New Puzzle Break Escape Room in Seattle: Escape the Lost Temple

I am so very excited to announce the grand opening of our newest Puzzle Break experience: Escape the Lost Temple!

Quick Highlights:

  • Located at our Belltown, Seattle HQ: 2124 2nd Ave Seattle, WA 98121
  • Optimal for 4-8 players
  • Public & Private bookings available (more on this below)
  • Players will be tasked to return a valuable artifact to the lost temple of the Etruscan Civilization and escape before a deadly volcano eruption!
  • Tickets available NOW at www.puzzlebreak.us/tickets
Does your team have what it takes?

Does your team have what it takes?

With this room, there were several goals we set out to achieve. First and foremost, it was absolutely imperative we maintain our unparalleled standards of puzzle and game flow design. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or tech-heavy an experience, if the puzzles aren’t great, it’s not a great room. I couldn’t be happier with the puzzles we’ve put together.

By popular demand, Escape the Lost Temple will feature both public and private booking options, enabling he perfect escape experience for teams of all shapes and sizes! This will allow both:

  • Private groups will have the ability to play with no strangers.
  • Smaller groups can join forces with other adventurers as desired.

Be sure to check which time slots are Public & Private on our ticketing page.

puzzlebreakescapethelostempleseattle

Starting with Escape the Midnight Carnival, through The Eventide Departure and now with Escape the Lost Temple, we have created an interwoven thread of narrative across Puzzle Break games, featuring a common nemesis who has again reared his head.

Puzzle Break stands proud as an international leader in escape rooms & immersive entertainment. It is critically important that, in addition to game quality and story, we continue to push the technology envelope. With Escape the Lost Temple, we’ve outdone my highest expectations. One example:

Historically, the Etruscan Civilization was generally superstitious, and one of the ways they tried to predict the future was using a thing called a "brontoscopic calendar."  They would predict that certain events would occur if there were a lightning strike on a particular day.  We're using that concept a bit in the room, with a puzzle that has players using weather to create lightning strikes in a pattern. Historically appropriate & never-before-seen technology? I cannot wait until folks experience the magic.

Pictured: Magic.

Pictured: Magic.

Assemble your team of adventurers, head to Puzzle Break in Seattle, and Escape the Lost Temple!

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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How to start your own successful Escape Room Company for only $7,000

In August of 2013, Dr. Lindsay Morse and I co-founded Puzzle Break, the first American-based Escape Room company. We opened our first room in Seattle with an out-of-pocket investment of just $7,000 and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that we changed the world for next to no money. Our story has become something of a legend. From a public relations and vanity perspective, I couldn’t be happier with our story being told again and again. Unfortunately, there’s context to our journey that is often lost in the telling and I’d like to take a moment to reach out to the folks thinking about starting an escape room after hearing about Puzzle Break.

In July of 2015, Marketwatch published a historic article on the explosive growth of escape rooms. The author and its sources (including yours truly) offered some breathtaking stories and figures of outrageous growth with minimal investment.

“Nate Martin…invested $7,000 of his own money in 2013 to get the business off the ground. He recouped his initial investment within a month. Since then, the business has been profitable every month and, conservatively, is on track to gross over $600,000 in 2015. ‘Some months are record-breakingly fantastic,’ he says. ‘Some are only very good.’”

Pictured: Many folks' perception of Escape Room entrepreneurship.

Pictured: Many folks' perception of Escape Room entrepreneurship.

It's a very exciting article the importance of which cannot be overstated. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of escape room operations began with future entrepreneurs reading about the get-rich-quick-and-easy stories outlined in the Marketwatch piece.

Regretfully, many of the folks entranced by this and similar articles failed to fully comprehend exactly how different the escape room landscapes were when we started Puzzle Break in 2013, when this article was written in 2015, and what things look like today.

I’ve written comprehensive annual updates on the history of Puzzle Break. I cover a multitude of topics ranging from general entrepreneurship to nuance game design elements and everything in between.

From my second year update, I explicitly addressed the gold rush I had inadvertently helped create:

“In many ways, the gravy train is already over. I touched on this in my reddit post last year, and went into a bit more detail in an interview with Market Watch July this year. In late 2013-early 2014, it was the wild west. Anyone with $10,000 could open the first escape room in their city (in the US, where we have been shockingly late adopters on this) and bask in the glow of buckets of free press & hordes of first-time players. The landscape today is very different. Most cities have several escape rooms. There's still enormous room for growth in the industry, but the increased competition has A. dramatically increased the barrier to entry and B. stripped away some of the extreme novelty. The local paper of record isn't beating down the door of the 6th escape room to write an article.”

Pictured: Those same folks if they open an escape room without ample market research.

Pictured: Those same folks if they open an escape room without ample market research.

I wrote this in September 2015. It was true then, and the situation today is even more severe. Saturation is here in many American markets. There’s an arms race to create the biggest, baddest escape rooms around and its progressing at a break-neck pace. Individual Puzzle Break rooms can now cost upwards of $100,000 to create. Consumers are becoming educated and sophisticated, and they no longer automatically respond favorably to bargain-basement or poorly designed offerings. There are absolutely still opportunities in the escape room industry in America, but they must be carefully chosen, strategically planned, and skillfully executed. And it’s (almost certainly) going to cost a lot more than $7,000.

Related reading: The Biggest Myths in Escape Room Competition.

So, how can you start your own escape room company for only $7,000? Easy: hop into a time machine to 2014 or before!

