We spent the opening days of May at the Niagara Falls Escape Room Conference. This gathering of over 1,000 people from across the escape room world was a wonderful experience.
Transworld, the show organizer, was completely prepared for the crowd this year. With their full staff, the lines, bottlenecks, and confusion that frustrated so many show attendees in Chicago in 2016 were, as far as I could tell, not present this time around.
With that out of the way, here are a few of my observations from this year’s show:
We saw an insatiable thirst for technology. It was off-putting how often we heard people say something along the lines of, “I have a gen 1 game and I’m looking to make a gen 2 game.”
At Room Escape Artist, we have never referenced “generations” once in a review or commentary. These generations are a basic construct for thinking about technology, but technology in an escape room does not have inherent value. There are brilliant room escapes without tech and there are terrible room escapes with tech-heavy builds costing over $100,000.
We were surprised to hear so many owners reference these technology generations as if they were incremental steps in escape room progress, and therefore something to strive for.
Our message has always been: focus on fun and gameflow. Tech and set design are tools to help with these. The core mechanics must be present, however, or all you have is a very pretty, very expensive room with a crappy game built into it.
Marketing & differentiation
More than at last year’s conference, we heard a lot of angst about market definition and differentiation. As local markets fill with similarly named companies, it has grown increasingly difficult to stand out.
Our hope is that more companies will focus on providing an exceptional player experience, co-promote other great companies in the region, and grow strong, eager player communities. Ultimately this industry will live or die based on everyone’s collective ability to foster regular gameplay.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin:
“We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Still no puzzles
I still wish that there had been a greater focus on puzzle design and game mechanics in the talks and on the tradeshow floor.
On the other hand, we didn’t have tons of people approaching us and expressing their total dislike of puzzles, which happened a lot last year. #Progress
In Chicago last year there were a number of owners and prospective owners who heckled speakers and were painfully cynical in conversation. This year that wasn’t an issue. I think I only spoke to one person who was looking at escape rooms as a cash grab opportunity.
The attendees at large felt a lot more calm, thoughtful, and mature, which made our many conversations so much fun.
It is possible that the cynics just avoided us… and that’s fine too.
How to support Room Escape Artist
Last year a lot of owners asked how they could support us; we didn’t have an answer. While we would happily accept money, we don’t want to know where it comes from, as this could compromise our commitment to neutral review. This year we showed up with a solution that we have been beta testing for 6 months.
If you want to support us, simply use our Amazon link to purchase goods for your escape room (or anything else). It has zero effect on your Amazon experience and we pick up 4-10% of the sale depending upon the item.
We don’t know who’s buying what, so we cannot be in a position to play favorites. This solution allows escape room owners as well as enthusiast readers to support us without direct financial relationships.
If you’re willing to favorite this link and use it in the future, please know that we will never know who you are, but we deeply appreciate the support.
If you’re in Canada, we’re working on a link for you. Stay tuned.
Props 4 sale
Like last year, there were a lot of prop makers selling Arduino and Rasberry Pi driven props. They looked great and cost a pretty penny.
I continue to worry about the lack of a substantive service model for these devices. The folks buying ready-made props lack the technical know-how to build these things in the first place, so I don’t understand what they plan to do when these props fail.
Every single escape room operator should have at least one backup plan for every single element of the player experience. Shit happens. Please be ready for it.
At our booth this year we set up a pair of lock trees to demo many interesting padlocks. We ran little crash courses on the finer points of lock design, as well as how to identify locks that will be less likely to break. For those who are interested, these are some of the crowd favorites from our booth:
Stay tuned, we’ll be writing reviews of each of these and more over the coming months.
Seeing old friends & making new ones
Over the past few years, we’ve met so many wonderful people through this industry. These conferences are like reunions.
To all of the people that we spoke to (except for that one cynical dude), it was a pleasure chatting with you. We were so insanely busy, but we had so much fun.
Also, we extend a special thank you to our regular teammates and dear friends Jason Lisnak and Lindsay Froelich for running our booth and making sure that we could eat. We could not have done this without you two.
The next conference location and date have not been announced yet, but we are looking forward to it nonetheless.
Until then, we wish everyone a productive, fulfilling, and profitable year.
(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.)
