Defining “Premium Escape Rooms” & Why It Matters

The escape room industry is currently in an early phase where games of vastly different quality levels are often priced very similarly. When you check popular online reviews, all escape rooms have great ratings, and they all cost roughly the same amount. There is no real price differentiation in this industry, but there should be. As the industry matures, identifying and rewarding premium experiences will be an important step. Educating customers about the value of premium offerings will be difficult in a business where mystery, secrecy, and surprise are often viewed as important attributes. Here are some of my thoughts about what should be included at a premium price point.

What Makes a Premium Escape Room?

When I think of a premium escape room experience, I think about immersion and worldbuilding: aspects of experience design that make memories. As much as I like solving puzzles and aha moments, I’ve realized that none of my favorite escape room memories have anything to do with puzzles. I suspect much of the average player population is probably the same way. Making me forget that I am in an escape room is one of the highest compliments I can give to an experience.

Extended game length, more square footage and quality actors can all add significantly to world building. These can be key aspects of a premium experience and they are things a customer can recognize when booking. Immersion, technology, reveals, and characters can be dialed up to a level that justifies a higher price.

While each of these elements can contribute toward making a premium experience. They can also be used as gimmicks to fool customers into thinking they are about to play (and pay for) something special. Providing fair value for the money will be critical for the survival of a premium-priced escape game.

Give Me More Time

Paying more for longer escape games is something that makes sense to everyone. It’s still rare to see escape games that run longer than 60 minutes. Longer play times stand out and spark interest with customers. A race against the clock to escape in time is not the only option for these types of experiences. Stretching game length with more content and letting players be in an immersive environment longer is a premium selling point. Designing systems to allow customers to play 2 or more related rooms consecutively and uninterrupted another way to extend play length.

Removing the aspect of the time constraint all together can be an exciting game element and marketing opportunity. As a player, I have come to appreciate games without visible countdown clocks. Rooms can be designed with mechanisms in place to ensure that players spend the desired amount of time in the game while being ambiguous about its actual length. 

When I am worried about time pressure, I often tend to (even subconsciously) force myself to find the most efficient path through the game. I ask myself, “what does the creator probably want me to do?” I sometimes use escape room logic and figure out how to progress through the game. This type of self awareness can be a detriment to immersion. Without that pressure, the world opens up a bit, and details of the room become more accessible. It feels good to know I get to be there that much longer. 

Bigger Can Be Better

Larger square footage games can also make a game world feel more real. The reality that players are in an old office space or a strip mall fades away when the game space feels big. There are more nooks and crannies to inspect. There are more chances for individual players to go off and explore an area by themselves. Being alone in an unknown environment can be a thrilling feeling. 

There are more opportunities to discover things that are not part of the most efficient path toward the game’s end point. Sometimes you need to run back to a different section of the space to where you remembered seeing something that now seems important. That distance can add to the excitement and enhance a thrilling moment. A larger play space is something players will take notice of. It is one of the most obvious premium perks in an escape room.

Even the illusion of space can be powerful. A room with false doors on all four walls can feel part of a sprawling mansion or a huge castle. Fake doors can make the players feel like there are choices to be made and more paths to explore even when a game is kept neatly on its rails.

In Game Actors

Actors as characters bring depth to the story world. They are also obvious operational expenses that customers should be able to recognize and appreciate.

High quality actors that make eye contact and ask questions of the players can help create a premium experience. There is something about answering questions from an actor that forces players to think about the story and the world it takes place in so much more than just listening to them recite exposition. Customers want to be drawn in; they want to understand the place they are in and why events are happening there. What better way to deliver that than from interacting with the characters that live in that space?

Upping Immersion

A premium escape room should begin the moment players walk into the building. The atmosphere of the lobby area and in-character hosts add to a customer’s experience. A smooth and minimal pregame rules briefing is also something I am really coming to appreciate. A long list of “don’t do this” warnings can kill immersion and momentum just as players are building anticipation of entering the game. Make a more theatrical experience from start to finish, where everything rolls into one. The narrative should begin long before we are standing outside of the escape room door. Onboarding and exiting can be part of the experience.

The Room Should Be Alive

Premium escape rooms react to the players. Dynamic lighting and sound design can be used to guide the players through the physical space. Areas of interest may illuminate while areas no longer in play may darken. Puzzles and props have positive feedback so players know when they are doing things right or doing things wrong.

Effects and Reveals

Big reveals and cool special effects are well known elements of higher end escape rooms. They can be memory makers. Unexpected moments are an important aspect of escape rooms. The bigger and grander you can make them, the more impact you can make on the player’s experience. Players might be willing to pay a premium price just to get to see the cool thing that everyone is talking about. 

Story and Characters

Stories and characters that stick with players can create a premium experience. I love a story I can continue to think about it months after playing and characters that I empathize with and become invested in to the point that I wonder what happened to them after the story concluded. I think about what they are doing now and how other players might be interacting with them. These are rare features in the games that I have personally played or heard about, but when they do happen it can be powerful. 