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Tips for Escape Room Game Master Excellence

By and large, escape rooms are curated experiences. In most cases, this important task is handled by intrepid game masters, who monitor the game and provide guidance. Sometimes in the room, sometimes out of the room, sometimes in character, but always of paramount importance: Great GMs can create and enhance world class experiences. And we at Puzzle Break work diligently to ensure our game masters help to deliver a time our players will never forget. Excellent game mastering comes in many shapes and sizes, while improper game mastering have many universal hallmarks.

Game masters have ultimate control over the escape room experience. For better or for worse.

Game masters have ultimate control over the escape room experience. For better or for worse.

There is no such thing as the perfect one-size-fits-all escape room experience. Each and every team of players brings different levels of experience, group dynamic, and skills. It is up to the game master to ensure 100% of players get the absolute most of the experience.

Game Mastering Tip #1: Give the right hints at the right time.

Giving hints in an escape room is an art form. An excellent GM must know exactly what hints to give for the situation, and when to give them. 
Hints must contain the right level of information. A proper hint must contain enough information to nudge the team in the right direction while simultaneously opaque enough to allow the players to feel satisfaction when they eventually conquer their objective.
Give hints too often, and the players are robbed of precious "A-ha!" eureka moments. Not often enough, and players can get stuck for too long, enthusiasm can be thwarted, and frustration will diminish the experience.
There is no hard and fast rule for how many hints is "correct". As I've said, each group and game is different, and a master-level GM will know in their bones what's appropriate. Frequently, the biggest challenge in this area is for well-meaning GMs to hold their tongues. The other biggest challenge?

Game Mastering Tip #2: Have complete knowledge of the game and team progress.

A common refrain I hear from players of less-than-good escape room experiences is the hints they received had nothing to do with their situation, or contained information they already knew. This is awful, and can ruin even the most world-class escape rooms. There are two root causes for this problem:

  • Game masters not paying full attention to the game

This is an unfortunately systemic problem I see at many, many places. In an effort to save costs at ill-advised companies, GMs are often monitoring more than one game. This is very bad. At Puzzle Break, we have a minimum of 1:1 GM:room ratio, and in some cases up to 3:1! This ensures our game masters have full and complete knowledge of each and every player's progress, allowing for the most surgical of hints.

  • Game masters not having intimate knowledge of the game content.

This is less common, but even worse. Giving proper guidance to players requires full and complete knowledge of every aspect of the experience. Regretfully, we sometimes see untrained GMs tasked with curating an experience they have no hope of doing correctly. At Puzzle Break, our game masters go through intensive (borderline ridiculous) training and testing on each experience before they are considered to run a game solo.

In-fiction game masters can be sidekicks...or villains.

In-fiction game masters can be sidekicks...or villains.

Game Mastering Tip #3: If appropriate, in-room staff are able to provide the best curation.

This is a controversial stance I feel strongly about: Game masters in the room with the players are equipped to provide the absolute best game curation imaginable. GMs who remotely monitor games have comparatively limited information with which to do their jobs. In-room GMs have complete knowledge of every player's strengths, weaknesses, attitude, and game progress. This information is incalculably valuable. Additionally, in-room GMs can be given an in-fiction acting role to further enhance the immersion. Last but not least, in-room GMs are able to give subtle hints that don't disrupt the experience. However, finding great staff who can pull all this off is challenging, and for smaller experiences, in-room GMs can become awkward for players and not worth the trade-off.
At Puzzle Break, some of our larger experiences feature in-room game masters and our smaller experiences typically feature remote GMs. As with many things in this arena, there is no monopoly on the right way to do things.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Puzzle Break at Sundance

Last month I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to travel from Seattle and speak at the Sundance Film Festival. Pepsi’s Creator group had a presence at Sundance and put together a panel titled “Storytelling for the Experience Generation”. Their mission is to explore the edges of culture and co-create innovative experiences across the cultural landscape. Escape Rooms tell their stories in very innovative and unfamiliar ways, and as the co-founder of the first American Escape Room company I was really excited to introduce these concepts to an audience of traditional filmmakers. Also on the panel were Jon Braver of Delusion, Nicholas Cooper of Victory Hills Entertainment, Michael Cruz of Skybound Entertainment, and moderator Kamal Sinclair of New Frontier.

Thanks to The Great Company for putting everything together!

Thanks to The Great Company for putting everything together!

We covered many topics throughout the panel. Some of the finer details from our discussion can be read on The Verge and Deseret News. Representing and encapsulating the storytelling of escape rooms was very challenging. Those who have played more than a handful of experiences know there’s no monolithic method to telling a story in the medium. However, there are some nearly-universal characteristics to storytelling in Escape Rooms, and they’re very different than telling a story in a traditional film. Below are some of the themes I touched upon.

Each and every player will experience the story in an escape room in a different way. We've seen this hundreds of thousands of times at Puzzle Break, and it is arguably the single biggest consideration when crafting a story to tell in an Escape Room. Not every player will read every written word. Players will experience different parts of the game at different times (or sometimes not at all). Players will have dramatically different expectations and sensibilities when it comes to story. The list goes on and on.

The most common “bad” implementation of story I routinely see in Escape Rooms: trying to do way too much in a one-size-fits-all delivery. Players are clobbered over the head with pre-written narrative. It gets in the way of the gameplay. Different types of players will experience the story at dramatically different levels of quality. Frequently, players will be forced to read lengthy & dry story bits in the middle of an otherwise cutting-edge interactive experience. It’s the functional equivalent of having to interrupt a supersonic jet flight to hand-crank the engine. I've sad it before and I'll say it again: "Poorly done story in an escape room is almost always worse than no story."

The title of the panel was no accident. Experiential storytelling is going to change everything.

The title of the panel was no accident. Experiential storytelling is going to change everything.