Our notorious crime syndicate was robbing another bepuzzled bank.
Our goals were to steal as much money as we could within an hour and escape.
The set looked like a bank: a bland lobby and teller counter, along with a vault, which was absolutely the highlight of the set.
The Bank Heist was tangled with puzzles and locks. There were plenty of puzzles to solve, but it wasn’t always clear what was a puzzle.
Additionally, once a puzzle had been solved, it wasn’t easy to determine where to input the solution as there were many similar input mechanisms.
There was one well designed, dramatic moment.
One repeated interaction was lifted straight from banking hardware and protocol. This was a clever puzzle-esque design.
Something that originally seemed trivial, even out-of-place, turned out to be useful in a particularly satisfying way.
There were a lot of numbers and all numbers led back to a lock. These locks were almost all identical. It was a lot of similar information to keep track of.
Much of the puzzling in Bank Heist was accessible before we’d derived all of the necessary cluing or components. Strategic puzzle-gating would save teams from spinning their wheels attempting to solve without complete information.
In one area, the puzzles weren’t well distributed across the space. We spent a lot of time tripping over each other in one small corner of a rather large set.
One critical piece of tech was worn and badly beat up. It needed refurbishment.
Bank Heist had a self-service, QR code-based hinting system that was immersion-breaking. Because the QR codes were beside input mechanisms, not puzzles, we had no idea which puzzle a clue would hint at.
We never understood whether it mattered how much money we stole in our heist.
Should I play Mastermind’s Bank Heist?
Bank Heist had a number of great and satisfying moments. It also had a lot of damaged props and weak use of space. It made nearly no effort to help clue players towards the correct input mechanism for solved puzzles.
This was a game that had promise, but was ultimately too choppy.
While there are a number of moments to enjoy, I think that beginners would find themselves pretty lost in Bank Heist and experienced players will be frustrated by its seemingly incomplete execution.
As I reflect back on the game, parts of it make me smile. Other aspects make me wish that Mastermind had seen this design all the way through to something special. It has the potential and I hope that they get there.
If you’re marathoning escape rooms, you might also be the type of person who likes to take notes on the games. When it comes to notebooks, we have a bit of a Moleskin addiction, and we like these retractable-tip pens.
Finally, don’t forget to find a bag to carry everything. I have a strange weakness for hyper-organizable backpacks. This Peak Design backpack has become my go-to for work and all other things. It’s decadent, but I use it daily.
Enjoy your marathon!
(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).
For more tips like Packing for an Escape Room Marathon, check out our Player Tips section.
Looking back at her review, we completely agree with her assessment and will not write an additional review. I’ll add that of the various mass escape events that we’ve played by SCRAP, The Legend of Zelda: Defenders of the Triforce was the most fun and cohesive.
Unlike most escape games, The Legend of Zelda: Defenders of the Triforce received a lot of media attention. This came in the form of pre-game hype, followed by a lot of mixed and disappointed post game reports:
Zelda has withstood the test of time, sticking around for 30 years. It has transcended generations. A number of its installments are some of the finest video games ever created. Since Zelda is one of the most beloved video game franchises in history, this disappointment was inevitable for a number of reasons that I’m going to explore.
SCRAP doesn’t highlight the fact that their mass escape events bear little resemblance to modern escape rooms in North America (especially the high end). Upon further probing, however, they are quick to point out that their mass events are not “escape rooms.” They call them “escape games.” Ironically, this is the same sort of hair-splitting that makes their mass escape events so frustrating.
It was a fun mass escape event, more fun than any of the other SCRAP events that we’ve played. It was fun when considered as a short puzzle hunt. However, it was neither a good representation of modern North American escape rooms nor an exceptional Zelda game.
At Up The Game 2017, Yu-lin Chiu, writer of ASIA.EscapeGames, spoke about the escape room markets in East Asia. She explained how escape room design in Japan differs profoundly from other countries in Asia, as well as from Europe and the United States.
Japanese escape rooms are primarily paper-based events with minimal set design or story. They are more similar to short puzzle hunts than what we in the United States commonly think of as escape rooms.
