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.

Escape Room Design Inspiration from an unlikely flickr group [Design Tips]

Looking for some escape room design inspiration?

Lose yourself in the Control Panel flickr group.

Established in 2006, this group has more than 1,200 members who have posted more than 2,300 photos of control panels, many of them gorgeous.

There are some handsome interactions in here and I have no doubt that they could provide inspiration for both puzzle and set design.

Control Panel flickr group via BoingBoing.

Escape Room Design: Safety Basics

We recently received a question from a public official in Pennsylvania who’d been asked to approve the construction of an escape room in his community. He wrote in asking:

In the event that a person in the room becomes disoriented to the point that they are unable to cope, how is that situation normally handled? Also, if there were an emergency outside of the room which required the occupants to be evacuated, how would they be notified? How would the company immediately end the scenario and open the door?”

We appreciate public officials who do their research, so we’re here to help.

Lock In Safety

There are a number of different ways that escape room designers secure players in rooms.

Lock In; No Emergency Exit

In the early days (a whole 3 years ago) escape rooms simply locked the players in the rooms. The player objective was to find the door key and escape.

This was problematic from a safety standpoint. It was also limiting from a creative perspective. We rarely see this anymore and strongly discourage it.

Lock In; Emergency Key

The first safety backup system was the addition of an emergency key next to the door. In this scenario, an emergency key is attached to the door on a chain next to the door lock or put inside of an easy-to-open pouch beside the door lock.

In the event of an emergency, any player can grab that key, open the door, and exit the room. The team doesn’t win, but at that point, nobody cares.

Lock In; Magnetic Locks

Next, companies began using mag locks, where the door is held shut with a powerful electromagnet.

Mag locks are common in escape rooms. They are great for both game design and safety. In rooms using mag locks, players usually win by tripping a sensor that triggers the door to open. It feels pretty magical.

If the power fails, mag locks open automatically because electricity powers the magnet.

A large green button labeled: "push to exit"

This scenario offers easier safety releases than a typical door lock. The company can install a big “push to exit” button right next to the door. In an emergency, there is no need to fumble with a key. Any player can open the door with a moment’s notice. These doors are our preferred method of lock in.

No Lock In

Some “escape room” companies create excellent experiences where the players are never actually locked in a space. In these games, the designers build win conditions or objectives that don’t involve unlocking a door.

As the escape room industry diversifies, this is becoming increasingly common.

Surveillance & Gamemastering

Escape rooms should have thorough camera and microphone coverage.

A gamemaster can oversee the entire experience from a nearby space. This enables the gamemaster to keep an eye on the players and end the game if there is an emergency (inside or outside of the escape room).

We recommend that the cameras be placed so that the gamemaster doesn’t have blindspots.

A stylaized image of a security camera hanging from a ceiling.

We recommend good microphone coverage of the entire gamespace. The audio is actually more important because it’s easier to identify an impending problem by listening to what the players say than it is to determine what is happening by viewing their behavior.

The gamemaster should also have a method of rapidly communicating with the players. The most effective methods of communication are a speaker system in the room or a television monitor that displays typed messages.

While the communication method is usually used for delivering hints, it is occasionally used for delivering player behavior warnings. An attentive gamemaster can notice malicious players breaking props or misbehaving and put a stop to the behavior.

We also encourage escape room companies to have a dedicated gamemaster for each game. The gamemaster should devote their undivided attention to the team’s experience.

Safety Precautions

If the escape room has exposed electrical outlets, the game should never require players to interact with these. Furthermore, players should be explicitly instructed that these outlets are real and out of play. If building code allows it, the electrical outlets should be completely covered and removed from the gamespace.

Escape rooms should include smoke detectors. Players should be instructed that all emergency equipment is real and not part of the game. Moreover, it should never be tampered with.

Are escape rooms safe businesses?

