New in Escape Rooms: Drive-In Adventure

Entry banner for the drive-in escape adventure.

Challenge Inspires Innovation 

I recently completed a series on escape room innovations. Now I’ve come across an interesting example of how the challenges of 2020 continue to inspire new escape game design.

When he decided to close his indoor games because of COVID-19 case numbers in Michigan, Patton Doyle, Owner and Designer at Decode Escape Rooms, created games that could be played from outside of his facility. This included a new drive-in adventure – complete with lighting, sound and effects – that players experience from their cars.

Decode Escape Rooms currently operates in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a Detroit location coming soon. Their Ypsilanti game The Aurora Society (currently temporarily closed due to COVID) won a Golden Lock Award in 2019. Their new drive-in adventure takes place at the Ann Arbor location.

Patton recently told me more about this new game format.

Can you describe your new drive-in game?

Doyle: The Doc is testing his new teleportation device, but something has gone wrong and he needs your help! Guests park their vehicles behind our building and work together using two smartphones to save the day. The main display is projected onto the back of our building, sound is piped in via the car radio, and the guests’ actions trigger lights, sound, and other special effects around their vehicle as they play.

Projection of an escape room like environment. Includes a door and a mysterious technological contraption.
Drive-in projection

Is it appointment-based and ticketed like a traditional escape room?

Doyle: The game is by reservation so that groups don’t overlap. Access to the game and resetting is handled automatically so that guests don’t have to interact with anyone during their experience. The game is managed entirely remotely via cameras, a web interface, and a phone number for help. Hints are also provided within the game interface.

What are the hardware and software you use to operate the game?

Doyle: We’ve used our own control software for all of our games for the last several years. To adapt it for this game, we added the ability to trigger events from the open internet. It’s free and open source software, so anyone is welcome to try it out. They can reach out to me (patton@DecodeDetroit.com) if they need help setting it up.

The online interface is written using standard web tools (html, javascript, css) and hosted with Firebase. The free tier of Firebase is so generous that we haven’t had to pay anything for it (yet).

For hardware, we used a projector and radio transmitter, a couple of smoke machines, and various DMX lights and light controls. The projection-mapping was all done in Blender (also free and open source software).

A parked car surrounded by lights and artificial fog.
Drive-in effects

Where did the idea come from?

Doyle: The idea is an evolution of the outdoor game we ran this summer. That game, Around the World in 30 Minutes, required guests to complete a sequence of travel challenges in the large picture windows in front of our building using their smartphones. Our drive-in game took some of the same ideas and added more elaborate special effects, greater teamwork (guests collaborate across two devices), and, of course, a vehicle to keep them warm (since we’re located in Michigan). 😊

Two people on their phones in front of a window display.
Around the World in 30 Minutes

What hardware and software do the players need?

Doyle: Guests only need a smartphone and a vehicle with a functioning radio. The entire game is browser-based, so guests don’t need to download an app or bring any special tools or devices with them.

What is the length of the game?

Doyle: Guests have 90 minutes to play, but the typical game takes about an hour. We’ve found that unlike a traditional escape room, guests are much more likely to begin their game late, so we want to make sure they have plenty of time to finish.

How is the drive-in game affected by weather? Rain or snow or extreme cold?

Doyle: The game is open in any mild weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.), but we plan to close it during blizzards and other extreme weather events for safety. Guests can reschedule their reservation anytime without fees or penalties, so if they decide it is too cold or the roads are too slippery, they can pick a different date to play.

How has it been received so far?

Doyle: The response has been fantastic. The guests I’ve spoken with all asked when we were coming out with another similar game. Even though the game is an unfamiliar format, people are willing to give it a try, and it exceeds their best expectations.

Is there a post-Covid future for this game or others like it?

Doyle: We hope to keep this game open throughout 2021. With summer nights in Michigan, we’ll have to make some changes, as it doesn’t get dark until 10pm. But I’m a big believer in the potential of games that break the standard escape room format. We’re always working to expand our offerings into new formats, whether that’s a scavenger hunt where puzzles are hidden inside local businesses, a short, replayable game that requires guests to learn each time they play, or a new outdoor game that takes guests out into the community.

A packed bookshelf with a framed Decode logo attached to the side.
Scavenger Hunt

Conclusion

The escape game format has undergone some tremendous changes over the past year. New styles and ideas are popping up all the time as everyone tries to adapt to changing conditions and business rules. 

There is something fun about driving to an escape game, instructions coming over the radio, and experiencing lights, smoke, and sounds all around the car. It is an immersive, real-world adventure, very different from a game played through a laptop screen.

This is an idea that really leaves an impression with me. I hope to learn about more companies leaving the traditional comfort zone and offering customers the chance to play something different.

Escape Room Categorization: Theater

“Solving an escape room is like being the hero of your own movie.” I’ve said that a lot over the years, trying to describe this real-life adventure and the rush that goes with it. I’ve used that analogy because it evokes a set and a story with me (or you!) as the main character, and it’s relatable to just about anyone.

