Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic

Update: The following sections were added, or added to, a few hours after publication: Masks, Smarter Cancellation Policies, Gameplay Adaptations

As different regions slowly attempt to reopen, I’ve been putting together a collection of guidelines to help escape room owners think through their reopening strategies.

I honestly believe that escape rooms are well positioned as premium entertainment in this pre-vaccine era. Movie theaters, theaters, bowling, skating rinks, amusement parks, bars, and restaurants generally require large crowds to turn a profit. Escape rooms are intimate, small-group entertainment.

If our industry establishes a strong reputation for safety, fun, and low headcounts, I truly believe that we will bounce back faster and reemerge stronger than before.

I have done my very best to approach this apolitically.

My overarching advice to you is to pay attention to your community and its shifting needs as this pandemic continues to evolve. Smart escape room companies will ratchet up or down the intensity of their policies to meet their regional needs, which will likely change over time.

A mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer on a wooden table.

Adhere to Local Laws

Before we dive in, I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer or epidemiologist. I’m not claiming that I am.

Before opening, consult with your lawyer and insurance provider. Make sure that you’re following whatever regulations your business is subject to.

Whom Are You Protecting?

When thinking about safety in this pre-vaccine era, there are two groups of people that escape room owners must consider:

  • Employees
  • Customers

Many of the measures that we will discuss apply to both. However, employees may face additional challenges and risks that your customers should not encounter.

Continue reading “Approaches For Reopening Escape Rooms in a Pandemic”

Going Digital: The Globalization of Escape Rooms

As the REA Hivemind presses on, exploring all sorts of digital escape room and puzzle experiences, we have made some observations about this forced shift from real-life play to internet play.

Two months in, these are my observations on this meteoric shift in our industry.

Forced Shift

This shift was truly forced upon the escape room industry.

We’d already seen companies like YouEscape, Trap Door, and Mystery Escape Room experiment with online play. Paruzal was already planning to launch later this year. None of this has emerged completely out of the blue… but we never would have seen this many this quickly.

While so many are adapting, and many are doing it with passion, of the creators that I’ve spoken with, few prefer this to the creation of real-life games.

Free Games

Before we dive in, I want to address free games.

Some escape room companies started producing free light puzzle hunt games to entertain their audiences and promote their brands. This is awesome. It’s also not so relevant to the long-term discussion, because there aren’t significant economic factors tied to free games.

We’ve scaled back the amount of free games that we’re having the Hivemind review. We will likely eliminate free games from the Hivemind’s purview entirely, unless we learn of someone making one that is mind-blowing.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Escape rooms emerged and iterated quickly. Online experiences have adapted and will continue to adapt at a staggering speed.

A hand holding an illuminated light bulb.

As everyone learns from each other, the rate of change in the digital escape room world should dwarf the already rapidly changing world of real-life escape rooms. This is because anyone can play and learn from everyone. Digital escape rooms are globalized.

Most of these digital experiences are a short-term play at resilience. Personally, I respect the hell out of it. Anything that helps keep a small business solvent and serves their customers is good in my book.

My hope is that long term, this leads some escape room companies to innovate new and refined product lines. I would love to see high quality digital experiences emerge that are either supplemental to the real-life games, or allow players to continue to enjoy team games across a distance.

Part of my love of YouEscape before the pandemic was that it enabled me to play an escape room with friends from all around the world. Sure, I would have preferred to play a real-life game with them, but that was never an option in the first place. More innovation in online escape room play is an opportunity for some… but not for all.

Digital Escape Room Globalization

Real-life escape rooms are a global industry, but it was never a globalized industry.

Sure, we have a few chains and franchises that span multiple countries. We also have game design and development shops that cross borders. However, that’s where it ends.

If you want to play and take inspiration from The Dome, you have to travel to Amsterdam and hop a bus to Bunschoten-Spakenburg… a town that – as far as my ignorant tourist eyes can tell – is mostly cows and a world-class escape room business.

Similarly, most real-life escape room play is local. People choose from the companies that are near their homes. We diehard fans who can afford it have to travel to play the most renowned escape games. On the internet, all digital escape room experiences are effectively neighbors.

