Every once in a while someone shares a story with us about a sex-themed game that was gross and mediocre… and we certainly cannot judge a genre by poorly executed ideas.
However, none of this answers why there are so few examples: If I have to speculate, I think it’s because there is an assumption that players either can’t handle or won’t comfortably pay for sex-themed escape games.
Violence > Sex?
In the United States we get weird about sex. We treat sex as worse than violence.
I find it absolutely baffling that we’re collectively outraged by acts of love that feel good, have measurable psychological and physiological benefits… and are the only reason that any of us exist.
The issue of appropriateness comes up increasingly often in escape rooms. What themes are “ok” is as deeply cultural as it is individual.
Personally, few themes and stories make me uncomfortable. When executed intelligently, themes like violence, horror, death, destruction, drugs, and sex don’t bother me. The only reason I’d hesitate to book a game would be the feeling that the escape room is deliberately bigoted.
For example, I wouldn’t be bothered by a game where I’m fighting Nazis and there’s a swastika as decor. If someone were to create a game sympathetic to the Nazi cause, however, I’d be disturbed by that.
As another example, a game about a made-up serial killer or a serial killer from a century ago doesn’t give me pause. A game based on the murder of a local family from a couple of years back would piss me off. If the friends and loved ones of the victims are still around, then strangers shouldn’t be gamifying the death of the people that they cared about.
While I’ve never once held it against a game, I don’t love escape rooms that center their story around violence against children.
The same goes for sex-themed games. I’ve heard tale of a now-closed game where players were basically told that losing teams are sexually assaulted by the mysterious serial killer character who had abducted them. I’m just going to assume that the stupidity of this is obvious and not bother to parse out why this is classless, dumb, and cruel.
What We Flag
We do our best to help people understand what kind of narrative and experience they are getting into.
We don’t normally do this in the form of a content warning (unless something gets extreme or unusual). We typically handle this in the story description and let the reader decide if the murder dungeon, hijacked airplane, or a demonically possessed church is the kind of adventure that they want to undertake.
Escape Rooms Can Handle Sex
I think that sex is dramatically under explored in escape rooms. I am certain that there are some cities that could comfortably produce sex-themed games.
“Sex sells” is literally a marketing cliché.
I’d strongly urge creators to:
make sex-themed games private ticketed
avoid sexual violence
be creative, thoughtful, and playful with your narrative
be upfront about the nature of the content and/or setting
never mislead players in marketing or pre-game materials
build these games in markets that will have an accepting audience
If everyone wants to be there, why not have a good time?
Welcome adventurers! It’s time to test your ability to share a single book between 8 people, follow explicit directions to the letter, and maybe even interpret vague imagery. Have fun!
Let’s set some scenes…
You’re on a space ship attempting to resolve some terrible crisis before the countdown timer runs out. The “good news” is that there’s a process to follow to stop the impending crisis… if you are cunning enough to follow all of the directions on a screen.
Missouri Smith and the Plunderers of the Forgotten Book Club
You’re in an ancient temple, seeking some fantastic artifact, and you’re being “guided” by the journal of some archeologist who basically figured out everything you’re going to need to know to attain the Holy McGuffin.
Both of these scenarios are driven by runbooks.
In escape rooms, a runbook is a procedure or routine, presented as a document, which will tell you step by step how to solve all or most of the game.
This is a word that we’ve been using for a few years now. We co-opted it from the runbooks in the information technology world. The original definition is:
“In a computer system or network, a runbook is a compilation of routine procedures and operations that the system administrator or operator carries out… Runbooks can be in either electronic or in physical book form. Typically, a runbook contains procedures to begin, stop, supervise, and debug the system. It may also describe procedures for handling special requests and contingencies” (Wikipedia).
Origins of Runbooks in Escape Games
I have no idea which escape room first used a runbook, but I am certain that Henry Jones’ deus ex machina journal from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had inspired a lot of escape room creators to include runbooks in their ancient ruins games.
I suspect that this normalized the concept within escape rooms.
Nowadays, we see variations on runbooks all over the place… and it would be great if we could see fewer of them.
Why Are Runbooks Weak Clues?
If there is one book and multiple players, then the runbook is a bottleneck. The more critical the runbook is to the success of the team, the more that bottleneck binds up the gameplay.
“Well, I have multiple copies in my game,” you say. Read on…
Hypothetically, I am going to assume that we are talking about a really great escape room with a runbook. The set is beautiful and the interactions are memorable.
Why on earth would I want to have my head in a small book for half of the game?
If the gamespace looks great, I don’t want to constantly be forced to leave that world and bury my face in a little book. This defeats the purpose of having built that amazing environment in the first place.
