How to Start and Operate an Escape Room Business – Aleksei Kniazev [Book Review]

The quests to build quests

Author:  Aleksei Kniazev

Year:  2020

Page Count: 98

Price: $25 eBook and $39 paperback

REA Reaction

Overall this book was good in concept, but rough in delivery.

How to Start and Operate an Escape Room Business contained a lot of high-level information for someone new to the industry. A person considering starting their own escape room business would do well to read a broad overview such as this. There is a niche for this kind of text to fill.

However, in its current state, the issues with the writing style may be too much for many readers to ignore.

The book described financials and a business plan with real, but possibly optimistic, numbers. It assumed a tone of economic certainty that might not exist in a post-COVID-19 environment (although the author did acknowledge this).

This book would be for someone who seeks a conversation with an experienced owner, rather than someone looking for a textbook. You’ll get the most out of this book if you can think critically about someone else’s experiences, and how to apply these back to your own business in 2020 (or whenever you read the book).

Black & gold cover for How to Start and Operation an Escape Room Business

Who is this for?

How to Start and Operate an Escape Room Business was written as an introduction to the business of escape rooms. It contained some solid information and covered a lot of ground for those curious about entering the industry. Real-world lessons were explained by an owner with several years worth of experiences, both good and bad.

Structure

The book followed a somewhat linear path of business development. Topics covered included everything from selecting a location and hiring a team through testing games, advertising, and running the business. Entire books could be written on each of the subjects briefly discussed in this guide. This was a shallow overview of one person’s experience rather than a definitive authority on every aspect. The book was less ‘how exactly to open an escape room business’ and more of a reality check for those thinking about it. In fact, I thought the In Summary questions were a good place to start for curious beginners.

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The Surprising Immersive Effect Of Avatars In Online Escape Rooms

I believe a wonderful opportunity exists for the future of online escape rooms. Furthermore, this opportunity can translate back into in-person games.

For me, a truly stellar real-life escape room makes me feel like I’m in a different place, solving puzzles as the hero of my own adventure. I wasn’t expecting to find that feeling in online versions. 

This spring we’ve seen a surge in online escape room offerings from companies all over the world due to the widespread shutdowns resulting from COVID-19. As I explored these games, just trying to scratch that escape room itch, I was surprised to discover that the impact of immersion remained, even as I played in my own home. While I was able to feel somewhat immersed playing some of the digital+paper play-at-home games like The Insiders and The Lost Temple, the avatar-led playing more often delivered.

First-person view of a hand reaching out.

Avatars in Remote Play Escape Rooms

Avatars are used in many video games. An avatar is an image or character that represents the player. In an online escape room, an avatar is a real person inside the actual, physical escape room, connected by video and audio technology. They act as the players’ eyes, ears, hands, and feet as they play through the game in real time. However, the avatar can be so much more than that.

My initial reaction to the avatar was that it would be an annoying contrivance. I wanted to experience the sets, lighting, sound effects, tech, and reveals. I thought it would seem forced and hokey to experience the avatar focusing my attention on what they already knew I should be focused on.

After playing a few avatar-led remote escape games, however, I realized the sets and lighting didn’t come across as impressive on video. Sometimes sound effects were hard to understand and detracted from the game as I tried to communicate with my teammates. I was surprised to realize that usually the avatar themself made the game enjoyable. 

Different Styles Create Different Experiences

Some of these remote game hosts are neutral. Not playing a character in the experience, the host waits quietly for the players’ instructions and tries to be as invisible as possible. This provides the most accurate representation of playing the game as it would be in real life. For me, though, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Other hosts take the job to a more rudimentary level, requiring players to tell them almost every physical move to make. Giving step-by-step directions for intuitive tasks can take the fun and excitement out of the game. Sometimes this approach might be an attempt to add difficulty or slow down the pace of play. It doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose and can be frustrating as a player.

When it is done right, however, remote game hosts can be something special. An in-character avatar who acts as a member of the team can take a simple escape room and turn it into an enjoyable, immersive online experience. 

Avataring as Art Form

There should be a reason as to why the avatar is there and we, the players, are not. It should be clear that the avatar needs our help, but they should not be helpless. When the avatar realizes the players have solved a puzzle, they should be excited and eager to perform the required physical maneuvers without step-by-step instruction.

