Lasers in Escape Room Design

Lasers are a pretty common trope in escape room design. They tend to appear in lab-themed escape rooms because lasers are sciencey. They are also a fairly common trope in Egyptian tombs.

“Lasers in Egypt”

There’s a portion of the escape room-loving population that gets really annoyed about lasers in Egyptian tomb-themed escape rooms.

While I get that they are out of place, I have never been bothered by this trope. I fully recognize this as an homage to Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield puzzles:

Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield Gif
Lasers are easier to manipulate than beams of light.

Or, more likely, they are an homage to the iconic Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc map room illumination:

Indiana Jones holding the staff in the Egyptian map room and illuminating the location of the Arc of the Covenant.
That really looks like a laser.

Regardless of the inspiration, lasers can be an effective way to create a memorable interaction and there are iconic cultural references that justify this.

Just Don’t:

  • give me a handheld laser pointer, especially in Egypt
  • use a green laser when you’re trying to emulate the Sun
  • make your laser puzzle boring or unmemorable
  • feel like every single Egyptian tomb requires a laser interaction; it’s fine, but it’s still a cliche

Laser Safety Concerns

While lasers may seem like narrow flashlights, they aren’t. They come with the potential for hazard. I will highlight a few key lessons about laser safety, but do know that there’s a ton of research and material out on this subject. When in doubt, do more research.

Laser Color

There are substantial differences between lasers of different colors.

Lonestar & Dark Helmet squaring off in a Schwartz lightsaber fight.

For example, blue lasers must be high power in order to make them visible… and at higher power levels, they are also remarkably good at burning things. For the love of puzzles, do not put a blue laser into an escape room or any other type of amusement.

Red and green lasers are more realistic options to choose from. Green lasers will usually be brighter. They also tend to have higher power output.

Laser Power & the Law.

In the United States, lasers pointers are required to have power output labeling and cannot exceed 5 milliwatts (<5 mW). If you’re buying a laser that isn’t housed in a pointer, then they could be considerably more potent.

These regulations change from country to country. For example, in the United Kingdom, laser pointers exceeding 1 mW are illegal. Check the national or local laws governing lasers before using them in an escape room.

One problem that plagues the laser market is the mislabeling of lasers. In 2014, “National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers tested 122 laser pointers and found that nearly 90 percent of green pointers and about 44 percent of red pointers tested were out of compliance with federal safety regulations” (NIST). This means that the labels understated the power output of the lasers, increasing the health risks associated with them.

This video can walk you through how to test your laser’s output (and it’s pretty cool):

Magnifying Glasses & Lenses

The above video also demonstrates how well lasers and magnifying lenses can team up to start fires.

If you’re going to include a laser in an escape room, please don’t also include a magnifying glass or prescription lens as it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a inquisitive or destructive player might use these together.

Keep Lasers Away From Eyeballs

If you’re designing laser-based interactions where the laser passes through the gamespace, try to avoid having the laser pass through eye level (knowing that height is always a variable).

A few best practices:

  • Don’t have lasers turn on in the direction of the players.
  • Design reflection puzzles to avoid eye level.
  • Use low power lasers when there is a chance that they may be at eye level.
  • Know the power output of your laser; don’t put unsafe or questionable lasers near eyeballs.

Health Risks Associated with Lasers

If a laser is <5 mW, the risk of permanent damage from brief exposure for an adult is incredibly low (JAMA 2004, JAMA 2005).

Brief exposure has been known to cause temporary afterimages, flash blindness, and glare (Princeton University).

The risk of permanently harming a person with a <5 mW laser is low, but it is worth paying a little extra attention to power output as well as laser placement to ensure that no harm comes to players.

I have caught a laser to the eye in an escape room. While I wasn’t hurt, it wasn’t a pleasant sensation… and I would have had more fun without it.

Escape Room Owners Facebook Group Admission Process Update

Back in January we did a piece on the Escape Room Owners group, looking into complaints about people not being approved for admission, and explaining how to gain entry to the group.

You can find that original piece here.

Since then, the process has changed just a bit. It’s better now.

Current Application Statuses

The admins listened to the complaints and cleared the queue. All applications have either been confirmed and approved, or investigated and rejected.

Comic book-ified Members Only jacket
Members Only

After clearing the queue, Brian Warner & Nate Shane stepped down as admins. Erick Gyrion remained and brought on Megan Mouton of Clue Carré.

(Side note: Megan owns of one of the four companies featured on our Escape Room Tour of New Orleans, which has just grown in size. Tickets are now available through April 22. Contact us for details.)

We know Megan and we can attest that she’s on top of things. She reached out to inform us of the updated application process.

Updated Owners Group Admission Process

Quickest way to get approved:

  1. Have your Facebook profile read “Owner at _____________ Escape Game.”
  2. Apply to join the Escape Room Owners Group
  3. Follow the instructions when you apply which read: “Are you an escape room owner? Is your business open and accepting bookings? If so, please message Erick James Gyrion or Megan Lucy Mouton with proof. Thank you!”

If everything checks out, then you’ll be approved promptly. It seems that 75% of applicants ignore step 3 and it slows down their application.

When I emailed with Megan yesterday, they had only 4 requests in the hopper. She says they get between 10 and 20 applicants per day… so they’re on top of this. If you don’t follow the instructions listed above, Megan will reach out to you through Facebook Messenger (which is an unnecessary kindness).

If Megan reaches out:

  • She will send you a private Facebook message asking:
    • What escape room company do you own?
    • Are you open and selling tickets?
    • Can you provide proof that you are currently operating?
  • If you fail to reply within a few days, she will decline your request.

Willy Wonka yelling, "You get NOTHING! You LOSE! GOOD DAY, SIR!"

Who is allowed and who isn’t?

This is one of few exclusive Facebook groups. It is specifically a resource for owners. Managers, employees, and yours truly are not going to be approved.

