A response to today’s Washington Post article on escape rooms

“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am” published earlier today. It immediately made a splash in the escape room community. Regardless of your opinion, it raised a lot of issues that we as a community should stop and reflect upon.

Escape Room Live

While the Washington Post piece spotlighted Escape Room Live, this article could be about almost any escape room facility.

I have not yet played Ghostbusters at Escape Room Live, but I have played a number of their other games. I hold them in high regard and regularly recommend that players visit their facility. They were among the first recipients of the Golden Lock-In Award.

Escape Room Live does a lot right. The topics I’m about to address are industry-wide issues.

Hint system failure

The biggest issue that I read in this article was that the hint system failed and the team spent a significant portion of the time unable to communicate to the gamemaster. This is a deeply frustrating problem. It happens all too frequently.

I’m not surprised that a first-time player who spent a large portion of their game without access to their gamemaster had a bad time.

Dr. Venkman on a walkie-talkie from the original Ghostbusters
“It’s looking at me Ray.”

I recall that in our previous experiences with Escape Room Live, they had deliberate in-story mechanisms for receiving hints. This was one of the things that we loved about them. If I had to guess, they used walkie-talkies because Ghostbusters is actually a licensed game and walkie-talkies feature prominently in one of the most iconic scenes in the original movie.

Walkie-talkies are generally a sub-par means of hint delivery because they are clunky to use and it is relatively easy to change the channel. I understand, however, their place in this particular escape room.

I strongly encourage all escape room owners simply mic the rooms and have their gamemasters listening at all times, even if an in-story mechanism for requesting a hint is in use. The walkie-talkies can be used in addition to the regular room microphones. I’ve seen this before, and it’s smart. When the room is miced and the gamemaster is always listening, this problem is avoided.

“What do we win if we succeed?”

This isn’t an escape room company problem… but escape room companies still need to address it.

I hate the “what’s the prize?” mentality that a lot of people bring into an escape room. I think it undermines the entire idea of enjoying an activity.

My advice to escape room companies is this: The prize isn’t the hope of winning a record, getting a better time than your friends, or as the gamemaster in this story said, bragging rights. The prize is the journey. It’s the experience and story that you’ll create with your friends along the way.

To use a dated analogy, if you go to an arcade to win prizes, you’re literally going to spend your time dropping money into a garbage game that spits out tickets so that you can trade in a stupid amount of them for a prize that would have cost you a dollar to purchase. The way to experience an arcade is to go and play the games that are inherently fun for you. That enjoyment is what you’re paying for.

I’m smart, therefore I will win

The theme of credential listing ran throughout the Washington Post’s piece. I know that this is an issue in escape rooms. Educated players with good jobs who are probably smart people believe that they are entitled to win.

It’s completely unreasonable to believe that you will succeed at something that you’ve never done.

Players with ego frequently overthink, get in their own way, and then are reluctant to ask for help. There isn’t a lot that escape rooms can do about this. Watch the players and if they stall completely, push hints. I know that some players get pissy about receiving hints, but it’s far better than letting a group spiral out into frustration on the first puzzle.

In the 4th episode of the short-lived TV series Race To Escape, a self-proclaimed “puzzle expert” fully embodied this. I find this painful to watch, but many people seem to find this guy’s tunnel vision while he murders stuffed animals hilarious.

Post-game walkthroughs

It genuinely seemed like that writer had no sense of what happened in the game. I’ve heard good things about Ghostbusters, so until I have first-hand experience, I am going to guess that the breakdown was in a lack of explanation for a player who may not have participated in, or even focused on, the puzzle solutions during her experience.

I don’t know what kind of post-game walkthroughs Escape Room Live does, so I’m going to make a generalization about the escape room industry:

Post-game walkthroughs are a dying art.

I am of the opinion that every team should receive a walkthrough. People on winning teams miss out on details and losing teams should have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and see the full experience… they’ve already paid for it.

When a team receives their walkthrough, their reaction should be, “oh… we should have gotten that.” Their reaction should not be, “I never would have gotten that.”

I know that some teams are so disinterested or frustrated by the experience that a walkthrough will only make them less happy, but these are the exception. There’s usually at least one person in the group who was interested enough to want an explanation.

I cannot say for sure, but I have a feeling that a solid post-game walkthrough might have mitigated some of the sour grapes that the article smelled of.

I didn’t like this, therefore I do not like escape rooms

“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am.”

The title of the piece implies that not understanding something inherently devalues either the concept or the person who doesn’t understand it.

I do not understand quantum computing. I kind of get the idea. I’ve read a lot about it. I can even sort of explain it, but I do not truly understand the concept. I do not think that the idea is dumb or that I am a lesser person as a result of not understanding it.

I know that editors frequently craft headlines, but even if the writer didn’t create the title, that mentality permeated the entire piece.

Escape rooms are a broad and broadening form of entertainment. There are adventure games, cerebral games, scary games, funny games… I could keep listing like Bubba, but I won’t.

Because of the terminology, many first time players assume that they will need to “escape” from a locked space. While that’s how this genre of entertainment started, it now only applies to small portion of “escape room” games. Escape room companies need to set clear expectations on their websites and in their pregame briefings, whether or not they use the word “escape” in their branding and marketing.

There are escape room-style games out there for damn near everyone, but you have to look for the ones that fit your interests best and you have to be open to exploration.

This particular story…

The moral of the story is that every single game is an opportunity to wow or fail a team of players. For every WaPo writer who plays an escape room and experiences a failure like this, there are so many more people who silently leave having had a bad time, and lose interest in escape rooms.

I know that many players are failed by the escape rooms that they play. Derelict gamemasters, broken interactions, and poor customer service are a pervasive problem. People write to us with all sorts of stories that reflect poorly on this industry that I love so much.

Companies with good products will still have a margin of error in game execution and customer service, but they can take steps to mitigate a lot of the issues.

Every escape room operator should remember that you can have a beautifully designed game fail completely if the basics don’t work.

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