Imagine American Ninja Warrior meets Mario Party mini-games, all set in an epic art-filled space… and you’ll have some idea of what Level99 is like.
In Season 5, episode 12, we chat with Matthew DuPlessie, founder of 5 Wits, the original immersive gaming experience, and Level99, a new type of open world gaming concept. 5 Wits pre-dates escape rooms, with the first location opening in 2004. It included immersive sets and a high-tech, high-throughput model, filled with puzzles, adventure and storyline. Level99 opened more recently in 2021, designed to solve some of the throughput issues Matt found with 5 Wits.
Matt shares a lot of business advice for escape room owners, including considerations for increasing throughput and creating models with low recurring costs. He also talks with us about how he developed the original concept for 5 Wits, and shares some exclusive behind-the-scenes looks at some of the special effects for 5 Wits games.
As a mechanical engineer and businessman who loved theme parks, Matt wanted to create the feel of a theme park encapsulated into a retail storefront. That’s how 5 Wits was born. Matt is passionate about pushing the frontiers of immersive gaming while balancing the reality of throughput models and the economics of running a successful business. He has created some really innovative gaming concepts, and we loved picking his brain in this conversation.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- [2:11] David talks about how he first heard about 5 Wits right after he started Room Escape Artist. He was very positively affected by those games.
- [3:00] Peih-Gee and Matt talk about how 5 Wits pre-dates the first escape rooms by a few years, having been established in 2004. The first SCRAP escape room opened around 2007.
- [3:35] Matt talks about how he came up with the concept for 5 Wits. It came out of the theme park world. He wanted to shrink the feeling of a theme park into a small retail storefront.
- [5:06] Matt shares more of his thought process when developing the concept. He added puzzles because he needed an activity to keep guests engaged for up to an hour while making them feel like the protagonist in a story.
- [6:23] Matt says that he was looking to run a model with low recurring costs, which precluded things like animatronics or live actors.
- [8:10] David describes the feel and gameplay of 5 Wits, saying it’s like a playful escape room presented by Disney, with a beautiful set and designed for higher throughput than traditional escape room models.
- [9:32] Matt tells us that he started off as a mechanical engineer for Disney in the theming side of things, building immersive and beautiful environments. He talks about hiding drywall screws and things like sound artifacts that remind players they’re in a shopping mall.
- [10:11] Matt talks about the reality of economics in escape room business models, and the need to increase throughput. The business model for 5 Wits pipelines players so that all the rooms are used, instead of having a “big expensive stage set that’s three quarters vacant” for the hour that players book.
- [12:05] Matt tells us about the early days before he’d figured out how to fully automate his games. He says that they had in room gamemasters who would trigger events manually by way of a magnet, which they would hold against the wall where a magnet switch was hidden.
- [14:18] Peih-Gee notes other automation like an automated reset where poles would retract into the wall so that the puzzle pieces would fall back onto the ground.
- [15:05] Matt shares an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how they created the special effects for the bomb explosion scene in their Espionage game, which no longer exists. He explains that he moved away from human guided games because of the inconsistency of gamemasters.
- [16:07] Matt sets the scene, explaining that you’re trying to defuse a very large bomb in a space team-style game. He says that this part of the game is rigged so the players can never defuse the bomb. As the time counts down, the group runs out of the room.
- [18:48] As the bomb goes off, the room shakes and the lights go out. Now players must solve a puzzle, which distracts them from the fact that the room is actually on a large turntable. The entire room spins so the group is now facing into a different room.
- [19:40] The group “re-enters” the bomb room, which has now exploded, with smoke in the air. The room is destroyed.
- [22:47] Matt talks about his relationship with Pyramid malls in New York and the lucky call that came in from a young leasing rep.
- [24:37] Matt shares some advice about the advantages of a mall location. He says that there is more foot traffic, which means that some of the rent counts as marketing. He also mentions that malls care about other factors besides just rent, like a good mix of tenants. He says that entertainment venues can use that to their advantage when negotiating the rent.
- [26:10] Matt talks about the differences between 5 Wits and escape rooms. His rooms started off as high-tech, without padlocks, and every player gets through the whole experience. He also sees a distinction between the sets at 5 Wits and early escape rooms.
- [29:25] David says that when he first played 5 Wits, he also considered it to be different from escape rooms, but as the gap has closed and more escape rooms have leveled up their games, he thinks the definition of “escape room” has expanded.
- [30:58] Peih-Gee talks about how the production value of escape rooms has greatly improved over the years.
- [31:45] Matt talks about the early days when it was mainly hobbyists opening escape rooms.
- [35:30] David noticed that the pharaoh from 5 Wit’s game Tomb sounds remarkably similar to the pharaoh from 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis. Matt confirms this and tells the story of why they are the same recording. David does a particularly good Pharaoh sound bite.
- [38:10] Matt talks about some of the Easter eggs hidden in 5 Wits games, with one in Tomb and one in Drago’s Castle. He tells us that they were originally injected by a bored software developer one night. Peih-Gee confides that you can ask a staff member to help trigger the Easter egg at the end of the game if they’re not too busy.