You can literally play games from Australia, Croatia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States in a single day. No travel. No additional costs. Long-term, this could have some serious implications.

Competition & Price

As with everything in escape rooms (and the world) there’s heavy variation in quality and even more variation in style.

In less than 2 months we went from having very few digital escape room experiences to having a massive variety with prices ranging from free to over $100 per play. There seem to be good and bad at all price points; price is not inherently an indicator of quality. Some are giving away great games for free. Others are greatly overvaluing their digital products. Your average consumer has no idea about the quality of an individual product. That is a threat to the global health of this business model.

We’ve long maintained that escape room companies aren’t truly in competition with one another. Rather, the high-quality escape rooms are in competition with the low-quality escape rooms. The high-quality games grow the category while the low-quality games shrink the category. This is just as true online as it is in real life.

Business Potential

The various approaches to digitization of escape room experiences have a wide variety of business potential. Some of this comes down to the aforementioned quality. We also need to be honest about the long-term cost/ benefit.

Avatar games where an owner or employee straps a camera to themselves and performs as a passive vessel for instruction are a lot of work. It requires a lot more effort to do the room than it does to watch 5 people play it and occasionally give them hints. Looping that performance over and over with passion is a nontrivial requirement of the work.

I cannot imagine a world where an escape room company is able to earn the same revenue from an avatar game that they would from running the game normally.

The result is that this is not a replacement revenue stream. It’s a labor-intense stopgap with lower margins.

A computer with Zoom open on-screen.

Additionally, if an escape room markets their avatar game to their local audience, they run a high risk of cannibalizing their business. Avatar games are best marketed to people who live far away from your physical facility. You want your locals to come when your doors open again and pay regular prices for the real experience.

My assumption is that most of these avatar-based (or similar) games will get mothballed after the company has reopened and business has stabilized. However, for some companies in highly saturated markets or remote locations, this will remain an ongoing opportunity.

Online puzzle hunts, video games, and other formats with low or no ongoing labor are a more sensible long-term play as they can be sold as inexpensive add-ons or supplemental content. However, these experiences should be even lower margin than the avatar games, so in times of crisis, they offer less opportunity to recoup costs, even if they are far easier to administer.

Early Conclusions

I like puzzling and video-gamey adaptations of escape rooms quite a lot. However, these do not replace the thrill of a real-life escape room. These online games do not suck me in the way that real-life escape rooms do.

If a world-class game offered an avatar-based game, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who might play the escape room in real life. This format is better for games that are closer to the mean. The truly epic, must-see escape rooms of the world would have to drop far too much of what makes them special to adapt to this format. If Escape Room Netherlands offered good avatar versions of their games, I’d probably recommend their first and oldest game, The Lab, and would discourage anyone who was ever hoping to play The Dome from playing it over the internet… no matter how good it might be in a digital format.

Future Gazing

The next frontier in this space is escape games designed for streaming, rather than adapted for it. There are creative and financial opportunities here.

Moreover, I think that it’s important for escape room companies to have a digital resilience plan. The pandemic has opened our eyes to a new type of business risk. It’s ill advised to assume that something like this will never happen again.

If I were an escape room owner, I would be thinking long and hard about this. I might not build the digital game in my facility. I’d build it at home, in my basement. I’d do everything that I could to make something really interesting, special, and honestly designed for streaming play. I would do this as a hedge against a second more virulent wave.

If that wave never comes, you can repurpose the game.

If it does, however, it’s best to be prepared.

REA’s April Quarantine Conversation Recording

A couple of weeks ago we livestreamed and the recording is available. (Well, it was immediately available, we’re just getting around to reposting it.)

The whole thing was warm and fun (once we got in our groove… which took a couple of minutes).

We covered a wide variety of subjects:

  • What players can do to help the escape room industry from quarantine
  • What owners can do to help their businesses now
  • REA’s newest feature: Hivemind Reviews
  • Some thoughts about how this industry will evolve
  • Story Time: Remember that time in an escape room when…

By the way, for story time, we told a story about our early days in escape rooms. Click through to see photographic evidence of Drew’s epic mustache. We also answered a bunch of viewer questions. These were our favorite parts.