A safe escape room has the following features:

  • an emergency exit
  • video and audio surveillance
  • an attentive game master
  • smoke detectors
  • clear player instruction regarding safety

These precautions should adequately inform players of a crisis inside or outside of the gamespace and allow them to extract themselves from the game should they need (or want) to leave.

These experiences can and should be safe. We implore escape room owners to design thoughtfully around safety.

The Purchased Escape Room Name Problem

Imagine a friend telling you to visit the local movie theater because you absolutely must see a new movie called Obtuse. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years,” your friend raves. So you buy your ticket, sit through the trailers, and as the opening scenes roll, you realize that you’ve seen this movie before. You were on vacation across the country and went to the movies on a rainy day to see a comedy called DullishObtuse and Dullish are the same movie, but the local theater decided to call it by a different name. Dullish was edited just slightly differently from Obtuse.

This is a problem that currently exists in escape rooms.

A pair of cookies, one labeled, "Chocolate Chip Cookie" the other labeled "Chocolate Chunk Cookie"
Whatever you call it, it’s the same recipe.

Types of purchasable games

A fair number of escape rooms are purchasable. This isn’t an inherent problem, but far too many like games are given unique names. This is confusing and problematic.

There are primarily three different purchasable game formats. (This post isn’t going to delve into the viability of these models, but there are serious challenges and limitations with all three of them.)

Designs

You can acquire room escape designs and implement them to your liking. With this model, no hardware or construction is included, just the ideas that make up the game.

Complete games

You can purchase full games including all of the props and engineering needed to get them up and running.

Franchise games

You can acquire a game in part or in whole through signing a franchise agreement.

The naming problem

The entire escape room industry is already riddled with naming problems between companies. There is an emerging naming problem with purchased games.

We’re hearing of an increasing number of identical purchased room escapes in places all around the world going by different names. This causes confusion among people who like to escape rooms when they’re traveling.

For example, Brooklyn Escape Rooms in Brooklyn, NY used to be a Claustrophobia franchisee. When they broke off from the mother franchise, they had to change the name of their games for copyright reasons, but their Shelter-R is for all intents and purposes the same game as Claustrophobia’s Vault 13, and Medieval Dungeon is essentially the same game as Claustrophobia’s The Dungeon. The kicker is that 60 Out in Los Angeles, CA is operating a game called Outbreak that I’m told shares many puzzles and structural elements with Vault 13 Shelter-R. This kind of information is difficult to know as a “normal player.”

Similarly, if you were to go play Central Bank, Cold War Bunker, Zombie Lab, and Prison Break at Room Escape LA, you’ve essentially played Fox in a Box’s The Lab, The Bunker, The Bank, and The Prison, as they are all part of the same franchise. However, you’d never know that as a “normal player.”

I’ve heard a tale of duplicate games 80 miles apart in Wilmington & Fayetteville, NC. These are the same room escape offered by two different companies, with two different names.

I have more examples, but I’m not looking to shame here. I’m looking to make a point. This is the result of multiple accidents.

Why is this a problem?

There are absolutely going to be owners reading this saying:

“95% of my players are first-timers. This doesn’t matter to me.”

This is the wrong mentality. We have over 1,700 different escape room facilities in the United States. This industry needs to mature and foster regular players if it’s going to be a viable industry over the long haul.

That means we need to take care of the most dedicated players and foster enthusiasts.

If booking an escape room becomes a game of Russian roulette, this is a massive failure. It’s also a stupid failure because it’s preventable.

Purchased games

Purchased games should come with a mandatory name. The designer’s name should also be affixed to the booking details. Authorship matters.

I know that there are companies that like to hide who created their games. I’ve heard some pretty funny stories about a designer who likes to hide his involvement with some of the games that he has designed. (For what it’s worth, if a consultant wants you to sign an NDA, they are shady).

Franchises

Keep your naming consistent across both locations and games. If you can’t do that, at least make it clear on your website.