It is vitally important for designers and writers to think about “story” in an experiential way. When I discuss this to an audience, I like to talk about the game “Ultimate Werewolf”. For those unfamiliar: Werewolf is a party game where players are given roles. Some players are werewolves, others are villagers. The villagers must try to suss out who’s a werewolf. The werewolves must redirect suspicion onto innocent villagers and secretly kill villagers at night. That’s the entire pre-written story. BUT, Werewolf has some of the best stories you’ll find in any experience anywhere. The reason? Players craft the stories themselves inside a minimalist framework engineered by a careful and thoughtful designer. Each werewolf game is unique and contains moments the players will never forget.

“Remember when you were CONVINCED I was a werewolf and then….”

“OH MAN I can’t believe we got so lucky when we…”

"UGH I made such a huge mistake and you totally capitalized on it completely by accident!"

There’s absolutely room for more traditional storytelling inside of an Escape Room experience, but I posit that the games with the best stories will always contain heavy narrative elements fueled by player-interaction. This is one of the bedrocks of all Puzzle Break game designs.

Can you find me in this picture?

Can you find me in this picture?

Outside of the panel discussion, the highlight (and lowlight) of my trip came at a party at the end of the evening. Too late, I realized I was at a party with Bill Pullman. By the time I thought to awkwardly ask him for a photo and talk about Zero Effect (a wonderful mystery film from the 90s seen by about 17 people), he had already left. I hope to go again next year to both talk about interactive storytelling and do a better job mingling with the beautiful people.

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Huge Puzzle Break Expansion in Seattle

January 2017 is a really exciting time for Puzzle Break.

Last year, we signed a lease on a massive space for an industry-changing expansion that will take the worlds of immersive live-action entertainment, escape rooms, and team building all by storm. Tipping the scales at over 6000 square feet, our new facility in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle will be one of the largest escape room facilities in the world. And we are just a few short weeks away from opening our doors.

Eventually, our new headquarters will be home to 6+ escape room & team games. The first game to debut will be Puzzle Break: The Eventide Departure and I’m really excited about it for a few reasons I’d like to share with you today.

Will YOU be able to escape the seance?

Will YOU be able to escape the seance?

First, we partnered with some of the top fabrication, build, prop, sound, and light companies in the world to create a truly blockbuster experience. The budget for the Eventide Departure was off the charts. Featuring an unprecedented level of technology, players will experience Hollywood & Disney level of polish and immersion as they are thrust into the mysterious world of the dearly departed Professor Firestone.

Second, we built two copies of the experience. Teams of friends, family, and co-workers will be able to split up into multiple groups and race against each other to unravel the mystery and escape. This is a purely optional feature.

Fun fact: The new Puzzle Break facility in Belltown is itself a giant escape labyrinth.

Fun fact: The new Puzzle Break facility in Belltown is itself a giant escape labyrinth.

Third, the copies’ digital systems are connected! When you are dueling another team, your progress on puzzles will be shown to the other team. When you slam dunk that puzzle, the other team will know about it in real time! This is a truly revolutionary system and we are thrilled to bring some crazy duels to our players.

Fourth, we’ve turned the dial up to 11 on the story. In addition to our world-class puzzles and mental challenges, players will take center stage as the main characters as they unravel the exciting narrative in real-time. Not only that, each and every Puzzle Break game now takes place in the same universe. As our players experience each story, they will be living a chapter in a massive connected narrative that will be told over the course of years! Additionally, rooms will contain hidden easter egg references to other Puzzle Break experiences in the master story.

Fifth, The Eventide Departure will be Puzzle Break’s first small-to-medium group escape experience. The room itself is plenty large (with many hidden surprises), but the content is explicitly designed for groups of 2-5 players (up to 10 when dueling). This game will be an intimate experience for everyone involved.

What's inside some of these trunks? Is it progressively smaller trunks? Probably!

What's inside some of these trunks? Is it progressively smaller trunks? Probably!

Sixth, The Eventide Departure will be Puzzle Break’s first privately ticketed experience. Our older and current games are publicly ticketed. In order to be accessible to groups of all shapes and sizes for those, we’ve sold tickets individually to our large games. Due to the smaller group size of the Eventide Departure, the game will be purchased by the room. A single person/group will buy a timeslot in a single transaction and can bring anywhere from 2-5 players.

And to top it all off, this is just the first game going in our new location! Multiple new Puzzle Break experiences for our new headquarters are in development and we’ll be sharing info on those before you know it! Important final bits:

1.       Puzzle Break on Capitol Hill isn’t going anywhere. If you haven’t already experienced the depths of Escape from 20,000 Leagues or the magic of Escape the Midnight Carnival, you and your team can still do so any time.

2.       Tickets for The Eventide Departure should be going on sale later in January 2017. We will be formally announcing dates on our Website, our Twitter, and our Facebook. Stay tuned and get pumped!

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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The Best Escape Room in the World

I've got a confession to make: You won't find the best escape room in the world at any Puzzle Break location. Where is it, you ask? Good question, but first:

What is the best movie ever made? The best game? What's the best book ever written? The best painting ever painted? Unfortunately for Top X Lists everywhere, these things do not exist. The reason is subjectivity. Movies, games, books, works from all creative mediums, have subjective choices made to appeal to different types of audiences. From big decisions like genre (romance, action, horror, etc.) all the way down to cosmetic word/dialogue choices with a gorillion* variables in between.

*Pictured: 1 Gorillion Dollars

*Pictured: 1 Gorillion Dollars

Because of the enormous inherent subjectivity, identifying an objective best work is functionally impossible. Any critic/reviewer of a creative medium who would argue there's an objectively single best piece is either being tongue-in-cheek, dishonest, or has a fundamental misunderstanding of subjectivity.

