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Escape Rooms in 2019: Opportunities & Cautions

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(Last Updated On: January 19, 2019)

Back when we first dreamed up this piece up, it was before 5 girls died tragically in an escape room in Poland. In light of that tragedy, the original post that we drafted seemed off the mark both from a tonal and content perspective… so we changed it.

“Change” is both the opportunity and the caution for 2019. We expect changes in safety, the marketplace, player expectations, business practices, design, and even the concept of “escape rooms.”

There are wonderful opportunities on the horizon, for those who embrace change.

Safety

We’d be irresponsible to open with anything other than safety.

There have been injuries and accidents in escape rooms in the past, but nothing like what happened in Poland. For years we have spoken on stage at conferences and expressed in writing our fear that someday there would be a fire in an escape room, and that we hoped that it would happen in one that was prepared and took the proper precautions.

Poland was a worst-case scenario. The victims were minors. They had no emergency exit. They died helplessly because they had the misfortune to celebrate a birthday in a recklessly-designed facility. This is international news.

Escape Rooms in 2019

There will be changes in how public officials and players alike view escape rooms. If you haven’t designed for fire safety, it’s time to change.

If you are among the shrinking number of companies who lock players in without an easy means of freeing themselves in an emergency, it’s time to change.

Escape rooms lost their innocence in Poland.

Everyone has to adjust accordingly. Over on RoomEscapeArtist.com, we will now be calling out emergency exits, and sprinklers in all reviews moving forward.

There is an opportunity for our entire industry to break with the expectations of locked rooms, which keep new players from discovering the joys of real-life, team-based puzzle adventures.

Defining Escape Rooms

In 2015, we would have said “locked room” in the definition of an escape room. In fact, we did.

Pretty quickly, however, the concept of escape rooms broadened. Many “escape rooms” were quest-based: find the relic, stop the evil corporation, or even retrieve the dog’s red ball. Although the goal was not to escape, we still had to solve all the puzzles to complete our mission. The concept had expanded, but the structure of gameplay remained.

In 2017 we began to see escape rooms change, influenced by other genres of entertainment. We saw escape rooms combined with haunted houses and immersive theater. These hybrids allowed for more creativity in the format.

The combined formats evoked strong emotions, told stories, and took us on new adventures. Escape rooms are an interactive storytelling medium. There is an opportunity to draw on other forms of entertainment to hybridize and create something new and special.

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“You’re locked in a room and need to get out” is a limiting premise; break out of it.

Business Goals: Community

As the market matures, an exclusive focus on first-time players is a liability.

All escape room companies should try to convert first-time players into second-time players, and second-time players into habitual players.

We all need an active community of players who are eager to experience more.

Escape Rooms in 2019

Room Escape Artist runs escape room tours to encourage more avid players and connect them with one another. There is strength in community. Investing in building a recurring player base will pay dividends in the long-term viability of your business as well as the rest of your market.

We also truly respect the efforts of Curious Escape Rooms in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Their open design for an escape room passport is all about fostering habitual play.

A drought leaves everyone thirsty; a rising tide lifts all ships.

Marketplace

We have been tracking the US escape room industry since 2014. The marketplace is changing. Fewer new companies are opening and an increasing volume are closing.

Most of the companies that are opening now have done more research and preparation.

Most of the companies that are closing were never set up to succeed in the first place. The culling of the herd is natural; it happens in all industries.

While this is terrible for those who close their doors, it means that the player-base is divided among fewer establishments. It also means that new players will hopefully visit stronger operations and have a better first experience. They’ll be more likely to seek out another escape room experience.

We’re expecting the closure rate to increase, especially if fire code is more strictly enforced on escape rooms moving forward.

Design & Build for Success

In our travels, we’ve seen escape rooms of all shapes, sizes, and budgets.

Our 2018 Golden Lock-In Award-winning games included masterpieces of technology and engineering and more traditional lock-and-key puzzle games.

Escape Rooms in 2019

We respect creators who aim for targets that they can hit. When a designer builds something that is within their capacity, and builds it near flawlessly, it’s a beautiful thing. We’d much rather play a less fantastical game in a properly realized environment than the inverse. An Egyptian tomb that looks like an office building isn’t cool.

The same goes for technology. Build with technology that you or your staff understand and can repair. If you cannot repair a prop, you don’t own it; it owns you.

With any budget or skill set, there is opportunity in creativity. Change your designs. Create something nobody else has thought up yet.

Believable Adventure

New escape room creators are quick to design around the same theme: saving the world. Whether you’re on a space station, submarine, bunker, or science lab, you usually need to save the world to win the escape room.

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“Saving the world” is so grandiose that it isn’t easily believed.

It’s hard to make players believe there is a meteor hurtling towards earth. It’s even more difficult to make them believe that they are the unique elite team of skilled… meteor stoppers.

Lighten up.

We haven’t seen many romances or comedies. We haven’t seen enough playful, whimsical, fairytale endings. Think what else your players might have fun achieving besides saving the world, and you might find you have the means, skills, and tools to create a more memorable, more human adventure.

Collaboration

We dream of more collaboration between escape room companies.

Escape Rooms in 2019
Screenshot from Pode

Whenever we visit a market, we inevitably find many different companies that have figured out different parts of the puzzle that is the escape room business. One company understands puzzle design, but their set design was weak. Another company has created a beautiful environment, but their gameplay is weak.

These companies should find a way to share knowledge and skills. Maybe they trade labor. Maybe they teach each other new skills. Maybe they exchange equity and become one company. Maybe one acquires the other. There are many forms of collaboration. Learn from one another.

This change, as with all of the changes that we’ve discussed, can be messy, complex, and sometimes painful… but change comes whether we invite it or not.

In 2019…

…we encourage you to embrace change.

Iterate, evolve, and get better.

With change, there is incredible opportunity for the growth of individual escape room businesses, the player-base, and the entire industry.

Further Reading


About The Authors: Lisa & David Spira

escape rooms in 2019Created by an experience designer and a predictive data expert in 2014, Room Escape Artist publishes daily well-researched, rational, and reasonably humorous escape room reviews, design and player tips, news, and industry commentary.

Our mission is to share our love of exploring giant puzzles and to push the makers of those giant puzzles to create the best experiences they can. We strive to grow the community of amazing people who love solving the puzzles together.

Room Escape Artist is a passion project. We also have full-time careers.

Lisa is an onomastician who turned her lifelong obsession with names into a career as Director of Research and Product Development at Ethnic Technologies. Lisa holds a degree in linguistics from Syracuse University and works as a private baby name consultant.

David is an experience designer and product manager who strives for a deeper understanding of how things work, and the ways people interact with their world. David holds degrees in communication and history from the University at Buffalo, and a masters in communication and information science from Rutgers University.

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