TOMB RAIDER (2018) – The Movie That Escape Rooms Will Loot

The trailer for the new TOMB RAIDER adaptation hit YouTube a few weeks back. It certainly looks a lot more interesting than Angelina Jolie’s turn in Lara Croft’s boots.

I’m calling it now: this movie is going to have an impact on escape room design. I’m not talking about the IP plundering of the inevitable knockoff rooms where players are searching an ancient tomb for missing adventurer Cara Loft. I’m referring to the endless remixing that goes on in culture.

After giving the 2-minute trailer a gander, I was struck by the number of featured interactions that looked like existing escape room puzzles… or things that could certainly become escape room puzzles. Here are the highlights:

Steampunk cryptex

A wood and stone locking mechanism with symboled cylinders that twist to adjust metal gears.

I don’t know exactly what this thing does, but it sure does look cool. It bears a striking resemblance to the high-end cryptex of Justin Nevins.

Rotating pillar

Lara Croft twisting a large stone pillar into place.
Remember Lara, “finger strength only.”

This is already a mainstay in ancient tomb and mystical alchemy escape rooms. This is simply an adjusted take on the concept.

Puzzle box

Hands manipulating a strange wooden puzzle box.

That’s a nifty looking puzzle box.

Mausoleum trap door

A key unlocking a hidden lock in a mausoleum, and releasing a trap door.

The mausoleum trap door is going to become a thing… and I’m going to be ok with it because it isn’t a bookcase.

Menacing bar of spikes

Lara Croft leaping over a fast moving bar of spikes then sliding under another as it grazes her cheek.

Ok… we won’t see this thing in the United States, but I wouldn’t be shocked if someone created some interaction inspired by it.

You never know what some of the extreme rooms in Russia may do.

REA Weekly Roundup – September 17, 2017

There are only 5 days remaining to purchase tickets for your NYC Escape Room Tour!

REA Round Up logo with an up arrow atop the letter d.

Announcements

Join us November 3-4, 2017 for Escape Immerse Explore: NYC 2017, a tailored tour through many of New York City’s best escape rooms. Tickets are on sale now.

Ticket sales close on this Friday, September 22.

David will be speaking at WroEscape, the escape room conference in Wrocław, Poland from October 27-29th.

Featured escape rooms

In Minneapolis:

If you’ve enjoyed reading about a magical school of witchcraft and wizardry, or watching movies about one, you’ll probably have fun in Trapped Puzzle Rooms’ Very Potter Escape.

Riddle Room’s Utopia takes a concept that seemed boring at first and then truly surprised.

Something different

We do not recommend the haunted experience This is Realnow running in New York City.

Read our response to the Washington Post article Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am that published earlier this week.

Featured products

This week we reviewed Operation Escape, the second of three games for children available from Spy Code, and a lightweight inexpensive way to introduce kids to adventure puzzling.

From the community

Interested in a 33,600 piece jigsaw puzzle? It’s crazy to see someone assemble 35 lbs of puzzle into a 19 x 5 ft finished product.

A response to today’s Washington Post article on escape rooms

“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am” published earlier today. It immediately made a splash in the escape room community. Regardless of your opinion, it raised a lot of issues that we as a community should stop and reflect upon.

Escape Room Live

While the Washington Post piece spotlighted Escape Room Live, this article could be about almost any escape room facility.

I have not yet played Ghostbusters at Escape Room Live, but I have played a number of their other games. I hold them in high regard and regularly recommend that players visit their facility. They were among the first recipients of the Golden Lock-In Award.

Escape Room Live does a lot right. The topics I’m about to address are industry-wide issues.

Hint system failure

The biggest issue that I read in this article was that the hint system failed and the team spent a significant portion of the time unable to communicate to the gamemaster. This is a deeply frustrating problem. It happens all too frequently.

I’m not surprised that a first-time player who spent a large portion of their game without access to their gamemaster had a bad time.

Dr. Venkman on a walkie-talkie from the original Ghostbusters
“It’s looking at me Ray.”

I recall that in our previous experiences with Escape Room Live, they had deliberate in-story mechanisms for receiving hints. This was one of the things that we loved about them. If I had to guess, they used walkie-talkies because Ghostbusters is actually a licensed game and walkie-talkies feature prominently in one of the most iconic scenes in the original movie.

Walkie-talkies are generally a sub-par means of hint delivery because they are clunky to use and it is relatively easy to change the channel. I understand, however, their place in this particular escape room.

I strongly encourage all escape room owners simply mic the rooms and have their gamemasters listening at all times, even if an in-story mechanism for requesting a hint is in use. The walkie-talkies can be used in addition to the regular room microphones. I’ve seen this before, and it’s smart. When the room is miced and the gamemaster is always listening, this problem is avoided.

 

“What do we win if we succeed?”

This isn’t an escape room company problem… but escape room companies still need to address it.

I hate the “what’s the prize?” mentality that a lot of people bring into an escape room. I think it undermines the entire idea of enjoying an activity.

My advice to escape room companies is this: The prize isn’t the hope of winning a record, getting a better time than your friends, or as the gamemaster in this story said, bragging rights. The prize is the journey. It’s the experience and story that you’ll create with your friends along the way.

