Trapdoor UNLOCKED: Controversial Escape Rooms

Does Trap Door’s newest escape room, Witch Hunt, portray controversial subject matter?

Promo image for Witch Hunt shows a pair of hands holding a noose.

After we’d just hanged a woman for witchcraft, we sat down with Tone and Jess of Trap Door to discuss Controversial Escape Rooms for this episode of Trapdoor UNLOCKED.

The 15-minute video covers the following topics:

  • Is it common sense to avoid controversial topics?
  • Political relevance
  • Escape rooms as education on a topic
  • Trap Door’s Witch Trials
  • Advertising
  • How close are you or your players to the topic?
  • Prepare for the backlash
  • Abortion as a theme
  • Holocaust room escapes
  • Branding and marketing
  • Make purposeful decisions around controversial topics.

For more on this topic, read Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares.

Thoughts on the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference

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.

A packed crowd for the room escape artist seminar
Thank you to everyone who came out to our talk. (Photo by James Cobalt)
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:

Tech-obsession

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.”

When we interviewed Shawn Fischtein of Escape Games Canada last year and published that discussion about his generational definitions, we were publishing an interesting conversation. No one involved intended for this to become industry-wide jargon.

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 panel on collaboration across companies within local markets was abuzz with discussion about how to better work together and how to deal with bad actors within the a local community.

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

Greater maturity

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.

http://amzn.to/2rhfGV9

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.

Locks

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:

Commando Marine Brass Lock (which we recently reviewed)

Clear Trainer Lock

Trick Lock (which we strongly discourage you from using in an escape room, but could be a nice lobby puzzle)

Atlas Lever Lock

The strange but entertaining line of Mindy Locks

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.)

Update from The Netherlands

Greetings, Breda! A few months ago we didn’t know you were a place (sorry), and now we don’t want to leave.

Trip To Do List:

✔ Talked our way onto an earlier, nonstop flight… thanks Delta!

✔ Completed flight without violent re-accommodation… thanks Delta!

✔ Admired Van Gogh paintings

✔ Consumed too many stroopwafels

✔ Played 10 wonderful escape rooms

❒ Reviewed 10 wonderful escape rooms… stay tuned!

✔ Debated game design and the definition of art over beers

✔ Escaped with owners and enthusiasts from around the world

✔ Played a real life game of Ticket To Ride

❒ Presented to an audience in Breda about The Perspective of the Player’s Experience

❒ Spoke on a panel about the role of bloggers in the escape room industry

If you happen to be in the area, help us with these last two checkboxes; we’re on our own for the reviews. 

Black-light-saber – May The Fourth Be Thank You

A few weeks ago I tweeted a fleeting (and not particularly amazing) joke while finalizing our presentation for the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference and Tradeshow.

Well… now I have one; it fills me with so much nerdy joy.

A hand holding a lightsaber that is glowing with UV light.
You’re damn right that’s a blacklight… and it makes most of the sounds.

Our friend Brett Kuehner made one for me and gave it to me right after the hilarious Room Escape Divas’ talk.

Thank you Brett and May the fourth be with you.

Save

We’re at the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference

Hello Niagara Falls!

We’re in town this week for the Room Escape Conference and Tradeshow.

  • Niagara Falls Conference & Event Center
  • 101 Old Falls Street, Niagara Falls, NY, USA
  • Registration is still open
  • Onsite registration starting at $30

Room Escape Conference & Tour logo, an abstract head with a maze, keyhole, and clock.

Escape Rooms

We’re playing 6 escape rooms in Niagara Falls and Buffalo today. Perhaps we’ll run into you around town.

If you haven’t decided which escape rooms to visit yet, read our recommendations for Buffalo and Niagara Falls or ask us about the ones we played today.

Come To Our Talks

We’re delivering a free talk Tuesday morning: Goldi-lock-ing Your Escape Room Business… Learn the Difference between Magnificent, Average, and Tragic Escape Room Design.

  • Tuesday, May 5 at 10:00AM
  • Cascade Room 1

We’re also moderating a panel on Tuesday afternoon. We’ll be chatting with three Louisiana escape room companies about Co-Working, Co-Existing, and THRIVING!