YouTube's red play button logo.

Please like the video, comment, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. These things help please the algorithmic gods.

We’re going to keep experimenting with video content.

Blindfold Safety in Escape Rooms

“Don’t touch your face! The virus can enter through your eye.”

I grew up with the mantra of “don’t touch your face” and as a result, I have never been thrilled to see blindfolds in escape rooms. I never wrote about this, however, because I’m not a doctor.

One of my favorite escape room teammates, Dr. Chris White, is an optometrist with Flowood Family Vision in Flowood, Mississippi. I asked him if the uneasiness that I’ve felt about blindfolds and hoods is valid… or if I should let it go?

Profile view of a person wearing a blindfold in darkness.

Let’s Start with Science

Eyes are an entry point for germs. This is why public health officials have been begging people to not touch their eyes for the past couple of months.

How Eyes Get Infected

Microorganisms (or germs) can enter the eyes through the conjunctiva and cornea. The conjunctiva is a clear layer of tissue lining the eyelids and covering the white of the eye. The cornea is the clear dome of tissue above the pupil.

Most corneal infections are not contagious. They are more commonly associated with contact lens wearers, physical trauma, or spread from other areas of the body. These are problems that escape room operators don’t really have to worry about.

On the other hand, conjunctivitis, better known as “pink eye,” can create issues when combined with certain escape rooms elements. One of the more serious types of pink eye is Epidemic Keratoconjunctivitis. It is a common and highly contagious virus. Any school teacher can tell you that it spreads aggressively.

So, we’re going to focus specifically on the risks of pink eye for the purposes of understanding why eye infections are relevant to escape room design. This same logic is applicable to other bacterial and viral infections.

How Eye Infections Spread

There are multiple forms of pink eye. The etiology of infectious forms is usually either bacterial or viral. Both can be found within the mucous and tears inside of the eye of someone with pink eye.

Spreading the infection from one individual to another typically involves direct transmission. This means the contaminated mucous/ tears from the infected person must come in direct contact with another person’s conjunctiva.

This may sound improbable, but these infections are incredibly common because it is so easy to spread them. More on that soon.

Stylized closeup image of a blue eye.

Blindfolds

When we’re talking about blindfolds in escape rooms, we’re talking about 3 categories of items used to obscure the vision of players entering a game.

  • Hoods – cloth bags that are placed over the players’ heads
  • Sleep mask/ bandanas – cloth that is wrapped around the players’ heads to block their vision
  • Blacked out goggles/ glasses – items that are placed around the players’ eyes to block their vision

If these items are not thoroughly washed after every single use, there are potential issues.

If you’ve played enough escape rooms, you’ve absolutely had moments where you could tell that a hood or mask hadn’t been washed from its odor. Whether it’s sweat or perfume… or that vaguely unfresh scent that isn’t totally perceptible, it’s there.

Dr. White explains, “In terms of conjunctivitis, I think there is probably less risk with the hood, but I would still have some concerns about other things, such as lice. The sleep mask is very problematic. Just by putting the sleep mask on someone with conjunctivitis, it is likely contaminated. Then putting the same mask on another individual will at a minimum put the germs on their eyelids. At that point, just a simple rub to the eyes could spread the germs.”

When it comes to blackout glasses/ goggles, Dr. White’s thoughts are, “Assuming they are getting disinfected after each use, blackout glasses might be the better way to go. They are much easier to clean. Just take an alcohol swab and wipe them down ($1 for a box of 100, at least before the outbreak) or put some 70% isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and wipe them down. I’m assuming this is pretty much what they do with 3D glasses at the movie theater. Otherwise, not cleaning the glasses carries the same potential risks in that there could be risk of transmission if they are reworn.”

Blindfolds Aren’t the Only Vector

As so many of us have learned in recent months, infection spreads in more ways than just direct contact.