To use a dated analogy, if you go to an arcade to win prizes, you’re literally going to spend your time dropping money into a garbage game that spits out tickets so that you can trade in a stupid amount of them for a prize that would have cost you a dollar to purchase. The way to experience an arcade is to go and play the games that are inherently fun for you. That enjoyment is what you’re paying for.

I’m smart, therefore I will win

The theme of credential listing ran throughout the Washington Post’s piece. I know that this is an issue in escape rooms. Educated players with good jobs who are probably smart people believe that they are entitled to win.

It’s completely unreasonable to believe that you will succeed at something that you’ve never done.

Players with ego frequently overthink, get in their own way, and then are reluctant to ask for help. There isn’t a lot that escape rooms can do about this. Watch the players and if they stall completely, push hints. I know that some players get pissy about receiving hints, but it’s far better than letting a group spiral out into frustration on the first puzzle.

In the 4th episode of the short-lived TV series Race To Escape, a self-proclaimed “puzzle expert” fully embodied this. I find this painful to watch, but many people seem to find this guy’s tunnel vision while he murders stuffed animals hilarious.

Post-game walkthroughs

It genuinely seemed like that writer had no sense of what happened in the game. I’ve heard good things about Ghostbusters, so until I have first-hand experience, I am going to guess that the breakdown was in a lack of explanation for a player who may not have participated in, or even focused on, the puzzle solutions during her experience.

I don’t know what kind of post-game walkthroughs Escape Room Live does, so I’m going to make a generalization about the escape room industry:

Post-game walkthroughs are a dying art.

I am of the opinion that every team should receive a walkthrough. People on winning teams miss out on details and losing teams should have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and see the full experience… they’ve already paid for it.

When a team receives their walkthrough, their reaction should be, “oh… we should have gotten that.” Their reaction should not be, “I never would have gotten that.”

I know that some teams are so disinterested or frustrated by the experience that a walkthrough will only make them less happy, but these are the exception. There’s usually at least one person in the group who was interested enough to want an explanation.

I cannot say for sure, but I have a feeling that a solid post-game walkthrough might have mitigated some of the sour grapes that the article smelled of.

I didn’t like this, therefore I do not like escape rooms

“Escape rooms: Either they are dumb, or I am.”

The title of the piece implies that not understanding something inherently devalues either the concept or the person who doesn’t understand it.

I do not understand quantum computing. I kind of get the idea. I’ve read a lot about it. I can even sort of explain it, but I do not truly understand the concept. I do not think that the idea is dumb or that I am a lesser person as a result of not understanding it.

I know that editors frequently craft headlines, but even if the writer didn’t create the title, that mentality permeated the entire piece.

Escape rooms are a broad and broadening form of entertainment. There are adventure games, cerebral games, scary games, funny games… I could keep listing like Bubba, but I won’t.

Because of the terminology, many first time players assume that they will need to “escape” from a locked space. While that’s how this genre of entertainment started, it now only applies to small portion of “escape room” games. Escape room companies need to set clear expectations on their websites and in their pregame briefings, whether or not they use the word “escape” in their branding and marketing.

There are escape room-style games out there for damn near everyone, but you have to look for the ones that fit your interests best and you have to be open to exploration.

This particular story…

The moral of the story is that every single game is an opportunity to wow or fail a team of players. For every WaPo writer who plays an escape room and experiences a failure like this, there are so many more people who silently leave having had a bad time, and lose interest in escape rooms.

I know that many players are failed by the escape rooms that they play. Derelict gamemasters, broken interactions, and poor customer service are a pervasive problem. People write to us with all sorts of stories that reflect poorly on this industry that I love so much.

Companies with good products will still have a margin of error in game execution and customer service, but they can take steps to mitigate a lot of the issues.

Every escape room operator should remember that you can have a beautifully designed game fail completely if the basics don’t work.

Boss Keys – An Analysis of Zelda Dungeons

For about a year I’ve been addicted to Mark Brown’s Boss Keys, an episodic analysis of the dungeon design and game mechanics of The Legend of Zelda videogame series.

The Boss Keys logo

Zelda’s legacy in escape rooms

Regardless of whether you’ve played Zelda, its fingerprints are all over escape rooms. The earliest escape room owners in the United States were big fans of Zelda. Whether you realize it or not, all of the US-based escape rooms are building off of these early videogames.

So… escape rooms are standing on the shoulders of The Legend of Zelda series… which was why it was so interesting when the concept came full circle and a Zelda escape game began touring.

Game Maker’s Toolkit

Mark Brown’s YouTube channel features his primary show, Game Maker’s Toolkit, where he dissects videogame mechanics and design decisions. This is a fantastic series, but not the subject of this post.

In preparation for a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode on The Legend of Zelda, Brown replayed every single game in the 30-year-old Zelda series and created a spinoff show Boss Keys as a sort of publicly posted series of notes. His analysis is fantastic.

Boss Keys

Each episode looked at a different Zelda game, mapped out the dungeon design, broke down the game’s mechanics, and then evaluated how it all worked. Brown’s insights intrigued me as a lover of both Zelda and escape rooms.

Since escape rooms are at least partially rooted in Zelda game design, an analysis of Zelda design also teaches lessons about escape room design.