This will worsen

Unfortunately, I think that the problem will persist and worsen for the following reasons:

Ego

There are a lot of purchasable games out there and a fair number of owners who will pretend that it was their design.

Bad contracting

People who sell games to more than one company are not contractually insisting on consistent naming and labeling.

No one should be hiding.

International contracting

A lot of game sales happen across national borders making it expensive, difficult, and largely pointless to enforce contracts.

Franchise failures

We keep hearing about franchises failing to offer the proper support. Consequently, the franchisees leave the mother franchise, but continue using a variant of the same games under a different name because the names are copyrightable.

I’d love to be proven wrong

I want to be wrong about this.

I’d love to see escape room designers and owners stop this from becoming a problem. So that’s my challenge. Prove me wrong.

That Time I Found a Urine Sample in an Escape Room

Early in our days as reviewers we played a game that was built in a space that was previously a medical doctor’s office. It had a lot of built-in furniture that is common in doctor’s offices.

An abstract image of a urine sample.

Our team really hit its stride and we were on a record-breaking pace for the first time ever (back when we cared deeply about such things). We were puzzling hard and searching even harder… too hard. I pulled some of the drawers out of the built-in furniture and underneath the bottom drawer was some paperwork and a sealed test tube with yellow liquid in it.

Now, you have to understand that I was in a serious flow state and I had never encountered an object in an escape room that didn’t belong. Additionally, the room had a doctor’s office theme going… I didn’t question it. I immediately started inspecting the vial and reading the paperwork, desperately trying to decipher its hidden meaning. Then a voice came over the hint system frantically saying, “THAT’S NOT OURS! PUT IT DOWN!.”

It was a urine sample lost by the doctor’s office that had previously occupied the space. The paperwork was the corresponding test request forms.

Upon escape, I washed my hands more thoroughly than I ever had in my life. I’m so glad I didn’t open it.

I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. That really happened.

The moral of the story?

When setting up a new game, search it as thoroughly as possible. Your players will. Take built-in furniture apart. Make sure that you know exactly what’s in your room escape.

You never know what gets left behind.

Escape Room Game Length [Design Tips]

Escape room game timers are 60 minutes. Right?

While this has been the standard game clock so far, it is not the only option.

I have seen brilliant games of all lengths. Rather than recommend a length, I aim to help designers understand the implications of different game lengths.

Stylized image of three beautifully handcrafted, minimalistic wood clocks.

Longer games

Most longer games are 65 – 70 minutes. A few stretch to 90 minutes, which is an astonishingly lengthy escape room.

Pro: more adventure puzzling for the dollar… so long as the game is truly worth playing.

Con: beware of filler content… which is not worth it to either players or designers

Examples: Omescape in New York City and Locurio in Seattle both use 70-minute game clocks. The Great Houdini Escape Room and the Roosevelt Escape Room at Palace Games in San Francisco have 80- and 90-minute game clocks, respectively.

Shorter games

The less-than-60-minute formats are most interesting because they are incredibly varied.

Pro:  No room for filler. It’s all solid adventure and puzzles (when it’s done well).

Con: Pricing considerations. If a 15 minute game costs $15, that’s a dollar per minute. If you escape in half of the time, the experience essentially cost $2 per minute… that’s a lot of money for such brief entertainment. Choose price wisely for shorter escape rooms.

Note: An exceptionally short clock leaves nearly no tolerance for error.

Examples: We’ve seen a pair of free corporate-sponsored games that were 10 minutes each for up to 4 players. We’ve encountered a single player 15-minute game at Komnata Quest. There are quite a few 20- to 30-minute games for smaller groups.

There are a few companies like Escape Room Live that have adopted 45- or 50-minute game clocks simply because it allows them to easily run escape rooms on the hour.

Magic time

Also known as the unlimited game clock (within reason).

Pro: Players may exceed the game clock in order to see absolutely every detail of the experience.

