maybe there’s a chance they’ll head out to the PNW if things go well. (Though I’m almost ready to buy a plane ticket out east now that I’ve written this post.) Best of luck to the Hunt a Killer team, and won’t somebody I know back on the east coast please go and play it for me and report back?