A few key episodes

While I wholeheartedly recommend watching the entire Boss Keys series in order – the episodes build on one another as Brown’s insights compound – there were a few episodes that I think are critical viewing for the escape room community:

Link’s Awakening

This episode looked at a critical and often overlooked installment in the franchise, exploring all of the ways that the designers expanded the language of dungeon design. Watch for the breadth of locking techniques applied in the game and the smart use of backtracking to allow the player to learn from the game environment and puzzle their way towards mastery of the space.

Majora’s Mask

This episode explored dungeon design where the physical space itself drove the puzzling. These kinds of puzzles are brutally difficult to design – and real life has a lot more restrictions than video games – but they are incredibly satisfying.

A Link Between Worlds

Brown’s analysis of the pros and cons of an almost completely non-linear game design directly correlates to escape room design.

Minish Cap

This episode lightly explored the perils of bad hint delivery and went into depth on the issues of linearity and choice.

Breath of the Wild

Brown has not yet published an episode on the latest game, Breath of the Wild, but I cannot wait to hear his thoughts.

I highly encourage anyone who is interested in either escape room design or game design in general to lose themselves in Brown’s YouTube channel. His knowledge, joy, and ability to break down complexity is so much fun to watch.

Mark Brown – YouTube

How to start an escape room business – Video by Cross Roads Escape Games

This video is a must-watch for anyone who is considering opening an escape room. 

Background

A few weeks ago the founders of 2016 Golden Lock-In Award-winning Cross Roads Escape Games in Anaheim, California gave a presentation at the Halloween show Midsummer Scream.

Cross Roads Escape Games' padlock & key logo

The video itself was originally recorded and posted by escape room & haunt reviewer Christine Barger. Fun fact: Christine is also a professional ventriloquist who once used Lisa and me as her dummies in an impromptu performance.

A lot of folks sent this video to us both because of the kind shout out we received from the presenters and because of its fantastic content.

Overview

The Cross Roads duo delve into the nuance of escape room real estate as well as the hideous world of local government and bureaucracy.

I fully endorse both the content and message of their talk. They nailed this stuff.

The video plays well at 1.25 speed if you want to knock 15 minutes off of the runtime.

Also, the video states this, but it bears repeating: DO NOT CONTACT the presenters. This was a one-off thing.

I’m truly looking forward to the next game from Cross Roads.

Who knew that the most gruesome thing at a Halloween show would be a discussion about dealing with local bureaucrats?

One Year Later: Jason Richard talks about opening his escape room business [Interview]

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.

One year later, we caught up with Jason about the changes he made to set his business on a sustainable path.

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

Room Escape Artist: When this video was shot in August of 2016 – at the first Escape Room Conference in Chicago – how many customers were you seeing each month?

Jason: Things started very slow. Not counting customers who had purchased Groupons, we were only seeing about 10-20 customers a month.

A year later, in August of 2017, how many customers are you seeing each month?

With the constant fluctuations in our market (we’re in a tourism location), it is hard to gauge, but the average is around 300 customers for our one room.

What was the most important tip that came out of the round table discussion?

The two tips that stuck with me were:

  1. Reach out to other businesses and don’t try to do everything yourself.
  2. Apply the 80/20 rule to time management.  80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

It’s not that we didn’t know these things, but we weren’t practicing them. Since then, my wife/partner and I have decided where to focus our own efforts.

For example, we hired professionals to redesign our website and help with programming and construction. Also, we aren’t trying to do our business taxes ourselves.

Regardless of how simple these tasked seemed, it was the time that it took to learn and implement them that was the true cost.

The founders of Steal And Escape in front of their logo; they are a very pretty couple.

Besides focusing your own efforts, what other changes did you implement that improved your business?

My favorite change was extending the time between groups. It takes away a time slot, but it lets us comfortably reset the room and interact with the customers.

At the conference in Chicago in 2016, Andrew King from Flummox’d Escape Rooms in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gave a presentation on getting five-star reviews. It was hands down my favorite presentation from the conference because it went into the psychology of the experience. Before we had a great room, but now we have a great experience from beginning to end.

We start things off with a 10-minute lobby game that I designed around a small box. I also offer strategies for success in the room, such as communication. After the 60-minute game, we talk about the puzzles (likes and dislikes) and listen to suggestions. We also ask about other escape rooms our customers have played and we recommend other local rooms they would enjoy. We want to help grow a sustainable player base for the escape room industry here.

Secondly, we’ve expanded our social media presence. Previously we only posted pictures of winning teams. Now we also post pictures and videos from other angles of the business such as puzzle construction. I build and program all the technology myself and it can take a long time, so I show the progress along the way, as well as lessons I learned while constructing. I don’t know exactly how much direct impact this guerilla marketing has on the business, but it does generate interest in when the next room will be ready.

Finally, we switched from public rooms to private rooms. In the roundtable discussion I explained how much I love public rooms, but I understand that most customers do not. We are consistently told by customers that they booked with us because we host private rooms, which eliminates the fear of half the group showing up late and strangers that don’t get along. Bummer for me, but great for business.

You mentioned social media. What other new marketing techniques have brought in more business?

We’ve devoted more time to marketing. For example, we look for high performing Facebook posts to boost, which leads to customers. We also followed advice from Anthony Purzycki of Trap Door in New Jersey and approached at least 20 different business in the area. Some led to nothing, but the process isn’t instant and we see results weeks and months later.