The size and tangibility of escape room puzzles is one of the critical factors that differentiates them from other forms of puzzle-based entertainment.
I can buy a great puzzle book for far less than the cost of one escape room ticket and get far more than one hour’s worth of enjoyment out of it.
Book-based interactions, especially book-based interactions that span most of a game, are missing the point of escape rooms.
To Do List
All too often, these runbooks become to-do lists. Teams are rewarded for following the list and not really thinking about it.
Where’s the fun in that?
On the other extreme, the runbook has only a few useful bits and a ton of sketches and phrases that are meaningless red herrings.
This is at least as frustrating as following a to-do list… and maybe even worse because you never know when you can stop staring at the pages and start enjoying the physical environment that you paid to visit.
Glossing Over Weakness
When I see a runbook in an escape room, more often than not, I think that the runbook has been added to fill in gaps in the game design and clue structure.
It usually seems like someone designed a beautiful set and cool interactions, but struggled to fill in that pesky gameplay part of the design. Instead of reworking the set and the interactions, they found a justification for stuffing a journal in to fill all of the gaps in clue structure. Runbooks are a cheap and easy way to duct tape a broken game together.
Loving Games with Runbooks
I don’t love runbooks… but I will openly admit to having loved a few escape rooms that contained runbooks. Some, like 13th Gate’s Tomb of Anubis, have even won Golden Lock-In Awards.
Is a runbook game-shattering? No.
Would a great game with a runbook be better without it? Yes.
How Do I Runbook-ectomy?
A general rule for escape room design: scale everything up.
Make every interaction big enough that everyone can experience it.
With that in mind, our advice on runbook elimination is to work the clues into the set itself:
Embed iconography into the set to convey the clue.
Plaques, engravings, painting on the set… just get it out of the book.
Strategically light the game to draw attention to critical information.
Use sound to convey the clues.
If it must be on paper, make it one sheet of paper for one puzzle. A page from a journal is better than a whole journal.
Be creative. Make sure that your players aren’t stuck with their noses in a book for your entire escape game. I guarantee that it will make for a better, more fulfilling experience.
We are looking at a maturing escape room industry.
There are more than 2,300 escape room facilities in the the United States.
We’ve been tracking the growth of the escape room industry since 2014.
After four years, growth continues, but not quite as rapidly. As the market matures, a few trends have started to emerge.
Growth Over Time
At the end of 2014, there were approximately 2 dozen escape room facilities in the United States.
The growth rate peaked in Q3 of 2016. Since then the facility growth has been steady but less vigorous.
Counting Escape Rooms
The numbers above count individual escape room facilities. If a company operates half a dozen locations, we are counting it as 6 escape room facilities. If a company operates two locations down the street from each other, we count each separately as a different facility.
These numbers includes some companies that aren’t officially open for business, but appear to be opening in the near future.
In order to list a facility, we must see its physical address publicized on its own website.
These numbers do not include companies that might open some day. A social media page does not count as “open soon.” A city name with no address does not count as “open soon.”
These numbers include permanent entertainment establishments. We do not include limited-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.
Most escape room facilities on our map are dedicated to escape rooms only. Others are part of larger entertainment facilities or housed in restaurants or other business establishments.
Mobile Escape Rooms
These numbers include mobile escape room facilities.
Mobile escape rooms take many forms. Some are built into trailers or buses. Others are delivered in boxes and crates and set up in the player’s home, office, or another room of their choosing. These companies generally serve a specific geographic area.
The mobile escape room market is growing. Our directory includes 24 mobile operations located across 13 states.
Chains and Franchises
A few companies are proliferating, opening multiple facilities around the country. There are now five companies with more the 20 facilities.
Last year only Key Quest and Breakout Games offered more than 20 facilities. Breakout Games has continued to grow, from 37 locations last year to 45 locations this year.
In mid 2018, All In Adventures, Escapology, and Escape the Room also operate more than 20 facilities.
Additionally, more companies have expanded beyond 5 locations. Last year there were 14 companies operating more than five locations. This year there are 21 companies, tallied below:
All In Adventures
Escape the Room
The Great Escape Room
Epic Escape Game
Great Room Escape
The Escape Game
Amazing Escape Room
60 Out Escape Rooms
Texas Panic Room
The Puzzle Effect
Mastermind Escape Games
Exodus Escape Room
Escape This Live
Escape Zone 60
Count of locations is not necessarily an indicator of quality. Some of our favorite games are run by companies on this list. Most are not.
The vast majority of US escape rooms – more than 1,700 – are single-location operations.