This has confirmed for us what we have long believed to be a fundamental expectations gap between the games that SCRAP brings to the United States and the general market trends within the American escape room scene.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Possibly the biggest difference between Sarah’s playthrough of Defenders of the Triforce and mine was the release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch… the game that Defenders of the Triforce was essentially advertising on its North American tour.
In February, Sarah played SCRAP’s Defenders of the Triforce in anticipation of the release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
By the time we played Defenders of the Triforce in May, I had been playing Breath of the Wild for 6 weeks or so, sneaking it in between work and running Room Escape Artist. I am loving this game and taking my time to milk it for everything that it is worth. Going into Defenders of the Triforce I had been immersed in one of the Zelda franchise’s most magnificent specimens. This greatly elevated my expectations and set Defenders of the Triforce up for failure.
I’m glad that Sarah wrote the review without having just played Breath of the Wild. She could more easily separate SCRAP’s escape event from the video game expectations.
Actual Zelda room escape
I wish that Defenders of the Triforce were not a mass escape event, but a full blown, large-budget escape room. The material lends itself to an incredible escape room and I can think of a number of escape room companies that could build mind-blowing experiences with the concept.
SCRAP put on a fun mini-puzzle hunt. They leveled up their storytelling and set design. They made the puzzling generally more accessible. They navigated logistics well. Defenders of the Triforce was a huge step forward in meshing Japanese-style escape room events with North American preferences.
That said, SCRAP is simply not equipped to fully realize the potential of this franchise for a North American audience, especially in the mass escape format.
Defenders of the Triforce paled in comparison to the best permanent escape rooms in the cities that it visited; most of them cost less than the $40-50 per ticket price of this game.
For now, Zelda escape rooms will go dormant for some time. I hope that one day the concept is resurrected and able to become the immersive real-life puzzle adventure through Hyrule that escape room lovers know that it can be. That it should be.
(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).
I loved the idea of having to puzzle through an almost entirely black and white jigsaw puzzle.
Should I buy the New York Puzzle Company’s Coffee Break?
Niemann’s Coffee Break illustration is incredibly intricate. Jigsaw puzzling through this image was both a beautiful and challenging experience.
Piecing this image together required me to visually interrogate every little intricacy of the illustration. By the time I was finished, I had gotten to know every reference and joke in the image.
It was challenging and occasionally frustrating because it’s essentially a black and white puzzle loaded with false leads and rapidly changing patterns. As soon as I had a handle on one section of the puzzle, it was finished… and suddenly there was a new section to learn. As a result, this took me about double the time that a 500-piece puzzle usually requires.
In the end, Coffee Break was a fun, yet fair challenge. It’s a wonderful illustration to spend some time exploring.
Imagine a friend telling you to visit the local movie theater because you absolutely must see a new movie called Obtuse. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years,” your friend raves. So you buy your ticket, sit through the trailers, and as the opening scenes roll, you realize that you’ve seen this movie before. You were on vacation across the country and went to the movies on a rainy day to see a comedy called Dullish. Obtuse and Dullish are the same movie, but the local theater decided to call it by a different name. Dullish was edited just slightly differently from Obtuse.
This is a problem that currently exists in escape rooms.
Types of purchasable games
A fair number of escape rooms are purchasable. This isn’t an inherent problem, but far too many like games are given unique names. This is confusing and problematic.
There are primarily three different purchasable game formats. (This post isn’t going to delve into the viability of these models, but there are serious challenges and limitations with all three of them.)
You can acquire room escape designs and implement them to your liking. With this model, no hardware or construction is included, just the ideas that make up the game.
You can purchase full games including all of the props and engineering needed to get them up and running.
You can acquire a game in part or in whole through signing a franchise agreement.
We’re hearing of an increasing number of identical purchased room escapes in places all around the world going by different names. This causes confusion among people who like to escape rooms when they’re traveling.
Similarly, if you were to go play Central Bank, Cold War Bunker, Zombie Lab, and Prison Break at Room Escape LA, you’ve essentially played Fox in a Box’s The Lab, The Bunker, The Bank, and The Prison, as they are all part of the same franchise. However, you’d never know that as a “normal player.”
I’ve heard a tale of duplicate games 80 miles apart in Wilmington & Fayetteville, NC. These are the same room escape offered by two different companies, with two different names.