Which brings me to the nascent world of escape room reviewing. As of this writing, there's well over 5000 escape rooms in at least 90 countries, and we're beginning to see some intrepid folks formally reviewing room escapes on dedicated sites/blogs. Many of these are excellent resources containing tremendously valuable insights with a vitally important awareness of subjectivity. 

Perhaps my favorite example of subjective-preference-sensitivity is the format of the reviews at Room Escape Artist. At REA, there isn't an objective scoring system. Instead, they analyze subjective design choices in the context of the experience. Each review ends with a "Should I play [this game]?" section outlining the types of players who will love/hate the game. As a player, I love puzzle-heavy experiences, hate horror experiences, I'm not a fan of interacting with an in-fiction actor, and I loathe low-light situations, etc etc etc. The best game in the world to me might be the world's most awful experience to someone else, and vice versa.

There's an unfortunate (and frankly dangerous) trend among some less experienced reviewers where subjectivity is ignored. Variables are not controlled for. Consider an unfortunate book critic who only likes young adult horror romance comedy, ideally with sexy vampires. Further, they don't grok the concept of "different strokes for different folks". Ulysses? D-. Slaughterhouse 5? D+. Twilight? The best book ever written.

For the record, I'm on Team Count

For the record, I'm on Team Count

So, where can you find the best escape room in the world? I'm afraid it doesn't exist. But all is not lost! Looking for an escape room recommendation? Don't ask reviewers/critics/friends/strangers-on-the-bus for "best". Instead, ask "What's your favorite?" or "What would you recommend for someone like me?" And if they respond with Puzzle Break, I bet they have excellent taste.

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Generation X: A Study in Room Escape Taxonomy.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of sitting on the “Future of the Escape Room Industry” panel discussion at the first Chicago Room Escape Conference. The panel was moderated by Shawn Fishstein of Escape Games Canada, who gave an important interview with Room Escape Artist that I will be referencing at the end of this post.

Bill I swear if I see another 1960s tape drive puzzle I'm going to lose it. 

Bill I swear if I see another 1960s tape drive puzzle I'm going to lose it. 

One of the first questions of the panel asked us to define the “generations” of rooms. I.e. What makes a generation 1 room versus a generation 2 room versus a generation 3 room versus… etc.

As a thought leader (Puzzle Break is the first contemporary American room escape company), I have an enormously strong opinion on this, and I accordingly lept on the microphone and launched into my tirade, which I will paraphrase for you now:

For the most part, trying to apply any generational classification to room escape experiences is an exercise in futility and nonsense. Further, anyone who claims authoritatively to have a definition for Gen3+ is a bit of a charlatan and they are not to be trusted.

My argument for this is simple, and boils down to three fundamental points:

  1. Having a universally accepted taxonomy for generation classifications requires meaningful consensus. Put differently: A large majority of experts must agree on definitions. And we don’t have this. Ask 25 room escape experts to define a Generation 4 room and you’re going to get 25 different responses.
  2. Meaningful & useful taxonomy must have objective definitions. How do you classify an experience with 37 rudimentary technology pieces versus an experience with 1 bleeding edge technology piece? How can we even define “technology”, let alone “rudimentary” or “bleeding edge?” The amount of subjectivity here is staggering, and until it can be fully wrangled, there can be no objective definitions.
  3. The contemporary room escape industry is less than 4(ish) years old. The idea that we’re already seeing “Generation 4” rooms is nonsense. Where are we going to be in 2020? 2025? “Oh I won’t go to any room under generation 17, it’s 18 and up for me thanks.” Of course not.

Related problems: Does “generation” speak strictly to technology? What about story? Fit & finish? Flow? Can there be a universal nomenclature controlling for all these parameters? I think not.

Much content defies classification. Also logic.

Much content defies classification. Also logic.

Now, a couple points of order:

I do think we have a pretty universal consensus and objective definition of a “Gen1” room. These are rooms with little/no technology, little in the way of story, and generally pretty low polish. It is only once we go beyond Gen1 that we reach murky waters. IMPORTANT: This is no commentary on the quality of the experience. Some of the most entertaining room escapes out there are firmly Gen1.

Back to the CREC panel discussion. After going on a tirade railing against generation definitions, Shawn took the mic and explained his positions in the Room Escape Artist post. You see, Shawn sells technology solutions to room escape companies. For his business, it is vitally important his clients are able to troubleshoot and maintain their purchases. And to that end, it was useful to create a classification system for his business to ensure folks were buying to the right level of technology. This is totally righteous. Unfortunately, the industry at large took those definitions out of context and a monster was born.

In sum, we’ve got Gen1 rooms, we’ve got rooms beyond Gen1, and spending mental cycles trying to firmly and meaningfully classify experiences beyond that isn’t possible at this stage.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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How Most Everyone Gets it Wrong on Private Versus Public Ticketing

As I did last post, I’m going to spend a moment to correct an alarmingly prevalent misconception amongst many in the room escape community. But first, some quick definitions:

Magnifying glass probably not required.

Magnifying glass probably not required.


Public ticketing: Individual tickets are sold for a room escape event. Example: Game’s capacity is 10. You buy individual tickets for $30 each, up to 10. If you buy fewer than 10, other folks might buy tickets to the same game and you will be teamed up.
Private ticketing: One ticket for the game. Example: Game’s capacity is 10. You buy the entire room for a single ticket of $300, sometimes with discounts. You are guaranteed to never play with strangers.