After 4 years, we’ve tracked over 220 escape room facility closures. One year ago, we’d tracked only 45 closures. This is a substantial increase in facility closures.
The closures include both single-facility operators and facilities affiliated with larger companies that still operate other locations.
Closures are not endemic to one market. We’ve tracked closures in 41 states and DC. The most closures are in the states with the most escape rooms and the largest populations.
The five states with the largest populations have the most escape rooms: California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The five states with the fewest escape rooms also have the smallest populations (although this doesn’t map quite 1-to-1): Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Wyoming, and Alaska.
The states with the most escape rooms per capita are Colorado, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, and Utah. Colorado has significantly more escape rooms per capita than any other state.
The states with the least escape rooms per capita are Vermont, Louisiana, Iowa, Maryland, and Alabama. Vermont has significantly fewer escape rooms per capita than any other state.
Analysis & Conclusions
As the industry continues to grow, we must work together to grow it in a healthy, sustainable way.
Each company can contribute by attracting new players and delivering such phenomenal experiences that these players want to play another escape room. And another. We need to grow the market together.
As the growth tapers off, it will do so unevenly. Areas with strong player bases will support more escape room companies. The United States isn’t one market. Different regional trends have emerged in game design, business practices, and player expectations. We will continue to see market diversification.
The closures don’t mean the industry is imploding. It means that some companies are not running successful businesses. These companies typically lack quality products or business operational skills. It’s not a bad thing for these companies to close. They were frequently turning first-time players away from future escape rooms.
Many companies are flourishing. We look forward to the incredible experiences they will create for us and for every other player who walks through their doors.
Methodology & Data Caveats
Directory vs Study
This study only encompasses escape rooms in the United States.
The REA directory primarily covers the United States. It also includes escape rooms in Central America, the Caribbean, and some Canadian escape rooms that are just across the US border. Data for those locations, however, is not included in the study.
Following the publication of our first piece on the US industry growth in 2016 we published more detailed information on our methodology for tracking the growth of the industry. That piece includes a bit of history about our directory and additional perspectives on the data.
As noted in the methodology piece, we track the date that we added a company to the map. We try to update the directory at least once a week, but the data is skewed slightly because our travel schedule dictates when we have more or less time to focus on directory updates.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed knowledge this year!
Please continue to let us know when you open, close, or move a facility. Please continue to let us know when there are changes to the escape room facilities in your area. You are our eyes and ears for the areas we haven’t yet visited.
We owe an enormous “thank you!” to Melissa from Connecticut who works tirelessly to help us keep this escape room data up to date. Her meticulous tracking enables us to continually provide this level of detail and accuracy. She is an invaluable member of the directory upkeep team. Escape room owners in New England will know her as half of the “Marvelous Miller” duo.
When we started this directory in 2014, it seemed reasonable to compile this information in a Google Sheet and Google Map. The data outgrew that format long ago. We know the functionality isn’t ideal for the current user base. We are working on a new engine and interface that we hope to release later this year.
Thank you to Melissa from Connecticut for her unwavering dedication to the REA directory.
Thank you to our good friend Jason for building us tools to better track the escape room industry.
Thank you to our good friend Chris, once again, for his enormous help bending Microsoft Excel to our will.
The “unclued number” is a subtle game-damaging puzzle that’s still a bit too common in escape rooms.
Unclued Number Puzzle
Players are supposed to find a number lying around somewhere in an escape room. It is the solution to a puzzle.
Unclued number puzzles have little or no clue structure and the players don’t have to do anything to earn the number other than realize that they need it. It’s assumed that the players will try the number simply because it’s there.
What’s The Problem?
A new player’s instinct is to haphazardly try any and every random collection of numbers in the locks because “you never know what will work.” This includes solutions that have no clue structure like unclued number puzzles.
There are a few problems with puzzles like this:
New players will see unclued numbers working, which reinforces the belief that guessing random, thoughtless solutions in escape games is a viable tactic and a good use of time.
Experienced players will see unclued numbers working and stop trusting that the puzzles will have reasoned solutions, concluding instead that the designer is unskilled, thoughtless, or cruel.
Regardless of who’s playing, this is mediocre escape room design. It’s not game breaking, but it certainly damages the experience.
The White House’s $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports will increase the cost of electronic components by 25%.
Before we dive into the issue in question, I need to make a something clear. I will moderate away any broad-brush political comments. Read the post, think about the issue, and feel free to thoughtfully discuss it. Anything short of thoughtful discussion isn’t helpful to anyone. (For what it’s worth, that extends beyond this site.)
