Top tier escape rooms are rare.
The highest quality escape room companies we’ve come across have created maybe four truly top tier games each… and it’s taken them a few years to create those games.
Most of the best games we’ve played are operated by companies with only one or two rooms.
As a rule, when companies open with more than three games, the games aren’t the cream of the crop. I have yet to find the company that proves this statement false.
Why are companies with more games weaker?
It is hard to craft a puzzle that is smart, fun, and rapidly solvable. It’s even more difficult to keep that puzzle on theme. Now to make that puzzle tell a portion of a story… that’s no small feat.
And that’s just one puzzle.
A top tier escape room usually has somewhere in the realm of 10 puzzles. None of them are filler. None of them kill time.
It’s a mind-boggling challenge to tell a complete story through 10 truly amazing puzzles. We can count on one hand the companies that have really nailed this.
When a company makes a whole bunch of rooms at once, they spread their best ideas out among the different games. Instead of building a single amazing game, they build a collection of not-so-amazing escape rooms.
Not-so-amazing escape rooms
There are companies that are flooding the market with low quality games.
Some of these businesses are created by well-intentioned folks who just didn’t do their homework.
Some of these companies are operated by cynical people trying to cash in on a trend.
I’m not naming names… yet. If you’ve been around the escape room block, you know these companies when you see them.
Make no mistake about it, these companies are the single biggest threat to the industry.
When new players find their way to mediocre (or worse) games, they think that these poorly planned, pathetically executed games are indicative of all escape rooms. Those players are far less likely to try out another game.
It’s a big problem. More threatening still, many of these crappy companies flood the deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial with staggeringly discounted offers that draw in new people and then deliver a bad time.
These not-so-amazing escape rooms are the competition.
Quality games grow the industry
Quality games breed addicted players.
When a player leaves a game wanting only to play another one, it grows the industry.
There aren’t a ton of games of this caliber because they take a lot of time and effort to craft.
Help each other out.
Tell your players about the other truly outstanding escape rooms. Point the players in the right direction.
If the best companies thrive and starve the incompetent companies of players, then the bottom-end of the market has only two options: improve or perish.
If quality escape room owners would realize that they aren’t truly in competition with other quality escape room owners, the industry will continue to thrive.
No company can create enough top tier games to dominate the market.
The companies that are attempting to push tons of games out the door are producing garbage that isn’t fit for human consumption. That’s your true competition.
Great article! Thank you for your point of view.
Great food for thought. A local escape room just opened in our city this past December–and they have done so well, they are already moving to a new location and have plans to add 2 more rooms. I will be watching their progress with your article in mind.
I would also be interested in seeing a post on the 5 best top-tier rooms you’ve ever done (their locations, in case I am ever in any of those areas).
At the end of 2015 we started giving out our Golden Lock-In Award. These are the top 10 rooms we’ve experienced in 2015: http://roomescapeartist.com/2016/01/02/2015-golden-lock-in-awards/
I am starting a new escape room and we open May 1. I don’t want to be one of these companies that produces garbage quality. I am excited about what we are producing but what is exciting to me maybe garbage to you. What do you think constitutes a bad room? I experienced a bad room recently and had an unpleasant experience. The reason it was unpleasant was multifaceted. First there were a lot of red herrings which caused frustration, there were parts of the room that broke the theme and to me acted as a filler puzzle, it actually had three rooms in one escape room. The first room made no sense and took almost 20 minutes of our time to get out of.
We are starting with two rooms, one which is geared toward the novice And one that is more challenging. Our target audience are families, high school and college students, as well as adults. I feel like I’ve done my homework but I think I would be awfully intimidated if you came to my novice room and judged me based on that one room. What advice would you have for a newcomers of this business who wants to provide an excellent experience for all those who attend.
Ashley, I want to take the time to craft a thorough response to you. Do know that it is coming… It just might take me a day or two.
Ashley, I agree with the list of problems you’ve written.
I’ll be posting on this in greater length, but the best companies mind all of the details.
