Going Digital: The Globalization of Escape Rooms

As the REA Hivemind presses on, exploring all sorts of digital escape room and puzzle experiences, we have made some observations about this forced shift from real-life play to internet play.

Two months in, these are my observations on this meteoric shift in our industry.

Forced Shift

This shift was truly forced upon the escape room industry.

We’d already seen companies like YouEscape, Trap Door, and Mystery Escape Room experiment with online play. Paruzal was already planning to launch later this year. None of this has emerged completely out of the blue… but we never would have seen this many this quickly.

While so many are adapting, and many are doing it with passion, of the creators that I’ve spoken with, few prefer this to the creation of real-life games.

Free Games

Before we dive in, I want to address free games.

Some escape room companies started producing free light puzzle hunt games to entertain their audiences and promote their brands. This is awesome. It’s also not so relevant to the long-term discussion, because there aren’t significant economic factors tied to free games.

We’ve scaled back the amount of free games that we’re having the Hivemind review. We will likely eliminate free games from the Hivemind’s purview entirely, unless we learn of someone making one that is mind-blowing.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Escape rooms emerged and iterated quickly. Online experiences have adapted and will continue to adapt at a staggering speed.

A hand holding an illuminated light bulb.

As everyone learns from each other, the rate of change in the digital escape room world should dwarf the already rapidly changing world of real-life escape rooms. This is because anyone can play and learn from everyone. Digital escape rooms are globalized.

Most of these digital experiences are a short-term play at resilience. Personally, I respect the hell out of it. Anything that helps keep a small business solvent and serves their customers is good in my book.

My hope is that long term, this leads some escape room companies to innovate new and refined product lines. I would love to see high quality digital experiences emerge that are either supplemental to the real-life games, or allow players to continue to enjoy team games across a distance.

Part of my love of YouEscape before the pandemic was that it enabled me to play an escape room with friends from all around the world. Sure, I would have preferred to play a real-life game with them, but that was never an option in the first place. More innovation in online escape room play is an opportunity for some… but not for all.

Digital Escape Room Globalization

Real-life escape rooms are a global industry, but it was never a globalized industry.

Sure, we have a few chains and franchises that span multiple countries. We also have game design and development shops that cross borders. However, that’s where it ends.

If you want to play and take inspiration from The Dome, you have to travel to Amsterdam and hop a bus to Bunschoten-Spakenburg… a town that – as far as my ignorant tourist eyes can tell – is mostly cows and a world-class escape room business.

Similarly, most real-life escape room play is local. People choose from the companies that are near their homes. We diehard fans who can afford it have to travel to play the most renowned escape games. On the internet, all digital escape room experiences are effectively neighbors.

You can literally play games from Australia, Croatia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in a single day. No travel. No additional costs. Long-term, this could have some serious implications.

Competition & Price

As with everything in escape rooms (and the world) there’s heavy variation in quality and even more variation in style.

In less than 2 months we went from having very few digital escape room experiences to having a massive variety with prices ranging from free to over $100 per play. There seem to be good and bad at all price points; price is not inherently an indicator of quality. Some are giving away great games for free. Others are greatly overvaluing their digital products. Your average consumer has no idea about the quality of an individual product. That is a threat to the global health of this business model.

We’ve long maintained that escape room companies aren’t truly in competition with one another. Rather, the high-quality escape rooms are in competition with the low-quality escape rooms. The high-quality games grow the category while the low-quality games shrink the category. This is just as true online as it is in real life.

Business Potential

The various approaches to digitization of escape room experiences have a wide variety of business potential. Some of this comes down to the aforementioned quality. We also need to be honest about the long-term cost/ benefit.

Avatar games where an owner or employee straps a camera to themselves and performs as a passive vessel for instruction are a lot of work. It requires a lot more effort to do the room than it does to watch 5 people play it and occasionally give them hints. Looping that performance over and over with passion is a nontrivial requirement of the work.

I cannot imagine a world where an escape room company is able to earn the same revenue from an avatar game that they would from running the game normally.

The result is that this is not a replacement revenue stream. It’s a labor-intense stopgap with lower margins.

A computer with Zoom open on-screen.

Additionally, if an escape room markets their avatar game to their local audience, they run a high risk of cannibalizing their business. Avatar games are best marketed to people who live far away from your physical facility. You want your locals to come when your doors open again and pay regular prices for the real experience.

My assumption is that most of these avatar-based (or similar) games will get mothballed after the company has reopened and business has stabilized. However, for some companies in highly saturated markets or remote locations, this will remain an ongoing opportunity.

Online puzzle hunts, video games, and other formats with low or no ongoing labor are a more sensible long-term play as they can be sold as inexpensive add-ons or supplemental content. However, these experiences should be even lower margin than the avatar games, so in times of crisis, they offer less opportunity to recoup costs, even if they are far easier to administer.

Early Conclusions

I like puzzling and video-gamey adaptations of escape rooms quite a lot. However, these do not replace the thrill of a real-life escape room. These online games do not suck me in the way that real-life escape rooms do.

If a world-class game offered an avatar-based game, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who might play the escape room in real life. This format is better for games that are closer to the mean. The truly epic, must-see escape rooms of the world would have to drop far too much of what makes them special to adapt to this format. If Escape Room Netherlands offered good avatar versions of their games, I’d probably recommend their first and oldest game, The Lab, and would discourage anyone who was ever hoping to play The Dome from playing it over the internet… no matter how good it might be in a digital format.

Future Gazing

The next frontier in this space is escape games designed for streaming, rather than adapted for it. There are creative and financial opportunities here.

Moreover, I think that it’s important for escape room companies to have a digital resilience plan. The pandemic has opened our eyes to a new type of business risk. It’s ill advised to assume that something like this will never happen again.

If I were an escape room owner, I would be thinking long and hard about this. I might not build the digital game in my facility. I’d build it at home, in my basement. I’d do everything that I could to make something really interesting, special, and honestly designed for streaming play. I would do this as a hedge against a second more virulent wave.

If that wave never comes, you can repurpose the game.

If it does, however, it’s best to be prepared.

2 thoughts on “Going Digital: The Globalization of Escape Rooms

  1. I too am not infected with the same zeal for online escape games/rooms/scenarios as I am with real life rooms. Since an amazing set is more important to me than the actual puzzles this will likely never change for me. While the bottom line of this post is sobering, it is a bullseye, in my opinion. Digital/Streaming is not a business, it is an insurance policy. Just like unemployment insurance – it’s not enough but it helps lessen the damage as you hustle to get to another acceptable place in the world.

  2. Interesting write-up. Thank you. As an owner, I got out of traditional tech and into escape rooms to have actual, real life interactions with people, and for those people to have fun, in-person, in a puzzle that I built. I likely will not be pivoting to online play. There are already a lot of fun digital games.

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