  • Tuesday, May 5 at 2:30PM
  • Cascade Room 1
  • Panelists from Rise Escape Rooms, 13th Gate Escape, & Clue Carré

Visit Our Booth

Please find us at booth 102 on the tradeshow floor and introduce yourself.

We’d love to talk shop.

An Exploration of Escape Room Pricing Structures

It’s time to explore one of the most controversial issues in the North American escape room market.

Ticketing Models

Private Ticketing – Refers to a ticketing model where an entire group experience is purchased at once. This eliminates the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. It is the most common ticketing model outside of the United States. In this model, there is a set price for the entire group experience. It sometimes varies by player count.

Public Ticketing – Refers to a game where admission is purchased by each individual player, thus allowing for the possibility of strangers sharing the same experience. This is a common ticketing model in the United States. In this model, the price is per ticket and isn’t adjusted based on how many tickets are booked.

Myths

It is commonly believed that:

Escape room players prefer private ticketing because they don’t want to share these experiences with strangers.

Escape room owners prefer public ticketing because it is a more lucrative business model.

To get the best of both worlds, companies occasionally offer a private ticketing model for the same price as the maximum number of individual tickets. This is positive sales spin.

In truth, however, the ticketing model debate isn’t so black and white.

Study

When The Locked Room opened in Calgary, AB, Canada in August of 2014, they opened with public ticketing. They were the first company in their city and the subsequent companies followed their lead. At the start of 2017, however, they switched over to entirely private ticketing.

So, what happened?

We recently interviewed Edwin Tsui, Managing Partner at The Locked Room, about this transition.

Photo of Edwin and his partners in one of their horror games. It's dark and there are body parts as well as implements of destruction postioned throughout the room.

Room Escape Artist: You have recently switched from public ticketing to private ticketing. Why did you make the switch?

Edwin: By 2017, we’d expanded to offer 8 more escape rooms and competitors had opened up others. The majority of our rooms were no longer filling to the maximum, but our prime weekend spots were still filling up with mixed groups.

On a Saturday with 132 rooms running across 3 locations we would log an average of 1 or 2 cases of groups vocally expressing their displeasure at being paired with others. For these groups our customer service team would follow up with them to resolve, get feedback, and compensate them (regardless of fault). We also acknowledged that we were likely alienating some of our non-vocal customer base: the “that was great, but I would only do it again with only my friends” camp.

Despite running hundreds of thousands of players through our rooms and having giant disclaimers and warnings about public ticketing, we still regularly had groups come through unaware about this policy.

As a brand with 12 rooms in a single city, repeat and return customers are crucial to the long term survival of our business. We began to consider a switch to private ticketing as a commitment to player experience and long term sustainability.

In the meantime we also launched a US location that was entering as the 4th company to market in a new market (Omaha, Nebraska). We decided to start with private ticketing there as a way to ‘disrupt’ in a market with only public ticketing games. We thought private ticketing might be the hook for new players.

In game at The Locked Room. A science lab with a assortment of lab equipment.

Let’s do the math. What were/are the ticket prices?

Our old pricing model was on a per head basis. It was $24.95/player with no minimum group size. It was a public ticketing system where strangers could be paired with each other.

Our new pricing model retains the same pricing at $24.95/player, but with a minimum booking size (3-4 players depending on the room). All bookings made under the new system are private with no special exceptions for weekdays or weeknights. Players may bring along additional teammates for pay-on-arrival without any special notice.

What were you expecting to happen when you made the switch?

We expected a few things:

  1. A moderate initial revenue drop (10-15%)
  2. A strong positive public response
  3. A drop in customer service-related issues

What actually happened when you switched to private games?

In response to our expectations:

  1. There was no initial revenue drop. Our online sales decreased in the realm of noise (~5%) but we made up the difference with an increase in in-person payments.
  2. Overall, the switch had a strong positive response. A few individuals, however, contacted us expressing their displeasure with the room minimums or telling us about their positive experiences with the public ticketing system.
  3. We experienced fewer customer service-related issues, exactly as expected… and even better!