Skilled avatars can use their character to control the pace of the game. They can set the pace without stalling for the sake of stalling through avatar-player interactions playing on humor, anger, fear, confusion, inebriation, or any other story-driven reason to engage the players for a minute or two. They can also use their character as another puzzle aspect in the game. We could have to figure out how to motivate, console, or handle our proxy player, trying different techniques to find the optimal results. R. Fimblewood in The Secrets of Eliza’s Heart is an example of an avatar that needs such attention.

A hand holding a wax sealed envelope as the holder approaches a stairwell.
The Secret of Eliza’s Heart

Increasing Immersion

A good live game host asks questions of the players and discusses the storyline and its characters. They remind the players about character motivation and point out how that explains some of the puzzles or other in-room items. These things would often get overlooked during a real-life playthrough of the room, as we rush to escape in time. The avatar can draw us deeper into the world of the game, not in the normal pregame story spiel that many players ignore, but at a slower, more digestible pace as we play through that world. 

An avatar breathlessly telling us, in the moment, about the importance of an item we seek, can be far more immersive than trying to remember that same information from the pregame briefing video. The avatar’s expressed excitement or relief upon finding the item can be more thrilling and informative than in a real-life playthrough where we might be confused about what we have just uncovered.

An avatar can set the mood in the room by describing what they see, hear, and feel. A chill in the air, a faint sound, or the feeling of being watched can all be conveyed to the players without the use of any tech or in-room effects. Overacting and just plain bad acting are dangers, of course, but that can be mitigated with planning, practice, and experience. 

Adding Extra Value – Online and Off

Good avatars can add value to older-style escape rooms that lack the bells and whistles of tech, sets, lighting, and sound design. Save Kings Landing and Ready Mayor One are examples of games that are probably much more enjoyable when played virtually. They are memorable because of the fun we had playing along with Ser Dontos and Mayor Rob, respectively. Virtual X-Caper is a wonderful escape room experience that is built almost entirely around the avatar character of Agent November, without whom the game probably couldn’t exist.

Save King's Landing - room view, via a 360 image and a zoom stream.
Save Kings Landing

Players crave interaction. Many of us have had great in-person escape rooms lose some luster due to an inattentive or disinterested gamemaster who just wanted the players to leave as soon as the game ended. We have also had average rooms turn into great experiences because a gamemaster, owner, or creator chats with us, and explains bits about the game and its story.

A 360 degree view of the gamespace in the inventory.
Ready Mayor One

There are lessons we can learn from the strengths of the online avatar and translate them back into real-life escape games. This type of interactive play doesn’t have to be limited to the avatar format. It can give back to the genre it came from. It’s an opportunity to move beyond an actor playing a zombie, scaring players from time to time. We can instead strive for real, live engagement with characters from the story line, providing detail and depth to the players’ experience in that world.

The Man From Beyond achieved this exquisitely. However, memorable moments can also be provided with much briefer interactions between player and character. Lost Games has some terrific short in-game actor involvements that add to the experience. Miss Jezebel is great in person and online because of the live interactions with the characters.

Man From Beyond

I was surprised to discover the immersive possibilities of remote game avatars. I think it is the biggest industry positive created from this strange shutdown period. Clever game creators will continue to find ways to use these techniques to enhance future escape rooms of all kinds. Taking the best aspect of the new online format and incorporating it back into the old medium opens up a new avenue of creativity. I am excited to see where it leads.

Inspirational Luggage: For Future Escape Room Travel

This is a personal story of how I have been able to find hope in the shape of an empty suitcase. 

Stylized image of a large stack of assorted luggage.

Several years ago, while browsing through an online message board, I happened upon an inspiring post: A retired psychiatrist by the internet handle of “DrHelen” described her method for dealing with the melancholy she felt after she had finished working.

She identified something that brought her joy and excitement and figured out a way to get herself a steady supply of it. She had always enjoyed traveling. The anticipation of a trip was almost as wonderful as the trip itself. She loved planning and thinking about where she was going and what she was going to do.

DrHelen’s Plan

She decided she would take one trip each month. Some months it could be a trip to the Florida beaches. Some months it would have to be a simple weekend at a B&B out in the suburbs. It could be just a Saturday night at the fancy hotel downtown or two weeks in Southeast Asia. The anticipation and planning for each trip would be just what she needed to lift her spirits. 