Recommended Alternative Facebook Groups

Escape Room Start Up for more business-focused discussion.

Escape Room Enthusiast for more player-focused discussion (that sometimes turns business-y). Please be kind to the enthusiast community. These are your customers.

Everything Immersive for a broad mixture of business, news, and player/ participant discussion about all sorts of immersive entertainment.

Mobile Escape Room Trailers: 16 Questions with Jason Garvett

At the start of 2018, there are over a dozen mobile escape rooms in the United States.

One of the earliest entrants was Jason Garvett of Mobile Room Escape, based in Chicago, IL. We met Jason at the 2017 Niagara Falls Escape Room Show where Mobile Room Escape was a vendor.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago trailer exterior, a yellow bricked wall with a steel door and their compass rose logo.

There are a lot of different types of “mobile” escape rooms and it wasn’t until February of 2018 that we had the opportunity to play a full length trailer-based escape room at Escape Plan Nashville. It was surprisingly… not trailer-ish! In fact, it was one of the most comfortable escape room experiences we’ve ever had.

We recently connected with Jason Garvett, owner of Mobile Room Escape, about the challenges of mobile-specific escape room operations.

Jason helped Escape Plan Nashville, as well as many other mobile companies, get up and running. He’s been around the block a few times.

Here are 16 questions we never thought we’d ask an escape room:

1: Room Escape Artist: We recently played Mayday Adventure at Escape Plan Nashville. The space felt so big! How do you make trailers feel spacious?

Jason: We definitely have to give the credit to Escape Plan Nashville and their design team for this one. At the end of the day a street-legal vehicle in the US can not be wider than 102 inches (8.5 feet). The floor plan will dictate the customers’ comfort level, how big or small the trailer looks, and the overall feng shui of the room.

I personally try to leave the center of the trailer as open as possible for people to move freely. I generally put major set pieces near the walls so that I can anchor these pieces to both the floor and ceiling.

In-game: The cabin of a private jet with overhead compartments, open windows, and large comfortable leather seats.
Escape Plan Nashville’s Mayday Adventure

 

2: The airplane theme worked great for the long and narrow trailer. How does trailer shape impact theme choice and game design?

The shape of the trailer can definitely help specific game designs such as Escape Plan Nashville’s Mayday Adventure or even our own Submarine game Down Periscope, but I would never let the shape of the trailer limit any theme choice. The job of the set designer and game designer should be to work together to justify and address why the room is the shape it is rather than rule out any one theme.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago interior - a submarine lined with puzzle stations.
Mobile Room Escape Chicago’s Down Periscope

3: Does the control room always take up a section of the trailer? How do you design for control room space?

We have units with and without control rooms. In Chicago we work with a lot of youth groups and have our gamemaster active in many of our games. However, we have a few games with control rooms. Some are in the front of the trailer; some are in the back of the trailer. Some are from an auxiliary location. One of our customers has their unit about 300 feet from their control room, but they can still operate, speak to, and watch their customers play the game.

4: How does climate impact your game design? Do you have to avoid any specific types of puzzles, components, or materials that might be temperature sensitive?

As you know, Chicago has the joys of both Mother Summer and nasty, old, grumpy, crotchety, angry-at-the-world, could-never-beat-an-escape-room-ever-in-her-life Grandma Winter. If you were to go out and buy a trailer and put an escape room in it you would severely suffer from extreme heat, dangerous freezing temperatures, condensation, and other elements that would severely impact your game.

It is not just a matter of sticking a few AC units in the roof or a heater in the corner of the room; proper insulation is essential. Trailers are made of metal beams to support their structure. Not only must the space between the beams be insulated but also the beams themselves. We take extra measures to make sure that our trailers are insulated well. We have built for climates in Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and Washington, to name a few. Each is built specifically for its climate. As a rule of thumb, I leave any water puzzles out of the room.

5: The win condition for Mayday Adventure wasn’t “escape.” It seems like the classic “escape” win condition might be challenging to facilitate for mobile games where people would rush out the trailer and down a few steps and possibly into traffic. What are the win conditions for your games?

Our first game was an “escape” win condition. All of our following games have been different outcome scenarios. This has not been because of trailer height from the ground, but mostly because we try to come up with objectives that are more interesting than simply “escaping.”

We highly recommend to any Mobile Escape Room owner that you never let your customers run out of the room. When you park a Mobile Escape Room at a location you may have no traffic or other vehicles around you. An hour later rush hour might be in full swing and daylight might have turned to darkness. Keep your customers in your vehicle until your gamemaster is physically available to check the surrounding area.

6: Are there any particular safety considerations that you need to take into account when designing and building mobile games?

Your generator (if located on your vehicle) should be installed by a professional to avoid noxious fumes leaking into the trailer. Be aware of where your wires are during the construction process. Also keep in mind that your mobile unit is your business. Spending the time to train your gamemaster in driving the trailer, laws, regulations, and maintenance is extremely important.

7: When you park it at a location for business, how do you generate power? What do you do if power fails?

We power our units with ultra-quiet and fuel-efficient Honda or Cummins Onan Generators. Just like any good escape room that doubles up on props and locks we also carry a backup generator in case of failure. This is located in our pickup truck. We also carry shore power cables where we could hook up to a 15 amp wall outlet in a real emergency.

8: Do you need a special license to drive a large trailer?

A commercial drivers license or CDL is necessary when your tractor (truck) and tow (trailer unit) is 26,001 lbs. or greater. Under that weight your regular driver’s license will suffice (always check your local rules of the road as your combined vehicle weight may require you to have a license endorsement). Be careful though, because there are certain fees, documents, and regulations that will accompany you on different weight levels. These regulations vary on a state and municipal level. When we consult with our clients we always advise on the best practices for their location.

9: What type of insurance do you need for the trailer?

