It’s rare, but it’s fun when a game includes a destructible prop. When I say destructible, I mean something that the team is required to break into order advance the game… not a breakable item.
I love a good destructible, but in my experiences so far, I see a room design flaw: the destructible arrives too early in the experience.
Timing and unspoken rules
The timing of a destructible matters because players learn the rules of an escape room in three ways:
Past experience (if they have it): Players who have played escape rooms will draw on the rules and expectations of their previous games.
Explicit rules: Players should learn the basic boundaries of your experience in the pre-game briefing prior to playing.
Implicit rules: Players learn through play. They usually aren’t even aware of this.
A destructible will screw with every one of these.
Players with experience know that one of the basic expectations of escape room play is that they will not break shit.
Pre-game rules are usually pretty clear about not breaking things… although games with destructibles usually have a tell in the pre-game briefing. The gamemaster usually says something cagey along the lines of, “at some point you might have to break a rule… but you’ll know it when you see it.”
Finally, destructibles mess with player expectations. Once you have to break something, the room starts looking different. “Do I have to break that thing?” is suddenly a viable path to explore. This can become a dangerous thing for both the players and the room.
Late game destructibles
Destructibles are best placed somewhere near the end of the game.
This allows players to explore the vast majority of the game under the typical rule structure, without having destruction factored into their reasoning.
Most crowdfunded escape rooms fail… but does the data reveal ways to improve the odds?
Most crowdfunded escape rooms fail.
Crowdfunding escape rooms has had diminishing returns over time.
Most successful escape room crowdfunding campaigns set a low monetary goal.
Since 2013, there have been 84 escape room Kickstarter campaigns. We collected the following data points for each campaign:
Number of Backers
We converted all local currencies to US Dollars using the conversion rate for the date that the campaign closed.
We removed Kickstarters for tabletop escape room games from the analysis below. In doing so, we removed the most significant outlier from the data.*
We focused this study on Kickstarter, the most widely used crowdfunding platform for escape rooms. This limited the variables in the data set. Note that there have also been escape room campaigns on Indiegogo and GoFundMe.
Of the 84 escape room Kickstarter campaigns analyzed, 20 completed successfully. That’s a 25% success rate.
Each year there have been more Kickstarter escape room campaigns. (Note that the data for 2017 is only for the first quarter.) On the flip side, each year fewer of these campaigns have been successful.
Escape rooms in the United States used Kickstarter the most. This was followed by the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Germany, in that order. There was one campaign each from Australia, Belgium, and Canada.
Most escape rooms didn’t even come close to achieving their campaign funding goal. In this regard, the United States was no different from any other country.
Successful campaigns set lower goals. On average, the goal of successful campaigns was 1/3 of the dollar value of campaigns overall.
Most successful campaigns barely achieved their funding goals. On average, successful campaigns met their funding goal with 119%. More than half of these made their goals with less than 110%.
Inference: This likely means that many of these campaigns were pushed past their funding threshold by the game’s creators. It’s likely not a coincidence that most successful campaigns just barely exceeded their goal.
On average successful campaigns had more than twice as many backers as campaigns over all. They were likely reaching beyond their family and friends.
5 campaigns were canceled prior to failure. In one instance, the company relaunched a new campaign after the canceled one. The original campaign set a goal at $7,500. When they tried again, they set a more attainable goal of $1,500. They successfully raised $1,520. To succeed, they lowered the goal and then just barely attained it.
A general category, “games” is right in line with this at a 34% success rate.
I initially thought that it may have been the limited geography of escape rooms that resulted in a lower success rate, but the theater category seems to disprove that assumption. Kickstarters for theater complete successfully 60% of the time.
My assumption is that escape rooms are less well known and not viewed as an inherent public good in the same way as theater.
Escape Room in a Box co-creators Juliana Patel and Ariel Rubin spent 3 months researching and preparing their Kickstarter campaign before it launched. They looked for resources within the established board game industry. They recommend the following:
Juliana and Ariel also recommend that before launching a Kickstarter, you join the community, both locally and on the internet. If you engage with the community, you’ll have a better idea of what the players want and how to differentiate your experience from what’s already available.
Conclusion & recommendations
Three quarters of crowdfunded escape room attempts on Kickstarter have failed.
Most successful crowdfunding campaigns set a low monetary goal and barely achieved it.
The successful crowdfunding campaigns reached a larger audience of backers.