Her Suitcase Was the Key

Her post explained another important component of her plan: since she would be using her suitcase each month, it didn’t make sense to store it away in the closet after each trip. She placed it in plain view just inside her bedroom door. That made all the difference. It energized her to see that suitcase each night as she went to bed and each morning as she awoke. The suitcase kick-started that feeling of excitement and anticipation each day.

My Adaptation

A couple of years ago, I tried out DrHelen’s trick. Although I didn’t take a trip each month, I placed my suitcase next to my bedroom door. I decided to consider many different kinds of outings as my “trips.” These included weekends out of town, dinner dates, and, of course, escape room outings.

A Samsonite roller bag resting in a hallway.

It worked. Seeing that suitcase every night and every morning reminded me of the fun things I had coming up. It made a difference in my outlook on the daily grind. Just reminding myself that we had an escape room booked for next Saturday and that we had 6 escape games booked in Chicago for a weekend next month….thoughts like that would help me start each day with a smile.

During the month of March 2020, as COVID-19 forced me to cancel multiple trips and many escape rooms bookings, I grew resentful of my suitcase. It was sitting there reminding me of where I wouldn’t be going and of escape games that I wouldn’t be playing. My suitcase tormented and mocked me.

Hope in the Time of Corona

Then I realized that DrHelen’s trick could still work, even in the face of a pandemic and quarantine. I now see that suitcase as a sign of hope that someday this will all be over. That suitcase reminds me of the trips that I will take and the escape rooms that I will play.

It signifies the two upcoming REA tours I will be attending and my planned 21-game trip to The Netherlands, which is capped off by The Dome. My suitcase tells me that I will get back to Los Angeles and to that exciting list of escape rooms that it pained me to cancel. 

The suitcase teases me to anticipate that feeling of walking into the lobby of an escape room company knowing that there is an award-winning or world-renowned game in the building. I anticipate sitting through escape game introductions again. I think about that feeling right after the door closes when my 60 minutes begin. I imagine chatting with the owners after playing a room and then reliving it with my friends over dinner. It’s all there in that empty suitcase.

If this idea sounds like it is something you’d enjoy, give it a try. Place your suitcase by your bedroom door. Look at it every night and every morning and think about what represents for you for when the world starts turning again. Think about the places you will go and the escape rooms you will play. And give a thought to DrHelen, whoever she is, and the fact that her idea is helping people get through something she never imagined all those years ago.

Closeup on a luggage tag that reads, "Let's Go!"

A Personal Journey Through Player Motivations

Something that struck me recently is how I have evolved as an escape room player and how that path, and where it took me, has been different than I would have expected.

My journey began like so many others. 

“We should try one of those escape rooms.”

 “What is an escape room?” 

Stylized image of a compass leaning against a window sill

Instant Enthusiast

I became an escape room enthusiast after playing my very first game several years ago. I was blown away by the idea. I was captivated by the challenge, the immersion, and the feeling of competing against the clock and winning. We booked another room for the next evening, after which I was even more convinced. I said to my wife, “There is something to this. This is a new medium, a new business model, a new industry.” All I wanted to do was play more games, play every game, introduce these games to my friends, and try to set new record times.

A More Discerning Palate

Something changed, however, as I played more and more escape games. I discovered the wide range in quality of the escape room universe. Some of these companies and the rooms they had created were really good! I started to care more about things like set design and construction, lighting and sound, characters and story, and puzzle design. I found that some companies were just better at their craft. 

I decided to shift my focus to finding more of these great rooms. I began online searching and reading escape room reviews, Facebook groups, and regional spreadsheets. I was taking it all in. 

One day I read a review of a new escape room that just opened in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of all places. It was called Cutthroat Cavern at 13th Gate Escape. I was awestruck by the reviewer’s description of the scale. I couldn’t fathom sets like he’d described and the size and complexity of the space. This sounded like a fully constructed world… and the recipe for that true immersion I craved. 

In-game: The carved wooden figurehead of a winged woman on the bow of bow of an old ship.
Image via 13th Gate Escape

A few months later, I was able to convince some friends to travel with me from Wisconsin to a city in the South that none of us had ever thought we would visit, just to play all the games at 13th Gate

Reflecting upon Cutthroat Cavern, I was able to nail down what makes an escape game great for me personally. I want to play the game and somehow forget that I am in an escape room. I want to be fully immersed.

