Art or Heist? Designing Multi-Purpose spaces

December 15, 2016

Originally posted on Medium

This post is about the design of the original Art Heist, which repurposed an active art exhibition into a game where a team of 3 have to steal an artwork.

A new run of Art Heist, run purely as a game without the constraints of an active exhibition, is slated for March 2017. We’re currently on Pozzible to raise some funds for the new version.

One of the fascinating constraints of designing the original Art Heist was simple: during the day, the gallery had to be, well, a gallery. Any game elements needed to be easily hidden or packed away, the overall geometry of the space had to work for anyone coming to see the art, and apart from the target painting, all the art was real.

At the end of the day, all of these extra constraints were just that: extra constraints. And like all design projects, poorly understood constraints are terrible (as they lead to frequent large shifts in design), and properly understood constraints can be amazing (as they breed creativity).


Time was a factor in two ways: we had to swap the gallery’s purpose quickly, and everyone involved in making the game was also really busy making artworks.

To account for a quick setup time, we ensured that the focus of the game (the room with the target painting) was an area that could be closed off during the day. This meant that we could have more complex set pieces inside that area.

In terms of our available development time, we chose to spend as much of our limited time as possible playtesting the game. This meant that any complex builds were out of the question (the cameras were the most complex thing we made), and lead to an approach of making physical analogs of digital sensors (for instance, we made a pressure sensor out of a rug and squeaky toys). This allowed us to lean into a whimsical aesthetic, which was also invaluable in allowing us to set expectations for the players, smoothing over some of the rougher edges.


For a while, one of the main concerns was how to ensure that the space that we created for the game didn’t break the exhibition: in particular, that there’d be enough space for all the artworks.

We solved this pretty simply, again by using a central chamber for the Art Heist (built using curtains). This meant that the amount of wall space was completely preserved. It also tapped into some good design fundamentals for both space types: galleries benefit from having clear routes to take to traverse the artworks, while stealth games benefit from having circular routes and multiple entrances.

Please don’t destroy the art

Having real art in our game was pretty great, but it was also incredibly worrying: while we had a ‘no running’ rule, rules like that will also be broken, and there was always a chance that something would get damaged.

Here, again, the central chamber was really important: the artwork to steal was markedly different from the other works. We literally set it apart, and ensured that the main action was set away from the artworks. We also made sure we told the players on entry not to touch the real artwork, and provided them with a picture of the piece they were to steal.

But this also meant that our players sometimes didn’t want to touch other, important things in the space. They were also having trouble discerning what was important with the high tension and limited time.

Our solution, in the end, was to literally mark things that were part of the game. We put fluorescent paint on everything that was part of the game, and gave the players UV torches. This made the game flow much more smoothly and protected anything we didn’t want touched (which wasn’t limited to the art). It also meant that we obeyed the #1 rule of escape rooms: there’s always a UV torch.

How we got there

At the end of the day, we were able to solve a lot of problems and create both a compelling game and an effective gallery (the manager of the space commented that it was the best gallery set-up that they’d seen). We did this by following a simple approach: understand the constraints as well as you can, and iterate until it works (or, you know, you run out of time).

What next?

The next iteration of Art Heist is now in development, and it comes with completely different constraints (a longer run and a need for commercial viability being amongst the most pressing). Exactly where those constraints will take us is anyone’s guess*, but the journey will certainly be exciting.

*OK, I have a pretty decent idea of where we’re going to take it. I’ve gotta keep some sense of mystery though, right?

We’re currently fundraising for the next iteration of Art Heist on Pozzible. If you can chip in some money, or share the campaign, it’d be much appreciated.