You need a good commercial auto insurance along with your normal liability insurance. Most insurance companies will lump you in as a commercial truck driver, which is anywhere in excess of $10,000 per year just on auto policies. With 9 years in the mobile entertainment industry, we have been able to work with some excellent insurance brokers that have gotten us extremely good rates. We help all of our customers to achieve excellent coverage at a fraction of the rack rate price. If you decide to do everything on your own I recommend staying away from your local Geico and Allstate agent and finding a good insurance broker who truly understands your business and knows how to explain it to insurance companies.

10: I’m guessing that the answer is no… but I want to ask the question anyway. Has your escape room ever been in a traffic accident?

Traffic accident (knock on wood), no. Ticket, yes. A driver of mine was driving our 32-foot escape room in the left lane of a highway for about 5 miles. A big no-no. (Larger vehicles stay in the right lane unless passing.) This was on our way to an all-day event 75 miles from us. Luckily all of our necessary DOT paperwork was in order and our inspections up to date. We walked away with a slap on the wrist.

It is extremely important to hire a driver with the maturity to handle situations like this. That does mean more than minimum wage. All of our gamemasters/ drivers go through a minimum of 30 days training on driving, regulations, game play, and customer service.

11: Regulations for brick and mortar escape rooms vary by municipality. For example, some towns/ cities/ countries won’t let escape rooms lock players in. What different regulations impact mobile escape rooms? Are you subject to similar regulations as truckers? Are you subject to different regulations if you park the trailer in certain places?

There are so many avenues to stroll down with this question, which is why when we advise all our clients we take a significant amount of time to learn their location, ways they want to operate, and company goals. There are Federal DOT rules, State DOT rules, Regional DOT rules, Building Codes, ADA Codes, fire codes, etc . Absolutely there are different codes a mobile operation abides by, but the list is too long to put them all here. If you decide to take the plunge solo, do your research. Do not build a room in a trailer, bus, or box truck before you talk to officials. Keep in mind too that you are a mobile business. We have operated in 14 states, each one with different regulations. This is not meant to scare a mobile owner. Just be knowledgeable and prepared to educate an inspector about the business.

12: Tradeshows probably aren’t your bread and butter. Who are your typical clients?

This interview gave me an excuse to check our statistics for our Chicago clientele for everyday private escape room rentals: 40% youth birthday parties, 40% corporate events, 10% religious, camp and school, 5% university/college, and 5% social. (These numbers are rounded.)

In terms of our mobile escape room sales and inquiries, about 75% are existing escape room owners realizing the value of bringing a team-building activity to their clients, 15% are other attractions and family entertainment centers, and 10% are event planners.

13: How far will you drive it for an event? And how does pricing work for long distance delivery?

We have been fortunate enough to operate in 14 different states. We have been as far east as South Carolina and as far west as western Iowa. We have had offers to travel to Washington, California, Texas, Abu Dhabi and Australia. Sometimes it makes more sense to turn over business to partners in closer areas (both for us and our clients). When we do extended travel we must calculate miles, employee hours, hotels, parking, meals, tolls, and miscellaneous items to make sure we are not shortchanging ourselves. We had a travel program especially created for us that takes into account all of these factors.

Mobile Room Escape Chicago interior - a submarine lined with puzzle stations. WWII propaganda posters hang on the wall.
Mobile Room Escape Chicago’s Down Periscope

14: Can the general public book with you? If there are escape room enthusiasts living in Chicago, how do they find you?

In Chicago we only do private events. It is a flat rate for us to come out to your location. However, we get daily requests for 2, 3, or 4 person bookings. We care about these customers as much as we do our 60-person corporate events. We gather information from these clients and work to set up times where multiple groups can be paired.

15: You’ve been in the mobile escape room business longer than most. In fact, you were the first mobile escape room we added to our Escape Room Directory. Recently, we’ve been investigating a claim to a patent on the concept of “mobile escape room.” Your business is proof of “prior art.” Considering your longevity as a mobile escape room and vendor of mobile escape rooms, what are your thoughts on patents and trademarks in mobile escape rooms?

I focus my time and effort not on patenting my product, but on unique customer service, customer experience, and my employees’ experience. To me, that is what equals a successful product that few can copy.

I do think a trademark is important to have for your business for both the business owner and safety of the customer. A person eats at Burger King because they know the product and customer experience they can expect. They would probably be upset if they went to a “Burger King” and found it was not the burger chain, but a new mom-and-pop restaurant. From Burger King’s standpoint, it stops other companies from trying to pose as them, build off of their success, and possibly tarnish their name with an inferior product. If you want to start a burger company call it something other than “Burger King” and give a better overall experience.

My own personal take on patents is they are a big waste of time when it comes to any creative venture. Whether I go to a play, an escape room, a musical concert, or stroll through an art gallery, or just walk through a state park, I am constantly inspired by what is around me. It jogs my creative juices and gives me a courage to be bold and test my limits. As an actor, I never wanted to copy the way Kenneth Branagh played Henry V, but I would watch and learn from great actors, and then find a way to make this my own. I am sure, David and Lisa, you have seen hundreds of bombs in a briefcase, circuit breaker boxes, and patch cord puzzles in your escape room journeys. What makes any one of these truly unique is how the escape room utilizes that puzzle in their game. That is not copyable.

16: Do you have any additional advice for someone who might be considering whether or not to build a mobile escape room?

I get about 3 to 5 emails/ calls weekly from potential mobile escape room owners. My biggest piece of advice is this: “do it right the first time.”