Now, there is a dangerous myth being propagated by many in the enthusiast community: “Private ticketing is better, I hate playing with strangers.”


It’s certainly true that if you cannot stand strangers, you’d probably prefer a private ticketing system. Or, if you’re able, simply round up a full group and buy out a room at a public ticketed room. “But Nate!” you exclaim, “I am unable to round up a full group to play a particular public ticketed room, therefore private ticketing is best for me!” My reply: Your scenario is exactly why private ticketed events are often completely un-accessable! This is the exact place where many folks stop thinking, so let us continue thinking.


If you cannot round up enough folks to buy out a public room, you have the option of being teamed up with strangers. If you cannot round up enough folks to play a private room, you do not have the option of being teamed up with strangers. If you cannot assemble a team of sufficient size, privately ticketed rooms are literally unplayable. I see players trying to overcome this hardship constantly not even realizing it’s a huge burden. “Hey my significant other and I are going to be in City X this weekend and I bought a private room and you need at least 6 people to play, will someone please play with us!!”

Don't have a full team? You're locked out of most privately ticketed games.

Don't have a full team? You're locked out of most privately ticketed games.

There are multiple privately ticketed room escape experiences all over the country that I have literally been unable to play because I don’t have the time to assemble a local team myself. I hear they’re great, guess I’ll never know.


Now, a couple notes on the above:

  • The smaller the room’s player capacity, the more successful a private ticketing system can be. Take a look at my discussion on big versus small rooms for more information.
  • On that point, there certainly exist greedy companies out there billing their "small" rooms incorrectly as "large". Selling up 16 tickets to a game designed for 4 is a separate problem we unfortunately see.
  • Neither ticketing system is objectively better than the other.
  • Historically at Puzzle Break, our rooms have been absolutely massive with enormous amounts of content. A public ticketing system has been the best option for our players.
  • That said, our next two rooms are going to be much more intimate, and we will be using a private ticketing system for those experiences. This way, our players will have many options to find the experience right for them.

Last but not least, I have watched thousands of groups play Puzzle Break. The groups that have the most fun? Strangers. The groups that do the best? Surprisingly, strangers. The groups that forge new friendships that last a lifetime? Take a wild guess. =)

-Nate

 

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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I love locks.

I love locks.

There’s a war going on. It’s mostly invisible, the stakes aren’t high, the combatants are few, but that doesn’t matter! Today I will discuss my allegiance to an increasingly maligned core component of the room escape revolution.

Room escapes are evolving very quickly. When the industry began a few short years ago, the highest technology you might find in a cutting edge room was a laser pointer. Now, we’re seeing all sorts of advanced gadgetry and Hollywood-caliber set design from some of the larger players in the industry. Not all of this advancement is good or necessary, as I wrote in a previous blog post, but the general trend is, in my opinion, a very positive one for players.

Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon contains multiple locks.

Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon contains multiple locks.

An unfortunate side effect of the industry’s rapid growth in popularity and complexity is the rise of what I call the “Enthusiast Echo Chamber”. There are a handful of folks out there who:

  • Love room escapes, likely having experienced dozens and dozens.
  • Have extremely strong opinions about design as it pertains to them only.
  • Are unaware of the existence, or even the possibility of the existence of opinions/perspectives that aren’t their own, particularly those of completely new players.

For lack of a better term, I will label these folks “Comicbook-guy-enthusiasts” or CGEs. I want to be very clear that this group is hardly representative of the otherwise awesome core group of room escape superfans (without whom this industry wouldn’t exist), only a small subset.

 

Fun fact: Comic Book Guy's real name is "Jeffrey Albertson"

Fun fact: Comic Book Guy's real name is "Jeffrey Albertson"

CGEs tend to dominate online discussions about room escapes with their extremely vocal opinions. The net result is that there emerges a sort of “groupthink” about certain topics, labeling subjective choices “good” or “bad”. This is not a good thing, and I want to focus on a particular topic near and dear to my heart.

 

Go ahead, try and open me.

Go ahead, try and open me.

Somewhere in the past year, the basic (pad)lock has fallen out of favor with the CGE. And you know what? They have a point. There can indeed be correlation between a room having old fashioned locks and the room being a bad experience.

  • Basic locks are often a lazy designer’s tool. Don’t know how to craft an interesting experience flow? Can’t think of a way to gate progress interestingly? Throw some more locks at the player. This can get old.
  • Locks can be used in a very frustrating way. A very common (and enormously valid) complaint from lock haters comes from what I call a “lock orgy”. This is where the players currently have access to 27 locks, often many of the same type, and they solve a puzzle to receive a three digit code. Which lock does it go to? It’s hard to argue that trying a correct combination on 26 incorrect locks is fun.
  • Locks are low-tech. Some CGE folks won’t give rooms the time of day if there aren’t dozens of pieces of tech and gadgetry, no matter how faulty. I don’t subscribe to this argument one bit despite having put out arguably the most technically complex room escapes in existence. Low tech isn’t objectively good or bad, and shouldn’t be judged as such.

I stand before you today with a full-throated defense of the use of basic locks in the room escape experience. I love padlocks. I love combination locks. I love number locks. I love finding keys. I love word locks. I love ‘em all, can’t get enough of ‘em.

Used properly, locks in a room escape experience are amazing. That dopamine rush of gaining access to a previously forbidden container or space cannot be overstated. The tactile sensation of turning that key, of lifting that shackle. Mmm. Yes. As a player, I love entering a new room and seeing a bunch of juicy locks, waiting to be opened. As an owner, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen players explode with joy when they bust open a lock. And from a design perspective, granting that rush is fairly inexpensive. As long as their presence in the game flow makes logical sense, and a bad lock-orgy is avoided, locks are simply great. You'll likely find locks of assorted variety (even the high tech kind) in most every Puzzle Break experience for years to come.

