Camp, Nostalgic Fun At The Crystal Maze Live Experience

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For those of you not living in the UK in the 90s, The Crystal Maze was a retro TV show that set contestants challenges as they moved through a series of trippy zones, such as Aztec or Medieval. The culmination was a timed grab for silver and gold tickets in a massive glass dome.

Back in the present day, nostalgia fiends in London and Manchester can relive their former fantasies of taking part with The Crystal Maze Live Experience, which allows small teams to tackle a revamped version of the maze for themselves.

We sent a team of WXOers to take on The Crystal Maze in London, consisting of:

  • Martin Coat, immersive theatre and festival expert
  • Meredith O’Shaughnessy, CEO & wizard
  • Sheena Patel, experience designer
  • Daniel Hemsley, Managing Director, Swamp Motel
  • Claire Dunlop, theatre director
  • James Wallman, founder, The WXO

The topline? Our team loved the attention to detail, the energy of the hosts and the thrill of seeing 90s nostalgia brought to life. And while they thought more attention could have been paid to creating a compelling beginning and ending, overall they thought The Crystal Maze was a great example of immersive gameplay with some elements they could borrow and infuse into their own work. Here’s what they made of it in full.

Escape & game expert Sheena: a ‘fun, shared experience’

Transformation through trial, learning, improvement and achievement in each activity were what led to a satisfying experience.”

Sheena Patel, experience designer

Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • A really fun, shared experience that faithfully recreates a much-loved show, feeding our nostalgia and desire to participate in this once passive format (TV) and enabling us to be protagonists in our own experience.
  • The format actively encourages camaraderie and working towards a common goal whilst facilitating individual moments to shine.
  • The ability for teammates to advise on each individual challenge heightens the shared euphoria of successes whilst sharing the burden of challenges or ‘failure’.
  • As with many immersive experiences, a talented team of performers breathe life into the world as characters in their own right to act as custodians of your experience. In this instance, our host was tasked with the tricky balancing act of subtly signposting the rules of engagement, keeping the team energised, engaged and safe, whilst managing the time we spent in each environment. She did a wonderful job of building rapport through memorable nicknames, mottos and irreverent activities in between challenges. The performers of such experiences do a lot of heavy lifting and a group’s experience can significantly vary depending on who they interact with: as such, consistent quality control and the welfare of the hosts are of paramount importance.
  • The Crystal Dome is the pinnacle of this experience, as was the case in the TV show, and there was a collective tingle when the host asked ‘Can we start the fans please?’. Not sure if those little Easter eggs would be as impactful for people who didn’t have the nostalgia for context.

What could be improved?

  • The scoring system at the end felt a bit arbitrary. The objective of the experience was to secure as much time in the dome to collect tokens – it would have felt more satisfying to understand the metric for how they measured the number of tokens collected. If I fully understood a system and it felt fair and convincing, I would be more interested in the ranking our team got, more affected by our ranking against peers (if we were in multiple groups), and most importantly, more compelled to play again and improve that score.
  • Transformation through trial, learning, improvement and achievement in each activity were what led to a satisfying experience. I personally felt that activities which required knowledge that could not reasonably be attained within the course of the activity (i.e. where you need general knowledge of films, books, musicals etc.) could lead to points of frustration and move away from the purer ‘challenge’-based ethos of the overall experience.
  • There are a number of manual triggers throughout the experience which the ops team must activate – if the cue is missed by a fraction it can create a disconnect in cause and effect for players who have just completed a challenge.

Which elements do you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?

  • Location-based experiences are very challenging to scale effectively and I like how the format of this attraction enables multiple teams to start in different zones and play at once, significantly increasing potential footfall without diminishing the amount of interaction you have during the time there.
  • The gameshow-style format also enables players to make sense of other people in the environment if their paths cross, in a way that is not jarring or ‘world breaking’. It would be interesting to experiment with this format in a heavier narrative-based experience.
  • I was also interested in the degree of ‘self regulation’ involved, whereby the team selected how many games each individual played, if they should concede on a challenge, and if they should be ‘sacrificed’ or not for the greater good of the final challenge. By empowering the team to make these decisions, you can still control crucial factors like dwell time, failure and success metrics, but without the same level of resentment or frustration.

Experiential marketer Daniel: the Maze Master was ‘fantastic’

I found the stakes really refreshing. Pulling audiences into stories and narratives to fully suspend their disbelief is something we love to play with and getting it right is such a challenge.”

Daniel Hemsley, Managing Director, Swamp Motel
Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • I found the stakes really refreshing. Pulling audiences into stories and narratives to fully suspend their disbelief is something we love to play with and getting it right is such a challenge. Being asked to engage in the drama of an immersive story without fully understanding the situation or your role within it is such an underwhelming experience. Here the stakes were really accessible, easy to understand, and directly linked to where we could impact our own narrative within the activities. Complete the task, get more crystals. It made them easy to get behind as both an individual and a team, engendering a collective feeling of not wanting to let each other down.
  • We talk a lot about the power of performance, what that can contribute to the overall experience, and how that differs to ‘acting’. Our Maze Master was fantastic, brought the right level of energy to a simple role and really tied everything together.
  • My first task involved a nicely realised take on ‘the floor is lava’ – I was surprised how much it got my heart beating. Not knowing what awaits you for each challenge really ups the surprise and the time limitations up the ante.