-Professional staff that wants to be there, and doesn’t act like they want the players to lose.
-Storied game where the puzzles advance a story (rather than say making you read bits of it), everything looks, feels, sounds, and smells like the world the players are supposed to be inhabiting. Lighting is important too.
-Everything works (I can’t really stress that one enough).
-The hinting system feels like it’s part of the story (not a fourth wall breaking add-on).
-There isn’t any exposed hardware. Custom furniture is sanded and finished. Electronics aren’t exposed.
-Players have a way out of the space in an emergency.
-The puzzles aren’t cliches without any special twist.
-Flashlights and blacklights are powerful, and have good batteries.
-Rooms don’t necessarily have to be super technical and sensor driven to be a wonderful experience. There are some incredible games made on a tight budget.
-The room isn’t oversold. One of the worst things is to have far too many players in the room than the game can support. That’s the game, not the space. You can have a gigantic room, but not enough puzzles to support all of the players in it.
-Too many junkie puzzles. Puzzles aren’t inherently fun. Skip the filler puzzles (and that’s coming from a puzzle lover).
-Red herrings are limited… And they aren’t really cool objects. Every once in a while I encounter a prop in a room that’s awesome, and I can’t wait to see how it’s going to be used in a puzzle. If that object is a red herring, then I was setup for unnecessary disappointment.
-Designed by someone who did their homework. They played lots of good and bad rooms. They tested their games with lots of folks. They are humble enough to recognize what isn’t working and iterate.
We cove a wide variety of design and quality issues in our room design section: http://roomescapeartist.com/category/room-design/
And our reviews also go into more detail about quality on a case-by-case basis: http://roomescapeartist.com/category/reviews/
There’s a lot more, but these are some of the big ones. We’re be writing more in the coming months.
Yes! I definitely agree. Thank you for this article and for your thoughtful reviews – as an escape game owner and designer I cannot leave reviews of other games as it is not ethical, but boy do I wish I could – but there are definitely some that are top notch games that deserve great success and others that are truly design abominations, and the general public is not familiar enough with escape games to know the difference. The bad ones somehow still seem to get good reviews just because it is a novel experience for most players, but man do I wish I could call out the ones that are just jumping in and have created haphazard experiences just to cash in on trend. That’s why I appreciate your informed reviews so much – a good escape game review is hard to find. The first ever escape game to be built in my state is very successful because it is grandfathered in and has huge visibility – google presence, reviews ext. but honestly it is just a bunch of random undecorated office building rooms with a couple of unrelated objects (tiki mask + giant spoon + old beat up children’s toys that have absolutely nothing to do with anything – just junk that is tossed in a nearly empty room) homework puzzles and about 20 faded four digit combo locks and no story at all. No one calls them out, and I am not allowed. I get super sad when there are other games in that area that are so inspiring and thoughtfully created and people end up just going to that first one because it has the best google presence. How does this happen?
Thank you Cori.
It’s painfully clear that Yelp and TripAdvisor reviewers aren’t knowledgeable enough to provide informed reviews. It’s a tough problem for the industry, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why. It’s novel.
This is a problem I’ve been thinking about quite a bit because the escape room world is far too large for anyone to play all the games.
I’d love to hear more thoughts on how to deal with the Yelp problem.
Can’t agree more.
I appreciate what you have to say in this article but I think it also reflects a particular kind of arrogance that I have been disappointed with in the field of escape rooms.
I am sure there are other examples out there, but one of the unique aspects of escape rooms is that they haven’t actually existed for very long — not long enough for there to be a place for puzzle makers and immersive entertainment business people to learn the business from inside the business. So experimentation is necessary and with experimentation comes mistakes, errors, and some bad puzzles. — I don’t think this industry needs to be afraid of those mistakes or be threatened by them.
Should every escape room business seek to challenge their customers with original content they have created or licensed from a creator? Absolutely. Should every escape room in every market, to use a baseball metaphor, be ready to immediately step on the field and play ball like Derek Jeter? Of course not.