Did you consult business resources from outside the escape room community? Which ones were most helpful?

“Escape room community” is a broad term. The Facebook groups (Escape Room Owners and Escape Room Start-ups) are fun to read, but they are also very similar to Stack Overflow.  You need to research everything and then ask your question or get crushed by experts. That being said, I wish I had known about these groups from the start because they provide a lot of  good information.

In terms of business books, I recommend How to Win Friends & Influence People. It shows the benefit of empathizing with the customer. I use this principle whenever I design a puzzle. I consider it from the customer’s perspective to make sure it is challenging rather than frustrating.

Instructables.com is great for ideas. It’s a website with user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects. I don’t type “puzzles” in the search bar, but I scan through it. When I look at the various projects, I ask myself, “How can I incorporate this sensor or project and turn it into a puzzle?”

The NPR podcast Hidden Brain deals with the way people think, which helps with creating fun puzzles and offers an insight into a way of thinking that is different than my own.

Finally, I joined an Arduino Enthusiast Meetup. These folks have helped me with so many projects. Now  I’m at the meetings helping other people with Arduino questions!

How has the San Diego escape room community changed since last summer? How does the community support your business?

The San Diego escape room community has grown. I believe there are now around 30 escape room companies operating in a 50 miles radius of San Diego.

Furthermore, the community is now cooperating more. After the convention in Niagara Falls last summer, a number of owners in San Diego got together to discuss cross-promotion. One of our first initiatives was to create a pamphlet advertising the various escape room companies around San Diego. Now we meet once a month in person or through video chat. We have created guidelines for the group and we work on joint initiatives such as organizing events to inform the wider San Diego community about escape rooms.

These meetings have also led to new relationships with other owners. Through this community, I’ve become friends with Edwin from Unlockables. We send each other customers and help each other with everything from puzzles to marketing.

What’s next for the growth of Steal and Escape?

We hope to have our second room completed by December.

In terms of marketing, we also are working on a commercial and we are considering adding a blog to our website.

I also want to offer a lockpicking class and incorporate lockpicking into our of our escape rooms.

I’m developing an 18-player scenario, for 3 teams of 6, geared toward team building.

What’s your current most pressing business challenge?

It’s wonderful if you can find your passion and make it your job. My wife and I have found our passion in escape rooms and we love our business. We don’t mind working until three in the morning because we love this business and we are invested in it.

However, I still have a full time  job that takes me out of the state for weeks at a time. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like working on the business. When I’m in town, I want to do everything and I have to think carefully about how to spend my time.

We’ve come a long way since last August. We’ve hired for certain skills and we have more community resources to draw on. We aren’t on our own for everything including finance, electronics, carpentry, marketing, customer relations, creativity… the list goes on. That said, we haven’t met anyone who is as passionate about and dedicated to our business as we are. It’s still a challenge to balance our own time wisely.

Riddlefactory – Puzzles For Escape Rooms [Review]

Riddlefactory is a company out of Copenhagen that produces laser cut/ laser etched puzzles and props for escape rooms.

They asked if we’d be interested in writing about them, and we said “only if we can review the puzzles.” A day or two later a box filled with puzzles showed up. I’m still not clear on how they got it to us so quickly.

Spoiler warning

If you’re an escape room player, it is possible that you may see these props in an escape room at some point.

If you want to preserve the mystery, stop reading now.

General prop buying advice

When purchasing props, always think through why the item appears in your escape room. Don’t buy props and then shoehorn them into your designs.

The illuminating wood puzzle. It looks like a wooden frame around another piece of wood.

Illuminating Wood

$50

This item looks like a piece of wood held within a wooden frame. When held up to a reasonably strong light, however, it reveals a hidden message.

Animation of the Illuminating Wood puzzle with a light behind it. A hand moves it and the "CODE 5723" illuminates as the light passes by.

If you look at it on an angle, you can vaguely tell that something is weird about it, but it’s hard to see the message. This thing does its job.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost; it simply adds a few days to delivery.

If I were using this in an escape room, I would produce a strong hint structure that directs players towards holding the thing up to the light. More likely, I’d mount it to a set piece where it looked inconspicuous and design an interaction to turn a light on behind it.

I think this item is a cool concept. Its effectiveness will depend on how it’s used. Think that through carefully and the Illuminating Wood puzzle could be an interesting addition to an escape room.

Transparent Digit Puzzle with all pieces stacked. It reads, "CODE 5724".

Transparent Digit Puzzle

$40

The Transparent Digit Puzzle is composed of 4 identically shaped pieces of clear acrylic. Each piece has a different portion of a code. Stack them one on top of the other to reveal the complete code.

When viewed individually, no one piece betrays the code. In the puzzle that I have, however, depending upon the pairings, it is possible to guess most of a code with 2 pieces. With any combination of 3 the code becomes pretty clear.

For escape rooms, I recommend placing the lock with that code on something that could be opened early without harming the game flow. Alternatively, I recommend giving the players the final three pieces at the same time.

This puzzle could be improved by adding a little visual noise that prevents the player from simply filling in the gaps.

Riddlefactory is able to customize this item at no additional cost.

