Escape rooms have a lot in common with theater. One major similarity is the impermanence of it all. When these games close, that’s it. The magic is gone. There is often very little evidence that the game ever existed except for a review on this website, or sites like ours.
While we never had a chance to play these games, we are taking the opportunity to preserve a little piece of them.
When Paula Norder, the owner of Clock N Lock Escape Rooms in Kalamazoo, Michigan, sent us a message saying, “I’m going to be closing, would you like a video tour of my games?” we were honored.
She’d told us, “My games aren’t the best, but they are good for where I am. I feel like I could write your review of my place.” And honestly, we’ve long had respect for companies in small markets that serve them well, even if they aren’t producing the world’s most renowned games. It was our intention to return to Michigan, and take a trip to Kalamazoo to play a game or two at her place.
Sadly that won’t happen, but we did get a chance to see what Clock N Lock was all about, and I’m going to share a bit of that with you.
Clock N Lock Games
Clock N Lock games were traditional mom & pop escape rooms. Each one was a lovingly designed, classic-style game, with limited tech, and an emphasis on themed puzzles. They each had a unique mission and objective. They felt like many of the games that made Lisa and me fall in love with the escape room format back in our early years of Room Escape Artist.
These games weren’t changing the industry, but they were representing it with care.
Clock N Lock’s first game was a UFO Diner that – spoiler – had ties to Area 51.
The experience began outside of the room, and involved solving a short puzzle sequence in a phone booth to gain access.
Amelia’s Attic explored the story of Amelia Earhart, and not in a crass way.
While it really was a standard escape room, there was a unique vibe to what we saw. Sometimes it’s the little things.
Baby Unicorn Rescue
This was Clock N Lock’s newest and most ambitious game, and I think that shows from the photos.
I love the Baby Unicorn rescue concept. It’s super clever, and the execution was adorable.
For all the avatar adaptations of real-life escape games that we’ve played during the last year, many facilities have sat empty, like Clock N Lock. These games leaned into the tangible – both in puzzles and in customer service – and wouldn’t have adapted easily. For some many owners, a digital adaptation isn’t the right answer. We respect the difficult decision to close a business (in many cases, one that had been healthy before 2020) rather than commit to a digital adaptation and risk the debt. We know many folks are facing this struggle as we cross the one-year mark.
We truly appreciate that we were given a chance to see these games, and share a little piece of them with you.
If you are closing down your escape room company, and you have something that you’d like to share, please let us know. When someone has put their heart into their games, we want to document what was while we can.
Last week we sat down for a lovely conversation with Jared and Zack of the tabletop escape gaming podcast Puzzling Company.
In the first half, we talked about the incredible Box One. In the other two halves, we talked about the state of the tabletop escape room world… there is a lot of episode here (~2 hours and 15 minutes worth of episode).
We talk about the different types of tabletop escape games: mass market, bespoke, and subscription. We cover the product life cycle too. Then we also dig into many of the 11 Principles of Tabletop Escape Game Design. And the conversation goes far deeper.
Give Them A Subscribe
If you’re into tabletop escape games, you should be following Puzzling Company. These guys are doing it right, and for the right reasons.
With the end of 2020, we compiled a data-driven look at how COVID-19 has impacted the US escape room industry, based on the data we have from maintaining the Room Escape Artist Escape Room Directory since 2014.
As of February 2021, there are 2,080 escape room facilities in the United States.
In comparison, in August 2020, there were 2,250 escape room facilities in the United States. In the past 6 months, we’ve experienced a 7.5% decrease in the number of facilities.
It is critical to note that the number of facilities does not indicate the size of the industry at large. It is one indicator, and one we have the data to measure. It does not represent revenue. At this time, no one in the escape room industry has access to revenue data.
Since our report in August, we’ve removed 180 escape room facilities from our directory.
This is on par with the closure rate we saw in the first half of 2020 (also 180 facilities).
In fact, the total facility closures in 2019 (315) was slightly more than in 2020 (300).
While this industry continues to experience facility closures, many due to COVID-19 and some due to other factors, the closure rate is steady. We have not experienced an alarming closure rate.
Of note, in this report, we are not counting temporary closures as closed facilities. If the business is communicating the closure as temporary, and as far as we can tell, they plan to reopen the facility, we are counting this as an operational facility for the purpose of this report.For a more nuanced understanding of how we count escape rooms (and it’s the facilities that we’re counting), please refer to 6 Year US Escape Room Industry Report (August 2020).
The Delta Widens
Closures aren’t new, but in past years, they were eclipsed by new companies opening.
In 2017, more than 75 facilities closed, and in 2018, more than 250 facilities closed. These numbers, however, were offset by many new business entering the marketing:
In 2014 there were about 2 dozen escape room facilities in the US. This was followed by exponential growth in 2015 and 2016, which had leveled off by 2019, when the number of facilities in the US increased by just 2%.
For more details on these periods of growth, read our past industry reports.
In the last 6 months, only 25 new escape room facilities opened, while 180 closed.
Chains & Franchises
For the most part, the largest companies (in terms of number of facilities) have not experienced a substantial drop in number of facilities.
The two largest companies, Escapology and Breakout Games (46 facilities and 39 facilities, respectively, in August 2020), each closed 3 facilities.
The exception among the chains is Key Quest, which closed completely in 2020. This company was a branch of the laser tag company Laser Quest, which had 21 facilities operating escape rooms in August 2020 (and additional facilities without escape rooms), and now has 0 open facilities. The closing of a large chain certainly impacts the closure rate.
For many years now, Colorado has had the most escape room facilities per capita of any US state.
Colorado had a high per capita attrition rate in the time of COVID-19 through the publication of this report (April 2020 – February 2021). And yet, Colorado is the state with the second most escape room facilities per capita today, second only to New Hampshire.
Other states with high per capita attrition include North Dakota, Wyoming, and Delaware.
This report is just part of the story of 2020 for the US escape room industry. A count of open and closed facilities cannot tell us about the impact of the pandemic on the businesses that remain open.
This report does not unpack the financial health of these companies. Even the information on PPP Loans linked above doesn’t give us much insight into the debt assumed by the majority of these businesses – the single-location, small businesses.
We predict that the financial hardship of 2020 will affect future investment in new games. In the near future, we don’t expect to see the same volume of new games or high-budget, blockbuster games that we’ve seen in the past.
However, that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice quality.
As in-person business reopens in 2021, we expect to see more creative escape rooms. Less investment yields more constraints, and constraints force creativity. We see this as an opportunity for creators to experiment with new ideas, and continue to push the boundaries of this medium of entertainment.
If you heard us on stage in 2019, you heard David outline the risks of high-investment games. We’ve known for some time that raising that particular bar wasn’t the long term future for most businesses. If anything this pandemic will speed us along a more sustainable path.
Because this report is just part of the story, today we are asking for your help in painting a more complete picture. We’re looking to learn more from you, the business owners and players, so that we can, in turn, share more information about how COVID-19 has and continues to impact our industry.
It’s a group effort, and we’re asking everyone who is reading this report to contribute. Please click the button below and fill out your survey as completely and honestly as you can. This survey is anonymous.