I was hooked on searching out and playing only the escape games that I thought could deliver this feeling.

As I researched, looking for more truly special escape room experiences, I compiled lists of the most popular recommendations. I was communicating with more and more experienced players. I was telling them about my discovery about that feeling of forgetting I was in an escape room. I would ask them for their favorite games and explain that I was only interested in this type of experience. I searched for rooms that were bigger, longer,and more challenging. I wanted rooms that looked great and played great, with cool tech, clever puzzles, and surprise twists. I longed to feel the extra effort that the creators had put in to craft something special. I told other players that I had no desire to play poor quality rooms. I felt ripped off when paying the same price for those lesser experiences. 

More than once I was told by these people that I looked up to that this was a phase that would pass. I would learn again to value lower quality games and just enjoy those experiences for what they were. 

A Maturation Of Expectations

Over time, I did find myself having the urge to book escape games I had previously ignored. My addiction needed to be fed and these were games left unplayed. So I rationalized, since there was less travel involved, and they might be fun… why not? After doing this a few times I realized the prediction from those experienced players had indeed come true. I was having a good time, a much better time than I had imagined playing any average escape room.

The joy of just playing escape games was still there.

I enjoyed utilizing my skills. In easier rooms, my teammates and I could be sillier and less stressed, knowing we had plenty of time. I could still discover even one new puzzle or new prop. I would find a great interaction in a place I never would have expected it, and that alone often made the experience worth it. I could quest for and love some of the most immersive and epic escape games in the world and at the same time, I could appreciate almost any escape game for what it was. 

The Universe Is Expanding

As my own experience level grew, I developed more of an interest in the industry of escape rooms. 

I became curious about the owners, the creators… the people with ideas. I became especially curious about ideas that pushed the boundaries of what escape rooms could be.

For example, I played Popstar’s Room Of Doom at SCRAP in San Francisco, California. In this actor-driven escape game, we entered a time-loop that reset each time we made a mistake. Although it was rough around the edges, it left me thinking for hours about how the concept could be repurposed for different settings, or become its own genre of escape room.

In-game: view from one apartment window through another. Across the way is the popstar's blue walled apartment covered in 90s references.
SCRAP’s Popstar Room of Doom

The escape room community also introduced me to some escape room adjacent activities. I learned about puzzle hunts, the haunted house industry, and escape room enthusiast meetups and tours. I never would have tried immersive theater if it weren’t for conversations with escape room players who assured me I would like it. I went to The Speakeasy in San Francisco and Sleep No More in New York. These helped strengthen my appreciation for immersion and led to even more questions about what future escape rooms can become.

When I played the spectacular The Man From Beyond at Strange Bird Immersive in Houston, Texas, it blew me away with its style, depth, intimacy and commitment. It wasn’t one of those experiences where we could scan the room, trying to get a jump start on solving things by looking for puzzles and locks while some briefing video played on a screen. An event happened, and we were witnessing it and contributing to it. We were so involved that the game clock didn’t matter. In fact, we were fully enveloped into the world before we started any gaming. We were engaged in a cohesive experience from the opening moments through our exit. 

Image via Strange Bird Immersive

This gave me hope and excitement that there are creators out there building something new that will captivate me. How many creative directions can escape rooms go?

A New Phase

My current obsessive focus is on finding companies that are doing something special. They are creating escape room experiences that are beyond the norm: something different, something bigger… something I didn’t see coming. 

But I didn’t see any of this coming. This is just one person’s journey through the world of escape rooms. It is hard to believe what that journey has provided me: travel, new experiences, community, and excitement for what is coming. It all came from that suggestion, “We should try one of those escape rooms.”

I Miss Escape Rooms. Here’s Why.

Our world is paused and I miss playing escape rooms. That statement sounds silly. It sounds like I miss playing games. It seems trivial. But escape rooms offer so much more than gameplay.

Room Escape Artist uses the tag Escape Immerse Explore for their escape room tours. Those three tenets of play are some of the most important motivations for people who enjoy escape rooms. Those three words demonstrate how much more there is to escape rooms than the game itself.

