Definition of enthusiast
a : one who is ardently attached to a cause, object, or pursuit
b : one who tends to become ardently absorbed in an interest
How many escape rooms must one have played to be an “enthusiast”? That’s a chicken or the egg situation and we’ll never agree on that. Let’s call it an experienced player… oh great, now we have to define experienced with a number. Let's get away from putting a number on it and see if it even matters.
If you are already an owner, you have most likely seen a group come in as newbies, fight to get through a room, come back and play another room and be significantly better. You have seen this happen right? We’ve seen it quite a bit and it’s one of my favorite things to watch, it’s like teaching your baby bird to fly. You kick em out of the nest and…
Not too long ago I happened to get locked in a room with 11 other owners from all over the country. It took about 10 minutes to figure out that apparently only four of us knew how to play an escape room. Now I’m not talking about some super secret advanced level of escape room playing. I’m talking about making very basic connections, A goes with B, this is what you do to figure the code for that etc. It really blew my mind. It was like we were playing a zombie room and we were outnumbered by zombies. Now maybe one or two of them just hung back because they don’t have that jump into a group of strangers and get to work trait. Maybe it was because they are newer owners and this room had mind blowing scenic. I mean I was distracted for the first five minutes of the game just checking out the set design, a 12 out of 10 for sure. If that was the deal, at best, or worst depending on you perspective, at least half the owners had no clue what to do. Did I mention this kind of thing shocks me?
Having many discussions with other owners and “enthusiasts” one thing that I continually find shocking is the owner of Escape Room ABC isn’t an enthusiast. Even more shocking to me, is that number of owners who aren't "enthusiasts" seems to be around half?
A few of the things I’ve encountered recently include:
The owner of Escape XYZ, when asked by guests about escape room experiences at other places, tells customers, “I don’t play escape rooms cause I prefer to run them.” Are you serious? I don’t even know what to say to that. What’s the point of even sharing that information with your guests? Why are you in this business? Aside from those questions, running a room can be quite fun but after you’ve done it a few hundred times it can become a bit monotonous. There’s the occasional group who is super high energy and does a few things that crack you up but come on! A good escape room is ten times more fun to play than it is to run.
Standing in the lobby of Escape 123 chatting with the owners, we end up on the subject of how many games they’ve played… wait for it… eight! Yes, those owners have played eight escape rooms in their life, the best part, three of them were the games at their escape room! So really they’ve played five, you can’t play your own game!
I have quite a few stories just like these and if I had to guess, based on my discussions, I would put the average number of games played by escape room owners at less than ten!
Who cares? I do and I think you should to. Here’s why.
Over the past year or so I’ve come to the realization that there are two types of owners. “Enthusiasts” and “Others”. If you’re in this game and it’s not because you love this game, why are you here having people play this game? The almighty dollar that’s why. Now who doesn’t like President Jackson, I know I do and believe me I thought I would have met more of his twins than I have but that’s not the reason we opened Escape FLA in Largo. We love escape rooms, we design and build our rooms, in the limited free time we have, we go play escape rooms. If we were only in it for the money, we would have done left already.
As we don’t fall into the “Others” group I can only assume their major motivation is money and as I said, nothing wrong with money. Here’s what I’ve observed of the “Others”.
They have no idea what’s going on in our business so they buy game designs. Is this all bad, no it’s not. Are a lot of them bad, oh yes they are. Now if you’re a huge escape room fan maybe you buy a design to get a baseline and you learn from there. The next room you design yourself, and make it better, no problem. Maybe you’re opening with X number of rooms and you just don’t have the time or the ideas to get that final room designed in time, fine. It’s not you I’m thinking of.
Are there good room designs out there to be bought, of course. Is the market flooded with designs that are total garbage, oh yes it is. Are many of them the same as they were five years ago before ER’s began evolving, you betcha. Some of those were really good five years ago, some were terrible back then, only a handful would still be considered good today.
To those of you who thought, Oh I’m gonna open an escape room and they will have to back the armored car up to my door to deliver all my money. What website can I go to and blindly buy room designs? That truck won’t be coming any time soon, for the majority of the “Others” at least.
Having a great escape room requires a real passion and not a passion for money, a passion for escape rooms. If you don’t have that, you don’t have any business being in this business. You’ll be added to the long list of ER’s that sold/closed as soon as their lease was up.