Basic locks might not be the coolest kid on the block anymore, but they bring the fun. And at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Why Groupon (and other daily deals) are terrible for room escape businesses

I'll cut to the chase: Using Groupon is bad for your room escape business.  NOTE: The below applies to all daily deals sites, but I'll be referring to the greater concept as "Groupon" for the rest of this post. These services:

  • Are a great way to get some money upfront.
  • Are a great way to get the marketing that seems good, but is actually destructive beyond the immediate term.
  • Demolish your profit margin.
  • Establishes yours as a "discount" brand.
  • Are very much a net-negative decision for your business long term.
  • Cheapen the entire industry.

The Groupon concept is simple and alluring. You offer a discount. Groupon takes a cut, and does a bunch of marketing for you. Customers buy the deal, and visit your awesome business.

In practice, there is so much more to this, and little of it is good for escape room owner-operators.

A cautionary tale.

A cautionary tale.

First up, repeat business. One of the fundamental principles of Groupon success is that you lure customers the first time with a hot deal, and they are so enamored with your product/service that they sign up to pay full price from the 2nd time to the Nth time. This might work for restaurants, as people generally eat up to three times a day. This falls apart with the contemporary escape room model. How many rooms do you have? 2? 3? How big a bath are you willing to take on the profit from visit #1 in the hopes that a customer maybe returns one or two more times at full price?

Speaking of profit, let's talk some numbers. Let's say your tickets cost around the industry average of $30 USD. Unless you're a savvy negotiator or have some leverage, Groupon will make you discount that 50%. Your tickets now cost $15 (more on this hyper important piece later). Guess how much Groupon takes? 50% of that. Your revenue per ticket plummets from $30 to a comical $7.50. With many operational models, we've gone straight into money-losing territory. And while these figures can be negotiated, they can't be moved nearly enough to compensate for the legion of tradeoffs.

Suggested reading: "Groupon Isn't a Good Deal for Businesses"

Next up, the Bargain Seeker. Much has been written on the temperament, entitlement, and overall undesirability of the serial Groupon user, who scour daily deals sites exclusively and pay full price for nothing. Even if you could convert these customers to regular players (which you won't), you wouldn't want them. They will have a bad time and write bad reviews that include such poison as "definitely not worth full price." (more on the impact of this below)

Suggested reading: "Groupon Was 'The Single Worst Decision I Have Ever Made As A Business Owner'"

How healthy is your relationship with pennies?!

How healthy is your relationship with pennies?!

"OK Nate, fine," you say, "I'll eat that pain upfront to get some success (or just fill up games on the weekdays), I won't use it otherwise, and it'll be fine, right?"

WRONG.

Arguably the most damning part of using a daily deal site not only hurts your business, but also the entire industry: Screwing up the price anchoring and perceived value. At its core: Customers evaluate the value of something with the first piece of information they get. To see this concept fully weaponized, look to Apple; they use this concept to their advantage relentlessly. NOTE: Price anchoring is better explained by smarter folks than me all over the internet. If you're not familiar with the concept, I highly encourage some research on this topic.

Every escape room that eats the forbidden Groupon fruit is permanently scarred with an online footprint that never goes away. Potential customers will google "Escape room Cityname Groupon" or "Your Room Escape Groupon." They will see that you once offered a Groupon. Even worse, business reviews will mention "I snagged a Groupon deal." These are disasters for two reasons, either of which alone should be enough to ward people away forever:

  1.  As mentioned, your price anchoring is tarnished. The perceived value of your experience (and by extension to a degree, all other room escapes) is slashed in half, now and forever. "Oh," potential customers will think, "this is actually a $15 experience." They will read reviews from serial Groupon-ers saying, "Eh I had a good time but I don't think I'd pay full price for this!" This warped perception can (and in many cases already is) directly impacting the entire industry's value. In affected minds, all room escape experiences are chintzy and arbitrarily expensive. At Puzzle Break, we pride ourselves in offering a premium entertainment experience second to none. We spend enormous resources on our designs, builds, and operations to ensure each and every player walks away a truly satisfied feeling that they paid full price and got a huge bargain on an unforgettable experience.
  2. The other side of this coin is where the true pain is felt. There exists an enormous customer-base that will discover that A. you used to use Groupon and B. you currently don't use Groupon. They will wait patiently for you to offer another discount and never book a ticket at full price. This is different than the bargain seeker audience that only uses Groupon; this is the silent majority who are simply in no rush to play a Room Escape and are happy to wait on a deep discount that you've trained them into waiting for. It is right around here that we see businesses become "addicted" to Groupon time and again.

This is it at a very high level. There are lesser pros and cons that I didn't cover, and I encourage as much independent, unbiased research in this area as possible for anyone on the fence.

My advice for Room Escape owner-operators of all stripes: Don't be seduced by the false promise of short term gains with a host of downsides that will damage your business (and that of the entire nascent industry) swiftly and permanently.

Instead, dedicate your resources into creating artisanal, high-quality experiences that players will be clamoring to pay full price for. Experiences so great that they will rush out of the game and immediately demand all their friends/family/co-workers play. Encourage word-of-mouth. Puzzle Break wouldn't be where we are today without our customers being our strongest advocates. Utilize traditional marketing channels. Your brand value will grow, your bottom line will grow, the room escape industry will grow, and most importantly, your players will have the time of their lives.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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What Product Management Can Teach About the Biggest Room Escape Design Blunders

I have a tremendous advantage over most everyone involved with room escape design. Prior to Puzzle Break, I spent many years as a Product Manager. More importantly, I bore witness to some of the best and worst product management in software history, and have absorbed many lessons from both. Today, I’d like to share arguably the most important topic we can learn from the Product Management discipline.