To say that escape room businesses that folks who are figuring out what they are doing is “the single biggest threat to the industry” is unreasonable. It’s like saying that generic sodas are posing a huge threat to Coca Cola and Pepsi. Are some of those companies composed of incompetent people and sharks? Definitely. But our customers are pretty sophisticated — smart enough to quite going to those rooms and try a different escape room business in their area.
What poses a threat is arrogant escape room enthusiasts who forget that the primary aim of an entertainment business (immersive or not) is to offer something special to your customers. And, thankfully, most customers are real people who are happy to get up and do something active and challenging with people the care about and enjoy. Meet those people, challenge those people, and push the envelope for those people and you’re doing a good job in my book.
***I would like to emphasize that I have not idea if the author of this article falls into the category of arrogant escape room enthusiast. What I am saying in this comment is connected to a larger trend I am increasingly seeing as escape room enthusiast pop up on my radar.
I agree with this, but with one little tweak.
I think as the industry continues to mature the experiences will begin to tailor themselves to the consumer. Once enough of the populace has been exposed to Escape Rooms we will inevitably cross a chasm where establishments will explicitly cater to the “hardcore” or enthusiast exclusively, while all other establishments will be available as a fun time for people to enjoy together (and more than likely not as difficult or imaginative so as to accomplish the primary goal of the business.)
In the end, I think being critical of the experiences themselves and ample constructive criticism will benefit all of us – from the owner to the consumer. Bad products are subjective (i.e. in the eye of the beholder,) but good products will always remain. As a business owner, the priority is always to create a product that is profitable and successful, and the ones savvy enough will understand that the single biggest thing that they can control in order to reduce the risk of failure is to create a killer product, which is born out of multiple variations and reiterations thru constant questioning and criticism (both from the inside and outside.)
Farzad I appreciate you taking the time to look at the nuance of my argument.
Speaking as both an experience designer (in an industry where people erroneously love to believe that there is no such thing as bad design), and someone who has played a lot of these games, studied how they worked, and thought very carefully about what worked and what didn’t, I can tell you that there are good games and bad games.
Find anyone who has played more than a few and you’ll find that not only are there clear bad games, they have a reputation for sucking.
David – very fair and understood. What I’m interested in is what the threshold is that transitions a person from a “good” experience (which is subjective) to a “must do this again” experience. I think depending on the person that threshold can move quite a bit. However the “addiction” chasm is probably the same for everyone.
Farzad, I think that if you look back at our reviews you’ll find that we’re very considerate of the fuzziness of those gaps between wretched, low end of average, high end of average, and amazing.
You’re right that a fair amount of this is about the individual (although the same can be said for video games, movies, TV, food, etc). A lot of it also comes down to who you play with (which is why we avoid playing games with strangers as often as possible).
Many of our design tips posts delve into the concepts of what makes amazing games amazing, so I echo your curiosity on the subject.
Ultimately our goal as a website is to push creators to make the best games possible. Sometimes our content is about going from good to great. This one is about the utter bottom of the proverbial barrel.
Very fair – looking forward to having you and your team review our creations once we are up and running if your time and interest allows.
leewolfwilson, I have no idea who you are, but I will ask you nicely to keep your comments respectful. If you spent some time on this site reading before writing a book in our comment section, you’d realize that we’re knowledgeable folks, and this post isn’t coming from a place of ignorance.
I am assuming that you’re an owner, and based on your aggressive tone that you’re feeling called out.
I’m not talking about companies that experiment and that experiment doesn’t go well. I’m talking about the kinds of companies that rush poorly produced products into market. Companies that buy all of their puzzles from third parties, and when they break, can’t fix them, so they leave them in the game.
I’m talking about companies that did not do their research before opening their games. And I’m talking about companies that are clearly tossing stuff in a room and calling it a game.
Are these really the companies you’re defending?
David, sorry for being grumpy in my comment last year … I should have opened with the note I added at the end (and checked my comment for typos).
Being in a smaller market, my frustration is with folks with a lot of experience in escape rooms expecting smaller businesses (in smaller markets with less experienced players) to create the kind of environments & use the kind of technology as businesses in larger markets.