If you wanted to, you could go out and buy a 5 year old 26-foot used steel trailer and put a game in it for $20,000 dollars. I can guarantee you within your first year in business you will put $10,000 into proper insulation, heating, and cooling, and $5,000 into structural repair. Add another $5,000 for the electric, lights, and structural elements to make it an entertainment trailer. Then there will be about $10,000 to $20,000 in lost revenue from the time you will have to take it off the road for upgrades. For that same price you could have bought a brand new aluminum (will never rust) trailer with all the proper equipment to run a successful Mobile Escape Room business for many years. You would not put a brick and mortar escape room in a building with termites, shoddy electrical, and bad heating and cooling… don’t do that for a mobile unit either.

I’ve talked a lot about trailers, but it is important to note that this mobile community exists for trailers, busses, box trucks, tents and pop-up games. There are many good reasons why we recommend trailers over other vehicular forms of entertainment. However, we do not discriminate against other forms. We have many successful friends running bus operations. For any of these forms, we advise doing the research and seeing what the long term costs are for operation.

And our final piece of advise… stay out of the left lane when on the freeway.

Thank you, Lisa and David, for all you do for the escape room industry.

“The Wrong MacGyver Solution” [Room Design]

Allowing for player improvisation in an escape room (or MacGyver-ing) creates some of the most incredible moments that this form of entertainment has to offer.

The Benefits of MacGyver Puzzles

Speaking as a player, many of my most memorable escape room experiences stem from being presented with a challenge and the opportunity to craft our own solution using our wits and the items that we could scavenge from the gamespace.

While these types of interactions make me feel like I have freedom, there are usually a select few solution options available, sometimes even just one… and that’s fine. The fun comes in discovering and executing the “hack.”

A pencil, paperclip, & rubber band.

Unfortunately, there are a few ways that this can go wrong.

I’m going to use two approximations of real life examples without naming the games or companies or providing the specific solution. If you’re hyper-sensitive to anything resembling a spoiler, turn away now. 

Strange Rules

Before entering a room escape, we were explicitly told that we weren’t allowed to bend anything. It was a pretty strange and unusual rule… but sure… we wouldn’t bend anything.

Early in the escape room we found a bottle mounted to a fixed surface. It had a key in it. We began searching for a means to get it out.

We eventually found a box of paperclips, and one of our teammates began assembling a paperclip chain. When his chain was long enough, he was about to bend a final paperclip into a hook. I stopped him and reminded him of our unusual “no bending” rule.

A little annoyed, he stopped and we searched the room for something else we could use as a hook. We eventually found the item that had been hidden in the gamespace for us to attach to a paperclip chain and retrieve our prize.

Where This Went Wrong

  1. The rule was strange, easy to forget, and came into play late enough in the game that most of the team had forgotten it.
  2. We had to debate whether bending a paperclip really constituted a rule violation. Sure, it would be destroying an item in the room, but it was a damn paperclip. You can buy a thousand paperclips for less than $7.
  3. Had I not stopped my teammate, we certainly would have been chastised by the gamemaster, who was heavy-handed about rules and control.
  4. This killed the momentum of a puzzler on the path to a good solve. Ironically, the “real solution” was the same thing. We just needed to search like crazy to find something that was already in the shape of a hook.
  5. This eliminated the opportunity for creativity. What started off enjoyably was bogged down by a cruddy rule.

One True Solution

We were making quick work of an interesting game. Our team was solving along until we hit a snag: a gate blocking us from reaching a critical item.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that the gate was firmly fixed in place. I was confident that there weren’t trap doors and the gate had no locking mechanism (mechanical or magnetic). There were, however, small gaps in the gate.

I looked around the gamespace for something long and narrow that could reach through the gate and found a curtain rod. It was mounted low enough that I could reach it effortlessly and it was fixed to its bracket with a brass thumbscrew. I unmounted it, reached in through the gate, and easily pulled back my prize.

It was close enough that I could reach it with my fingers when the gamemaster chastised me for “using the wrong item.” My solution was dead on; my tool was incorrect.

Even though I had completed the challenge already, I went searching for the “right tool.” It took me less than a minute to find it. Ironically, I had to disassemble a different item in the room. I only knew that I had the “right tool” by observing the wear on it.

I feigned like I was using it to retrieve the item. (The gamemaster’s camera angle didn’t let him see that I had already finished the puzzle before he slapped my wrist.) Then I moved on.

Where This Went Wrong

  1. The company wanted this puzzle solved in a specific manner, but didn’t use clues to indicate what the right solution was. It was left to the players’ imaginations.
  2. My solution worked and was non-destructive.
  3. The gamemaster didn’t have enough camera coverage to realize that I was already done with the puzzle. (The only reasons that I persisted in finding the right solution were to make sure that I knew what it was in the event that we found other relevant cluing… and because I was curious as a reviewer.)
  4. Like in the last example, my momentum, feeling of success, imagination, and enthusiasm were needlessly shut down.

The Lesson

Rules are important to protect the players, game, and gamemaster.

Rules are a terrible way to “fix” a puzzle with multiple solutions.

If a player is respecting the gamespace and having fun, let them explore and solve how they see fit.

If they destroy a single paperclip that costs $0.00648, maybe that’s not a problem.

Fun is more important than technically correct or intended solutions.

WordLock – All Possible 4 & 5 Letter Words

I recently published an analysis on the Master Lock 4 letter combination locks. They have an unusual letter distribution and I was curious how many English words could be generated with those locks. It turned out that those Master Locks could create a lot more words than I had anticipated.

In light of the popularity of that post I once again worked with Rich Bragg of ClueKeeper to run the same analysis on the popular WordLock PL-004 5-Dial.

This lock seems to have fewer clichéd words, but there are a few that pop up a little too often including:

  • LASER
  • DEATH
  • FELON
  • BOOK(S)

A 5 letter WordLock closed, the word "Books" appearing.

Letter Distribution

This analysis is focused on the most current 5 disk WordLock model, the PL-004. There are 3 older models with somewhat different letter distributions and WordLock has other 4 disk products. 