You are not the customer.

This sounds simple. It isn’t, and let me back up a bit. Product Management is so tricky it’s actually non-trivial to explain the concept. The best description I’ve ever heard is that the Product Manager is the CEO of his/her product/feature. They are fully responsible for every aspect of their product, from all elements of design (UX, content, feature set, etc.), production, schedule, lifecycle, supportability, everything. Naturally, the Product Manager is going to be an expert in their field, and this is where many, many, many PMs fall into a deadly trap: They forget they are not the customer.

Although I loathe these nonsense business graphics, this one ain't too far off.

Although I loathe these nonsense business graphics, this one ain't too far off.

The best example of this failure I can think of is the Amazon Fire Phone. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had an extremely detailed vision of what he wanted the Fire Phone to be. Reportedly, he stepped in to the design process and never stepped out. He designed the phone he wanted, not the phone the market wanted. The result was an unmitigated commercial flop.

Jeff Bezos Crushing Your Head photo credit Mario Tama/Getty

Jeff Bezos Crushing Your Head photo credit Mario Tama/Getty

I see this time and again with room escape designs. Designers create the rooms they like with little/no thought to whether their preferences extend to their target market. Whenever you play a room that’s all over the place (design-wise), it’s a safe bet that either A. it was simply designed by someone with not much experience as a player or designer or B. It was designed by a veteran who failed to ask the tough questions of whether what they think is cool would work for their players. This is a common and understandable mistake, and one that non-product-manager-veterans might not even realize they are making.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but “You are not the customer” is a universal mantra that I would recommend to anyone in any field that contains design elements.

ADMITTED EXCEPTION TO THE ABOVE: No Puzzle Break experience will ever contain a sliding puzzle. If they should ever become the rage, our team's dislike of this design transcends our desire to appeal to the marketplace.

Not even this one, and it has a *dinosaur*!

Not even this one, and it has a *dinosaur*!

- Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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The Biggest Myths in Escape Room Competition

I’m involved with countless discussions about evaluating competition amongst escape room companies as it pertains to owner-operators and the bottom line. Over the years, I’ve noticed a couple significant myths routinely propagated, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect them.

Myth #1: Escape Room Competition is Bad for Business

We can do it together!

We can do it together!

I typically see this argument from the more experienced entrepreneurs, though I’ve certainly heard it echoed by a fair share of neophytes. Conventional wisdom in this area comes from basically every other business in the planet:

  • Competitors can and will take your customers and your revenue.
  • The more competitors, the harder your job will be.
  • Being a monopoly, or as close to one as possible, is the ideal.

In many, many, many lines of business, the above is completely true. However, (and this is a recurring theme in my writings), escape rooms are very unlike many traditional businesses. To survive and thrive, we must eschew traditional thinking when it is incorrect.

What makes this myth not true?

  1. Escape rooms have extremely limited/zero replayability.
  2. Escape rooms are still very much unknown to a huge percentage of your potential customer base.

Every meal a customer eats at Restaurant A is a meal they don’t eat at Restaurant B. Restaurant B doesn’t have to educate folks about the existence of food. However, escape room players can (and will) experience company A and company B, as they cannot play at both every day. Consider: How many different films does the average moviegoer see? Answer: More than one. Additionally, every marketing dollar spent by either company educates the customer base to the concept of the whole industry, benefiting all owner-operators in the space.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

Myth #2: Escape Room Competition is Good for Business

This post brought to you by M. Night Shyamalan

This post brought to you by M. Night Shyamalan

Everything I said above is true. However, there’s much more to this story. I typically see this argument from the more novice & naïve entrepreneurs. The crux of what makes this a myth is this:

Escape Room Competition is good…until it isn’t.

In new/underserved markets, a bit of escape room competition is almost certainly a good thing for everyone. In large/saturated markets, competition tends to benefit the larger businesses at the expense of the smaller/newer ones.

This is an area of the business on which I am particularly qualified to speak: Puzzle Break has the dubious distinction of being one of the first escape room companies to have closed a location. We might even have been the very first.

Puzzle Break started in Seattle in 2013. We opened a room in San Francisco in 2014. By 2015, we closed it down. Why? Even then, there was too much competition, we weren’t the dominant player in the region. When we advertised, people didn’t remember “Puzzle Break”, they remembered “Escape Room”. When they later googled to locate their options, they located our more established competitors, and we lost business.

Conversely, our Seattle headquarters was the very first contemporary escape room company based in America and we are an extremely familiar entity. Our competitors’ advertising often gives us a disproportionate boost as they not only educate potential players about escape rooms; they educate potential players about us. By focusing our resources on solidifying our dominant position in the Seattle market, we have been able to grow at a speed disproportionate to our marketing spend.

Let’s look at a different market: As of this writing, a cursory search puts the number of escape room companies in Ontario at OVER 70. No rational evaluator can claim that the opening of the 71st escape room company has a net positive effect on the business of the 64th.

In sum: While a rising tide lifts all boats, the large boats tend to rise faster, and the small boats are in constant danger of taking on water.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Technology failure in escape rooms

Earlier this year, I was in Los Angeles and decided to make the trip a bit of an escape room marathon. My co-founder and I played 7 escape rooms across several companies. We learned a lot from our trip, but my biggest takeaway was the technology. Technology failures, that is.

Care to hazard a guess how many of the rooms had some sort of glitch that impacted the experience negatively?