If the person with the infection touches or rubs their eye with their hand, then the germs are now on their hand. At that point anything that they touch could potentially become contaminated (props, locks, flashlights, etc.)

Mounted binoculars overlooking water.

If someone else then touches the same surface, then their hands become contaminated. If they touch or rub their eyes, then there is always potential for the germs to enter the conjunctiva and spread the infection.

Keep in mind that there are many variables to this, such as the amount of exposure and how contagious the microorganism is. You are not guaranteed to get an infection even with direct exposure.

Blindfolds Moving Forward

Clean blindfolds are not bad.

Unclean blindfolds are a threat to your players’ health.

If you’re willing to machine wash your hoods and blindfolds after every single use, then that’s fine. (Although I will be the first to tell you that it’s a little funny to smell a freshly cleaned hood over my head while I’m getting dragged into a dank murder basement. It makes me laugh every time. I appreciate it, but I still snicker.)

If you’re willing to replace your sleep masks with each use, then that’s fine.

If you’re using blackout goggles or glasses, you just need to clean them thoroughly each time. Also, make sure that they don’t have any tight areas that you’ll struggle to reach with the disinfectant.

Don’t Forget Psychology

I don’t know how the events of 2020 will impact the various cultures around the world.

It’s my suspicion that some will return to life as normal, while others will forever change their relationship with the world.

I would urge you to think about the people who will be less inclined to put anything on or near their eyes moving forward.

Recommendations

If you have a game with blindfolds, but they aren’t necessary, just eliminate them.

More often than not, I’m baffled by the presence of blindfolds. I understand their place in abduction stories, but blindfolds aren’t usually doing any favors for spaceship, submarine, or wizarding-school games.

Think Broader About Health & Cleanliness

If 2020 has reinforced anything, it’s that one person’s infection can become many people’s infection. This means rethinking your approach to game resetting and cancellation policies.

Resetting = Sterilizing Eye Interactions

It’s incredibly common for escape rooms to contain items that you press your eye against.

  • Telescopes
  • Microscopes
  • Peepholes

If you have any items in your rooms that players are expected to hold up to their face… or that players typically hold up to their faces (even if they aren’t supposed to), then these should be sterilized after each playthrough.

Cancellation Policies

You don’t want sick players in your games.

Whether their eyes are pink and oozing or they are coughing up a lung, you don’t want sick people in your games. They are a hazard to you, your employees, their teammates, and subsequent teams in your facility.

Having a cancellation policy that allows sick people a reasonable means of rescheduling can go a long way towards keeping their germs out of your games.

Personal Responsibility

I’m going to give Dr. White the final words:

“I also just want to point out that if someone goes into an escape room while they are sick, whether it’s conjunctivitis or the flu, they are going to spread germs everywhere. If someone goes in with the flu and coughs, then everything in a 6-foot radius is contaminated. This isn’t just in escape rooms. It’s the same for any public space, grocery store, sporting event, subways, restaurants, etc. And it’s always been like that.

“Aside from not reusing blindfolds, I think a big takeaway from this is that people need to take more personal responsibility. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face/ rub your eyes (this is difficult).

“If you are sick or have an eye infection, don’t go to an escape room.

“As an owner (or gamemaster), observe your group. If someone clearly appears sick, or if they have a red eye dripping with mucous, do your due diligence. Ask questions to determine if it’s safe for that person to be in your game. Reschedule if necessary, or at a minimum, do a very deep clean after the group is done.

“In our office we have always followed our standard cleaning procedures. Anytime someone comes in with a nasty conjunctivitis, I give the staff the signal and everything gets heavily cleaned. Anything they touched or were near gets wiped down with disinfectant, including the door handles to the office.”

Livestreaming Escape Rooms Insights with the Creator of Ready Mayor One [Interview]

Yesterday we published a Hivemind Review of Ready Player One at Rock Avenue Escape Room in Trinity, FL.

The view from the Google Hangout of the game.

Every Hivemind reviewer agreed they’d play this digital adaptation of an escape game at any time, quarantine aside. Each reviewer explained in their own words how the digital format enhaces Ready Mayor One. Their reactions demonstrate that Rock Avenue Escape Room truly understands how to translate escape rooms into a livestreamed format.

