Dan Egnor’s Escape Room Directory was the first of its kind, an international listing that’s been around for nearly as long as escape rooms have been in North America. We are thankful for his work documenting the global proliferation of this industry. We recently asked Dan to share his insights, both on the growth of these games and the other, more complicated puzzle events he enjoys .
Room Escape Artist: What is the Escape Room Directory? Give us the basics.
Dan: The Escape Room Directory is what it says on the tin — a directory of escape rooms. You can find it at escaperoom.directory. It’s been up since October 5, 2014, so, 20 months or so as of this writing. There aren’t any reviews or maps or details — it’s just a big list of cities worldwide and escape rooms in those cities.
How did you get started?
I was just getting into escape rooms, and they were just starting to multiply, and I wanted some way to keep track of them. Putting every escape room in the world on a website seemed like a reasonable weekend project (ha ha), and seemed like a natural extension of puzzlehuntcalendar (which I also run, but is trivial by comparison).
When I started the Escape Room Directory, I thought it was the first worldwide directory, but it wasn’t; Essa’s Intervirals site came first by a long shot.
And how did you discover escape rooms?
I’ve always been into puzzle hunts. I was working at Microsoft when I got my start with “The Game” (note, the Wikipedia article is a little… exaggerated) which was a weekend-long, no-sleep, team-van-based hunt run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. My first hunt was “ISETV”, an alien-themed game run in Los Angeles in 1998.
Since leaving Microsoft and Seattle, I’ve kept an interest in puzzle hunts — though I prefer them a bit more cerebral than the classic “Game” was. As I noted above, I run a little calendar of puzzle events, which mostly exists so different people don’t accidentally schedule puzzle hunts on the same day!
Anyway, when SCRAP opened “Escape from the Mysterious Room,” which as far as I know was the first North American escape room, we in the puzzle hunt community were naturally intrigued and excited by this amazing new concept. As more rooms opened I organized an “escape crawl” where I and some friends tried to do all the local (SF Bay Area) escape rooms (that we hadn’t already done) in one day. That would be a preposterous idea now! But then, that only meant doing six.
Where are you when you aren’t escaping rooms?
I’m a programmer at Google; I live in Palo Alto, which is a town about 30 miles south of San Francisco.
So, six in one day to jump start this hobby… what’s the count now?
At this point I’ve played… somewhere in the neighborhood of 40-50 rooms, I think? (I need to update my spreadsheet.) Which is not actually that many. It’s certainly not enough!
My favorite is probably Time Run in London UK. Actually I’d say overall London has the best rooms I’ve seen overall. Closer to home I’d give a shout out to the Great Houdini Escape Room, which is probably the best in the area.
My taste is the same as most people’s, I think — I like a good mix of inventive puzzles, an immersive experience, and magical technology (that works); I think the rooms I named above hit the spot on all of those dimensions.
Back to the directory… How did you amass this vast amount of data?!
So, originally, I assembled the directory by doing a lot of searching. I’d look for other lists of escape rooms (mostly local), I’d search business directories (like Yelp and TripAdvisor), and I’d just google “escape room <place>”. Like, I’d find that Malaysia has some escape rooms, so I’d just start searching for “escape room <city>” for every city in Malaysia, and copy down everything I saw.
Remember, this was early days. I figured, how many escape rooms can there be in the world? A couple hundred, tops? Even then, that was terribly naive. Anyway, this got old fast as you might imagine. I have a day job after all! And it’s not like I want to make a business out of this or anything. So I put up an invitation to send me mail with listings or corrections.
What is the multi-submitter? How does that fit in?
Somewhere around then, Chris Dickson (then of exitgames.co.uk, now of exexitgames.co.uk) had the excellent idea that there should be a one-stop shop for escape room owners (and others) to post details about a new escape room, so they wouldn’t have to go add their listing to every directory individually. Owners get an easy place to register updates, directories get more updates sent to them, it’s a win-win!
As Chris handed off day-to-day maintenance to other local enthusiasts, I ended up taking over the multi-submitter, and took the opportunity to revamp the form after some conversation with other recipients (such as the owners of this lovely site!). It’s pretty low-tech, just a Google form that fills out entries into a spreadsheet and emails updates to all of us. You can find it at escaperoomsubmitter.com.
We know how much work it is to keep a US map current. How are you doing keeping track of the entire world?
At this point, I mainly just take updates from the submitter, and from whatever else gets sent to me — from the submitter alone, in the last week, for example, there have been 33 reports — almost all of them for new facilities.
I haven’t been doing a lot of proactive research. As a result other directories, especially local/national directories (like this one!) tend to have better data. I occasionally think about retiring my directory, or somehow federating data in a better way, but it’s all work! Meanwhile I hope it provides a good service to people who enjoy its global reach and simple presentation.
After following the global spread, what’s your sense of the growth of the industry?
I really only have subjective impressions, which would be that the industry is continuing to expand rapidly (understatement!). The usual pattern is that a region gets seeded, followed by rapid hypergrowth as the trend is imported, followed by “merely” exponential growth, which is where most of the North American market is at now. You’d expect saturation to follow, and there are anecdotal reports of saturation in some markets, but I haven’t seen the numbers to bear that out.
I am always happy to see escape rooms taking root in new countries, especially when it looks like a local operation rather than a flag planted by some global franchise.
I was super interested and happy to see your post about growth rates. This is something we’re all interested in, and whenever I get interviewed by the press, it’s always something they’re asking. (In fact, if you ever feel like a follow-up post, I’d love to see growth on a regional/metro basis.) I’ve always thought it would be fun to dive into the data to try to get that kind of thing, but there are a lot of challenges, particularly since my data is mostly submitter-based and thus rather noisy (especially around closures and updates and timing).
Room Escape Artist: Stay tuned. We are struggling with some of the same data issues, but we are looking at how best to organize a regional study.
You grew into room escapes from puzzle hunts, while we are expanding from room escapes to other puzzl-y and interactive experiences. Which puzzle hunts do you recommend? For us and for our readers?
Puzzled Pint (a once-a-month puzzle-fest at a local bar or pub) and DASH (a once-a-year walking hunt) are great places to start, if they happen to be where you live! Online from anywhere, Shinteki’s Puzzle of the Month (free) is a monthly puzzle; P&A Magazine (US$10) is a fun monthly puzzle hunt magazine. In all these cases, sample puzzles or back issues are available, so you can get a sense of the style before you dive in. Happy solving!