Con: Companies need to leave substantial gaps in between start times in order to accommodate the uncertainty that this introduces into the system. The predictability of a fixed start and stop times allows for narrower reset windows between games.

I’ve only experienced magic time twice: both of the aforementioned Houdini and Roosevelt rooms at Palace Games in San Francisco are massive, long, and expensive games. Palace Games has opted for premium pricing for their extra long, high-end games. When you want to play one of these games, you have to buy out the entire room for approximately $410.

Pro: That price point buys magic time for you and up to 11 friends. You will get to experience the entire lengthy puzzling adventure.

Con: A solo player passing through San Francisco will have a hard time fielding a team large enough to justify the cost of admission. Also, it’s a better experience with a smaller team.

Game length is a choice

Any of these options can be great.

Make your game length a deliberate decision. Don’t choose a 60-minute timer simply because that’s what most escape room companies do.

If you have 50 minutes worth of great content, then don’t bother with 10 minutes of filler.

If you have 70 minutes worth of amazing gaming, then charge a couple bucks more and extend the game clock.

If quality is your compass, you won’t go astray.

Beyond that, be sure that you’re offering the proper value to your players when you price your game, especially if it’s short.

A Roundtable Discussion from the 2016 Room Escape Conference

At last year’s Room Escape Conference in Chicago, we participated in a impromptu Trapdoor UNLOCKED recording session about operating an escape room. This roundtable discussion covered a ton of ground as we all tried to help Jason Richard of Steal and Escape in San Diego, CA, a company we haven’t played but have heard many great things about.

… Just know that the audio quality wasn’t amazing as this was an unplanned recording in the middle of a bar.

We are looking forward to another gathering of like-minded owners, operators, and enthusiasts this May in Niagara Falls. The conversations – whether scheduled or spontaneous – build community and further the growth of the escape room industry.

If you liked this video, Anthony Purzycki from Trap Door Escape and Trapdoor UNLOCKED speaks about BIG Ideas for the not so Big Budget: Guerilla Marketing on Monday, May 1st at 3:30PM.

Our seminar Goldi-lock-ing Your Escape Room Business… Learn the Difference between Magnificent, Average, and Tragic Escape Room Design takes place on Tuesday, May 2nd at 10AM.

We’re moderating a panel with Louisiana owners on Co-Working, Co-Existing, and THRIVING! on Tuesday, May 2nd at 2:30PM.

Look for us at booth 102 to further the conversation.

9 Tips for Starting an Escape Room

So you want to start an escape room business. But where the heck do you begin?

We recently spoke to ZOZI – an online reservation, payment and customer management software used by tour and activity businesses – about our tips for how to prepare before taking the plunge into what can be a highly rewarding, challenging, and potentially lucrative industry.

Filter-painted closeup shot of key mosaic.

Read it on the ZOZI Blog!

Continue reading on the ZOZI blog…

Improve Your Mental Escape Room Math [Player Tips]

Mathematic puzzles are not all that common in American escape rooms… but they aren’t unheard of either. When they do emerge, they usually aren’t too tough, but if you’re not used to working with numbers, they can be intimidating nonetheless.

I have never loved math, but I have been actively taking on the math puzzles we encounter in escape rooms. I enjoy how escape rooms enable me to push myself. With that in mind, here are 3 tips from me and a whole bunch from Gizmodo.

Order of operations

We live in a civilized society and there are rules here. Order of operates matters.

PEMDAS

  1. Parentheses (simplify within)
  2. Exponents
  3. Multiplication & Division (left to right)
  4. Addition & Subtraction (left to right)

You may have encountered escape rooms that have mathematical puzzles that ignore order of operations. These companies are wrong and deserving of shame.

Game of Thrones meme of the wicked priestess dinging her shame bell

Approximate & brute-force

While I’m not the best at calculating precise solutions, I’ve found that I am a talented estimator.

I like to round numbers, then do quick mental approximation. If I am inputting the answer in a lock, I’ll strive to get the answer within 20 and spin the dials until I get it open.