This leads us to believe that crowdfunding might be most efficient as a marketing and pre-sale tool for escape rooms.
Think twice about crowdfunding your entire escape room venture. It’s a lot of work and you certainly aren’t guaranteed success. Do your research and use crowdfunding strategically; it’s not a lottery ticket.
Those who have been reading for a while know that I am not one of those escape room players who gets pretentious about the use of locks in escape games. I love locks, I simply want to see them used in the best ways possible.
What’s a trick lock?
Trick locks are designed to function more as a puzzle than a security measure. I am a big fan of them.
Trick locks have unusual triggers to open them. Some are simple; others are multi-step insanity. Some are solvable with few minutes of effort while others may take hours of experimentation.
As with so many puzzles, what is intuitive to one person may be a nightmare for another.
Trick lock examples
The most common trick locks around are these Houdini locks that are available on Amazon. They aren’t immensely complex, but if you have no idea that trick locks even exist, they will throw you for a loop in an escape room.
Then there’s this bastard. I own this and I don’t like it at all. I have seen it once in an escape room and I thought that it was both cruel and silly to include it.
The various Houdini locks notwithstanding, most of the trick lock market is expensive and niche.
Rainer Popp has designed 11 different puzzle locks. Each run is exceedingly limited as he hand machines them. They are both tough to find and expensive. (The one above would cost $800 on the low end, but would likely be far more expensive in the secondary market.)
They are gorgeous. They are glorious. They can be punishingly challenging.
I have handled 3 of his locks in the past, and solved 2 of them.
Do not put a Popplock into an escape room. These things are irreplaceable works of art.
Why trick locks don’t belong in an escape room
They are standalone puzzles.
A good trick lock is a standalone puzzle that could easily take more than an hour for one person to complete. If you’re going to put a lock like that in the room, then you’re going to need to build a clue structure around it to compensate for the difficulty… and that kind of kills the original point of the lock. You’d be spoon-feeding the solution to a beautiful puzzle.
They are for a single puzzler.
Like the Rubik’s Cube, puzzle locks are one-player games. That’s rarely ideal for an escape room.
They rarely make sense in a narrative.
Puzzle locks are esoteric. If you’re striving for a higher level of storytelling, most trick locks simply won’t make sense in most escape room narratives.
They are often fragile.
Trick locks are made of metal and are fairly durable. They are, however, designed primarily as puzzles, not securing devices, and they usually have a lot of moving parts… Moving parts break.
The solutions are knowable.
If a player knows the solution already, then there is no puzzle.
These are all commercially available. If you build a challenge around one, it’s possible that someone will walk in with all of the knowledge that they need to open it.
Where should I use trick locks?
I’ve seen one company work a complex trick lock into the room escape’s narrative. They also included detailed cluing for how to operate the trick lock. This was the rare exception. In this particular instance, the company literally built the entire game around the lock.
Buy some for yourself or put a few in your lobby.
Speaking as a lover of mechanical puzzles, the great ones are exceptionally fun.
Puzzle locks are a wonderful thing in the right context, but an escape room is rarely the right place.
(If you purchase via our Amazon links, you will help support Room Escape Artist as we will receive a very small percentage of the sale.)
We recently received a question from a public official in Pennsylvania who’d been asked to approve the construction of an escape room in his community. He wrote in asking:
“In the event that a person in the room becomes disoriented to the point that they are unable to cope, how is that situation normally handled? Also, if there were an emergency outside of the room which required the occupants to be evacuated, how would they be notified? How would the company immediately end the scenario and open the door?”
We appreciate public officials who do their research, so we’re here to help.
Lock In Safety
There are a number of different ways that escape room designers secure players in rooms.
Lock In; No Emergency Exit
In the early days (a whole 3 years ago) escape rooms simply locked the players in the rooms. The player objective was to find the door key and escape.
This was problematic from a safety standpoint. It was also limiting from a creative perspective. We rarely see this anymore and strongly discourage it.
Lock In; Emergency Key
The first safety backup system was the addition of an emergency key next to the door. In this scenario, an emergency key is attached to the door on a chain next to the door lock or put inside of an easy-to-open pouch beside the door lock.
In the event of an emergency, any player can grab that key, open the door, and exit the room. The team doesn’t win, but at that point, nobody cares.
Lock In; Magnetic Locks
Next, companies began using mag locks, where the door is held shut with a powerful electromagnet.
