Wild Optimism: Behind the Success of the Kickstarter Escape Room in a Box

Update 3/16/21: If you enjoy this written interview, we continue the conversation with game and puzzle designers Juliana Moreno Patel and Ariel Rubin (The Wild Optimists) on The Reality Escape Pod.

This never should have worked.

In early 2016, the women behind Escape Room in a Box asked us to promote their play-at-home, tabletop escape room. We thought this was a terrible idea so we said, “only if we can review it.” They sent us a prototype. We played it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it.

Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin have come a long way since then:

  • 2,353 backers pledged $135,429 to bring their project to life.
  • The Kickstarter product shipped. We reviewed that one too.
  • They sold their game to Mattel.
MATTEL DEBUTS NEW ADULT GAME — ESCAPE ROOM IN A BOX. New Game Inspired by Escape Room Experiences Available This Fall (PRNewsfoto/Mattel, Inc.)

Today, the Mattel version is available for purchase.

We looked at the data: Most escape room Kickstarters fail. This one, on the other hand, sounded like the fairytale Kickstarter story.

We sat down with Juliana and Ariel to get their story of wild optimism, long hours, and creative perseverance.

Room Escape Artist: Where did the idea for Escape Room in a Box come from?

Juliana & Ariel: We’ve always been into board games and Juliana was frequently hosting game nights. We were increasingly spending a lot of money going to escape rooms in sketchy neighborhoods. (This is before anyone could afford prime real estate for escape rooms.) So we figured we’d just buy an at-home one for Juliana’s next game night. We searched the internet, but we couldn’t find one to purchase. When we couldn’t find one, we decided to make one. We figured we couldn’t be the only people out there who wanted this.

Juliana & Ariel at a conference in front of an oversized wooden box labeled, "Escape Room In A Box."

Once you had the idea, how did you seed the market for the Kickstarter?

We reached out to lots of reviewers, both of escape rooms and board games. We were lucky to have a number of major influencers (like you! and Joel Eddy) respond in the first wave. Even though neither of you thought the game was going to be any good, you still agreed to play it. Once you knew it was awesome, your support brought us more reviews and press coverage.

We reached out to any media outlet that we could think of that might want to cover the game. We personalized our emails, pointing out specifically why their audience would want to learn about this project. (Yes, it takes forever to watch/read a good bit of their content, but it proved to be well worth it.) We emailed or tweeted any journalist or blogger or podcaster we could find who had ever covered escape rooms and tried to convince them that this would make a great follow-up story.

Note that for every article or review you see that we DID get, we probably reached out to twenty more who (mostly) never responded, or who said they didn’t want to write about the game. It is, in some sense, a numbers game.

We also sent a personalized thank you email to every single backer, which we think made people feel appreciated and more likely to share the project with their friends and on social media.

We paid attention to who the backers were. When we saw that Elan Lee (creator of Exploding Kittens and Bears v. Babies) had backed our game, we reached out to him and offered to let him play the game immediately. He was incredibly gracious, inviting us over to his house for a play test and giving us excellent feedback and advice on both the game and dealing with Kickstarter.

Once the Kickstarter was successful, we followed up with people who had never responded to us, sending them a second email to let them know how well things were going. We received more responses that way.

So at that point, while the Kickstarter was running, you already had samples to send. We haven’t seen that all too often. How did you get to that point?

We approached this as a board game Kickstarter (since that was a well established model) and most of those would never dream of launching without independent third party reviews, especially for first time creators.

The Werewolf Experiment - Revisited 2

To get to that point, we were continually testing the game. We started by reaching out to our friends and asking them each to bring a friend we didn’t know. We also needed to find escape room-minded testers, so we tried different ideas. We went to a Puzzled Pint and asked everyone there to test the game. They all said yes and they were great. We also reached out to people who had reviewed escape rooms on Yelp, but the vast majority of them never responded to us. (We maybe got one playtest out of that.) Some ideas worked and others didn’t.

We were testing all the time. We started splitting up so that we could have two test groups running at once.

We asked the playtesters what they liked and didn’t like about the game, but they usually couldn’t articulate that well. We got more out of simply watching them play the game. People don’t know what they’re good at. They always suggested ways to make the game harder, but that wasn’t the feedback we sought.

How much did the game change during testing?

At first it changed rapidly. The first group took three hours to complete the game, with generous hinting. So, we iterated. We knew everything was fixable.

For example, we originally included a challenging logic puzzle. First we simplified it. Then we added step-by-step instructions for how to do it. However, people didn’t want to read the instructions. We found that people like to figure things out by themselves rather than read and follow instructions.