The fixed-disk WordLock uses the following letter configuration:

Disk 1: L S W B P F M D T A

Disk 2: A P O R I L C E T N

Disk 3: S E R I L A N U T O

Disk 4: E L D A O S K N R T

Disk 5: R L S N T H Y D _ E

There are two particularly interesting things about this letter distribution.

First, the blank spot on the fifth disk (represented above with an underscore) cleverly allows the WordLock to represent 4 or 5 letter words.

Second, the lock has asymmetrical disks that, when all aligned, defaults 7 of the 10 lines of the lock into words:

  • WORDS
  • SPELL
  • LASER
  • BRIAN … if you consider a name to be a word
  • PILOT
  • FLASH
  • ANOTE … while it does have a definition, this more looks like a word than is a word

While the remaining three lines are gibberish, it’s still a nifty and thoughtful feature as the lock looks cool with all of those words on its face.

A 5 letter WordLock closed, the word "Spell" appearing.

What Words Can This Distribution Generate?

Here’s the spreadsheet. The left-most column contains 1,652 core English words. These are the best words that the analysis found. The further right you move, the less useful the words generally are (and the farthest right is mostly nonsense).

Analysis Methodology & Column Explanation

Absolutely everything about this analysis and its outputs conforms to the same information presented in the last letter lock analysis, so I won’t rehash it. It’s on the Master Lock post if you’re interested.

Odd Letter Distribution Hypothesis

After publishing the last analysis some members of the room escape community proposed a hypothesis about the odd letter distribution on those Master Locks:

It seemed like Master Lock may have been trying to make it impossible to spell curse words.

This seems like a valid answer for both Master Lock and WordLock’s letter selection. I cannot prove this one way or another, but you cannot generate the most popular American English swear words with these locks… so that’s probably not a coincidence.

Nevertheless, sifting through the wordlist revealed a few “vulgar” or degrading words… and I’m including them because my inner 10 year-old thinks this list is hilarious:

Vulgar Words: Proceed With Caution

ANAL, ANUS, BALLS, BONER, DORK, PANSY, SISSY, and PENAL (That last one isn’t at all vulgar, but it sure feels like it should be.) You can also generate the word MOIST… which apparently is a word that a lot of people hate.

[collapse]

There are also TONS of innuendo-y words that I didn’t include… because I’m an adult.

WordLock Word List

Fighting Back Against Patents [Featured Comment]

We’re trying something new: highlighting an absolutely fantastic comment.

This comment is from J Cameron Cooper on our post ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS: Patent Troll?

In the post we look into one company’s claim that they have filed a patent for mobile escape games and examine the legitimacy of such a move.

Intense black & white image of a armored knight ready to strike with a sword.

J Cameron Cooper added:

“Prior to patent issuance, a third party (“3rd party”) can anonymously (1) submit prior art in the form of a preissuance submission, (2) file a protest of an application, or (3) request a public use proceeding.” http://www.bskb.com/news/articles/documents/MAA_ETP_JPAAArticle-AttackingaUSPatentorApplicatio.pdf

While whatever claims one is likely to make in such an application are likely laughable, the Patent Office is in a pretty laughable state and has approved stupider things. Anyone with an interest in this should look carefully at a Preissuance Third Party Submission (37 C.F.R. § 1.290) to inform the examiner of prior art. Even that should be done carefully, however.

I have searched published US pending applications and there is no such thing among them. You can go directly to the USPTO (http://appft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-bool.html), but https://patents.google.com/ is pretty handy. Since it isn’t yet published, anyone interested should set up an alert at https://www.uspatentappalerts.com/index.php

It’s not particularly my business, but I’ve set up an alert for this one just because I hate patent trolls.

Oh, and if anyone else is interested, “Die Hard” is a 20th Century Fox property, “Twilight Zone” appears to be CBS, and “Da Vinci Code” is Dan Brown. Large properties don’t seem to care much for enforcing their rights against escape rooms (I think they’re too small) but perhaps one of them would like to hear of this company.

This was a fantastic addition to what we wrote. Thank you, J Cameron Cooper.

In the future, we’ll continue to feature comments on our posts that spread knowledge and drive discussion.

Master Lock: All Possible 4 Letter Words

Master Lock has many different word combination locks and cable bike locks on the market that have fixed disks. (You cannot swap the order of the disks.)

In the escape room community, the three best known fixed-disk locks are:

Master Lock Model No. 1535DWD

Master Lock letter lock 1235DWD with the word "BOOK" appearing as the combination.

Master Lock Model No. 643DWD

Master Lock letter lock 643DWD with the word "MOCK" appearing as the combination.

Master Lock Model No. 175DWD

Master Lock letter lock 175DWD with the word "TEAR" appearing as the combination.

All of these fixed-disk letter locks have the exact same letter distribution, which made me wonder:

How many 4-letter words can these Master Locks create?

I hope to see more variation in solutions used on these locks in escape rooms. The same half-dozen words show up a whole lot. (I’m looking at you BURY, STAR, & SAND).

Three Master Lock letter locks with the combinations entered as sand, star, and bury.

Letter Distribution

Each fixed-disk letter Master Lock uses the following configuration:

Disk 1: L N B D M J P R S T

Disk 2: O U Y R T L H A E I

Disk 3: C D E O R S T L N A

Disk 4: K Y R S T L N E D H

What Words Can This Distribution Generate?

I asked Rich Bragg of ClueKeeper how he’d determine all the words these locks could generate. A few minutes later he sent me back a spreadsheet filled with words.

Column Explanation

There is no way to generate a single answer to the question “how many English words can this lock create?” English is a constantly evolving language. Words are created, usage shifts, and words fall into disuse.

Column A is the common English word list. This is by far the most useful column. It has 695 words.

Column B is the “ENABLE” word list. These are still words, but they are obscure or old English.

The next three columns are decreasing useful, with the fifth column being words from Wikipedia (which includes acronyms, initialisms and the like).