Mag locks are common in escape rooms. They are great for both game design and safety. In rooms using mag locks, players usually win by tripping a sensor that triggers the door to open. It feels pretty magical.
If the power fails, mag locks open automatically because electricity powers the magnet.
This scenario offers easier safety releases than a typical door lock. The company can install a big “push to exit” button right next to the door. In an emergency, there is no need to fumble with a key. Any player can open the door with a moment’s notice. These doors are our preferred method of lock in.
No Lock In
Some “escape room” companies create excellent experiences where the players are never actually locked in a space. In these games, the designers build win conditions or objectives that don’t involve unlocking a door.
As the escape room industry diversifies, this is becoming increasingly common.
Surveillance & Gamemastering
Escape rooms should have thorough camera and microphone coverage.
A gamemaster can oversee the entire experience from a nearby space. This enables the gamemaster to keep an eye on the players and end the game if there is an emergency (inside or outside of the escape room).
We recommend that the cameras be placed so that the gamemaster doesn’t have blindspots.
We recommend good microphone coverage of the entire gamespace. The audio is actually more important because it’s easier to identify an impending problem by listening to what the players say than it is to determine what is happening by viewing their behavior.
The gamemaster should also have a method of rapidly communicating with the players. The most effective methods of communication are a speaker system in the room or a television monitor that displays typed messages.
While the communication method is usually used for delivering hints, it is occasionally used for delivering player behavior warnings. An attentive gamemaster can notice malicious players breaking props or misbehaving and put a stop to the behavior.
We also encourage escape room companies to have a dedicated gamemaster for each game. The gamemaster should devote their undivided attention to the team’s experience.
If the escape room has exposed electrical outlets, the game should never require players to interact with these. Furthermore, players should be explicitly instructed that these outlets are real and out of play. If building code allows it, the electrical outlets should be completely covered and removed from the gamespace.
Escape rooms should include smoke detectors. Players should be instructed that all emergency equipment is real and not part of the game. Moreover, it should never be tampered with.
Are escape rooms safe businesses?
A safe escape room has the following features:
an emergency exit
video and audio surveillance
an attentive game master
clear player instruction regarding safety
These precautions should adequately inform players of a crisis inside or outside of the gamespace and allow them to extract themselves from the game should they need (or want) to leave.
These experiences can and should be safe. We implore escape room owners to design thoughtfully around safety.
Imagine a friend telling you to visit the local movie theater because you absolutely must see a new movie called Obtuse. “It’s the funniest thing I’ve seen in years,” your friend raves. So you buy your ticket, sit through the trailers, and as the opening scenes roll, you realize that you’ve seen this movie before. You were on vacation across the country and went to the movies on a rainy day to see a comedy called Dullish. Obtuse and Dullish are the same movie, but the local theater decided to call it by a different name. Dullish was edited just slightly differently from Obtuse.
This is a problem that currently exists in escape rooms.
Types of purchasable games
A fair number of escape rooms are purchasable. This isn’t an inherent problem, but far too many like games are given unique names. This is confusing and problematic.
There are primarily three different purchasable game formats. (This post isn’t going to delve into the viability of these models, but there are serious challenges and limitations with all three of them.)
You can acquire room escape designs and implement them to your liking. With this model, no hardware or construction is included, just the ideas that make up the game.
You can purchase full games including all of the props and engineering needed to get them up and running.
You can acquire a game in part or in whole through signing a franchise agreement.
We’re hearing of an increasing number of identical purchased room escapes in places all around the world going by different names. This causes confusion among people who like to escape rooms when they’re traveling.
Similarly, if you were to go play Central Bank, Cold War Bunker, Zombie Lab, and Prison Break at Room Escape LA, you’ve essentially played Fox in a Box’s The Lab, The Bunker, The Bank, and The Prison, as they are all part of the same franchise. However, you’d never know that as a “normal player.”
I’ve heard a tale of duplicate games 80 miles apart in Wilmington & Fayetteville, NC. These are the same room escape offered by two different companies, with two different names.
I have more examples, but I’m not looking to shame here. I’m looking to make a point. This is the result of multiple accidents.
Why is this a problem?
There are absolutely going to be owners reading this saying:
“95% of my players are first-timers. This doesn’t matter to me.”
This is the wrong mentality. We have over 1,700 different escape room facilities in the United States. This industry needs to mature and foster regular players if it’s going to be a viable industry over the long haul.
That means we need to take care of the most dedicated players and foster enthusiasts.