- [39:36] David moves on to Level 99, which is a 48,000 sq. ft. complex featuring challenge-based games in the Natick Mall in Massachusetts.
- [40:24] Matt attempts to define Level99 and explain what it is and how it works. He explains that there are challenge rooms, arena games, and scavenger hunts embedded into art, which is displayed throughout the complex.
- [41:29] At its core, Level99 revolves around the challenge rooms, which contains a one-minute to four-minute physical or mental challenge ranging from a classic escape room-style mental puzzle to an American ninja warrior-level physical challenge. Quite a few are skill-based, where accuracy and hand-eye coordination are factors.
- [42:47] Matt explains how the star system works within the meta game and economy where you’re accumulating digital assets by playing. He likens it to an open world video game with mini-games.
- [44:08] Matt talks about the player naming system at Level99. He says they wanted to put the names on a leaderboard, but were worried about inappropriate language on a giant billboard, so they decided to assign funny names to players. He says that people became really attached to their player names and they realized they needed to keep the names persistent.
- [45:59] Peih-Gee compares Level99 to different video games, likening the player profiles to D&D character sheets, and the challenge rooms to Mario Party mini-games. She also points out that the scavenger hunt artwork is akin to collection games like Animal Crossing.
- [47:37] Matt tells us about why he created Level99. He says that through the years of running 5 Wits, he came up with a bunch of notes on how to make 5 Wits a better business. He says that some of those notes were so divergent that they justified their own business concept, and that’s how he ended up creating Level99.
- [49:22] David notes that with Level99, there is increased capacity and simplified logistics in terms of booking and management and staff for running individual games.
- Matt talks about throughput models, and Peih-Gee mentions the upside for replayabilty as well.
- [51:10] Peih-Gee asks about surprising things Matt has learned about the players, and he says it’s an impossible question to answer because the groups are all so different, and everyone plays differently.
- [52:29] Matt talks about the design process for creating the challenge rooms. He says the difficulty lies in the ones that fall between a success and a failure. He mentions how different it is when testing rooms amongst their company versus seeing how public groups play.
- [54:57] Matt talks about some of the challenges they had to retire or change because they were either too confusing, too strenuous, or just not fun.
- [55:44] Matt talks about the balancing act of optimizing the business model for greatest revenue versus the creative aspect. He says that you must do both.
- [58:04] Matt gives us an example of budgeting and the creative process when they’re building and designing a room full of crystals, and trying to figure out the balance between budget and creating the best-looking set. He says you need to figure out how to get the most value for your dollar.
- [1:00:10] Matt mentions a few other companies with similar concepts, including Prison Island in Europe, Beat the Bomb, Activate in Canada, Hijinks Hotel in Australia, Time Mission, Fair Game and Crystal Maze in the UK, Jumble in Dubai (now closed), The Grid at District 57, and Koezio in France.
- [1:01:51] Matt says one of the most difficult parts of Level99 is food and beverage. He says that they make everything from scratch, but that it’s challenging to run a kitchen. He mentions that they spent months trying to perfect the pizza crust, and trying to create a system that produces repeatable quality.
- [1:04:52] Matt announces that Level99 will be opening a new location in Providence, Rhode Island in the fourth quarter of 2023. He says it’s a large-scale project, and they’ll bring beloved favorites as well as some new challenge rooms.
- [1:11:50] Matt tells a bonus story about accidentally ending up in charge of a major construction project for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- 5 Wits website
- REA Reviews of 5 Wits
- REA Reviews of Level99
- Level99 website
- Challenge Game concepts:
About Matthew DuPlessie
Matthew DuPlessie is Founder and CEO of Level99 and the 5 Wits Companies.
After completing his bachelors in mechanical engineering at MIT, Matt went to work in Florida managing specialty design/ build projects for major theme parks, museums, and aquariums. Returning to Massachusetts to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School, Matt raised private financing and founded 5 Wits, arguably the first “escape room style” attraction worldwide, which first opened in Boston in 2004.
For the last twenty years, 5 Wits has designed, built, and operated award-winning walk-through “adventures” like Tomb, Espionage, Drago’s Castle, and Deep Space, enjoyed by many millions of guests.
In 2006, Matt formed a second company, Box Fort Inc., in order to pursue a wide range of design/ build work for third party clients, in addition to 5 Wits’ own public venues. The team at Box Fort has done concept development, detailed design, quality fabrication, and controls integration for exhibits, attractions, and interactive experiences for a variety of public venues, such as the Smithsonian, Blue Man Group, Walt Disney Imagineering, and dozens of science and children’s museums.
In 2018, Matt raised 8-figure funding to launch his newest project, Level99, designed to bring challenge-based physical and mental entertainment experiences up to a new level, with the prototype location opened in Natick MA in June 2021. Just recently, Level99 acquired Box Fort to increase its in-house design/ build capability, as Level99 is under construction on our second venue now! And Level99 is seeking amazing applicants for design, engineering, software, operations, and management roles… =)
In addition to his work, Matt teaches a couple of design classes in the mechanical engineering department at MIT. Most importantly, Matt and his wife Beth live in Foxboro, MA with their three wonderful children.
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