We spoke with creator Rob Faiella about producing this experience. He hopes that this interview helps other creators succeed in a new medium at a difficult time.

Ready Mayor One! logo.

Let’s start with the tech. There’s a lot of gear involved in streaming an escape room. What do you recommend?

I am using my iPhone X for the main camera. I have a LiveStream Gear Wearable Harness. It comes with a gooseneck chest harness, battery pack, and cables. The gooseneck got really loose quickly, so I had to reinforce it with layers of tape, but now it’s good. I love being hands-free. The gooseneck also allows me to bend and twist any way I need to. I can look under and over things and switch between landscape and portrait.

I have a wired headset. I also use a second iPhone on an armband that has access to the game control software that I built, in case something goes wrong and I need to override the tech. It’s also used to control the “security system” in the game’s narrative.

You could this with just a phone, but I strongly suggest a harness, tripod or anything to help hold the phone. Back-to-back games all day long will tire out your arms. I also highly recommend an external battery pack or 2. I don’t have a lot of time between games to charge back up.

In addition to your live 360-degree footage, the players can look around the room themselves in another browser tab. What did you use to capture the static 360-degree images of your game spaces?

I hired a local photographer who does real estate photos. It was inexpensive and completed in one day.

A 360 degree view of the gamespace in the inventory.

Originally we had auxiliary cameras on the ceiling that people could log into and control with pan/ tilt/ zoom, but that didn’t allow different people to look at different areas simultaneously. It was also one more thing for them to download and log into. We simplified this for the users.

It’s really cool how you’ve adapted your arduino-powered props for online inputs. What did you need to do to make that happen?

Magic! It’s actually a fairly simple setup: an ethernet shield attached to an arduino can serve a webpage.

Image of a keypad.
You can click on these numbers in the inventory image and they operate the keypad in the room!

Then I needed to expose that webpage through my firewall to receive calls. I set up the arduino web server in-house to talk to the props via RF wireless transmissions. The biggest part is security. I did not want (nor do I recommend that anyone) to expose my IP address to the world or share it with people playing my game. Plus, once someone plays, if they are crafty, they could interact with the props while the next group is playing. I built a middle web server in the cloud that handles the players’ inputs and then talks to my in-house server. Only it knows the IP address, so it’s all safe. The page that the player uses is also password protected.

The inventory feature of the game and its interactive capabilities really resonated with our Hivemind reviewers. How did that come about?

We quickly learned that our game didn’t work well because it was non-linear and there was a lot of inventory to manage. We went back to the drawing board and created an inventory management system for players to see, explore and manage the items as they find them. That was the game changer. As soon as we had the inventory system, beta testing went smoothly. We continued to adapt from there.

How else did you modify some of the gameplay to accommodate online play?

The game is actually about 98% the same as it is for on-site games.

In beta testing, we then realized that there were just a few items that were hidden in places you wouldn’t think to look unless you were physically in the room. We found new hiding spots, and that was it.

The game flow is entirely unchanged.

At Rock Avenue Escape Room, you have other games besides Ready Mayor One. What makes this the right game for online adaptation?

Some games just won’t work with this setup. We can’t use our other 2 escape rooms. They have too many multi-person puzzles, physical tasks, and tiny details that don’t work over the internet.

Non-linear games will be much harder to adapt.

When choosing or adapting a game, it’s important consider where items are hidden, as I mentioned before, as well as the lighting, and the size of any text.

I also don’t think this format is right for a game that has a low success rate.

Even more than in other escape rooms, livestreamed escape rooms are a complete entertainment package. It’s not just about your puzzles; customers could play video games and other online games for that. You are there, you must entertain.

What is the tone of the group when they “enter the room?” Is it hard to build their trust?

Almost every team we’ve hosted has come in with reservations. They are not sure what to expect and not sure how to proceed. It’s almost like the first time any of us played a real-life escape room. So we jump into the story right out of the gate and don’t give them time to think about that. As soon as they get started, it feels familiar and they realize they know what to do. Once they are over that initial cloudiness, they can relax and have fun. And I have fun with them.