What could be improved?

  • It is really exciting to discover the challenge as you spill into the room with the clock ticking, but I’m not sure all challenges were created equal. The majority of our challenges were great to watch and fun to play, but one or two felt a bit underwhelming by comparison.
  • I would also love to see the theme extended into the bar…

Which elements do you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?

  • It is an incredible use of space that also effectively counters some of the traditional challenges of location-based experiences, like scale and replicability. We moved through so many spaces on our discombobulated journey that I don’t feel like I saw anywhere near it all and could visit again without seeing any of the same things.

Theatre director Claire: easy to ‘dive right in’

I felt quite safe even though I was being lead into the unknown and I do think that’s important for a participant – finding the edge and knowing just how far to push it.”

Claire Dunlop, theatre director
Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • It was really good fun! Being very familiar with the concept of The Crystal Maze it was easy and simple to just dive right into the experience.
  • Because of the game show format there is very little work to be done as a participant other than play the games, win crystals and have fun.
  • Our Maze Master was a lot of fun even though she was also having to be concerned with a staff member shadowing her.
  • I think it’s time well invested – this experience is one that will be used a lot for “team building” exercises and therefore I feel like you invest your time into it. The pay-off is crystals and points – you don’t physically win anything. You get a nice pat on the back and the sense of achieving something together as a team.

What could be improved?

  • Uniforms –  It’s a shame that the staff are wearing just black clothes that they own as they have great merchandise! The logo’s on the t-shirts that they sell are discreet and classy and would look great as part of their uniform.
  • The onboarding was quite weak. Being sent up flights of stairs only to be abandoned killed the atmosphere for me a bit. It would have been better to have been met by someone at the top of the stairs by the lockers, even if they are there only to point out the lockers and loos.
  • The meeting with our “host” was nice and relaxed but perhaps a little too casual. I think something could have been done with this briefing to make it a little more part of the entire experience rather than just, quote, “the boring bit”.
  • The Covid precautions video was unfortunately rather poor quality. I would have thought there might have been time to produce something a little more professional like the video that followed.
  • The room that we met our Maze Master in was very unimaginative. All the sets for the zones were pretty amazing, so it was a little disappointing to be led into a black room with a small tv showing footage from the original series. This is the beginning of your adventure, but the dressing and staging of the first room did not make it feel significant.
  • Obviously there are quite a few Covid restrictions that slightly break the concept, e.g. hand sanitising along the way – 100% required in the current climate but it just zipped you back to your normal everyday life after chanting to an Aztec Queen.

What reminds you of your work?

  • The format is quite different to that of my own work. I have never worked on a piece in the style of a game show. I felt quite safe even though I was being lead into the unknown and I do think that’s important for a participant – finding the edge and knowing just how far to push it for that particular experience.

Time designer James: it was ‘camp, silly, and fun’

“Why take story so seriously? I think people like to be in on stories, so sudden, made-up ones can be engaging too.”

James Wallman, founder, The WXO
Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • Our Maze Master led us through brilliantly. She was camp, silly and fun, like a pantomime performer.
  • The games and the structure of the games: by having 1 person take on each task but with a timer adding focus and a team cheering you on… it really throws you into flow.
  • The sets – a little dusty, but they do exactly what they should do. They’re camp, it’s a game we’re all in on and helped along by the pace and the Maze Master, the suspension of disbelief holds: you’re a million miles from central London.

What could be improved?

  • The beginning and endings… they felt ‘standard’. But why not make you feel like you’re in a 90s TV show? The entrance is designed like a functional service. So we only ‘crossed the threshold’ into the game. Missed chance to bring us into the atmosphere and the game by steps.
  • The ending: it’s just a bar in London. Which means there’s no real reason to stay. They could extend the experience better. I wish it could have been a themed bar! Maybe they could offer different drinks menus according to what points you scored, or challenges you succeeded at – or failed at…

What reminds you of your work?

I use the STORIES structure from Time And How To Spend It to build experiences. This ticked so many of those boxes…

  • There was Story – the story of the TV show, the silly and fun stories that the Maze Master told
  • We Transformed – into a team, we became adventurers on a quest…
  • Outside, but we were Offline – we had to hand our phones in
  • Relationships – really built as we became a team
  • Intensity – we were in flow in each challenge
  • Extraordinary – many peak, new & unusual moments – perfect for creating memories, & the end of the game – where we got to play a game as a team for the first time (all the others were individual challenges) was memorable
  • Status & Significance – this is the thing most often missing from experiences from what I can tell, but because in each challenge the individual is performing on behalf of their team mates, there’s a real sense that you’re doing your best on behalf of others. It’s significance, light, of course. It’s just a game, but still there’s something there.

