The escape room industry is currently in an early phase where games of vastly different quality levels are often priced very similarly. When you check popular online reviews, all escape rooms have great ratings, and they all cost roughly the same amount. There is no real price differentiation in this industry, but there should be. As the industry matures, identifying and rewarding premium experiences will be an important step. Educating customers about the value of premium offerings will be difficult in a business where mystery, secrecy, and surprise are often viewed as important attributes. Here are some of my thoughts about what should be included at a premium price point.
What Makes a Premium Escape Room?
When I think of a premium escape room experience, I think about immersion and worldbuilding: aspects of experience design that make memories. As much as I like solving puzzles and aha moments, I’ve realized that none of my favorite escape room memories have anything to do with puzzles. I suspect much of the average player population is probably the same way. Making me forget that I am in an escape room is one of the highest compliments I can give to an experience.
Extended game length, more square footage and quality actors can all add significantly to worldbuilding. These can be key aspects of a premium experience and they are things a customer can recognize when booking. Immersion, technology, reveals, and characters can be dialed up to a level that justifies a higher price.
While each of these elements can contribute toward making a premium experience, they can also be used as gimmicks to fool customers into thinking they are about to play (and pay for) something special. Providing fair value for the money will be critical for the survival of a premium-priced escape game.
Give Me More Time
Paying more for longer escape games is something that makes sense to everyone. It’s still rare to see escape games that run longer than 60 minutes. Longer play times stand out and spark interest with customers. A race against the clock to escape in time is not the only option for these types of experiences. Stretching game length with more content and letting players be in an immersive environment longer is a premium selling point. Designing systems to allow customers to play 2 or more related rooms consecutively and uninterrupted is another way to extend play length.
Removing the aspect of the time constraint altogether can be an exciting game element and marketing opportunity. As a player, I have come to appreciate games without visible countdown clocks. Rooms can be designed with mechanisms in place to ensure that players spend the desired amount of time in the game, while being ambiguous about its actual length.
When I am worried about time pressure, I often tend to (even subconsciously) force myself to find the most efficient path through the game. I ask myself, “what does the creator probably want me to do?” I sometimes use escape room logic and figure out how to progress through the game. This type of self-awareness can be a detriment to immersion. Without that pressure, the world opens up a bit, and details of the room become more accessible. It feels good to know I get to be there that much longer.
Bigger Can Be Better
Larger square footage games can also make a game world feel more real. The reality that players are in an old office space or a strip mall fades away when the game space feels big. There are more nooks and crannies to inspect. There are more chances for individual players to go off and explore an area by themselves. Being alone in an unknown environment can be a thrilling feeling.
There are more opportunities to discover things that are not part of the most efficient path toward the game’s end point. Sometimes you need to run back to a different section of the space to where you remembered seeing something that now seems important. That distance can add to the excitement and enhance a thrilling moment. A larger play space is something players will take notice of. It is one of the most obvious premium perks in an escape room.
Even the illusion of space can be powerful. A room with false doors on all four walls can feel part of a sprawling mansion or a huge castle. Fake doors can make the players feel like there are choices to be made and more paths to explore even when a game is kept neatly on its rails.
Actors as characters bring depth to the story world. They are also obvious operational expenses that customers should be able to recognize and appreciate.
High-quality actors who make eye contact and ask questions of the players can help create a premium experience. There is something about answering questions from an actor that forces players to think about the story and the world it takes place in so much more than just listening to them recite exposition. Customers want to be drawn in; they want to understand the place they are in and why events are happening there. What better way to deliver that than from interacting with the characters that live in that space?
A premium escape room should begin the moment players walk into the building. The atmosphere of the lobby area and in-character hosts add to a customer’s experience. A smooth and minimal pregame rules briefing is also something I am really coming to appreciate. A long list of “don’t do this” warnings can kill immersion and momentum just as players are building anticipation of entering the game. Make a more theatrical experience from start to finish, where everything rolls into one. The narrative should begin long before we are standing outside of the escape room door. Onboarding and exiting can be part of the experience.
The Room Should Be Alive
Premium escape rooms react to the players. Dynamic lighting and sound design can be used to guide the players through the physical space. Areas of interest may illuminate while areas no longer in play may darken. Puzzles and props have positive feedback so players know when they are doing things right or doing things wrong.
Effects and Reveals
Big reveals and cool special effects are well-known elements of higher-end escape rooms. They can be memory makers. Unexpected moments are an important aspect of escape rooms. The bigger and grander you can make them, the more impact you can make on the player’s experience. Players might be willing to pay a premium price just to get to see the cool thing that everyone is talking about.
Story and Characters
Stories and characters that stick with players can create a premium experience. I love a story I can continue to think about months after playing, and characters that I empathize with and become invested in to the point that I wonder what happened to them after the story concluded. I think about what they are doing now and how other players might be interacting with them. These are rare features in the games that I have personally played or heard about, but when they do happen it can be powerful.
Premium Must Have Meaning
A longer game clock or a larger game footprint are not premium features if that extra time or space isn’t filled with interesting content. A huge story that is too complex to understand or that is force-fed to players in a jarring or disjointed way does not make for a premium game. An actor playing a jump scare monster might not be appreciated as much as a character that facilitates a meaningful exchange with the players. None of these aspects of the premium experience will help an experience that includes flawed gameplay or bad puzzle structure.
I hope the time is coming when the escape room customer base is large enough and sophisticated enough to value escape rooms properly and reward those creators who deserve it. Many times the customer has no idea of the quality level of the production they are paying for. The inherent secrecy about the games that is built into the escape room culture is one of the causes of this uncertainty. The unreliability of popular online rating systems is another, but trusted voices are becoming more recognizable.
There will be markets for escape rooms at different price points, from budget to premium and beyond. Stratification in pricing is something customers will understand and accept, as long as it is justified.