Many of our clients have expressed that the shift to offering a live video escape room can be challenging on many levels. A big part of the preparation process is setting up the broadcasting and technology infrastructure, so we’ve prepared this list of equipment recommendations to help you get started.
If you’re interested in community feedback on these and other products, we strongly recommend joining the community on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/LiveVideoEscapeRooms/ (hosted by Tom Parslow of Buzzshot and Telescape Live). The group is friendly and helpful, and you’ll benefit from the experience of other owners who are already operating online escape rooms. Many of the advice we share here is directly influenced by discussions in the group and experiences of pioneering owners in this space!
The core of any live remote escape room experience is a video feed, so it’s natural that the most important equipment is your broadcasting gear. at a minimum, you’ll want a broadcasting feed for your avatar who is interacting with the room on behalf of the players. In addition, you may want additional resources, like a “document camera” that can provide closeups of objects or a mobile phone the gamemaster can use to trigger actions while in the room.
While your first instinct may be to consider an action camera like a GoPro or a traditional video camera, we don’t think that’s the best or most practical option. Most action cameras have fisheye lenses that players find distracting, and the broadcasting gear required to link the feed to the Internet is complex and error-prone to set up.
Our recommendation is to keep things simple and to use a mobile phone for your broadcasting gear. Modern phones have fantastic cameras, fast Wi-Fi radios and a useful touchscreen built in, allowing you to join a video call directly from your platform’s mobile app.
Many people have a 2-3 year old previous generation smartphone with a high-quality camera collecting dust in a drawer, like an iPhone X or recent Samsung Galaxy S10. If so, you’re in luck – these devices are perfectly suited for broadcasting an in-game video feed, and can usually be set up without a SIM card or cellular service plan.
If you’re looking to purchase a new device specifically for broadcasting, our current recommendation is the Google Pixel 3A or Google Pixel 3A XL. Both are excellent devices and are available as of May 2020 at a fraction of their original retail price. They ship unlocked and can be used by any carrier if you want to add cellular service, and their camera is exceptional in its price class (particularly in low-light scenarios, which are common in many escape rooms.)
If the $300-$350 price point of the Pixel 3A is too expensive, our alternate recommendation would be the Xiaomi Redmi Note 8. The Redmi Note 8 is an exceptional value, and Xiaomi is a reliable manufacturer. (In fact, many refer to them as the Chinese Apple, and their hardware feels much higher quality than the price would imply!) Despite the high megapixel rating of the camera, it won’t be up to par with the Pixel 3A in image quality, but it still will far exceed most other devices in its price class.
Overwhelming consensus on Facebook discussions – which matches our experience as players – is that you should do everything possible to stabilize your video feed so that players avoid motion sickness issues while watching the game. Motion sickness can even be a problem in 3D rendered video games, which is why many have an option to disable head bob animations.
The gold standard for stabilizing a video feed is to use a gimbal, a motorized device that makes tiny adjustments to keep the camera level even when held freehand. The top manufacturer of gimbals for the consumer market is DJI, a company famous for drone manufacturing – turns out that the technology necessary to keep drones and cameras level is very similar!
We recommend the Osmo Mobile 3 or the Osmo Mobile 3 Combo – both are the same base unit, but the Combo adds a tripod accessory that gives you the valuable ability to set the gimbal down on a flat surface to free up your hands.
A gimbal will provide the most stable video feed, but it has both the pro and con of requiring the avatar to hold the handle during filming, leaving only one hand free to manipulate objects. As such, you may prefer a different approach that mounts the cameraphone on the avatar’s body.
We strongly advise against a head mounted camera – it feels the most intuitive because it places the camera nearest to the gamemaster’s eyes, but it also creates the shakiest video feed because your head is constantly moving while hosting a game. A much better approach is a neck or chest mount.
Amazon has many options for neck and chest mounts, but two that have been suggested are the Lazy Neck Phone Holder and the B-Land Cell Phone Holder. The Lazy Neck has padding around the neck for comfort, while the B-Land offers a magnetic detach feature that can be useful for disconnecting the phone to provide closeup shots. No matter which mount type you select, make sure you don’t choose a model that places the mount directly against your chest – you’ll need to see the screen and to interact with the phone during the game.
We ideally recommend two gamemasters – a control gamemaster to trigger events and props, and an avatar who is solely focused on being engaged with the players as an actor. If for staffing or economic reasons you need to combine these roles, we recommend having two devices – one for streaming and one for control. The control device is ideally mounted on an armband like this one that allows you to interact with it when needed; we recommend mounting it on your forearm below your elbow for maximum accessibility. (Make sure to purchase the correct size for your device!)
Don’t underestimate the importance of quality lighting! Most escape rooms are dimly lit to create a moody atmosphere (and to hide the sins of construction!)… but that directly works against you for photography. Even the highest quality cameras tend to struggle in low light, and adding more lighting than you would ordinarily use will directly translate into a better mobile game experience.