Each list omits the words found in the previous lists.

I’ve included all of the columns in the spreadsheet because even the less useful columns have some interesting entries… They are just few and far between.

Analysis Methodology

Bragg used TEA Crossword Helper, which is anagramming software on steroids. This is the kind of software that you use if you’re really serious about winning a major puzzle hunt.

From the TEA website:

“TEA comes with a database of over 6 million words and phrases including the title index for the English version of Wikipedia. These answers are classified by their familiarity, so you always see the most likely ones first. You can look up the meanings in the integrated dictionary/thesaurus or on the Internet. TEA is faster and more convenient than word lists in book form such as crossword completers, crossword dictionaries and crossword keys.”

Is There A Better Distribution?

The letters on each disk are pretty curious, especially when you notice oddities like the “J” in the first disk or the “Y” in the second disk.

From a letter frequency standpoint, these are not great letters to drop in those positions.

I reached out to Master Lock to ask how they chose this letter distribution, but they could not be reached for comment.

I suspect that there are more effective letter distributions possible that would generate even more words, but after a quick attempt at doing better, I fell a bit short. If you find one, I’d be curious to see it.

However, whether or not there is a better distribution, this is the one we have on these locks. It’s a lot of options. Feel free to use this list as a tool.

Master Lock Letter Lock Word List

ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS: Patent Troll?

Last week a number of escape room owners let us know that a guy named Howard Cutler of ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS dropped into the Mobile Escape Room Owners Facebook group brazenly announcing that he had filed a patent on the concept of “mobile escape room” and demanding that everyone get off of his lawn.

Screen shot of Howard Cutler's Facebook post: Full text printed below picture

“Ladies and Gentlemen. I have a patent pending for a Mobile Escape Room. It seems like the word ‘mobile’, gets used loosely. My Mobile Escape Room is indeed 100 percent mobile. We are not brick and mortar and we are not a trailer. We literally build the specific themes for each client, inside or outside, 100 percent turnkey system. If you are thinking or currently have a tent, pip and draping, inflatable frame, igloo or anything to make the actual room and place puzzles, locks codes or anything under the sun inside the room, you will be in violation of my patent. This is not a joke and I want each and everyone of you to be advised of this before you are thinking of pursuing this idea or may already be doing this. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me at 3014247114 during business hours.”

The Community Reaction

The Mobile Escape Room Owners Facebook group responded with a mix of assertive clarification of facts and mockery… both of which seem well-deserved given the circumstances.

Patent Filings Are Serious

It’s easy to look at Cutler’s poorly written declaration of war and laughable claim to ownership of the idea of mobile escape rooms as a joke. If you know anything about the history of escape rooms, this should seem utterly hilarious.

A hairy in a viking helmet holding a shield.

If you know anything about patent trolls, the damage they can do, and the cost involved with killing even stupid patents, you’ll know that we as a community need to take this seriously.

Based on Cutler’s statement, his refusal to answer basic questions, and a whole lot of evidence that I will lay out before you, it’s clear that to me that he is either a forum troll or a patent troll. All signs point to the latter.

My Conversation with Cutler

I called Cutler as per his posting to hear about his innovation, his intentions, and his timing.

When I finally got him on the phone a day after calling, he answered all but one of my questions by telling me that I’d have to ask his attorney.

When asked how long he had been in business, he answered, “25 years,” which was a cute response. When asked how long he had been in the escape room business… you guessed it: I had to ask his attorney.

His attorney could not be reached for comment.

About ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS

I did a bit of digging around ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS to try and learn where this company came from, and more importantly, when it came about.

All signs point to late November and early December of 2017.

Domain Records

According to the WhoIs record on the website’s domain, it was created on November 12, 2017.

Whois domain record showing that the entry was created on November 12, 2017.

Facebook Posts

A search of “ultimate mobile escape room” on Facebook brought me to Cutler’s company page ULTIMATE AMUSEMENTS. The oldest post mentioning escape rooms appears to be from December 3, 2017. There isn’t a lack of promotional content for other products on their Facebook page.

Ultimate Amusements Facebook promoting their games on December 3, 2017.

ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS’ Website

(We are purposely not linking.)

All 5 of the games listed on the ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS website are listed as “NEW.”

This further suggests that this company emerged in late Q4 2017.

IP Infringement?

When I perused ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS’ website I learned that they have a few games based on pre-existing intellectual property:

  • Da Vinci Code
  • Twilight Zone
  • Die Hard

Cutler didn’t stay on the phone long enough for me to ask about licensing, but I do know that these licenses take a lot of time and money. I would be surprised to learn that ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS negotiated deals with the appropriate rights holders.

I’m not the IP police and I don’t get particularly worked up over the subject, but given Cutler’s IP tantrum, in this case it’s worth noting.

Pricing & Quality

It looks like ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS’ business model is fundamentally different from most escape room companies in that they seem entirely focused on setting up temporary games for large events. It would cost an incredible amount of money to play these games.

Ultimate Amusements pricing for their mobile escape rooms ranging from $900 for 30 minutes to $4000 for 4 hours.
These prices drop a bit with volume… but wow.

I normally never judge an escape game by photos, but a quick glance at the Facebook post from December 3rd shows what looks like a bland retread of a lot of old cliches: blacklights, book safes, and uninteresting settings.

All of this suggests that ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS and its owner are neophytes to escape rooms.

Some Mobile Escape Room Facts

We’ve been tracking the growth of the escape room industry in the United States since mid 2014, before the overwhelming majority of escape rooms even opened in this country. There are a ton of different mobile escape games in the market and plenty of different definitions of mobile.

Trailer Escape Rooms

The first branded mobile escape room that we became aware of was Mobile Room Escape in Chicago. We added this company to our map in February of 2016. It opened in 2015.

There are plenty of trailer-based games all over the United States. We first played one at the Chicago Room Escape Conference in August of 2016.