I have more examples, but I’m not looking to shame here. I’m looking to make a point. This is the result of multiple accidents.
Why is this a problem?
There are absolutely going to be owners reading this saying:
“95% of my players are first-timers. This doesn’t matter to me.”
This is the wrong mentality. We have over 1,700 different escape room facilities in the United States. This industry needs to mature and foster regular players if it’s going to be a viable industry over the long haul.
That means we need to take care of the most dedicated players and foster enthusiasts.
If booking an escape room becomes a game of Russian roulette, this is a massive failure. It’s also a stupid failure because it’s preventable.
Purchased games should come with a mandatory name. The designer’s name should also be affixed to the booking details. Authorship matters.
I know that there are companies that like to hide who created their games. I’ve heard some pretty funny stories about a designer who likes to hide his involvement with some of the games that he has designed. (For what it’s worth, if a consultant wants you to sign an NDA, they are shady).
Keep your naming consistent across both locations and games. If you can’t do that, at least make it clear on your website.
This will worsen
Unfortunately, I think that the problem will persist and worsen for the following reasons:
There are a lot of purchasable games out there and a fair number of owners who will pretend that it was their design.
People who sell games to more than one company are not contractually insisting on consistent naming and labeling.
No one should be hiding.
A lot of game sales happen across national borders making it expensive, difficult, and largely pointless to enforce contracts.
We keep hearing about franchises failing to offer the proper support. Consequently, the franchisees leave the mother franchise, but continue using a variant of the same games under a different name because the names are copyrightable.
I’d love to be proven wrong
I want to be wrong about this.
I’d love to see escape room designers and owners stop this from becoming a problem. So that’s my challenge. Prove me wrong.
As Alcatraz inmates in 1962, we found a series of clues left by escaped convict Frank Morris. We had to follow his footsteps to freedom.
The set was the star of the show. Time to Escape built a compelling prison.
Time to Escape worked hard to build the puzzling interactions into the set and props. This worked with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Some puzzles felt like they truly belonged in the narrative; others felt like escape room puzzles that had been bolted onto a prison set.
The set design was outstanding. Time to Escape’s attention to detail was evident in the custom construction, complete with detailed weathering.
At their best, the puzzle / set integrations were exciting.
In contrast to the set itself, some of the props felt cheap. While the set felt artfully designed, many of the props deflated the environment. Additionally, there was a significant anachronistic prop that wouldn’t have existed in 1962.
One particular puzzle needed stronger cluing. It seemed rather ambiguous.
In another instance, where order preservation was necessary, a team could mess with the props such they would render a late game puzzle impossible.
Should I play Time to Escape’s Escape from Alcatraz?
If you’re looking for a set-driven adventure, then Escape from Alcatraz is absolutely worth a visit. Time to Escape built a beautiful set and it was fun to play within it.
If you’re looking for an escape room that is rooted in puzzling, you should go in knowing that the puzzling is a little uneven.
Beginners and experienced players alike will be able to find just about equal enjoyment in Escape from Alcatraz, as the room itself is the driving force behind the entertainment.
Early in our days as reviewers we played a game that was built in a space that was previously a medical doctor’s office. It had a lot of built-in furniture that is common in doctor’s offices.
Our team really hit its stride and we were on a record-breaking pace for the first time ever (back when we cared deeply about such things). We were puzzling hard and searching even harder… too hard. I pulled some of the drawers out of the built-in furniture and underneath the bottom drawer was some paperwork and a sealed test tube with yellow liquid in it.
Now, you have to understand that I was in a serious flow state and I had never encountered an object in an escape room that didn’t belong. Additionally, the room had a doctor’s office theme going… I didn’t question it. I immediately started inspecting the vial and reading the paperwork, desperately trying to decipher its hidden meaning. Then a voice came over the hint system frantically saying, “THAT’S NOT OURS! PUT IT DOWN!.”
It was a urine sample lost by the doctor’s office that had previously occupied the space. The paperwork was the corresponding test request forms.
Upon escape, I washed my hands more thoroughly than I ever had in my life. I’m so glad I didn’t open it.
I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. That really happened.
The moral of the story?
When setting up a new game, search it as thoroughly as possible. Your players will. Take built-in furniture apart. Make sure that you know exactly what’s in your room escape.