Viable lighting sources include diegetic (in-story) sources like additional table lamps or lanterns, as well as extra-diegetic (out of story) sources like a headlamp for the game master or additional house lighting. You may also be able to adjust your existing lighting setup to provide more brightness during online play without any additional purchases.
Livestreaming requires an incredible amount of battery power, and you will almost certainly need an extra battery pack (or two) to keep your phone charged.
Not all battery packs are created equal, and standards can be confusing. Modern phones come with fast charging support, and most current models can negotiate a higher current and voltage to charge at a much higher rate. The old battery pack you’ve had sitting around for years likely won’t be able to keep up with the power drain of a video conference.
If you have an iPhone 8 or later, or an Android phone with a USB-C port, the technology that fast-charges your phone is likely USB-C Power Distribution (usually abbreviated as USB-C PD). You’ll be looking for a battery pack that can supply at least 10,000 mAh (the amount of power it stores) using USB-C PD (the method it charges with) at 5V/3A (15 watts, the maximum most phones can draw).
For an iPhone, you’ll also need a special cable – you must use a USB-C to Lightning cable to achieve fast charging, and they are both expensive and difficult to find. The Anker 6ft USB-C to Lightning cable is compatible, high quality, and long enough to allow you to position the battery pack in a farway pocket. A 3ft version is also available, and if you prefer the original Apple version, it’s available too at an additional cost.
For the battery pack itself, we’re partial to two excellent brands, Anker and RavPower. Both have pioneered USB-C power accessories at affordable prices, and their USB-C PD battery packs can themselves be fast charged over a USB-C port from a compatible wall charger. (The ones provided with most laptops also work great!)
Anker offers our favorite lightweight options with smaller capacities. The PowerCore 10000 PD Redux is a compact candy bar shape, while the PowerCore Slim 10000 PD offers the same capabilities in a flatter, wider shape. Both are excellent choices.
If you want a larger all-day battery solution, the RavPower 15000 PD has 50% more capacity at a very compelling price point. The mighty RavPower 20000 PD is much larger and heavier, but it has enough capacity to offer a neat parlor trick – it can actually charge most small laptops like the MacBook Air, Dell XPS 13 or HP Spectre X360 13″ as well.
Choosing a streaming platform can be a challenge, with many quality options available each with their own pros and cons.
We strongly recommend choosing a videoconferencing platform over a streaming platform. Streaming platforms like YouTube or Twitch are optimized for high viewership capacity instead of latency (delay), so they can provide beautiful video streams at the expense of additional lag. Unfortunately, that delay can ruin the player and gamemaster interaction, causing people to talk over each other and creating frustration for both parties.
Videoconferencing platforms, on the other hand, are optimized for low latency – the video stream may drop down in quality a little, but the delay is kept to a minimum so everyone feels like they can speak naturally. This is ideal for remote escape rooms – we always want to provide a high quality video stream, but providing fluid gameplay is even more important.
As anyone who’s attended a happy hour or family get-together in the last few months can attest, Zoom is currently the most popular videoconferencing platform, and they’ve gotten that market position for a good reason: their product is easy to set up and easy to use. They’ve had some security issues, but participants love the custom background features and “Brady Bunch” tile views it offers. Their pricing plans are reasonable – the $15/month plan should cover most escape room owners’ needs – and the software will be familiar to nearly all of your players.
Other conferencing products have competing strengths, but we struggle to recommend them over Zoom for escape room purposes. Jitsi is a very strong contender and we love their open-source approach, but their free public server architecture doesn’t provide any support or accountability for outages; they still may be worth considering for owners on a very tight budget. Microsoft Teams provides the best video quality of any product by far, in our experience, but setting up meetings is complex and requires an Office 365 subscription for many features. Google Meet and Facebook Messenger Rooms are emerging contenders too, but have limited features and less marketshare than the other platforms and players may be skeptical of trying a new product.
Finally, the best equipment doesn’t help unless you have strong Wi-Fi signal coverage and a quality upstream connection.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, we don’t recommend using a cellular connection to host games. A live stream can use as much as a gigabyte of bandwidth in an hour, which will run up your bill substantially (and perhaps trigger unexpected bandwidth throttling, just as you transition from successful playtests to actually running paid games.)
If you’re using a budget Internet plan from your cable or telephone provider, it’s probably time to consider upgrading to a higher tier before hosting games. A 720p video stream uses about ~5Mbps upload bandwidth plus overhead, as a frame of reference – so you should ideally target a plan with a guaranteed upload speed of at least 10Mbps. Here in Seattle, that corresponds to the top plan offered by CenturyLink to DSL customers, or to the entry level “Business Internet 100” plan offered by Xfinity; the entry level “Starter” plans cap out at 5Mbps and would be insufficient for reliable streaming.
If you’re planning on hosting more than one game simultaneously, you’ll want to expand your bandwidth needs accordingly; for example, if you intend to stream two games at once, we’d recommend having 20Mbps upload bandwidth available.
Our founder is originally from rural Virginia and we’re aware that a large digital divide exists in much of the world, where fast bandwidth is readily available in large urban areas and is much harder to obtain in smaller towns. The situation has been improving rapidly, though, and a call to your provider may yield a pleasant surprise if you haven’t shopped for a new Internet plan since you opened your business.