Unexpected positive side effects:

We are able to staff a bit more efficiently. Since there are no longer ‘difficult’ groups of strangers to mix together (i.e. a group of 8 with a group of 2 or a group of 4 adults paired with 4 teenagers), our staff feels more relaxed. Consequently, they perform better in terms of customer satisfaction, faster and more accurate room resets, and ability to maintain games in between bookings.

We were able to push the private ticketing offering as a strong marketing campaign for the lull months (January, February) of the new year, encouraging people to come back or to try a room out even if they couldn’t gather a full group together.

Bonus interesting point:

Most customers simply didn’t notice any difference. They didn’t know that there were 2 different systems. First-timers would never know the difference and a large percentage of returning players had never been paired with others under a public ticketing system.

In game image at The Locked Room. A security office with camera screens, a desk with a typewriter, and a filing cabinet.

After operating under each pricing model, do you have a strong opinion in this debate?

The sides of the ticketing debate often have clear divisions between owners and enthusiasts. This is the expected result of different goals: profit versus customer satisfaction.

As an owner and enthusiast, I see no advantages to the player experience with a public ticketing system over a private ticking system, given equal or similar pricing for both options.

There are exceptions such solo business travelers or individuals without like-minded friends, but they make up a trivial percentage of the players coming through our doors.

The majority of our room escapes are best with 4-6 players. While we get fewer groups of 8 or more since switching to private ticketing, that also means more groups sizes closer to the optimal amount. Since we do not run games tuned for more than 8 players, I cannot comment on the public ticketing model for those types of escape rooms.

We launched with public ticketing to generate profit. At the time, our 4 rooms were constantly booking out, selling every possible spot on both weekdays and weeknights. It made no sense to turn away eager paying customers. We acknowledged that we were making a player experience sacrifice in exchange for a better bottom line. If I were to have a do-over, I would still have launched our company with public ticketing as the first escape room in town.

We switched when we shifted our goal to long-term sustainability. I believe that private ticketing will play a big role in achieving that goal. It was a pleasant surprise that we could improve the player experience without a hit to our bottom line. It’s an added bonus that I personally feel better about what we offer to our guests!

Is it the right choice for every company? Maybe not. However, if you are solidly booked through public ticketing, don’t be surprised if the market starts shifting towards smaller games with private ticketing when new escape room venues pop up in your city.

Room Escape Artist’s Conclusion

For The Locked Room, given the type of experience they offer, private ticketing makes the most sense. It provides a better customer experience, more effective staff members, and equal revenue.

Much of the nuance comes down to the product offered.

If your room escapes are designed for over 8 players, we’d probably still recommend public ticketing. It would be challenging for most people to bring a large enough group to fully enjoy the experience.

However, if your room escapes are designed for 2-7 players, we recommend private ticketing.

We fully agree with Edwin on the following points:

  • Private ticketing will reduce customer service issues.
  • Private ticketing is great in a competitive market.
  • Public ticketing makes sense in a population dense, non-competitive market… but there aren’t too many of those left.

Panel Discussion: Co-Working, Co-Existing… and Thriving!

Last year we made it clear that we believe that top escape room businesses should be collaborating with one another.

The panel

So, we’re delighted to moderate a panel at the upcoming Room Escape Conference and Tradeshow in Niagara Falls on this very topic. We’ll be speaking at length about how Louisiana escape room owners Mindi Plaisance (Rise Escape Rooms), Dwayne Sanburn (13th Gate Escape), and Megan Mouton (Clue Carré) support each other’s businesses.

Co-Working, Co-Existing, and THRIVING! will be held on Tuesday, May 2 at 2:30PM in Cascade Room 1.

This panel will cost $50 per person if you pre-register or $55 per person if you register at the conference.

What to expect

During our pre-interviews (we do our homework), we covered a lot of ground with Mindi, Dwayne, and Megan. Attendees are in for a fantastic discussion.

We’ve heard a lot of great things about all three of their games and these images speak for themselves.