The acrylic plastic is reasonably durable, I took these pieces to a local park and subjected each of the 4 to a different form of torture to simulate the beating they’ll take in an escape room (15 drops from 5 feet in the air onto concrete, 15 slams on the ground, 15 swift strikes against a concrete bench, and abrasive rubbing against 3 different surfaces). During the impact tests, they got roughed up a bit, but survived… I did get some funny looks from passersby. The abrasive test caused more damage; acrylic scratches badly.

A piece of the Transparent Digit Puzzle scratched badly.
Left: medium abrasive, 10 seconds. Middle: harsh abrasive 10 seconds. Right: light abrasive, 10 seconds.

If you’re designing a puzzle-centric room, and you aren’t concerned about abrasion, this could be an interesting prop. I’m having a hard time imagining these in a narrative-driven game, but if you can dream up a way to do it, the Transparent Digit Puzzle works well.

Riddlefactory - Freemason's Cipher Decoder - Closeup

Freemason’s Cipher Decoder

$35: Wood, $45: Acrylic

This one is not a puzzle; it’s a representation of the Freemason’s cipher key, also known as pigpen. It’s etched onto 4 pieces of either acrylic or wood.

All 4 pieces of the Riddle Factory Freemason's Cipher key.

With this prop, note the advice in Better Ways to Handle Letter Codes in Escape Rooms.

As with the previous items, Riddlefactory is able to customize this product at no additional cost, but allow a few extra few days for delivery.

Pigpen is used all too often in escape rooms where it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I were designing an escape room set in the 1700s or built around the American Revolution or Freemasonry, I’d absolutely use pigpen and I’d consider buying these in wood; acrylic feels way too futuristic for a 200+ year-old cipher key. I would also either scramble the letter positions or make sure that the players receive the key before the cipher.

 

Sliding Lock

$45

The Sliding Lock is a mechanical puzzle. Although shaped like a lock, it is actually a semi-blind maze. You have to shift the sliding blocks around in order to slide the puzzle open and release the wooden shackle.

As a mechanical puzzle, I like the Sliding Lock. As an escape room puzzle… I can’t imagine it surviving for long under true play conditions.

The puzzle is reasonably complex. It took me a few minutes of focus to solve. It’s a one-player experience; it cannot engage a team of people.

The wooden shackle could easily be twisted and snapped. I didn’t break it (it’s too nice), but I know for certain that I can.

The body is held together by screws that I was able to open with my fingers. From there, taking the entire puzzle apart was trivial.

Sliding Lock puzzle with the screws and back removed. The intricate pieces are exposed and loose.

Of the puzzles we’ve received from Riddlefactory, this has been my favorite puzzle to hand to friends to solve (outside of a room). It’s fun, satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing. I would purchase it as gift. I cannot see the Sliding Lock lasting in an escape room.

Viking Box - Closed. This intricate metal, wood, and acrylic box looks pretty.

Viking Box

$85

The Viking Box is a complex puzzle box that measures 7 x 4.25 x 2 inches. Riddlefactory clearly states that this product is best as a lobby puzzle and I wholeheartedly agree that this should not be used in an escape room.

It took me 3 focused attempts to open this box and it would have been hell in an escape room. The Viking Box has a few deceptive attributes that require focus and attention to detail. Each time I sat down and worked at it, I realized something that I had missed the previous time. It’s clever.

It’s also breakable. The corners are beautifully laser cut to allow for rounding, but they are a physical vulnerability. Much like the Sliding Lock, the Viking Box is closed with screws that I could release with my fingers. Especially considering how challenging it is to open, I could easily see players destroying it in an escape room, which would be a tragedy.

I would use this box as a gift… or to stash a gift. I felt truly satisfied when I got it open. Please don’t put it in an escape room.

Riddlefactory

Riddlefactory has a number of additional products to explore and they offer customization. If any of this interests you, check them out.

Can I Make it in the Room Escape Business?

If a dream is going to live or die, I think it should be based on reason.

It’s a weekly occurrence that a hopeful escape room owner posts on the Escape Room Enthusiast or Startup Facebook groups with something along these lines:

Hi… I played a bunch of escape rooms and I’m thinking of opening one up. What does it take to succeed?

The Facebook communities promptly respond with a series of blunt answers along the lines of, “if you’re asking this question, you probably don’t have what it takes.”

While I understand the community’s reflexive sentiment, I want to help you think things through.

An assortment of locks, keys, pirate treasure, a blacklight, and a cryptex in a stylaized image.

Some of the skills you’re going to need to create a successful escape room business

And by “you” I mean you and your team…

  • Puzzle design
  • Game design
  • Set design
  • Sound design
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Software engineering
  • Hardware engineering
  • Writing & storytelling
  • Editing & proofreading
  • Lighting
  • Fabrication
  • Graphic design
  • Play testing
  • Web design
  • Web development
  • Accounting
  • Insurance
  • Real estate
  • Finance
  • Contracts & other legalities
  • Customer service
  • Marketing
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Social media management

Each bullet in the list above represents an entire profession. There are tons of books on each subject. You can earn a college degree in most of them and make a fine living only practicing that one. Some of these bullets involve one-off things; others are ongoing within the business. It’s worth noting that different escape room companies excel and fail at each of these in different ways.

