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.

Rad Kwikset Key Blanks

An interesting key can make opening a mundane lock into something special. These three keys made by jeweler Erica Weiner are pretty damn nifty.

Three gold keys, one that looks like a middle finger, an all seeing eye, and a crescent moon.
These could also make for super creepy Airbnb door keys.

All three fit Kwikset (KW1) locks, which are probably the second most common door lock in the United States next to Schlage. These blanks could easily be cut by your local hardware store.

(via BoingBoing)

Thoughts on Destructible Props in Escape Rooms

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.

Black & white image of three padlocks that have been cut and destroyed with bolt cutters.
Fun with bolt cutters.

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.

Past experience

Players with experience know that one of the basic expectations of escape room play is that they will not break shit.

Explicit rules

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.”

Implicit rules

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.

Should you Crowdfund an Escape Room? A Data-Driven Look

Most crowdfunded escape rooms fail… but does the data reveal ways to improve the odds?

kickstarter-logo

Hypotheses

  • 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.

Methodology

Since 2013, there have been 84 escape room Kickstarter campaigns. We collected the following data points for each campaign:

  • Campaign Name
  • Close Date
  • Location
  • Success/Fail/Cancel
  • Campaign Goal
  • Earned Money
  • Number of Backers
  • Tabletop?

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.

Analysis

Of the 84 escape room Kickstarter campaigns analyzed, 20 completed successfully. That’s a 25% success rate.

Over time

Crowdfunding Campaigns Over Time, shows a regular increase in campaign, but diminishing numbers of successful campaigns.

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.

Geography

Crowdfunding Campaigns by Country shows campaigns in Germany, The Netherlands, the UK, the US, and other. Most campaigns were in the US. UK campaigns were more successful by ratio.

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.

Money

Average goal vs earnings: Shows that the average goal runs around $15,000 while the average earnings for escape rooms hovers a little over $2000.

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.

Gap in Goal vs Earnings: Shows that most campaigns miss their goal by a very wide margin, while the successful campaigns just barely exceed their goal.

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.

Backers

Average number of backers shows that most campaign receive an average of 25 backers, while successful campaigns receive an average of 65 backers.

On average successful campaigns had more than twice as many backers as campaigns over all. They were likely reaching beyond their family and friends.

Canceled campaigns

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.

Kickstarter’s stats for all industries

According to kickstarter’s published stats (which are continually updated), 35% of all launched campaigns have successfully completed.

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.

There are a lot of reasons why Kickstarter campaigns fail. Given the general Kickstarter trends, escape room campaigns have room for better performance.

Success stories

These were the 5 most successful escape room Kickstarter campaigns:

Chart depicting campaign outliers; the only 5 campaigns to exceed their goal by 150% or more.

With one exception, they had modest goals relative to the data set.

The earliest one from 2014 was Sherlocked, which we visited in Amsterdam and loved. Most of these were more recent. Perhaps they looked at the data before they dove in?

The outlier of the outliers

Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment has been the most successful escape room Kickstarter campaign to date. It raised an impressive $135,429, which is 695% of the original campaign goal.

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.

Why Trick Locks Are Awesome & Don’t Belong In Escape Rooms [Design Tips]

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

A Houdini trick lock. It appears as a normal padlock with a key and the addition of a small, numbered brass dial on its face.

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.

A small but ornately decorated brass trick padlock with its key.

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.

Iron Puzzle Lock

A beautiful and ornate trick lock with 4 keys

I love this puzzle lock and recommended it in our 2016 Holiday Buyer’s Guide. Without detailed cluing, this thing would be a beast to solve.

Crown Puzzle Lock

A massive and intricate puzzle lock that is shaped like a crown.

I haven’t gotten to play with this crazy-looking thing yet because it costs a little more than $300… and that’s not in the budget. From what I hear, it’s a tough solve.

Popplocks

A T10 tick lock produced by Popplock. It is steel and brass, and looks like it has a laminated construction (but it isn't).

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.

Beyond that…

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.)

Trapdoor UNLOCKED: Controversial Escape Rooms

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

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

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

The 15-minute video covers the following topics:

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

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