How does that affect me you ask. You might even be thinking this is great for me, I have passion and our rooms are awesome. If their rooms suck, I will get all the customers. Think about this, if you haven’t already, it kills your/our customer base. It devalues your/our product. It hurts you/us in the long term.
If the owner doesn’t have their finger on the pulse of this industry, they are going to be left behind and the rest of us will get screwed in the process. The only way to really know what is going on in ER World is to be out in ER World. That doesn’t mean reading every post on the Start Up Group or the Tech Group or the Owners Group. You have to be out there to see what’s out there. To see how trends are changing. To see the evolution that’s rapidly occurring.
So what is it that occurs at the “Others” businesses, well not much, and that’s the problem. They hit the thrift store, use whatever is available to “build” the designs they have purchased and wait for the money truck. The truck does come but it’s off load is much smaller than they anticipated so now costs have to be cut. They jump on Groupon cause the rep said they’d make a bunch of money and get loyal customers… bahahahah! They can’t afford enough staff to have one game master per room so they have one minimum wage teenager run front of house and GM multiple rooms at once! They now don’t care any longer so they don’t have the resources and/or desire to keep their rooms operating correctly or do general upkeep. All the while, a whole crop of virgin escape room players have been subjected to terrible customer service, a junk game design, things that don’t work and puzzles that don’t make any sense. Thanks a lot “Others”, a decent percentage of the people who’ve walked through your door will most likely never play again.
Our escape rooms in Largo at Escape FLA, they were designed and built by us. It may seem like I’m beating up on those who buy game designs and that’s not totally true. As I said, if you do your homework, there are a few good ones to be found. I would hope that if you do buy a design or two, you make them your own. Then you use the experience gained to design your next room from scratch. However the common thread here is the “Others” and their extremely limited knowledge of our industry all seem to buy their games because, well, they seem to have no choice. I would argue they do have a choice. Choose to open a business in something you actually have a passion for, whatever that is.
One last thing to you “Others” out there. If you buy your rooms, fine. But be honest about the fact that you buy your rooms. Don’t change the names just a little bit so customers wouldn’t know you had the same room as a place 100 miles away. There is a new escape in our area and on their website it’s very obvious to those who know escape rooms that they have purchased the rooms designs. That design companies logo is right on the teaser poster for each room so kudos to them for being honest. That's the way it should be.
And the greatest of all sins, in this realm at least. Don’t explicitly lie to other owners when they ask you if you design and build your own rooms and if you’re going to lie, you best make very certain that the company who sold you the design and came and did the build out for you doesn’t use photos taken at your location on their design website...
If you're about to get into this business, please take this into account. It's no longer a "quick buck" business. If that's what you're doing it for, do something else...
Ryan and Jen,
Escape FLA Escape Rooms
There are a few easy to identify trends going on right now in the escape room world. Some are good, (larger room sizes) some are bad (all our rooms have a 3% escape rate) and some can be both, depending on execution. We’ll touch on the first two in another post but for now let's focus on “continuing storylines” or as fancy people on the internet call it, story arc.
While not the most prevalent trend in the industry, it is something we run into from time to time while looking for a game. “A TRULY UNIQUE escape room adventure. All our rooms follow the journey of Jane Doe and her quest to uncover the inventor of Tiddley Winks” says Escape Room ABC’s (not a real ER, I hope) website. Pretty cool concept, or it could be. Honestly, it’s a great way of differentiating yourself from the competition albeit something that, for the most part, only enthusiasts are going to care about. I mean it would be if you actually were telling a story…
Of the places we’ve played that employ this concept, very few of them actually employ this concept. As escape room owners in Largo, when looking for a game either locally or when we travel, we will reach out to the ER we plan on playing, tell them a bit about our group dynamic and ask for a suggestion as to which room they think would be the most fun for us. Usually the owner/manager will respond and give us a recommendation and we usually go with that.
At a “continuing storyline” ER they usually add that they do, in fact, have a story that progresses throughout all of their rooms however it doesn’t matter if we play them in order or not! Whoa, hang on a sec, what do you mean it doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, then what’s the point?
We have, on a rare occasion, had the ER, frimly recommend that we play the rooms in a particular order, which we did, and those rare occasions were the only times we left with any idea as to what the overarching story was actually about. Now this is not to say that there aren’t many other ER’s who do a good job at this but… it’s seems many use this idea more like a used car sales tactic than anything else.