Trailer games, however, aren’t the only portable or temporary escape games on the market.

Portable Escape Rooms

Back in March of 2016 while on our honeymoon, Lisa and I played 60 Out’s Quest in a Box, a game that existed in the lobby of a brick and mortar escape room, but could be broken down and moved about.

Tent Escape Rooms

We met the guys from Mindgames Productions at the Niagara Falls Room Escape Conference in May of 2017. These guys had a tent-based product that looked similar to what Cutler claims he has recently patented.

When I reached out to the guys from Mindgames I learned that they’ve been producing these experiences since April of 2015.

Tabletop Escape Rooms

There are also tabletop games, the first of which was Escape Room in a Box, which we played back in February of 2016 as well. These games made an appearance on the floor of the very same Chicago Room Escape Conference. They could certainly classify as portable or mobile escape rooms.

Train-Based Escape Rooms

In 2017 our Canadian friends from the Room Escape Divas ran a 3 hour escape room event on a moving train.

That’s pretty mobile.

Mass Escape Events

Then there is Real Escape Games, also known as SCRAP… the first company to sell a formal room escape product. They have been running portable, traveling mass escape games for longer than escape rooms have been in the United States.

Our first visit to a traveling SCRAP event was in June of 2014. This was also my first escape room review before this website even existed.

SCRAP has produced tons of games that have temporary and portable structures that hold puzzling content.

Prior Art

A patent can be denied or invalidated if there is proof of prior art. Prior art is essentially any evidence that the patented thing existed beforehand.

Unless ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS has been a sleeper silently making these escape rooms for years without anyone knowing about it, any number of posts on this website could invalidate their claim.

Mobile escape rooms isn’t a new concept. No one holds a patent on it… and that’s fantastic. It means that the idea is out there for all of us to enjoy and iterate on.

If ULTIMATE MOBILE ESCAPE ROOMS wants to become a patent troll and declare control over the idea, they are going to have to fight a host of escape room owners who have been in the business for some time.

If the US Patent and Trade Office happens to approve this patent and start suing, give us a call. We’ll happily take the stand and testify to the variety of mobile escape rooms that exist, and have already existed, in the United States and all around the world.

How To Gain Admission to the Escape Room Owners Facebook Group

Some escape room owners are a little peeved that the administrators of the Escape Room Owners Facebook group haven’t approved their membership requests.

After we published 13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room, which included a recommendation that owners join that community, we received a few messages from frustrated owners who haven’t been approved to join the group.

Comic book-ified Members Only jacket
Members Only

I reached out to Brian Warner (Evilusion), one of the administrators of the group. Here’s what I learned:

Why Aren’t Applications Being Approved?

The Escape Room Owners Facebook group is only for people who own escape rooms. We aren’t in the group and have never asked to join. 

The administrators need evidence that each applicant is actually an escape room owner. They currently have a backlog of over 3,000 applicants, most of whom are spammers, bots, and non-owners.

Brian, Nate Shane (Escape Room Master), and Erick Gyrion (Escape Room Wisconsin) are the only three people who administer applicants. It’s a lot of work for three guys who also work a lot and, ya know, have lives. (We can relate.)

How Can I Expedite My Approval?

Brian recommend the following:

  • Send him a Facebook message with proof of escape room ownership.
  • Reply to his Facebook messages.

If you communicate, you’ll get approved a whole lot faster.

What constitutes evidence of escape room ownership?

Brian says, “Send a picture of yourself with a business card in your control room.” He’s open to other proof if you want to get creative; just make it easy on him.

He added that, “The hard part is screening everyone. I’ve had people not respond to my messages for over a year.” These people sit in limbo forever.

Why Isn’t This Stated Clearly?

Well… it kind of is. However, most people aren’t accustomed to having to read a Facebook group’s description in order to learn the proper means of entry.

The description of the group opens with the following paragraph:

“Escape Room Owners is for current owners ONLY (not employees) of Escape Room Adventures. You will not be approved to join unless you have a location and are open/operating. Message Nate Shane, Brian Warner or Erick Gyrion for admission screening. All owners must prove that they are affiliated with operating and owning an escape room before an admin will approve. If you feel someone should be removed from the group, please contact one of the admins. You must have a profile picture, real name (no company as personal accounts) and be an owner. This group is not for anyone who is not an owner.”

If you belong in the group and want to be a part of it, make it easy for the group administrators to confirm that you own an escape room.

If all else fails, join the other escape room communities. There’s plenty of conversation there too.

13 Tips for Opening an Escape Room

I’m wanting to open an escape room and am looking to learn everything I can!

This is an actual email we received in December of 2017. That was the full text of the email. I’d like to say that this was an anomaly, but we receive a lot of emails just like one.

Emailer, this blog post is just for you. Good luck!

Filter-painted closeup shot of key mosaic.

1: Play Escape Rooms Everywhere

If you want to open an escape room business, you first need to play a LOT of escape rooms.

Visit some of the top markets in North America. These include New York City, Los Angeles, and southern Louisiana.

Figure out where to travel.

Visit the most highly recommended escape rooms in these markets. Visit the ones with terrible reviews too. Consider the differences and learn from both.

Travel might seem like a huge expense, but it’s a much lower investment than blindly starting a business.

2: Play Escape Rooms Locally

Know what games already exist in your market. Use that knowledge to find your niche.

By playing local escape rooms, you’ll learn the regional trends. These include website design, hint systems, intro speeches, and even escape room themes. If you know the trends, you can decide which to latch onto and which to avoid.

When an owner tell us, “all my designs are completely unique because I’ve never played an escape room”… it’s always a bad sign.

Your neighbors might have come up with the same idea. They might even have executed it better. You can’t assume your ideas are unique just because you came up with them in a vacuum.

There are plenty of ideas that owners came up with on their own that are also escape room cliches.

