The Chicago Room Escape Conference was an incredible experience that sent me home feeling an interesting mix of hope and fear. I’ll clarify.
The conference highlighted two widening gaps in the industry: (1) between companies who know how to implement technology and companies who do not and (2) between those who can build immersive scenery and those who cannot.
This conversation was driven by many of the speakers who have already produced high-end games.
While I generally agree that in the long run the room escape industry will be dominated by those who can build technologically advanced props and beautiful sets, this shouldn’t be the complete discussion.
Superb game design and puzzle flow is still the lynchpin in escape rooms. There are a ton of mid-tier companies that do wonderful things with low-tech, low-scenic rooms.
This also holds true for video games. The mind-blowing graphics of current gen video game consoles do not do a thing to diminish the fun factor or brilliance of classic video games. Similarly, there are tons of modern games that deliberately pull from the design aesthetics of old video games.
Do these retro style games pull in a ton of money? Some do, some don’t… but there are plenty of big budget games that can’t bring in enough revenue to justify their creation.
The lesson for escape rooms is that it absolutely is possible to build a wonderful game on a lower budget, with the skills and the will to do it. That ain’t easy.
Franchises and purchased games
On the trade show floor, attendees could purchase complete games. Attendees could even play two of these games-for-purchase. Both games were a lot of fun. In fact, we had played one of them in Toronto earlier this year.
As these sell, and purchased games proliferate around the world, I am worried that they aren’t consistently named or labeled.
Ultimately, this will be a problem not just for enthusiasts, but also for those who casually play escape rooms on vacation. There is currently no way for a player to determine if they’ve already played a game. (We know a couple who have already been fooled by this phenomenon.)
Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful games for sale and this is an avenue for more people to play them, but they need consistent labeling.
Attendees could purchase some really cool shit on the show floor. I’m confident that a lot of designers will come up with brilliant ways to turn these props and mechanisms into incredible game components.
On the other hand, I am not so confident that every owner will have the capacity to repair these purchased items. A year from now there may be a ton of games filled with the broken remnants of a once amazing puzzle.
Transworld, the host of the Chicago Escape Room Conference, has deep roots in the haunted house industry; that industry’s presence was strongly felt.
These companies know how to build rugged immersive sets. They absolutely have something to offer. The big question is: can they design puzzles and produce game flow?
Where were the puzzles?
One major component of escape rooms was almost completely missing from the conference: puzzles.
The trade show floor had a ton of cool stuff, but there weren’t really any puzzles. Nor did the talks really focus on them.
Puzzles were dramatically underrepresented. On top of that, we were a little freaked out by the volume of owners we met who don’t care for puzzles.
As a result, we’re still selling our “Puzzle Harder” t-shirts. There are 10 remaining. Get yours before they disappear next week.
There were some truly frightening people in attendance… and I’m not talking the haunters.
There were more willfully ignorant people than I was comfortable with. I heard far too many people say, “that speaker had some good ideas… but I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
I met far too many designers who create games to make themselves feel good while making their players feel bad.
I overheard too many people who don’t give a shit about the safety of their players.
I spoke to too many owners who don’t play escape rooms, nor care to. The pinnacle of this was when I met one amazingly notorious owner who is cynically proliferating mediocre escape room facilities in the hopes of making a quick exit. This guy seems to have no passion for anything besides money and no drive to create anything special. He does not care about damaging the market on his way out. He isn’t the only one.
While there were some truly disappointing people at the conference, and we worry about the corrosive effects of bad actors, damn near everyone we spoke to was wonderful… and we spoke to a lot of people. (Our voices were shot at the end of each day.)
This is a community filled with passionate, interesting, and caring people for whom we have so much love and respect. It was great to meet new people, see old(ish) friends, and match names to faces with so many folks whom we know through the internet.
We spoke to a lot of people with brilliant ideas and we cannot wait to see some of these come to market.
Ultimately that’s what made this conference special and why we are so excited for next year’s conference in my former home: Buffalo, New York. May 8-10, 2017. We’ll see y’all there.
Share your thoughts
As Lisa and I reflected on our experience in Chicago, these were some of the thoughts that stood out to us. We imagine that other attendees might have different takeaways. If you attended Chicago’s Room Escape Conference, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.