Case and Point. Not too long ago we travelled and meet up with some good friends of our who live far away. As we always do when we travel, we wanted to do an escape room. Our friends, they were virgins (to ER’s, I assume to not much else) and we took that into account when selecting our room. We reached out to the ER and got the standard all our rooms follow a larger story but it doesn’t matter which order you play them in. Now in hindsight, that should have raised a tiny red flag but it didn’t and the fact that this particular ER came highly recommended, we pulled the trigger and booked the room they recommended which was, towards the end of their “continuing story”.
As being one of those rare people who actually have an interest in what the escape room we are about to play is about, I actually read the room info on the website. In this particular case, that amounted to four very short sentences which, didn’t tell us much. Our friends even asked us what the room was about and we had to tell them we weren't sure.
We arrive at the escape room, in the lobby is a poster for the room, same pic as the website, same four sentences. The host/GM takes us into our room after the rules briefing and it looks like it’s going to be pretty awesome at this point. She pulls a remote control out of her pocket and says: “I’m gonna start your timer now… go!” and leaves the room. A bit abrupt but ok, I mean we have no idea what we’re doing here. We obviously need to get through that door but other than that, no clue as to our purpose, mission, goal etc. “It must become apparent as we work our way through the game” I say to myself. Off we go, working our way through, get past the first few things, still no clue as to what our purpose is. Into the second area, now this must be where it all becomes clear right? Uh… not so much, in fact, not at all.
By this point, if you’re not given a story, you kind of forget that a story is even part of it and just go through the motions doing the puzzles and moving on to the next. Honestly, as a player, there’s nothing wrong with that in my eyes. Give me a well done room, this room surely was. Give me some good puzzles of varying complexity, which this room had. Finally, give me a game master who knows what we’re doing if we need help, this venue did not (we’ll discuss GM’s more in another post), and I’m as happy as a clam. Two out of three’s not bad until… this game takes, probably the strangest, most mind boggling turn we’ve ever encountered in all the rooms we’ve done.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to be a bit vague when describing this room as my point here has nothing to do with a particular venue but everything to do with venues in general who use this “continuing story” ploy to attract players but give you no actual story. As such, to explain the “turn”. I’m gonna try and relay this part using a different example. You know, the whole protect the innocent thing.
So imagine you spent most of the hour in a really well done environment that was, let’s say, wild west themed in the late 1800’s. Then all of the sudden, you move through, what you think is the final door, and you’re now in an egyptian tomb! (I assure you, time travel had nothing to do with this) This is really a bad example but without being specific, it’s the best I can come up with. The movement from one space to the a completely different environment was so abrupt, so outside the realm of plausibility, it was literally shocking. These two environments, being attached to each other, made absolutely zero sense! Then to add some additional confusion to the mix, you quickly move to a third disconnected environment at the finish. It was easily the most confused we have ever been and it had nothing to do with a bad puzzle or leap of logic.
Here’s the thing. It was a really well done room, no doubt about it. Knowing what I know now (after leaving the facility and then later talking with the owner), The three disconnected environments, they could have made sense. The could have made sense if we were given any prelude to the story we now found ourselves in. A short video at the beginning, a 30 second narrative by the GM, some pieces of the story revealed to us throughout the game. Alas, there was none of this and due to that omission, we had no clue what the heck was going on.
One of the first things our “virgin” friends said as we hit the parking lot was: “That was fun but, what were we supposed to be doing? As very experienced players, we thought exactly the same thing. For that to happen to two groups from opposite ends of the experience spectrum, it was not an anomaly.
Our escape rooms in Largo at Escape FLA don’t follow a continuing storyline. Not because we don’t like the idea but mostly because we don’t design that way. We like to play around with different story ideas and environments. That alone doesn’t exclude the storyline model as we’ve seen it done well and the environments from game to game are very different. What should exclude you from using the continuing storyline is this. If there is not one tiny shred of story to be found either before or during the game, please don’t tell people there’s an overarching story.
The story might exist in the mind of the designer but your players can’t read the designers mind. There might a continuing story if you stand back and look at each individual game as one whole entire game. If that’s your plan, you need to make it very clear to your players that they need to play these rooms in order. If that’s your plan, you need to realize that your customers, most won’t take your advice. Since most won’t heed your advice, you need to have a very apparent story interwoven into each room… please! What could have been a top 10 room for us became a lesson in what not to do.
Ryan and Jen
Owners and Designers
Escape Rooms in Largo, Florida