Play the local games to understand the norms before you step outside the box.

3: Join the Community Online

If you’re opening an escape room today, there are tons of resources on the internet: blogs, reviews, directories, chat rooms, social media conversations, and more.

The escape room community spends a lot of time on Facebook:

  • Escape Room Enthusiasts – Geared toward players, the conversations here will show you which games and concepts players are excited about.
  • Escape Room Start-Ups – If you’re new to this, you’ll find information about all sorts of things, such as lighting and insurance, that you maybe hadn’t yet considered.
  • Escape Room Owners – Once your business is running, this community will connect you with other established owners to help you stay up to date on trends. (Update: Here’s how to join.)

Remember that Facebook has a search function. Make sure your question hasn’t already been asked and answered 20 times. Don’t waste everyone’s time.

4: Join the Community in Real Life

Conferences 

At escape room conferences, you can meet owners, enthusiasts, and bloggers. We all learn from these conversations.

In the United States, TransWorld hosts an annual escape room conference. We spoke at the past two conferences in Chicago (2016) and Niagara Falls (2017). We are looking forward to returning for TransWorld’s next conference, July 28-29, 2018 in Nashville.

Europe also hosts a few escape room conferences.

Last year we spoke at Up The Game in Breda, The Netherlands. Tickets are already on sale for May 8-9, 2018.

David gave the keynote address at WroEscape in Wrocław, Poland, in October 2017. We anticipate another edition of WroEscape in 2018.

Tours

In November 2017, we hosted our first event: Escape, Immerse, Explore in New York City. Over the course of a weekend, attendees enjoyed a tailored tour of 5 escape rooms and one immersive show as well as networking and a talk about the industry.

We look forward to producing more of these events in New York City and other cities.

5: Do Math

Escape rooms are not a get-rich-quick scheme.

Set reasonable expectations when you calculate how much money each escape room will pull in.

Make sure that you’re financially able to weather a harsh start-up.

6: Hire an Attorney & an Architect*

Regulations around locking people in a room to make money differ widely from place to place. Make sure you’re following all the rules.

Attorneys can help you with incorporation and liability.

Know how to approach building codes, parking restrictions, and any other local ordinances. There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for these types of things.

It doesn’t matter how great your games are if the city shuts you down for some unforeseen violation.

Ask the following questions:

  • Is my building located in a retail zone, and will my business qualify as retail?
  • Are we allowed to actually lock people in rooms in this county?
  • What are the fire marshal’s inspection requirements?
  • What is the legal occupancy limit of my space?
  • What are the parking restrictions near my building?
  • (If renting) Will my landlord be interested in housing this sort of business?

*For more information about asking these types of questions, read the comments below. Nathan (@Moriash) offers fantastic and detailed insights.

7: Determine Your Audience

One person’s favorite game is another person’s nightmare experience.

In the case of horror escape rooms, consider this literally. Fear can be an amazing tool in game design. If you build horror experiences, however, you limit your customer base. If there isn’t already a strong horror culture in your area, marketing will be harder.

If you plan to attract corporate bookings, you’ll need HR-friendly games that fit larger groups. Beyond the games, you’ll want to focus energy on your facility, including a comfortable lobby and meeting room space.

If you’re in a walking city with a late night drinking culture (New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, etc.), you’ll need to build extra sturdy games. You’ll attract boisterous and rambunctious (sometimes under the influence) groups who will be rough with your creation. Delicate designs won’t hold up. Delicate gamemasters won’t hold up either. Consider bouncing these players if they will be a danger to you, your staff, or your game.

Consider audience from many different angles. Determine themes, facilities, ticketing models, operational hours, marketing plans, staffing, and more with your audience in mind.

8: Collaborate

From financial firm executives seeking a different lifestyle to puzzle lovers sharing their hobby with the world, escape room owners open these businesses for all different reasons.

You won’t have all the skills to open an escape room by yourself.

Your background might be in game design, software engineering, carpentry, acting, marketing… or any number of other skills.

Collaborate with folks who have complementary skills. Don’t allow your skill gaps to turn into gaping holes in your business.

9: Marketing is Necessary

Once you’ve opened, attracting customers will become your most important task.

You can have the best game in the world, but nobody will play it if they don’t know it exists.

Make it easy for your customers to help you market. Share their photos on social media. Publish content that they will want to share with their friends.

Avoid Groupon and other deal sites. They’ll bleed you to death.

Always include a call to action.

Make booking easy… and please answer your phone. You never know who’s calling.

10: Test and Iterate

Before you launch your escape room, put players through it. Observe.

  • Which parts continually trip people up?
  • Which parts don’t function as intended?
  • Which parts are subject to frequent breakage?
  • When are people having more or less fun?

Don’t just test with friends and family. They will love your escape room because they love you.

If people aren’t telling you which parts of it suck, then you need more honest people.

11: Plan for Breakage

Everything in your escape room will break.

When the premise is “figure out how to get out of this room” people will figure it out. They will try things you never conceived of. Stuff will break.

Sometimes stuff breaks for no reason. We once played an escape room where the in-game computer wouldn’t boot up. They were ready. They slid laminated paper copies of everything on the computer under the door. It wasn’t as interactive as intended, but we could still solve the puzzles, and there was nearly no delay.

Be ready to hot swap all your physical props. Have backup plans for every conceivable failure.

If something runs on batteries, replace these regularly.

12: Be Honest

Be honest with your customers.

Your customers don’t know when the game starts. They don’t know if you are trying to trick them.

If a player thinks you’re trying to deceive them and that’s confirmed in the game, everything you say becomes suspect. If they catch you in a lie, safety rules become suspect.

Help your customers feel comfortable.

13: Learn everything you can

Emailer, you know, you might very well be ahead of the pack. After all, you already know you want to learn everything you can. I hope this helps.