Imagine a friend telling you to visit the local movie theater because you absolutely must see a new movie called Obtuse. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years,” your friend raves. So you buy your ticket, sit through the trailers, and as the opening scenes roll, you realize that you’ve seen this movie before. You were on vacation across the country and went to the movies on a rainy day to see a comedy called Dullish. Obtuse and Dullish are the same movie, but the local theater decided to call it by a different name. Dullish was edited just slightly differently from Obtuse.
This is a problem that currently exists in escape rooms.
Types of purchasable games
A fair number of escape rooms are purchasable. This isn’t an inherent problem, but far too many like games are given unique names. This is confusing and problematic.
There are primarily three different purchasable game formats. (This post isn’t going to delve into the viability of these models, but there are serious challenges and limitations with all three of them.)
You can acquire room escape designs and implement them to your liking. With this model, no hardware or construction is included, just the ideas that make up the game.
You can purchase full games including all of the props and engineering needed to get them up and running.
You can acquire a game in part or in whole through signing a franchise agreement.
The naming problem
The entire escape room industry is already riddled with naming problems between companies. There is an emerging naming problem with purchased games.
We’re hearing of an increasing number of identical purchased room escapes in places all around the world going by different names. This causes confusion among people who like to escape rooms when they’re traveling.
For example, Brooklyn Escape Rooms in Brooklyn, NY used to be a Claustrophobia franchisee. When they broke off from the mother franchise, they had to change the name of their games for copyright reasons, but their Shelter-R is for all intents and purposes the same game as Claustrophobia’s Vault 13, and Medieval Dungeon is essentially the same game as Claustrophobia’s The Dungeon. The kicker is that 60 Out in Los Angeles, CA is operating a game called Outbreak that I’m told shares many puzzles and structural elements with Vault 13 / Shelter-R. This kind of information is difficult to know as a “normal player.”
Similarly, if you were to go play Central Bank, Cold War Bunker, Zombie Lab, and Prison Break at Room Escape LA, you’ve essentially played Fox in a Box’s The Lab, The Bunker, The Bank, and The Prison, as they are all part of the same franchise. However, you’d never know that as a “normal player.”
I’ve heard a tale of duplicate games 80 miles apart in Wilmington & Fayetteville, NC. These are the same room escape offered by two different companies, with two different names.
I have more examples, but I’m not looking to shame here. I’m looking to make a point. This is the result of multiple accidents.
Why is this a problem?
There are absolutely going to be owners reading this saying:
“95% of my players are first-timers. This doesn’t matter to me.”
This is the wrong mentality. We have over 1,700 different escape room facilities in the United States. This industry needs to mature and foster regular players if it’s going to be a viable industry over the long haul.
That means we need to take care of the most dedicated players and foster enthusiasts.
If booking an escape room becomes a game of Russian roulette, this is a massive failure. It’s also a stupid failure because it’s preventable.
Purchased games should come with a mandatory name. The designer’s name should also be affixed to the booking details. Authorship matters.
I know that there are companies that like to hide who created their games. I’ve heard some pretty funny stories about a designer who likes to hide his involvement with some of the games that he has designed. (For what it’s worth, if a consultant wants you to sign an NDA, they are shady).
Keep your naming consistent across both locations and games. If you can’t do that, at least make it clear on your website.
This will worsen
Unfortunately, I think that the problem will persist and worsen for the following reasons:
There are a lot of purchasable games out there and a fair number of owners who will pretend that it was their design.
People who sell games to more than one company are not contractually insisting on consistent naming and labeling.
No one should be hiding.
A lot of game sales happen across national borders making it expensive, difficult, and largely pointless to enforce contracts.
We keep hearing about franchises failing to offer the proper support. Consequently, the franchisees leave the mother franchise, but continue using a variant of the same games under a different name because the names are copyrightable.
I’d love to be proven wrong
I want to be wrong about this.
I’d love to see escape room designers and owners stop this from becoming a problem. So that’s my challenge. Prove me wrong.