A series of questions to ask yourself

  • How much of this process can you honestly take on?
  • How much of this process can you bankroll?
  • How competitive is your market? If there are other escape rooms nearby, will you be able to meet or beat the expectations set by your competitors?
  • What will make your games special? The best companies don’t necessarily excel at everything, but they do know how to shine a spotlight on the things they do better than everyone else, and limit the exposure of their weaknesses.
  • Where are you willing to compromise quality? You’re going to compromise somewhere, you might as well make it a conscious decision.
  • Have you visited a city where you can see truly high-end escape rooms? Do you feel that you’ll be able to get to a place where you can compete with the high-end of the market down the line?  If you can’t compete now, you’ll have to eventually.
  • What are the stakes for you? If you fail, can you survive? Are you going to need to turn a fast profit to feed yourself or your kids?

Only you can answer these questions for yourself, but while you’re reflecting on them, do your homework and read up.

Some resources

We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past 3 years and >550 posts. These are a few good starting places:

There’s a lot more where those came from in our Room Design section.

Additionally, there is a lot of knowledge on the Escape Room Enthusiasts and Startup Facebook groups. Please, please, please do a search before you post a question. The odds are incredibly high that your question has been asked and answered in detail more than once.

Some history

If you’re looking to dive into the escape room business, I encourage you to take a moment to get a sense of where the industry came from and how it has developed:

A Quick History of Escape Rooms

You almost certainly aren’t going to find success in escape rooms with $10,000, a dream, and some gumption. It absolutely used to happen in the distant days of escape rooms (a whopping 3 years ago). Times have changed. Escape rooms have grown more complex. With greater competition, it’s far harder to grab consumer and media attention than it was when escape rooms were this new and mysterious thing.

Some advice

If you’re seriously thinking about taking out a loan or committing your savings towards creating an escape room, take a vacation. I’m serious. Buy a plane ticket to Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York City (you can come to our tour of NYC!), and spend a few days playing some killer escape rooms. Then go play some terrible games too. Learn what you can from the amazing and terrible things that you experience.

After that trip is over, reflect on the questions that I have listed above. If you think you can do it, draw up a business plan that accounts for the different angles. If the plan seems achievable, start designing your games in your home. Design, build, test, and sort out as much as you possibly can before you sign a lease because that’s the point where things get real.

I can’t tell you if you’ll be able to make it and neither can the various online communities. There is room for success, but it takes the right team in the right location.

Do your homework, and if you open up… Let us know and we’ll add you to the directory. Good luck.

Three Years of Room Escapes: The Growth of the US Market

We’ve been tracking the growth of the escape room industry since 2014. After two years, the US market was still growing rapidly. Now, one year later, that hasn’t changed. If anything, it intensified in year three.

US escape room growth over time

Here is last year’s report.

At the end of 2014, there were 22 escape room companies in the US.

By mid 2015, there were at least 100.

At the end of 2015, there were 450.

Today, in mid 2016, there are over 900.

By the end of 2016, there were over 1,400.

At the end of Q2 2017, there were over 1,800.*

Industry growth chart shows the US market grow from a few games in Q1 2014 to a little more than 1800 in Q2 2017.

These days we’re making daily updates. If we spend a long weekend escaping rooms in Los Angeles or Philadelphia, we come home to a mountain of directory updates. We’re still adding over 200 new escape room companies per quarter; that’s companies, not games.

*1,800 is of the end of Q2 on June 30. As of today, that number is just over 1,950.

Why don’t those numbers match the REA directory?

The REA directory covers the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. It also covers Canadian escape rooms that are just across the US border.

One year ago, we knew of multiple escape rooms in Mexico and one in Puerto Rico.

In the past year, we’ve added listings in Colombia**, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Panama.

**Colombia is technically in South America, but this company really wanted to be the southern point on our directory, so… why not?

Are all those rooms still open?

Most of the escape rooms we’ve added to the map are still there. We’ve removed 45 escape rooms, or 2.3% of the total rooms added.

Some escape room companies are folding, but they are still opening far more quickly.

How do you count 1,850?

Locations

These numbers count individual locations as different companies. A company with a dozen locations is counted 12 times. Multiple locations can be across the country or just down the street.

Soon-to-open

These numbers count companies that aren’t officially open for business, but are clearly establishing a business that will open soon.

These numbers do not count companies who might open some day. A social media page does not count as “open soon.” Companies need to have a physical address publicized on a legitimate website. Because map. And because links.

Permanence

These numbers include permanent entertainment establishments. We do not list one-time escape room events, even if they are open for a month or two. To the best of our ability, our directory (and this study) includes permanent established businesses.

Business Model

Escape rooms are diversifying as they are influenced by other industries.

We include some interactive puzzle experiences that take place outdoors, as long as they are permanent and predictably operated.

We include some escape rooms set in stores, bars, restaurants, and even a frozen yogurt shop.

We include some escape rooms established in (or by) summer camps, churches, and resorts, as long as they are open to the general public.

So far, the directory includes 13 mobile escape rooms. These companies will come to your business, parking lot, home, or other venue and set up an escape room-style adventure, whether or not exiting a room plays a part.

So which company has the most locations?