If you’re unable to obtain more bandwidth, don’t panic – streaming software will adjust to account for the lower connection speed, but connection quality may suffer.
All the upstream bandwidth in the world won’t do you any good if your Wi-Fi is a constraint. The best way to check your speeds is to use the Ookla Speedtest app, available in Google Play and the App Store as well as online at https://www.speedtest.net/. This site will run a live test and report your upload and download speeds; the upload number is the most important one for your streaming needs.
We recommend trying the speed test in each area of your game space, ensuring that there are no areas where speeds are significantly lower than others. Ideally, you can also compare your speeds with a computer connected to your router via a wired connection to ensure that any slowdown is happening in your wireless connection and not in your Internet service provider.
If you do discover your network is slower than necessary to host a wireless stream, there are a few things you can try before adding more hardware. First, and most importantly, you can separate out your 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks to have different names. This allows you to choose the frequency you are using to communicate with the router; 2.4Ghz is an older, slower connection subject to more interference but with much longer range, while 5Ghz is a newer, faster connection that is less effective at penetrating walls. In most cases, you’ll want to be using a 5Ghz connection to host your games, but every space is different and you can test both to make sure you’re using the best available option.
The other setting to check is related to the wireless channel. Particularly for 2.4Ghz networks, there are channels numbered from 1 to 11 that can be chosen. Despite the wide range of numbers, due to bandwidth overlap there are really only three that are viable choices: 1, 6, and 11. If your router is set to Auto, you can explicitly try each of these three choices and see if one channel avoids interference from a neighboring access point. (5Ghz networks also have channels, but the technology is much more effective at auto-selecting an appropriate choice, so we don’t recommend manually changing settings for that band.)
Range Extenders and Access Points
If you’ve exhausted your options with your existing hardware, it might be time to add an additional wireless access point. Terminology can get very confusing here, so we want to define some terms before continuing:
Router – a router is a device that shares a single Internet connection to multiple other devices, usually both wired and wireless. It takes control of your network by handing out network addresses and sending traffic where it needs to go, and most small businesses should only have a single router on site at one time.
Access Point – an access point converts a wired network connection into a wireless one. It doesn’t do anything special to the network traffic – it just passes it along to the router unmodifie.
Range Extender – a range extender is a device that converts a wireless connection into an additional wireless connection by relaying packets.
You’ll see network devices for sale with all three of these names, but adding to the confusion, many of them can be reconfigured to change modes! In fact, most routers can also be used as an Access Point with the router logic disabled, and most range extenders can also plug into a wired network to act as a classic access point.
We recommend configuring your network with an additional Access Point connected to your main router via a wired cable. This creates an additional wireless link to your network at the same speeds your main router provides.
We do not recommend using a range extender. If you use a range extender and uplink to your main router over wireless, you run the risk of further clogging the wireless network you’re trying to free up for your video packets and introducing additional latency (delay); we’ve had poor luck with most models and can’t recommend the purely wireless approach. It really is worth the hassle of figuring out how to run a network cable to your room in our book, even if it requires an ugly cable to be stapled to your hallway for a few months. (Some modern “mesh network” models may improve this situation, but for now most of them are prohibitively expensive.)
As for hardware, almost any router or range extender can be configured to be an access point. We’re partial to Asus, particularly the tried-and-true RT-ACRH13. It’s cheap and stable, and we’ve installed them in almost every room we’ve built over the last few years. It doesn’t support the latest Wi-Fi standards, but many phones don’t either, and it’s very easy to use its onboard setup wizard to configure it to act as an access point.
If you’re thinking of investing more, it might be worth upgrading your main router instead with something that supports WiFi 6, like the Asus RT-AX3000. You can then switch your old router into Access Point mode and move it into your game space to extend your coverage.
If you’ve already bought a range extender you’d like to use, no worries – you can usually convert it to Access Point mode easily; directions are often in the online manual on the vendor’s web site.
Finally, if you need a long Ethernet cable, we can’t recommend Monoprice highly enough. Actually, if you need any cable of any length for anything, Monoprice is our go-to vendor!
Once you’ve installed your access point, we recommend giving the extended network a different Wi-Fi SSID. By naming your networks differently, you can manually select which one you connect to on your streaming device and ensure you’re getting the best connection; Wi-Fi is often slow to roam between access points, meaning you might be making a slow connection back to your main router rather than a fast one to your extended access point.
We’ll be updating this document soon with additional guidance! In particular, we’re trying to determine our advice on capturing 360 degree panoramas: options vary from using a cell phone on a tripod to a dedicated 360 degree camera like the Ricoh Theta V , and we want to do more testing (and compare against professional results from paid real estate photography) before making a specific recommendation If you have any insight, we’d love to hear from you!
And if you’d like any personalized assistance on equipment covered in this post – or on any aspect of taking your escape room online – we’d really love to hear from you. Please reach out via e-mail at email@example.com and we’ll be in touch as soon as possible!
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