What’s Going On
Electronics and manufacturing expert Andrew “bunnie” Huang published a lengthy analysis this weekend about how the $250 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports will harm educators, DIY creators, and American businesses that do assembly within the United States by slapping a 25% tax on a broad spectrum of electronics components.
“The new 25% tariffs announced by the USTR, set to go into effect on July 6th, are decidedly anti-Maker and ironically pro-offshoring. I’ve examined the tariff lists (List 1 and List 2), and it taxes the import of basic components, tools and sub-assemblies, while giving fully assembled goods a free pass. The USTR’s press release is careful to mention that the tariffs “do not include goods commonly purchased by American consumers such as cellular telephones or televisions.”
Think about it – big companies with the resources to organize thousands of overseas workers making TVs and cell phones will have their outsourced supply chains protected, but small companies that still assemble valuable goods from basic parts inside the US are about to see significant cost increases. Worse yet educators, already forced to work with a shoe-string budget, are going to return from their summer recess to find that basic parts, tools and components for use in the classroom are now significantly more expensive.”
Bunnie thoughtfully breaks down why these tariffs are ill-conceived because they fly in the face of their stated goal. Assembled electronics such as smartphones, televisions, and computers are all exempt from the tariff. The unassembled components that make up those devices are subject to the 25% price hike.
The incentive to pay Chinese manufacturing to build the entire product before shipping will get magnified, not reduced.
Escape room creators who design and build their own games or hire American labor to create custom games will take a massive financial blow from these tariffs.
The tariffs hit the absolute necessities for custom technology creation. The list is lengthy, covering essentially all of the basics short of wood, paint, and construction hardware (update: screws & nails will be impacted by the steel tariff). If it’s related to the creation of electronics, it’s probably on the tariff list.
These items from List 1 are set to increase in price by 25% as of July 6th, 2018:
A broad range of items within the following categories are affected.I have simplified the lengthy list for easier reading. Read the List 1 on the USTR website for more thorough descriptions.
resistance measuring instruments
circuit assemblies (like Arduino)
mounted piezoelectric crystals
insulated electric conductors
touch screens without display capabilities
power supply parts
and many other items
These items from List 2 are under review for a 25% tariff:
additional types of diodes
additional electronic integrated circuits: processors and controllers, memories, amplifiers, other
parts of electronic integrated circuits and microassemblies
additional insulated electric conductors
monofilament plastics (for 3D printing)
and many other items
The Net Effect
A 25% hike in electronic component prices will measurably increase build budgets. It will also raise the price associated with learning and experimentation.
If the finished goods you buy are made in the US, they too will have been subjected to these tariffs and will increase in price.
Build prices will go up.
Either budgets will inflate too or quality will drop accordingly. In general, Americans will be paying a lot more for a broad range of goods, so raising prices won’t necessarily be a great strategy to mitigate the losses on the business side.
If you can stock up on the parts that you need, you should try to do so before July 6th.
It’s also possible that the things you need have already sold out.
Adjust Your Budgets
If you’re planning new games, you’ll need to revisit your budget. There’s no way around it.
List 2, which includes all manner of 3D printing and acrylic laser cutting materials, has not yet been ratified. The USTR reports that they will open this list up for public comment. When that opens up, I ask everyone to speak up.
The bigger the company, the more insulated they are from these tariffs. Massive manufacturing operations that already handle all assembly in China will be untouched by this policy. It’s the medium and small scale businesses, as well as individuals, who will bear the brunt of these new taxes.
Setting aside for a moment my personal belief that no one wins a trade war… when I stop and contrast the stated goal of these new tariffs — to harm Chinese businesses and boost American companies — with the harsh reality that it will make more sense to buy finished goods from China, I am at a loss for words.
Increasing the price of base-level components increases the cost of education, making it more expensive to learn the skills necessary to thrive in a technology-driven world.
Increasing the price of base-level components drives up the price of goods built in the United States.
Increasing the price of base-level components decreases the likelihood that a product will be built in the United States.
If we’re going to fire a gun, it shouldn’t be at our own foot.
If you comment on this post, please include the hashtag #ReadTheWholePost so that commenters can see who has informed themselves appropriately.
This is the inevitable question we receive after reviewing any escape room that is based on an existing video game, movie, book, or television series. It’s a good question and it’s a murky one.
I’m going to explore the gray area that is intellectual property and discuss our approach to handling it. Before I do so, I want to make something incredibly clear:
I am not a lawyer.
Lisa is not a lawyer.
Intellectual property law in the United States is made up of a number of different specializations. This is to say, it’s really damn complicated.