In the US, these*** are the companies with more than 5 locations. (There is no measure of quality implied by this list):

Company Count
Key Quest 37
Breakout Games 36
Escape the Room 18
Escapology 16
The Great Escape Room 14
Epic Escape Game 10
Amazing Escape Room 8
Escape the Mystery Room 8
Room Escape Adventures 8
PanIQ Room 7
Texas Panic Room 7
The Escape Game 7
Escape this Live 6
Mastermind Escape Games 6

***Due to the url-based methodology used to find multiple locations, it is possible that we missed some.

The vast majority of escape rooms – almost 1,500 of the 1,883 – are single location operations.

As mentioned above, this counts locations that aren’t fully operational yet, but are clearly in development.

Methodology

Following last year’s study, we published more detailed information on our methodology for tracking the growth of the industry. That information will give you some additional perspectives on this data.

Growth spikes

As mentioned in the methodology outline above, there are notable spikes in escape room growth. This is because we track the date we added a company to the map, which doesn’t necessarily match the date the company opened for business… but we’ve been very on top of this for a long time.

Note the growth in Q3 of 2016. Many of the escape rooms added that quarter, and so many more that we’ve added since, are thanks to Melissa from Connecticut. Since Melissa found our directory last summer, she has devoted countless hours to finding new escape rooms, updating current listings, and investigating questionable information. She volunteers an enormous amount of time to this directory. We cannot thank her enough.

Where are we going?

We will see a lot more openings, both by people who have done careful research and those who have not.

We will find more companies offering experiences sort of like an escape room and we will have to figure out whether they belong in our directory.

We will also see the investment and skill gap start to take its toll on the lower end of the market. This means we expect to see more closures as we know that there are companies that have failed to produce fun games, market effectively, or competently operate a business. Please let us know when companies near you close so that we can continue to track the industry accurately!

Although we will see companies close, that doesn’t mean the industry will come crashing down. In the next year or two, we expect to see the industry expansion slow, but that will not be a sign of impending doom. Every region will have a saturation point and it will not be identical from city to city.

For owners who are worried about local over-saturation harming their business, a word of advice: close your old, low-end games. We frequently hear of players visiting a single game that opened 2 or 3 years ago at an established company and walking out saying, “I can do this.” These outdated escape rooms contribute to the fact that new companies continue to pop up without doing their homework.

In the meantime, no one knows where the saturation point is. If the United States progresses as many other international markets have, there will be a boom, there will a retraction, and then the companies that are strong enough will shift into sustainable models of innovative design.

We’re hopeful for what the next year of innovation and creativity will bring.

Thank you to Melissa from Connecticut for her dedication to the REA directory.

Thank you to our good friend Chris for his enormous help making Excel do our bidding.

Escape Room Kink: Q&A On Physical Restraints

It’s reader question day… This is a long one, but it’s fun.

Hey, can I ask you a question on something that is near and dear to my heart? Restraints in Escape Rooms? How common are they?

Restraints are less common than they used to be. I ran some numbers on our own experiences in escape rooms. Of the 360 escape rooms that we have played as of the date that I drafted this (July 4, 2017), 25 of them (6.9%) physically restrained at least one player.

Our experience of being restrained in escape rooms has decreased over time:

  • 2014 – 0% of games used restraints
  • 2015 – 12.12% of games used restraints
  • 2016 – 7.24% of games used restraints
  • 2017 (first half) – 4.6% of games used restraints

The type of restraint breaks down as follows:

  • 13 games handcuffed us, either by handcuffing both a player’s hands together or by handcuffing players to one another
  • 9 games handcuffed us to a wall or some other inanimate object
  • 5 games locked someone in a cell by themselves, without any method of freeing themselves

Eagle-eyed readers will note that those numbers total 27, not 25, because one escape room did all of the above.

This is a decidedly non-scientific dataset because it’s nowhere near random. Given a choice, we generally skip “prison break” games, which seem to physically restrain players more often than other themes do. One can only reach down a steel toilet so many times before that act loses its luster.

Harry Houdini bound by his wrists, ankles forearms, and neck in chains and many locks.
Harry Houdini, 1899

Do they always have safety releases?

No… and that terrifies me.

Of the 25 games that have restrained us, only 5 of them had some sort of safety release. “Some sort” is a broad definition including (1) the restraint was so flimsy that any functional adult could physically break out and (2) the restraint was held by a maglock that would open if power were to be cut.

Only 2 of these instances had deliberately designed safety release mechanisms. In both of these instances, the releases were added specifically because the local fire marshals insisted upon it. Good on those public officials for being engaged and having some foresight.

When I enter an escape room, I don’t really worry about my own safety. I do worry, however, that with about 1900 escape room facilities in the United States operating between 1 and 10 escape rooms, 12 hours a day, 7 days per week, sometime, somewhere, there will be a fire or other disaster while players are in escape rooms. I hope that when that happens, those escape rooms are designed so that everyone can free themselves. I am confident that not every gamemaster would be a hero.

There have already been two escape room facilities in the US that have had to shut down due to fires during off-hours: one in New York City and one in Framingham, MA. This isn’t some imaginary threat. It has happened off-hours and one day it will happen during hours of operation.

Are they (restraints) always clearly mentioned on the websites?

Some are and some aren’t. Some escape room owners don’t grasp the concept of consent. Many companies that use restraint like the shock value of it.

A heart made of red rope tying two old lever lock keys together.