You are an entertainer, but you show a lot of restraint. What is your approach to being a gamemaster / avatar?

First, I am just a silly person. I love to make people laugh, so this is a natural fit for me.

My approach is to fill the voids. I want the players to feel that we are all on the same team. They aren’t just watching me. From the moment they log in, we are in the story and I am in character. Everything is delivered as part of the story.

Using humor, self-deprecation, and a sense of anxiousness, I am able to get players engaged early and get them to feel that they need to help me solve this. I am counting on them. I also let them know that I will be letting them make the calls. I am just there to provide eyes and hands. The brains are on them.

The restraint is important because, again, they need to feel that they are controlling this and not just watching me. So even if I know their proposed solution is incorrect, I have to try it in the lock and be just as surprised as they are when it doesn’t work. I have to make them believe I know nothing more than they do and that we are learning everything at the same time.

Are there choreographed moments in gamemastering? How did you figure these out?

I would say I follow an 85% common routine.

I started by just being me and being silly and saying different things. Some things I’ve said in the past got big laughs; some were duds. I’ve tweaked my delivery over the past few weeks to repeat the lines that are really well received. Now I have it down to something that seems to work well. However, I still improvise as the game progresses. I am pretty quick-witted and I make up stuff as we go.

I can also learn a lot about a team in the first 10 minutes. I know if they are dead serious, up for some laughs, good at solving, good at searching, etc. I can adapt to these differences as we go.

My experience from running this as a real-life escape game is also key. After watching thousands and thousands of people play this game over the past 2 years, I have seen things that almost every group says at certain points. I see how they react when things move or open. I see how they react to their own mistakes, too. I emulate all of that. By duplicating what normally happens and the natural common reactions, it gives the online players same sense of emotion and excitement that they would have had if they’d been in the space.

What makes livestream escape room play engaging?

There is a huge opportunity for online games to fail miserably. If it is just the players watching the avatar play the game, asking “does this work?” and getting a “no” then it’s not engaging. The gamemaster has to understand their game and their group to fill in those real-life voids. The inventory, interactive props, and 360-degree views that we have also allow the group to split up and work on different things, which adds to the engagement. It allows people to do their own thing and be involved without just watching the gamemaster and listening to what their teammates are directing him to do. This enables more reserved people to do more than they would in a real-life escape room. They can just do it, without having to talk over anyone or say something they might feel stupid about trying. So just like a real-life room, the more things there are for people to do at once, the better.

What’s your number 1 takeaway to share with someone who is thinking about adapting a real-life game for online play?

I really feel that the gamemaster is more important in this situation than ever before. As the gamemaster, you have their attention for the entire hour. You have to keep them engaged. Fill the void of the players not being in the space with the only other tool you have: you!

Since launching Ready Mayor One as an online game, what’s the biggest surprise?

The response has been humbling, to say the least. We thought we might get 6-8 bookings a week. Instead we are sold out almost 3 weeks in advance. People are calling and messaging trying to get an earlier spot. Unfortunately, being just me, we can’t add more spots. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to add more. This type of gamemastering is physically demanding.

The other big surprise has been the reception by the community. This game was designed for a small market of first-time players. It was not designed for enthusiasts. However, our bookings now have been 98% enthusiasts. It is humbling to see how much they enjoy this game. We have hosted many other owners and their reactions have been great too. I have had many people reach out asking for advice, endorsements and everything else. I have been sharing everything I know and hoping to help as many people get through the next few months as we can.

What’s the best part of livestreaming Ready Mayor One?

For me it’s been a blessing to be able to make some money right now, but seeing the smiles, hearing the laughs and helping bring people together for an hour to help them forget about the world for a bit has been the best part.

Having people from all over the world join has been amazing. We’re giving people an opportunity to play with friends and family from anywhere.

And we even saved a few birthday parties and dates that would have had to be cancelled. That may sound corny, but that’s what makes it all worth it.

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