As players, we have different reasons for playing these games, and now, different reasons for missing them.

An exit sign ripped down land laying in the middle of the floor.

Escape

Escape From Your World

Most escape games are mission-based adventures. They’ve grown beyond the one goal of challenging teams to actually escape from a room before the time runs out. Still, the term escape room can have a negative connotation to those who are nervous about a potentially scary, claustrophobia-inducing, or unsafe activity. 

If I reframe the term “escape,” however, it is the very thing we are all looking for.

It is part of human nature to try to temporarily escape from our realities, problems, and worries. Books, theater, television, movies, and even a trip down to the local pub are all proven tools used in our quest to escape. So are games. Escape rooms in particular are a good way for us to leave it all behind for an hour. We are forced to unplug and disconnect from the outside world, the world where our responsibilities live. Escape games let us forget all of that and have something more fun in mind for a while.

In a time of uncertainty, to play an escape room would be a literal escape.

Immerse

Enter a Constructed World

Immersion is when we transition into the reality of another world. Immersion can be addictive. Books, video games, and even sports fandom all offer levels of immersion. 

A swimmer with fins free diving under water.

In an escape room, we are actually enclosed inside a 3-dimensional physical world, complete with a story, characters, and sound and lighting effects. An escape room experience is different from sitting in a darkened movie theater, buckling into a theme park ride, or running single file through a haunted house. In an escape room, we explore a real space where our actions affect the environment. The game world was specifically designed to transport us to a different reality where we can be someone else and do unusual things.

Explore

Discover the Unknown

Searching and exploring are components of most escape room designs. People love to explore. We like to discover secrets: secret messages, secret motives, lost items, and hidden rooms. We like to snoop inside the medicine cabinet when we use the restroom at someone else’s house. So of course we love the idea of being turned loose in an unfamiliar space and encouraged to explore a haunted mansion, a wizard’s chamber, or an evil villain’s lair. We want to use our hands to interact with objects. We want cabinets to pop open. We want to feel as though we have discovered something that no one else has seen for a long time.

A hand gesturing to a place on a map. Atop the map is a camera, passport, sunglasses, laptop, and a cup of coffee.

Understand

Where Everything Make Sense

Real life is messy. Things often don’t make sense. We want our actions to be meaningful. 

In the constructed world of an escape game, our discoveries lead to everything aligning into tidy little solves. It’s immensely satisfying when our actions resolve in ways that make sense.

Compete

The Thrill of Winning

Competition is a motivator for some escape room players. People like to feel smart. We like to win. The simple idea of solving a series of puzzles in a given time period can alone be a strong motivation. We get to compete against the clock and the other teams. When there are leaderboards, we can try to set record times. Many escape rooms calculate escape percentages to signify the degree of difficulty. Many players calculate their personal escape percentage to measure their own skill. With the ever-present risk of losing, we play for the thrill of winning.

Contribute

Shared Victory

Escape rooms are team activities. For the time we are in the game, we are all contributing to a common goal. Most escape rooms rely on different types of intelligence. With a diverse team, we have the brain power to solve together what would be impossible alone. Escape rooms are a place to make a valued contribution to a larger group effort.

Complete

I did a thing!

According to the 2019 Escape Room Enthusiasts Survey, accomplishment was the strongest motivation to play escape rooms among those surveyed. We like to complete things. It feels good to try something, struggle with it, and then succeed. We want to look back on it and brag about it. Escape rooms are packaged for completion. 60 minutes later, we can leave with a tangible accomplishment of the day.

Closeup of a library card catalog

Collect

My name is Richard and I am an escape room addict.

Many escape room players like to count how many rooms they have played. And after we’ve counted the individual escape rooms, we count the number of states and countries where we’ve played. We make lists and spreadsheets. We review the rooms, rate them, and rank them. We make lists of games we would like to play, and then cross them off our lists. And that feels good, because there is that uneasy feeling of rooms left unplayed.

With the World on Pause

With so many businesses closed across the country and across the world, we miss a lot of things that we’ve come to take for granted as part of daily life. It might sound odd to say I miss escape rooms. It sounds trivial to say I miss playing games when I consider the magnitude of other comforts we are all missing right now.

The thing is, it’s not that I miss the gameplay. There are so many reasons to play escape rooms, and those are the voids I feel. I miss my escape.