Premium Must Have Meaning

A longer game clock or a larger game footprint are not premium features if that extra time or space isn’t filled with interesting content. A huge story that is too complex to understand or that is force fed to players in a jarring or disjointed way does not make for a premium game. An actor playing a jump scare monster might not be appreciated as much as a character that facilitates a meaningful exchange with the players. None of these aspects of the premium experience will help an experience that includes flawed game play or bad puzzle structure.

I hope the time is coming when the escape room customer base is large enough and sophisticated enough to value escape rooms properly and reward those creators who deserve it. Many times the customer has no idea of the quality level of the production they are paying for. The inherent secrecy about the games that is built into the escape room culture is one of the causes of this uncertainty. The unreliability of popular online rating systems is another, but trusted voices are becoming more recognizable. 

There will be markets for escape rooms at different price points, from budget to premium and beyond. Stratification in pricing is something customers will understand and accept, as long as it is justified.

Mystery Mansion Regina – Sleepy Man [Hivemind Review]

Sleepy Man is an avatar-led, livestreamed escape room, created by Mystery Mansion Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. It is the final installment of an online escape room trilogy.

Dark screen reads, "Enter my nightmare. I am waiting to devour you."

Format

Style of Play:

  • Online native experience (can NOT be played IRL)
  • Avatar controlled by the players
  • Web-based inventory system
  • Includes video segments
  • Interactive NPCs

Required Equipment: computer with internet connection

If you can have a full monitor for Zoom and a full monitor for Telescape that would be ideal for this game. Headphones will also make it even more immersive.

Recommended Team Size: 3-6

Play Time: 90 minutes

Price: $25 CAD + tax per player (4 player minimum)

Booking: book online for a specific time slot

Description

This is a standard avatar-led remote escape room, with Telescape for inventory viewing and interaction. It includes well-produced video segments that further the narrative and provoke amazement.

Sleepy Man concluded a trilogy, so you need to play Night Terrors and D’Vile’s Curio Shoppe first.

Closeup image of an eye.

Hivemind Review Scale

Wizards Against Lizards [Hivemind Review]

Wizards Against Lizards is a blend of immersive theater and escape room-style puzzles.

A wizard on zoom.

Format

Style of Play:

  • Online native experience (can NOT be played IRL)
  • Interactive NPCs
  • Immersive theater

Required Equipment: computer with internet connection

Recommended Team Size: 3-6

Play Time: 90 minutes

Price: £100 per team (~ $140)

Booking: book online for a specific time slot

Description

You are roleplaying as trainee wizards drafted into a secret mission against the lizard people, who are bent on destroying the world and increasing human misery.

You will need to solve puzzles and infiltrate the lizard people by tricking them via conversation. Multiple puzzling styles are used along with a good amount of character interaction and improv.

A lizard person on Zoom.

Hivemind Review Scale

Mystery Mansion Regina – Seen [Hivemind Review]

Seen is a livestreamed adaptation of an in-person game created by Mystery Mansion Regina in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

In game, a person against a wall casting shadow puppets over zoom.

Format

Style of Play:

  • Adaptation of an in-person game (can be played IRL)
  • Avatar controlled by the players
  • Web-based inventory system
  • Interactive NPC + aspects of immersive theater

Required Equipment: computer with internet connection

Recommended Team Size: 3-6

Play Time: 75 minutes

Price: $25 CA per person

Booking: book online for a specific time slot

Description

This is an avatar-led game with interactive Telescape inventory system. It is a livestreamed version of a real escape room, modified to be a raunchy parody of the format.

You are dropped into the scenario about as diegetically as you can be with an online game.

Not family-friendly! Make sure your entire team is ok with adult language. It will also help if at least one of your teammates is outgoing and willing to interact with an improv actor.

Even though it is a play on the Saw movies, it was not scary at all.

Hivemind Review Scale

Leenook – L’Équation [Hivemind Review]

L’Équation is a point-and-click adaptation of an in-person game. The original game was created by Sauve Qui Peut, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada. It was translated into a digital format by Leenook.

Leenook interface with built-in video chat and 360 photo of an office.

Format

Style of Play:

  • Adaptation of an in-person game (can be played IRL)
  • Point-and-click

Required Equipment: computer with internet connection

This interface was very particular about browser window aspect ratio. We recommend a large screen, if possible.

Recommended Team Size: 2-4

Play Time: 60 minutes

Price: $23 CAD per player

Booking: book online for a specific time

Description

This was a faithful point-and-click adaptation of the real-life escape room L’Équation at Sauve Qui Peut. We navigated 360-degree photos of the gamespace. When we clicked on things in the environment either a photo, video, or locking mechanism displayed.

There was a live host to provide support. Every player had their own version of the game, so every person needed to open every lock in order to progress together. There were built-in pause screens that told faster players to wait for their teammates.

Illustration of a locker lock.

Hivemind Review Scale