Theater

An escape room might be like a movie in many ways, but I wouldn’t say it categorically is a movie. If I had to categorize it – and I do, but more on that later – I’d say, it’s theater.

Silhouettes of three performers on stage seen through a red curtain.

Live Entertainment

Escape rooms take place in physical venues where groups of people come together in person to experience a story. Unlike the recorded movie, this performance happens live on stage every time.

Stage

The set is the stage for this piece. It might look like the attic of a manor, a spacecraft, or a pirate ship, but it has been designed around character action, story beats, pivotal scenes, and hidden effects.

Stories

Originally, the goal of the escape room was just that: escaping a locked room. Since then, this form of entertainment has evolved into a form of storytelling.

Early on, David argued that escape rooms wouldn’t be a passing fad because they had the power to tell stories. The guests interpret the story mostly from the set, the actions they take within the game, and the outcomes they accomplish.

After interviewing some of the most innovative escape room creators throughout 2019, Richard Burns concluded that today, storytelling is the driving force behind innovation in this industry.

For many top creators we’ve talked to, how guests feel while experiencing the game is even more important than the actions they take within it.

Performers & Spectators

In an escape room, the guest is both the performer and the spectator. They are the archeologist when they open the mummy’s tomb. They are the spectator when their teammate pulls the sword from the stone.

The staff too can be both performers and spectators, even when they never step onto the stage while the guests attend. In their performer role, they perform introductions and send hints as different characters. In their spectator role, they watch the performance of the guests.

Technicians

There are many technicians behind the scenes in an escape room. They rig lighting and sound. They trigger effects.

Box Office

While most tickets are booked online (for escape rooms and traditional theaters), at the escape room there is a box office too. It’s the person at the front desk who answers the phone and helps you with your booking questions, credit card woes, and sells you souvenirs.

Labels

In August, we published the 6 Year US Escape Room Industry Report.

When we included in that report our analysis of the PPP loans that escape rooms received in the first half of 2020, one of the reasons it was challenging to find these businesses and the database was the lack of consistent categorization. While most escape room businesses are too small to have received more than $150,000, and thus were not included in the ProPublica loan database we analyzed, we did find 13 escape room business loans listed.

These 13 businesses are classified in 7 different ways:

  • All Other Amusement and Recreation Industries
  • Amusement Arcades
  • Other Spectator Sports
  • All Other Support Services
  • Other Performing Arts Companies
  • Theater Companies and Dinner Theaters
  • Food Service Contractors (Boda Borg does have food on site.)

While some of these seem pretty far off base (Spectator Sports? Support Services?), I can see why “Amusement” seems like it could fit.

Scale

The Amusement business operates at a scale escape rooms do not. At an amusement park, arcade, or similar attraction, many people consume entertainment at once. These businesses rely on a high volume of customers at once, and high throughput.

Escape rooms are more intimate. When I think about the staging, performance, effects, interactions, and especially the scale, escape rooms belong in the entertainment category of theater.

Context

We aren’t big fans of categorization and labels, but we are in favor of contextual clarity.

Theater is a context Americans (and people anywhere in the world, for that matter) broadly understand.

That’s the place where you go in person to take in a story that is set on a stage, realized through performance for an audience, and augmented by lighting, sound, and effects.

Escape rooms have something unique to offer beyond traditional theater. That’s why they are new and different. However, it’s the element of theater within them that gives them their staying power.

And when an escape room is staring down the barrel of a… government form with only broad entertainment categories, an escape room is most certainly a theater.

Extra Long Escape Rooms Need Intermissions

I’m gonna overshare a bit.

While we didn’t play very many real-life escape rooms in 2020, we did play quite a few games with 1.5 to 3.5 hour game clocks.

Intermission

Once you hit the 2-hour mark, I think a game is what I’d call “extra long,” and consequently I think that these games generally need an intermission. Paradox Project in Athens, Greece, does this. They have snacks, drinks, and most importantly, bathrooms available.

The snacks and drinks are phenomenal, rejuvenating, and make for a more pleasant experience… but I think they are a nice-to-have.

The bathroom break is essential.

A very white bathroom.

Immersion is impossible when you have to pee

The other day I streamed The Avengers, and paused it so I could relieve myself in the middle.

It got me thinking about when I went to see all of the movies in this stupid long series… and how each time I had to pick a moment that seemed slow to dart out of the theater. I don’t like to miss anything in a movie (or an escape room), but missing a couple of minutes is better than not being able to follow the story because nature is calling.

The movie theater business is in trouble. It was in trouble before 2020, partly because these blockbuster movies have gotten way too long, without an intermission. Going to a movie theater is simply less comfortable than viewing movies at home. All of these old movie executives certainly can’t make it through their own movies without a bathroom break.

All I’m suggesting is that as we see some of these extra long, blockbuster escape rooms open, let’s do what Paradox Project has already established… and remember that player comfort is essential to player immersion.

10 Dos & Don’ts of Starting An Escape Room Blog

We recently passed 1,800 published blog posts on Room Escape Artist, written over a bit more than 6 years. During this time, I’ve given a lot of advice to folks who want to blog about escape rooms.