What elements do you like so much you’d like to use them in your work?

  • One person representing others – this reflects the “reduce distance” idea for hybrid experiences that came up in Campfire 18 (it was Ivna Reic and Kevin Dulle who came up with this idea), where the person at the real-world live event represents the people who aren’t there physically.
  • The silly panto-story and games that come with them. Why take story so seriously? I think people like to be in on stories, so sudden, made-up ones can be engaging too.

Immersive director Martin: ‘exactly what I wanted it to be’

The experience as a whole was exactly what I wanted it to be and not often can you say that, especially when entering a world or experience you feel you already have some sort of history with or ownership over.”

Martin Coat, immersive theatre and festival expert
Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • The Crystal Maze live experience does exactly what it says on the tin. As a teenager in the 1990s I would watch interactive and competitive shows such as The Crystal Maze, Knightmare, Fun House or Gladiators, always day-dreaming of myself being in there as one of the contestants! Within moments of being in the maze itself I felt I was truly inside my TV set and on the show… Somewhere in the back of my mind I could feel the added pressure of thinking there were families up and down the country watching my team’s every move and decision, berating any failures and proclaiming how if given the chance they could do better.
  • The puzzles and games were fun, challenging and engaging with an attention to detail in the mechanics and build that again evoked genuine nostalgia… each room felt like “the real deal”.
  • Our host was extremely proficient at keeping the energy and entertainment up while skilfully always bonding us as a team.
  • The experience as a whole was exactly what I wanted it to be and not often can you say that, especially when entering a world or experience you feel you already have some sort of history with or ownership over.

    What could be improved?
  • I feel the onboarding and introduction to the maze and your maze master was the weakest part of the experience. This was done entirely in a small black box room and felt very much like a holding area that had received no real design. When I am introduced to a character from the experience it is important to me that it is done in their world not mine, and the intro here definitely felt outside of the Crystal Maze world. There was an attempt to bring you into 90s nostalgia with a single TV playing through the terrestrial channels of the era… but this wasn’t enough. I want a wall of TVs so I feel like I’m being showered with broadcasted memories from the past. I want to be sat with my team on a giant sofa like I’m watching again as the teenager at home on an evening after school and then for the set to revolve and I feel like I’ve gone through the screen and been transported to the show. Instead what I had was just a glance of an idea in the corner where I can say “yep I see what you’re getting at”, but it’s actually underwhelming and has failed to evoke the 90s sentimentality it was clearly aimed at reaching.
  • Of course there is no real story attached to the Crystal Maze for you to grasp hold of or follow, however every character presented to us would have their own and I always want to feel like those details have been thought about and are in some way evident. This should be done through the props / accent / clothing etc of the maze master… I should be able to interact with or observe them and gain insight into a considered (no matter how off the wall and out there) history and backstory. Here I thought the ball was unnecessarily dropped.
  • Our host’s costume did not stand out as something well-designed towards strong character choices, there was nothing from her look that gave me an understanding of who she was meant to be or where she had come from or currently resides. This is a mistake given so much attention is given to the sets to make you feel like each zone is its own separate well-designed world. Of course I am nitpicking … but if Covid regulations require your performers to wear masks, then design them something in keeping with their character and costume. If not, a blue disposable mask from Boots shatters the illusion of a fantasy world and feels ultimately cheap.

Experiential wiz Meredith: ‘loved the flow of everything’

“I loved the flow and thought the movement between the zones was really fun – crawling, rushing, creating a scene of energy.”

Meredith O’Shaughnessy, CEO & wizard

Photo courtesy of Little Lion Entertainment

What’s good about the experience?

  • It’s so much fun! We all wanted to win the crystals and it was great supporting people you don’t know that well.
  • The games were well designed and there was a good mix of winning and losing, so there really was a challenge.
  • The hosts were brilliant – I loved that they made up names for us and kept it up the whole experience.
  • I loved the flow of everything and I thought the movement between the zones was really fun – crawling, rushing, creating a scene of energy.

What could be improved?

  • I wasn’t keen on the entrance by the street or the bar area. It didn’t really fit and we were hanging around a bit aimlessly – really it’s a missed opportunity. There could have been mini games and fun things to do, setting the scene and increasing dwell time while upping their bar revenue.

What reminds you of your work?

  • Any experience where there is fun and you don’t notice the time passing is a great experience.
  • Thinking about how to keep people engaged the whole time if you are designing memories for people – that can be a luxury experience or a riotous run around a maze.

If you’re in London and would like to try The Crystal Maze for yourself, you can book tickets here.

Read more WXO Experience Reviews:

  • Swamp Motel’s The Kindling Hour across two reviews here and here

If you would like us to review your experience, get in touch.

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