Are there regional differences, like in Europe or Asia?

I didn’t have good answers for these regional questions, so I asked a few friends. Their insights are both illuminating and surprisingly different from one another.

Yolanda Chiou, Taiwan, Asia.Escape Game

“It was quite common 3-4 years ago in Taiwan and China. There were several interesting designs of physical constraints. Room design is more “automatic” now, which means more electric devices instead of padlocks. Since handcuffs and shackles are usually designed with padlocks, it’s not that common now in the industry.”

“These design usually require more game masters. Since the players need to be handcuffed before the game starts, at least 2 game masters are required at the beginning of the game to make the process more fluid. (The players will wear eye masks as well.)”

“I guess that’s why it’s less seen now in the room design: labour cost is high and automatic design is better.”

Ken Ferguson, United Kingdom, The Logic Escapes Me

Based on what Ken has seen of the European market, physical restraint is not very common. He’s crazy like us, so he also ran the stats on all the escape rooms he has played:

  • United Kingdom: 12 of 247 (4.9%)
  • Budapest: 0 of 43 (0%)
  • Vienna: 2 of 26 (7.7%)
  • Prague: 1 of 25 (4%)
  • Netherlands: 3 of 21 (14.3%)
  • Brussels: 0 of 12 (0%)
  • Spain: 0 of 7 (0%)

Ken describes the restraints as “Mainly standard handcuffs. One proper safety release in a UK game. Three or four where we’ve been told where the safety key is. A couple of times we’ve been shacked by the ankle.”

Alexander Knyazev, Russia, Conundroom

“I could say for Russia that it’s ‘anything goes’. There are no laws that I know that would restrict companies in terms of physical restraints of customers. As long as it’s consensual and nobody is hurt, it’s legal. Scary escape rooms have become largely popular and have become a category of their own. There’s a lot of people now who would only go to a horror escape room where there are usually handcuffs, torture apparatus and such. I’ve seen all sorts of restrains used.”

“It’s largely unregulated and there have been incidents that I can’t imagine can happen in US.”

“Like this spring in one of those scary escape rooms in Moscow an actor ‘psychopath’ accidentally sliced an ear of one of players with an axe. It was a room where players could choose ‘scare level’ with a ‘hardcore’ option where the actor was allowed to physically interact with players. There was some media coverage, but no major consequences to the company.” (Source, be warned, there’s a photo, and you’ll have to Google Translate it if you don’t speak Russian.)

“So here you can basically do whatever as long as it’s safe.” (David: ears notwithstanding).

“I’m sure that if one were to research fire code norms, they would find that they are violated by physical restraints, but in Russia no one cares.”

Pa & Trapspringer, Australia (and Brazil), Lock Me If You Can

“We’ve been handcuffed many times in Australia, but usually we are attached to a wall. In almost every game, they tell you how to free yourself in case of emergency (a carabiner that detaches you from the wall or a button that opens the cuff without the keys).  I don’t remember ever being shackled/cuffed with freedom of movement around the room.”

“In Brazil, handcuffs are not as common in games. While every room has an emergency button that unlocks the door, I don’t remember seeing any tricks to unlock the cuffs. Anyway, they were all of the cheap type of handcuffs and could be snapped with almost minimal force in an emergency, I suppose. I’ve never seen anything really restrictive there.”

How have restraints changed in the past few years?

Over time, we’ve seen fewer handcuffs and other restrains. This probably has to do with companies wising up to liability and local officials saying “hell no.”

There are also market forces in effect: restraints are problematic from a marketing standpoint because new players are frequently jittery to begin with and restraints confirm their worst fears about escape rooms.

Russian companies, as I understand it, do not operate with business insurance. US-based insurers and legislators will not abide significant injuries or deaths.

The restraints that we do see from higher-end companies are usually more interesting than “put out your hands; we’re cuffing them together.” There are interesting and safe ways to restrain and confine people if you’re willing to put in the work to dream them up and build them correctly.

There are absolutely players who are drawn to more intense experiences, and that is one avenue for the future of escape games to develop. It’s clear that this has happened in Russia. My hope is that companies looking to build more intense experiences in the States pay a great deal of attention to disclosure, consent, and safety. Insurers and legislators will make business into a nightmare if escape games produce significant or newsworthy injuries.

What are the craziest things you’ve come across?  Are there puzzles where you have to only act with your voice first because your hands and feet have been taken totally out of the equation? I can only speak for myself and my femme girl, but *that* would be intriguing 🙂

I haven’t encountered something like this, but the concept seems ripe for exploration. I would probably enjoy this if it were done well, but I don’t know how big the market would be.

The craziest thing we’ve done thus far was Komnata Quest’s Boxed Up in New York City. And yes, we had some serious safety concerns about that escape room.

The craziest escape room restraint scenario that I’ve seen (but didn’t get a chance to play) was Sinister Sensorium at Mystery Manila in the Philippines. The description:

“You and your friends have been held captive by the psychopathic killer named Enigma. He has taken away one sense from each of you. It could be your sense of hearing, speaking, or sight.” They explained to me that some players are blindfolded, some gagged, and some wear noise cancelling headphones.

I have no idea if Sinister Sensorium is any good because I could not convince my travel companions to play it with me. They were too afraid.