Here are my top dos & don’ts of getting started.

Close up of glowing WASD keys on an keyboard.

1 – Start

Do start producing.

Don’t wait. Even if you don’t have a place to publish the posts yet. Get in the habit of producing content regularly. It’s easy to stay in “planning mode” forever, so don’t let yourself into that endless cycle; just dive in.

2 – Tech & Infrastructure

Don’t get bogged down in custom tech.

I strongly recommend using a hosted solution from WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix, or some other similar low-cost, low-effort provider. We use WordPress.com’s business plan. We started with a less expensive plan.

Whether or not you have a background building websites, I still recommend the lightest solution possible because you don’t want to spend your time maintaining your website.

Since day one we’ve had a “content first” approach. It’s tough to produce content when you’re spending all of your time maintaining your tech.

The result of our decision is that we have a ton of content that we’re incredibly proud of, but from a tech standpoint, our infrastructure has never been exactly where we wanted it. We continue to improve it.

All of that said, I wouldn’t have done it differently if I were starting over.

I’ve seen a ton of heavily customized websites with next to no content come and go… and that’s confounding.

3 – Motivation

Do it because you love these games and/ or the community.

If you don’t love playing escape rooms, thinking about them, and analyzing them… then you’re not going to have the fire to keep your site rolling. You need that intrinsic motivation because the early days of writing a blog are lonely. Sometimes you’re writing for almost no one, so you have to be writing for yourself.

There’s an old joke among those of us who have been producing content about escape rooms since the early days of 2014 and 2015. The joke is: “I started my blog for the money.”

You’re not going to get rich or famous from producing escape room content.

4 – Consistency Feeds Growth

Don’t be erratic if you want to grow.

We publish at 10:01AM Eastern every single day (and sometimes publish a bonus post at a different palindromic time in the afternoon). Back in the early days we used to publish 3 times per week, and in the extra early days it was once per week.

Consistency and stability – at whatever pace – feeds readers and attracts new ones. Consistency is really hard.

5 – Pacing

Do it at your own pace.

Contradicting myself… I really respect bloggers like Randy Hum from Escape Rumors and Alejandro Osorio & Stefan Bauer from Two Bears Life. They don’t publish tons of stuff, but what they do produce is well crafted and has a clear perspective. You don’t have to write a lot to add value to the community.

I am so happy that we have people like them adding to our community and whether they are consistent or not, it’s a better community because they are part of it.

6 – Intention

Don’t do this just to get free games.

If you’re thinking about blogging to offset the expense of your escape room habit, just get a side job. I’m serious. The bloggers who are just in it to get free games rarely last. If they do, their content is usually weak in quality.

Also, don’t review if all you want is for owners to like you; do something else. The reviewers who clearly just want to be liked can’t be honest even if they are knowledgeable.

7 – Perspective

Do evolve.

Cultivate your own perspective and let it evolve. The longer you do this, the more you’ll realize how little you knew when you started. Don’t resist that change; it’s growth. You’ll look back on some of your old pieces and realize that you were off. It’s part of the journey.

8 – Regionality

Don’t believe that you’ve seen everything.

Be aware of the fact that escape room trends are regional. If you’ve only seen games from a single region or two, that’s cool. Regional blogs are amazingly helpful to the community. Just remember that your worldview might get rocked if you visit a new place. Don’t let that rattle you.

9 – Adjacent Spaces

Do keep learning.

Whether it’s tabletop games, video games, immersive theatre, puzzle hunts, augmented reality games, improv comedy, set design, electronics, fabrication, or anything else really… there is an endless opportunity to learn new things that relate to the way that escape games are designed and played.

That’s my favorite part about all of this. I’m fueled by curiosity. I love that no matter how much I learn, there will always be something more to learn.

10 – Community

Do disagree without being disagreeable.

We’re not all going to like and dislike the same stuff. That’s cool. Embrace the fact that perspective on experience is subjective… and be kind to those who see things differently.

The moment that you feel that your way of seeing an experience is the only way of seeing an experience, you eliminate the possibility of discussion and learning. The beauty of this community is in learning from one another and seeing things through the eyes of others.

December 2020 US Stimulus: A Breakdown By & For Escape Room Owners

  • This is a quick, no frills post for US escape room owners because time is not on anyone’s side.
  • Below you’ll find a link to a breakdown of the December 2020 COVID/ stimulus section: p. 1924-2467.
Comic book art of hands signing a document.
  • This analysis was primarily the work of Andrew Preble (Escape My Room, New Orleans, LA) and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (Escape New Haven, New Haven, CT), with some help from Anne Lukeman (Champaign-Urbana Adventures in Time and Space, Urbana, IL).
  • Time is key because if you want to apply for the EIDL Advance, you only have about a day.
  • They say this in their post, but I will reiterate it. They aren’t lawyers. I am not a lawyer. This breakdown is simply to try to help make things a bit easier for escape room owners. Read the law, consult your legal and financial advisors.