If booking an escape room becomes a game of Russian roulette, this is a massive failure. It’s also a stupid failure because it’s preventable.
Purchased games should come with a mandatory name. The designer’s name should also be affixed to the booking details. Authorship matters.
I know that there are companies that like to hide who created their games. I’ve heard some pretty funny stories about a designer who likes to hide his involvement with some of the games that he has designed. (For what it’s worth, if a consultant wants you to sign an NDA, they are shady).
Keep your naming consistent across both locations and games. If you can’t do that, at least make it clear on your website.
This will worsen
Unfortunately, I think that the problem will persist and worsen for the following reasons:
There are a lot of purchasable games out there and a fair number of owners who will pretend that it was their design.
People who sell games to more than one company are not contractually insisting on consistent naming and labeling.
No one should be hiding.
A lot of game sales happen across national borders making it expensive, difficult, and largely pointless to enforce contracts.
We keep hearing about franchises failing to offer the proper support. Consequently, the franchisees leave the mother franchise, but continue using a variant of the same games under a different name because the names are copyrightable.
I’d love to be proven wrong
I want to be wrong about this.
I’d love to see escape room designers and owners stop this from becoming a problem. So that’s my challenge. Prove me wrong.
Early in our days as reviewers we played a game that was built in a space that was previously a medical doctor’s office. It had a lot of built-in furniture that is common in doctor’s offices.
Our team really hit its stride and we were on a record-breaking pace for the first time ever (back when we cared deeply about such things). We were puzzling hard and searching even harder… too hard. I pulled some of the drawers out of the built-in furniture and underneath the bottom drawer was some paperwork and a sealed test tube with yellow liquid in it.
Now, you have to understand that I was in a serious flow state and I had never encountered an object in an escape room that didn’t belong. Additionally, the room had a doctor’s office theme going… I didn’t question it. I immediately started inspecting the vial and reading the paperwork, desperately trying to decipher its hidden meaning. Then a voice came over the hint system frantically saying, “THAT’S NOT OURS! PUT IT DOWN!.”
It was a urine sample lost by the doctor’s office that had previously occupied the space. The paperwork was the corresponding test request forms.
Upon escape, I washed my hands more thoroughly than I ever had in my life. I’m so glad I didn’t open it.
I’m not kidding and I’m not being hyperbolic. That really happened.
The moral of the story?
When setting up a new game, search it as thoroughly as possible. Your players will. Take built-in furniture apart. Make sure that you know exactly what’s in your room escape.
The less-than-60-minute formats are most interesting because they are incredibly varied.
Pro: No room for filler. It’s all solid adventure and puzzles (when it’s done well).
Con: Pricing considerations. If a 15 minute game costs $15, that’s a dollar per minute. If you escape in half of the time, the experience essentially cost $2 per minute… that’s a lot of money for such brief entertainment. Choose price wisely for shorter escape rooms.
Note: An exceptionally short clock leaves nearly no tolerance for error.
There are a few companies like Escape Room Live that have adopted 45- or 50-minute game clocks simply because it allows them to easily run escape rooms on the hour.
Also known as the unlimited game clock (within reason).
Pro: Players may exceed the game clock in order to see absolutely every detail of the experience.
Con: Companies need to leave substantial gaps in between start times in order to accommodate the uncertainty that this introduces into the system. The predictability of a fixed start and stop times allows for narrower reset windows between games.
I’ve only experienced magic time twice: both of the aforementioned Houdini and Roosevelt rooms at Palace Games in San Francisco are massive, long, and expensive games. Palace Games has opted for premium pricing for their extra long, high-end games. When you want to play one of these games, you have to buy out the entire room for approximately $410.
Pro: That price point buys magic time for you and up to 11 friends. You will get to experience the entire lengthy puzzling adventure.
Con: A solo player passing through San Francisco will have a hard time fielding a team large enough to justify the cost of admission. Also, it’s a better experience with a smaller team.
Game length is a choice
Any of these options can be great.
Make your game length a deliberate decision. Don’t choose a 60-minute timer simply because that’s what most escape room companies do.
If you have 50 minutes worth of great content, then don’t bother with 10 minutes of filler.
If you have 70 minutes worth of amazing gaming, then charge a couple bucks more and extend the game clock.
If quality is your compass, you won’t go astray.
Beyond that, be sure that you’re offering the proper value to your players when you price your game, especially if it’s short.