This tip and many others (most of which apply to escape room math) are discussed in Gizmodo’s 10 Tips To Improve Your Mental Math.

Shift your mindset & be fearless

The more I’ve taken on math puzzles in escape rooms, the more I’ve realized how simple most of these are to solve.

The biggest obstacles to me and any non-math-y puzzlers are ourselves.

Be bold. The worst thing that happens is you take a hint.

Escape Room Ambassadors to First Time Players [Design Tip]

There is an art to introducing new players to escape rooms.

Escape rooms are still new to most players. As such, first time players are precious.

If new players enjoy their first escape room, they add themselves to the player pool and spread the word. The industry will grow. If they have a bad experience, however, they could be turned off from the concept. Should enough new players walk away unhappy, industry growth will slow and eventually halt.

As we’ve noted before, low quality experiences are the biggest threat to the top tier escape room companies.

Types of excellence

Excellent escape room experiences comes in different forms. We recognize some of these games themselves with our Golden Lock-In Award. We’ve given shoutouts to other games in a blog post about innovation.

There are also companies who are deliberately crafting a complete customer experience, and these are the companies that we want everyone to learn from.

Styalized image of the United Nations on a beautiful summer day.

Escape room ambassadors

We would be thrilled if everyone played their first escape room at a company that is designed around the needs of their customers.

These companies bring new players into the fold with a consistently fun and polished experience from start to finish. While frequently less flashy, this design is valuable for the sustainable growth of an industry.

So, what are they doing right?

Website

Most customers’ first impression of an escape room is through the website.

The website clearly explains the activity and who would enjoy it. It’s welcoming and easy to understand. Players will already have a feel for the experience before they arrive.

The product offerings – individual games – are easy to find and book. It displays location, synopsis, team size, game duration, pricing, and rules upfront.

Navigation is clear and the website answers most player questions. Contact information is also readily available. If the player calls the facility, an informed person will answer. If that player emails, they will receive a prompt and helpful response.

Facility

The facility is easy to find. It is a “storefront” on a main street with excellent signage and clear parking or public transportation options.

The entryways and lobbies are inviting, bright, friendly, and comfortable. There is room to sit. There are also amenities including water, restrooms, and sometimes snacks, games or merchandise for purchase.

The facility feels like a polished and professional business… because it is a polished and professional business.

Staff

Customers are greeted by friendly, welcoming staff. These folks are engaging. They make a point to get to know their customers. They are listening so that from an initial conversation, they can tailor the experience to any group.

There are multiple people on staff at any given time. Staff members each have a job – whether front desk, gamemaster, or something less customer facing. They don’t attempt to be everything to everyone. Players know that at any given time, a particular staff member is focused on their experience.

The staff are knowledgeable about their own games and the local escape room community. They do not bash their competition. They are prepared to recommend other quality facilities in the area.

Room design

The escape rooms are designed for the uneducated consumer, but still a lot of fun for those with experience.

The environment is exciting, but not overly intimidating. The spaces are clean and safe. Players don’t have to abide by tons of detailed rules. The puzzles are approachable. The room escapes flow logically. The props are serviced regularly.

The escape rooms are themed and cohesive.

The room escapes have fun and memorable moments that people will tell their friends about. New players won’t recognize market innovation or design sophistication. They will, however, appreciate a fun and memorable experience.

Where should you send first-time players?

Family and Corporate-Friendly

These companies provide an inviting, polished customer experience as outlined above.

Entertainment for Adults

These companies market their escape rooms to adults seeking intense entertainment. Yet, the same business principles apply. For the right audience, these will also be incredible introductory room escape experiences.

Be an escape room ambassador

Your market isn’t everyone. If you want to be an escape room ambassador to uninitiated escapers, cater to their needs. If they don’t have a good time throughout every aspect of the experience, you are contributing to the industry’s demise rather than its growth.