Originally we relied on a lot of paper puzzles, but we noticed that players enjoyed the physical interactions more, so we leaned into that. We wanted people to have more energy while they played and that was the solution. More innovative and more interactive.

As playtesting continued, we learned not to get hung up on everything. Gameplay wasn’t a problem until multiple groups had the same issue. In some cases, these repeat issues led us to add hinting, or clue structure, into the game itself. When testers repeatedly failed to find the same thing… we won’t tell you what we added, because spoilers!

After a while, the rate of change plateaued.

Once the testing completed and the Kickstarter funded, was it smooth sailing to a finished product?

There was another round of more testing after we got the artwork back from our artist. We spent hours sitting with him, making him get rid of beautiful things that we all loved because we knew they would come across as clues when they actually meant nothing.

Then we did a bunch of play tests with the artwork, which led to more changes. This was stressful because he does amazing work, but he also has a day job so it was tricky for him to meet our manufacturing deadlines. At one point we literally bought him an automatic cat feeder so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his cat and could focus on getting the work done. It sounds completely illogical, but we had to do what we had to do to get the artwork!

We also had to work through manufacturing. We needed to make sure the manufactured product matched our prototype exactly.

The Werewolf Experiment - Revisited 3

At one point we were convinced that some of our locks were breaking in transit… but only the red ones. When manufacturing didn’t believe us, we had to devise a test to prove it. We put 5 black locks and 5 red locks through a dryer cycle. All the red locks broke, but the black ones were fine. We knew this would be a problem for shipping our game, so we changed all of the locks to the black version. Problem solved.

What tips do you have to help people do Kickstarter right? Any blog or podcasts suggestions?

Understand how much work you need to do both before and during a Kickstarter. You can not rely on Kickstarter to bring you an audience. You must bring in your own audience. Some people do that by building up a huge mailing list before launch. We did that by gathering a ton of press that all hit within the first week of the campaign. They all brought their audiences to our game.

Independent reviews of your product make all the difference in the world, especially if it’s an expensive product. We’ll gamble $20 on an untested puzzle game, but have a hard time parting with over $50 if all we have is your word that it’s going to be awesome.

Jamey Stegmaier and James Mathe have excellent blogs filled with useful information about how to run a successful Kickstarter. They cover absolutely everything. This includes huge things like how to build up an audience or do worldwide shipping for the best price and smaller tips such as: don’t launch on a weekend or a holiday because people aren’t sitting at their computers browsing Kickstarter at that time.

What are the differences between the Kickstarter version of your product and the Mattel version?

Not a whole lot.

The biggest difference is that the Mattel version doesn’t include any destructible components.

We included one element that gets used up. Mattel replaced it with something that doesn’t get destroyed and is easily resettable. It’s also super cool!

There are other things a big company like Mattel just can’t do. For example, Mattel replaced the pen in our original game with a pencil.

Now that Escape Room in a Box is for sale, what are you working on?

With Mattel, we are working on the next game in the series. Unfortunately that is about all we can say about it at this point.

We sold the Escape Room In A Box trademark to Mattel, so we are now the Wild Optimists. We create custom escape room-style experiences for a variety of clients. This ranges from a centerpiece puzzle at a gala to a completely personalized escape room for an epic marriage proposal. Designing puzzles is our absolute favorite part of this entire process, so this allows us to have a steady stream of new and interesting projects to work on.

Juliana & Ariel posing in front of a mural of an umbrella shielding pink rain. They appear to be holding the umbrealla.

Puzzles are such a great way to bring people together, get them laughing, talking, and bonding. That’s why we’re incorporating them into more unexpected environments where you want people to meet each other (like galas and weddings). The beauty of these puzzles is that they are one-time use, so we can design things you could never do in a traditional room (like having a puzzle that involves mixing up a cocktail). We love getting to personalize our creations to our audience.

We love the name “Wild Optimists.” Does that name capture your mentality at the beginning of the Kickstarter?

We didn’t think it would be easy and it certainly wasn’t. It WAS doable.

A hand holding a locked tin labeld "Biohazard. In the background is a table covered in paper and physical puzzles.
The prototype

However, we literally did not stop working during the time we created the game and ran the Kickstarter. We couldn’t sleep because we were working through puzzles while lying in bed. We would slap together meals while responding to comments on Kickstarter. We barely saw our husbands, ignored our children more than we should have, and focused everything on the game. After the Kickstarter was over, we agreed that we would never work like that again because it had been totally insane and was not sustainable. There was zero work life balance.

All that being said, we are continually pinching ourselves at how well everything turned out. We now have a career where we get to design puzzles, play games, bring joy to people, and still be home as the primary caretakers for our children. It’s been a really epic journey and we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Purchase your Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment.

(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)

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