As far as the panel discussion is concerned, you can expect to hear about how collaboration

  • creates awareness
  • improves game design
  • generates a market
  • builds a support structure

We’ll also address some of the individual challenges these companies face… from space constraints, to traffic crises, to market size, to drunk players. They might not have the same operational concerns, but they all have the same goal: to create a thriving puzzle entertainment business in southern Louisiana.

There will be plenty of opportunity for audience questions, so come on over if you’re looking for a dynamic discussion… and no PowerPoint slides.

Get your tickets today!

If you haven’t already purchased them, get your tickets for the Room Escape Conference in Niagara Falls. Come to our talks, visit our booth, and generally enjoy a few days of learning and networking.

Be sure to checkout some escape rooms while you’re there. Buffalo / Niagara Falls have some great ones.

Escape Room Haiku

The Prison Escape

Walls of beige and grey.

Yet another steel toilet.

Reach down it; a key!

Stylized image of a metal prison toilet.

The Black Light 1

I found a flashlight!

Hold on! No! It’s a blacklight!

With shit batteries…

The Black Light 2

UV light so bright.

Fluoresce the room, find the clues.

My shirt’s so linty.

Interview with SCRAP about their Zelda Escape Room Event

Real Escape Game (REG), also known as SCRAP, is one of the originators of escape rooms. SCRAP has been running mass escape events themed on The Legend of Zelda all over the United States. Our friend and frequent teammate in LA,  Sarah Willson, wrote a review of the event. We reached out to Doc Preuss (REG Producer & Partnerships) to get the inside scoop on how this collaboration came about and the intricacies of putting on an escape room event of this scale.

Room Escape Artist: How did this collaboration with Nintendo come about?

Doc Preuss: Quite some time ago, we were approached by Nintendo about the potential of working together. They were already familiar with our games, having played several, which helped the process along. From there, it was a matter of finding the right time and convincing all of the involved parties to approve of the project.

How much did Nintendo participate in the design of the game?

Every aspect of the game went through Nintendo for approval, but our game designer was given a lot of freedom to create an experience that felt true to the Zelda franchise. Nintendo was kind enough to playtest various versions of the game for us, both in the US and in Japan. As you can imagine, the game design was revised several times based on both Nintendo’s and our staff’s ongoing feedback.

Tell us about your favorite Zelda game.

I’m only a little bit into the new Breath of the Wild, but it already feels like it could turn out to be a favorite! The recent Link Between Worlds was a really well-paced game, and Twilight Princess felt like a well-aged, refined Ocarina of Time (also great). Am I the only one that really liked Zelda II, though?

Which Zelda games had the strongest influence on your game design?

Defenders of the Triforce definitely draws the most from Ocarina of Time. The world, the characters, even its lively color palette lend themselves well to a live action game. Once you play, this will be very apparent!

Zelda may be the most treasured of puzzle-based entertainment franchises. What were the most challenging aspects of designing a game based on such a storied and beloved series?

Given that the series now has 30 years of history across so many different kinds of games, a major challenge is to distill those down and decide which aspects you’re going to play off of or focus on. There is a real danger when designing a game of trying to fit too many gimmicks in, and as a result the game can feel disjointed.

Similarly, if you asked fans, “what do you think absolutely should be in a Zelda escape game,” you’re going to get a wide range of responses. There are a lot of expectations, and trying to meet as many as possible is a huge undertaking. The game needs to be cohesive, exciting, and still fit within 60 minutes!

What are the differences in your approach to designing a mass escape event versus a traditional escape room?

Traffic and congestion within the game area is maybe the biggest change in approach. We absolutely do not want people to be stuck in a line for 10 of their 60 minutes while they try to access the same area. So, we not only design the game to avoid major bottlenecks, but we also have several operational processes in place to keep things moving.

Additionally, and for this game especially, we had to create a set that could be transported across eight cities in the US alone. As much as we would love to build up Hyrule as if it were a permanent escape room, it’s just not feasible for a large-scale, traveling event game. We worked really hard to find a balance between actual props and imagination. It’s hard to believe, but we completely fill up a large semi truck as we travel across the country!

What lessons did you learn from your past mass escape games that you applied to the Zelda event?