I would say that I actually am defending the idea of a “grace period” for well-intentioned escape room owners who, perhaps, rush to market and their rooms have much room for improvement.
Welcome back Lee.
I know that the enthusiast community can get a bit aggressive. For our part here, we try to be pretty kind. We approach small market games with a different mindset (although, there are many companies in small markets that would blow away most city-based games). Our reviews are always constructive, and our approach is to push companies to be better, while providing players with the knowledge that it takes to put themselves into the right game for them.
We also try to avoid reviewing brand new companies and new games. We try to let the companies get the kinks out.
All of that being said, companies are going to start to fail. We’re already seeing it. There are over 1500 companies in the US alone, and that number is continuing to grow rapidly. We know that companies aren’t born perfect, and we still haven’t seen a game that we think is perfect. However, the escape room model of “Let’s open, and spend a year learning how to do this well” isn’t going to fly in the coming years. There’s simply too much competition.
Iteration is important. Learning on the job is necessary. But the easy days of opening an escape room with mediocre games and finding success are coming to an end. This isn’t about my judgment as a reviewer, I’m happy to grant a grace period. This is about market forces.
Full disclosure: I’m a fellow enthusiast and reviewer. Some might say diva!
I see where you’re coming from, but I wonder if you haven’t seen a truly bad room or if you’re in a market where there are only one or two so you don’t see the consequences as clearly.
Here’s my anecdote. I work in a company with lots of geeks. They love puzzles, they love entertainment and they’re happy to spend money on experiences. Lots of money… I organised to go to a massive escape room place with 40 of them in 8 rooms. Afterwards I’d say only a third of them wanted to do another escape room. Most enjoyed it, but would have said no to going back. Only four wanted to do another a month later when I emailed out. None organised their own game on the next year.
I cajoled about half of them in to accompanying me to some great rooms on a subsequent trip and on that occasion played better games. That time I created several converts who went and organised their own games and all wanted to come on my future trips. They also evangelised within the company.
Customers can walk out the door happy with the game, even feeling they got their money’s worth, but lost to the industry forever. It may be a perfectly reasonable business plan for that company, but it’s a problematic competitor.
TheLogicEscapesMe: You should turn this story into a post of it’s own.
I think it’s not rather fair to contrapose quantity of rooms vs their quality. I am escape rooms organizer from Belarus, we started a year ago and now have four rooms operating, one room is on the stage of building, and we intend to open four or five rooms more by the end of the year.
Every our room has unique scenario, gameplay, entourage and set of puzzles. A number of unhappy escapers is negligible. Indeed quality of room depends on organizer’s approach.
Me and my partners have a ten years experience of real quests playing and organizing. These games were not escape rooms, but city quests, however they helped us to understand what people might expect from this kind of game.
BTW, two escape rooms based on our scripts will be opened in Pittsbourgh, Pennsylvania shortly. They are “Kidnapped” and “Pirate’s ship” (Perhaps titles will be changed)
Hi Ivan. Help me understand where you think we disagree? It sounds to me like you and your partners are working hard to create good rooms.
Hi, David, it’s not about disagreement, just emotional reaction to one phrase.
I’ve already answered on FB.
I have another question:
Would you mind if I translate this and some other articles from the blog to Russian for further publication and propagation? With all the references of course.
Thanks for response in advance.
Please feel free to repost. All we ask is that you cite us, and link back to the original.
I am curious, I’m in the process of opening my business,
You refer to these top tier games but I’m curious what in your opinion signifies a top tier game? Coming from some one who has presumable ran lots of er rooms, I would be curious to hear your opinions.
I think I just answered your question on Facebook as well. I have an expanded answer to this question (adding more than I had on Facebook) above: http://roomescapeartist.com/2016/03/08/on-competition-between-escape-room-companies/comment-page-1/#comment-1073
Ya for sure you did, I didn’t realize that you were part of the group lol!
Excellent. Nailed it.