Thoughts on the Chicago Room Escape Conference

The Chicago Room Escape Conference was an incredible experience that sent me home feeling an interesting mix of hope and fear. I’ll clarify.

Lisa and David standing behind their booth at the conference. Their banner in the background, and an unsolved puzzle in the foreground. They are wearing their "Puzzle Harder" t-shirts.
Greetings from Chicago

Market rifts

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.

Haunting influences

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.

Wonderful people

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.


  1. Hi David, Lisa!

    This was a really interesting article for the following reasons:
    – Although we’ve played escape rooms in Europe, the only places we’ve really explored for escape rooms thus far, cities in Australia and Sao Paulo, tend to have far smaller markets than that seen in the US. We do get some venues which are average but I’ve only heard of two or three that could be considered genuinely bad and cynical money grabbers. So it’s interesting to see what happens when the escape room phenomenon really becomes an industry at scale and where a bell curve of excellence (and mediocrity) truly emerges.
    – Newer Australian outlets are only now creeping into the technologically focused method of escape rooms. Most of the best rooms here rely primarily on analogue tech (Gen 1 as I believe you called it in another piece?). It was an amusing observation from one escape room owner, who specialises in mechanical puzzles, that some of these newer venues are using tech props anyone can buy from China through Alibaba. Did you see much of an industry competition from tech prop makers from China who could sell bulk props for cheap?
    – If there are so many owners in the US who don’t care for puzzles, can I ask what the hell do they offer in their rooms? This is not something we’ve come across at all. Anywhere. We’ve played one room with minimal effort, but even that had puzzles.

    Sounds like you guys had fun!


    1. Where the quality bell curve lands is the big question right now… and we’re seeing massive gaps between high and low quality.

      There’s a lot of homemade and purchasable tech driven by Arduino & Raspberry Pi. People are doing some really cool stuff with it. A lot of the components are purchased from China. There’s also some proprietary, closed-source systems that people are pushing. I don’t really see those closed-source options as viable longterm.

      The lack of interest in puzzles came as a big shock to us. This wasn’t ALL owners, but far more than we were prepared for. We’ve observed a general increase in games that are task-driven as opposed to puzzle-driven. Tasks are easier to keep on-theme, so a lot of the folks who are trying to strive for immersive sets are leaning too heavily on tasks. I think tasks are great for keeping the pace of the game going and adding diversity of challenges, but they shouldn’t be the full game.

  2. As one of those people who have been fooled by a purchased game that wasn’t labeled in any way (and was, both times, one of the absolute worst games I’ve ever played), I absolutely share your concern & agree for the need for consistent labeling.

    This particular game used one of the more traditional escape game themes, so it was virtually impossible to tell that it was a purchased game – after all, how many jail cells/laboratories/castles/offices have we seen in the industry? How am I to know if you’re simply using a popular trope, or if you’ve got the exact same game I’ve played twice before?

    I also couldn’t agree more that you don’t have to have incredible, earth-shattering tech in order to have a fantastic escape game. Though I love tech and have been very excited by some of the things I’ve seen, I’ve also played plenty of incredibly fun “Gen 1” games.

    And I share your sadness in hearing about owners who don’t care about puzzles. Or ‘good’ puzzles. I’ve played far too many rooms where the answer to “why was this done this way?” is “just to throw you off.” Obfuscation and red herrings do not a good puzzle/game make. These things only create frustration – take the time to do some research on puzzles, or hire someone with puzzle experience, or I guarantee you’ll have some unhappy guests on your hands.

    Thanks for the insights, David! Such a pleasure seeing you & Lisa at the conference. 🙂

  3. First of all, it was great to get a chance to talk to you guys at the conference!

    One of the most fascinating parts of the conference for me was increasing my understanding of escape room tech – Radio-Frequency Identification (RFIDs) and the like. The behind-the-scenes look at those technologies will have a subtle impact on the way I play escape games.

    I did find that the conference was very owner-centric, which is understandable, but I felt that it could have benefited by providing more for “enthusiasts.” There were quite a few owners there (like those who don’t care for puzzles) who could have learned a lot by attending a panel of gamers.

    As someone who once considered starting his own escape room business, I saw myself reflected in the many potential owners who were considering it themselves. But with the people like Nate Martin building elaborate rooms on cruise ships, Ginger Flesher-Sonnier getting funded by the West Texas Investment Club, 5 Wits smashing the competition with its set design, the sheer volume of people now entering the industry, as well as the many practical business concerns that an escape game owner faces, it is not something you should not take on lightly if you want to do it well.

    Also, big props to Improbable Escapes, Inc. and Escape Games Toronto for their “Levee District” game that had many of us running around the exhibit room floor solving puzzles for a couple hours.

  4. Thoughts on very large companies duplicating the same rooms over and over? Some of these companies seem to plan on invading all major cities. Is it logical to conclude that this could eliminate the desire to play a game in a new city if people think we are all simply copies of some other game?

    1. That’s a good question. I don’t think chains/franchises replicating games across multiple cities is an inherent problem. If the company is producing good, fun, and well-maintained games that are consistently named and recognizable, then I think it’s a great thing.

      If the chain/franchise is proliferating garbage, then that’s damaging. If the chain/franchise operates under different names, then that’s confusing. If the chain/franchise doesn’t have the capacity to maintain the consistency of their products, then that’s problematic.

      For a deeper analysis on the nature of competition in escape rooms, check out this post that I wrote a while back:

  5. Is the next TransWorld escape room conference in Buffalo or is the Room Escape Artist team organising it? 🙂

    1. The next TransWorld-run conference is in Buffalo. There is absolutely a part of us that would love to host a conference, but we’re spread far too thin to do it right.

      We’re going to leave it to the professionals.

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