Basically, we needed all of our past experience in logistics to make this game run smoothly. Not only are there many checkpoints to visit, there are a ton of items, too! Despite being an event style game, we wanted to bring more physicality to the table than in past games. The Zelda series is full of different item types, so it was a lot of fun working those into the design.

Another aspect that was informed by our past games is the overall difficulty. We’ve visited a number of cities over the years, and we used that experience to hone in on what the right level of difficulty should be. A little frustration can be a good thing, but we wanted to make the game feel fast and lively at the same time.

We’ve also learned a lot about optimizing our schedules and tour dates in order to reach as many fans as possible. When we run a collaboration game, there are a lot of fans who want to play but simply can’t journey across the country just for an escape room. The Zelda tour has allowed us to reach fans in areas where we normally don’t operate, and being able to provide them with a way to celebrate their fandom in a shared space with other fans is intensely rewarding.

When you design a mass escape game, what feelings are you hoping to instill in your players?

Above all else, we want our players to feel like they truly are the heroes of the story. The challenges are real; there should be pride in overcoming them and sometimes wonder in how the solution is discovered. In this specific case, we also hope to evoke fond memories of the Zelda series as players solve puzzles that remind them of the games they love.

There is also a feeling of being part of something larger that is exciting and unique to our event style games. It’s not unlike going to a concert or a play, and when you get that many fans together combined with a live MC, the result is something electric and special. You really can’t replicate that with a single-team escape room.

What can you tell us about your upcoming Final Fantasy escape game?

Trials of Bahamut is shaping up to be one of my favorite projects to date! While the general format is the same as Defenders, the way you go about certain things is very fun and different. As always, we’ll be looking at the feedback received during the Zelda tour and keep trying to evolve our games based on that feedback.

As an added bonus, the cinematics and soundtrack are amazing, too. Defenders of the Triforce is a great introduction to our event style games, and Trials of Bahamut will up the ante (and perhaps difficulty?) as our next nationwide tour.

Join us at the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference

We’re giving Tuesday’s only free seminar at the Transworld Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference. And that’s not all…

Transworld Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference Logo

There are going to be a ton of great speakers including:

  • Matthew DuPlessie, 5Wits
  • Dave Ferrier, Trapped PHL
  • Shawn Fischtein, Escape Games Canada
  • Elisabeth Garson, Steel Owl Productions
  • Nate Martin, Puzzle Break
  • Anthony Purzycki, Trap Door
  • Room Escape Divas

There are many more whom I haven’t heard speak, but I think will have something interesting to say, including:

  • Nicole Ginsburg, Escape The Estate
  • Marty Parker, Room Escape Adventures
  • Brian Warner, Evilusions

Buffalo / Niagara reviews

If you’re planning to attend, check out our in depth coverage of the Buffalo / Niagara region escape rooms.

A reminder to all: You need a passport or enhanced license (if you aren’t sure if you have one, you don’t) to cross the border into Canada (or the US). This is worth noting because the escape rooms in Niagara Falls, Canada are very close to the conference.

Our talk

Goldi-lock-ing Your Escape Room Business: Learn the Difference between Magnificent, Average, and Tragic Escape Room Design

We want to help you understand the tangible differences in execution between escape rooms.

We’re going to do this by looking at common interactions in escape room design and walk you through some of the differences that set apart the best and worst that we’ve seen in our approximately 300 games as reviewers.

We’re going to talk about all of the greatest hits:

  • Locks
  • Blacklights
  • Gamemastering
  • Books
  • Trap doors
  • Customer service
  • … and more

Bring your questions and an open mind. We’re here to help.

The panel we’re moderating

Co-Working, Co-Existing… and THRIVING!

Speakers:

  • Mindy & Davy Plaisance, Rise Escape Rooms
  • Dwayne Sanburn, 13th Gate Escape
  • Megan Mouton, Clue Carre
  • Moderators: David & Lisa Spira

A panel of top room escape companies talk about co-existing, working together and operating nationally-renowned escape room games.

This panel will cost $50 per person if you pre-register or $55 per person if you register at the conference.

Our booth

We don’t yet have the details, but we’ll have a booth.

Come find us, we’d love to chat.

Get your tickets for the Niagara Room Escape Conference, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.