Our Intellectual Property Policy
We have a longstanding policy on intellectual property that goes back to the early days of our reviews:
If we have been told by the company that we’re playing a licensed game, we include that information in the review. Otherwise we do not comment on intellectual property rights.
We cannot be the intellectual property police.
The laws are too complicated.
We do not have access to any contracts that may or may not be in place.
We don’t know how to parse what is fair use and what isn’t.
Even if we could sort out copyright, we cannot even begin to delve into the trademark and patent landscape in a review.
Finally, if the rights holders care to enforce their intellectual property rights, that’s why they have lawyers. If they want to go full Metallica, that’s their prerogative.
Why So Gray?
To give you a sense of how murky this is, here are a few ideas to chew on:
Even when a company flat out tells us that they have a license to use someone else’s intellectual property, we don’t know if they:
are abiding by the terms of the agreement
acquired the rights from the correct party
told us the truth
We know of one company that had the rights to run a Harry Potter escape room. Less than a week after it opened, they were contacted by the rights holder and told that the department within their own organization that had issued the rights didn’t have the authority to do so.
We have spoken with one company that has an escape room based heavily on Harry Potter, but they claim that they designed the game with their lawyer and are walking along the razor’s edge of fair use. The game has been running for some time without being shut down, so maybe they achieved their goal?
We cannot tell the difference between an escape room that is inspired by Indiana Jones and an escape room that is violating the intellectual property of the rights holders. We can note if the game seems particularly Indiana Jones-y.
We cannot tell the difference between an Egyptian tomb raid called The Mummy and one that is violating the IP rights of The Mummy film. We can note if the game references the film.
Passionate Opinions on IP
I know that in the community, there are a lot of people with strong opinions on intellectual property.
There are plenty of people shouting “come up with your own ideas.” There’s also no shortage of folks who are eager to tell us that, “In my country, no one cares about intellectual property rights.”
We’re chilling somewhere in between the two.
In principle, I agree that people should create their own intellectual property. In practice as a player, I love exploring these worlds in escape rooms. I’d be lying if I said that it matters to my gameplay experience whether or not there is a contract correctly assigning rights now collecting dust in someone’s office .
If we were reviewing phones, no one would expect us to base our review on whether or not Samsung was violating some random patent held by Apple.
Finally, I am not losing any sleep for the major media companies. They can take care of themselves. I think that it’s pretty damn stupid for a mom & pop escape room business to take on the risk associated with violating the intellectual property rights of a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. If the rights holders want to come down hard, it’s certainly within their capabilities.
So, all of that is to say:
If we have reason to believe that the experience we’re reviewing is licensed, we’ll say so. Otherwise consider our silence as a big old ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Congratulations to our good friends over at No Proscenium for releasing episode 150.
We’ve been on No Pro a few times and had so many wonderful conversations with Noah. This is by far my favorite discussion that we’ve ever recorded. (I wish that we had recorded our in-person conversation about consent in experiences that we had over dinner and drinks a few months ago.)
In This Episode
Michael Andersen of ARG.net joined us to discuss spoilers, when they matter, and the nuance of how they affect the experience. It’s a fun philosophical conversation that Noah did a fantastic job of grounding.
This was the first time that we got to speak with Michael, which was incredibly exciting because we’ve been fans of his for a long time.
Also, there was a little bit of lag and overlap between our recordings so transition points sound like we’re stepping on each other just a bit. There are also some long pregnant pauses that are a byproduct of the same problem.
The power of iconography in puzzle and game design is mind-blowing. It doesn’t take much to signal the meaning of an icon to players. That makes icons valuable.
When it’s done right, iconography can:
represent a numeric, letter, or word value like a cipher
signal actions or warnings
stop a player in their tracks
… That’s when it’s done right.
I feel like this should go without saying, but we’ve seen it before, so here we go…
Not all stars are the same. These are not the same star:
If I see that a five-pointed star equals “8,” I am not going to assume that a six-pointed star also equals “8.”
Similarly, if a five-pointed star equals “8,” don’t use the same star symbol to mean “start” on something like a maze somewhere else in the escape room. There are a limitless amount of possible icons. There is no reason to reuse the same icon to convey different meanings in the same game.
Once you define the meaning of an icon, keep both the icon and its meaning consistent.
Variance in a symbol is fine. It can even be cool.
Different materials could result in the icon rendering a little askew. Scale and perspective could have a similar effect.
Maybe there are even narrative reasons for a bit of variance.
This isn’t the kind of thing that needs to be codified into law, but a little bit of mindfulness in design can go a long way.
Iconography in Puzzle Design is one component of room design. For more tips, check out our Room Design section.