100%. I was blown away.

Not from an actual escape room. Or microwave.

Not from an actual escape room. Or microwave.

Some context: Escape rooms are outrageously new. There was literally only *one* in the United States as recently as 2013, and it contained exactly zero pieces of technology more complicated than a lock. Since escape rooms have exploded, there’s been a sort of arms race amongst companies to roll out rooms with the most gadgetry humanly possible.

Three short years later, many escape rooms are filled to the brim with all sorts of technology-driven puzzles. Problem is, painfully few designers/owner-operators think about two incredibly, outrageously important things:

  1. If this piece of technology fails, will it fail gracefully?
  2. Just because this puzzle can be a gadget, should it be a gadget?

I go back and forth about which of these makes me more upset as both a player and a figure in the industry.

Failing to fail gracefully bludgeoned me relentlessly during my LA trip. Containers failed to electronically open remotely. Physical clues failed to appear when conditions were met. Displays had the wrong information. And when these things happened, I (generally) as a player didn’t know they failed. I had done the right thing and the game halted. It wasn’t until later that a remote monitor would belatedly catch on and give a “whoops sorry that happens sometimes” and un-stuck my team. In one case, the GM never caught it, and we were stuck for about 20 minutes until game over. It utterly devastated an otherwise wonderful experience.

Technology failures happen and there’s precious little a designer can do about it, but one of those things is failing gracefully. At Puzzle Break, we have multiple redundant measures to ensure that if any of our technology fails, the players’ progress will be seamlessly uninterrupted.

My second high-level complaint with technology in escape rooms stems from lack of restraint. Too many times I’ve seen escape rooms decked out in dozens of tech puzzles. Frequently, they are:

  • Thematic nonsense
  • Significantly and needlessly over-complicated
  • Obtuse/Confusing
  • Cheap
  • Obviously worn out and like as not to fail
Dr. Reynolds agrees that the crossword didn't require an arduino.

Dr. Reynolds agrees that the crossword didn't require an arduino.

In case after case after case, I see these and think “this would work so much better on several levels as a low/no tech puzzle”. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of groupthink out there that “more tech = better experience”, and for all players’ sakes I hope that goes away sooner than later.

Actual pic of Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon. Not pictured, failing hard (yet gracefully) the following test game.

Actual pic of Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon. Not pictured, failing hard (yet gracefully) the following test game.

Now, all that said, technology in escape rooms can be amazing and drop your jaw to the floor again and again (look no further than our Escape the Rubicon), but it has to be appropriate, and it has to fail gracefully.

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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The Road Warrior

Picture if you will: a Road Warrior.

No, not this guy.

Is this reference too dated by now?

Is this reference too dated by now?

I'm talking about the traveling champion of business, a little something like this:

Give 'em the business, man.

Give 'em the business, man.

You see these entities all over fictional pop culture. They cruise around airports, airplanes, transit, and hotels in their perfectly pressed business suits. Confidently, they whip out their laptops and work for hours no matter the conditions. For a prototypical example, check out George Clooney's Ryan Bingham in 2009's excellent "Up in the Air".

I travel a fair amount for work. Last month, I was in Germany/England/Netherlands setting up and training on Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future and the first volume of our Royal Mystery games on Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas. In a week, I'll be in France doing the same for Escape the Rubicon. So far this year, I've flown 17 times in 4 months on one airline alone.

For my trip next week: This room will be the most technologically advanced escape room in the world. I'll get to see the fruition of months and months of intense work across 3 states. The public reception will be amazing. I love spending time on cruise ships. And with all that said: I am not looking forward to traveling.

Traveling destroys me. It is draining & stressful. Nothing is comfortable. You've got to drag your whole life with you, and may god have mercy on your soul if you lose your passport or wallet. Internet may or may not work. Delays. Delays delays delays.

If you play this game, know that I cried many travel tears to give you the experience.

If you play this game, know that I cried many travel tears to give you the experience.

How do people work in this environment?! I can barely think thoughts, let alone focus enough to accomplish substantive work tasks. On many airplanes, there's not even enough room to fully open a laptop!

The biggest problem I encounter is trying (and failing) to focus on two things at once. When traveling between your ultimate destinations, no matter what the context, you're waiting for something. And when you're waiting, you must keep part of your attention on making sure you don't miss that for which you are waiting. On the bus? Can't focus, might miss my stop. At the airport? Can't focus, might miss notification to board. On the plane? Well, it's hard to focus when you have negative personal space. If the Internet is working at all (spoilers: it isn't).

Arriving at my destination isn't much of a respite either. Once I'm snugly and securely in a hotel or back at my place, I'm demolished. I need hours and hours of recovery before I can feel human again, and that's not even factoring in the jet lag.

Thing is: I see actual road warriors all the time! I can never understand it. How do these superheroes do it? How can you sit on the hard floor of a crowded terminal and refine that presentation? How do you open your laptop 80% of the way and crane your neck down at a Kafkaesque angle to bang out those emails? My hat is off to you as I sit in the seat next to you trying not to explode from jetlag and soreness.

Do these people pretend? Are they faking it? Do they try to business and give up when I'm not looking? Or do they possess something(s) I lack?

What about you? Are you a road warrior? What's your secret, and can it be taught? I sure hope to learn one day. If not, I'll see you at the airport. I'll be the guy trying and failing to sleep.

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Playing Business vs. Doing Business

Right around the first and second anniversaries of Puzzle Break, I made detailed posts to the Entrepreneur section of Reddit discussing the history of our business, milestones, the evolution of the industry, and all sorts of related topics.

Between the exposure of these posts and general press/word of mouth, I get an enormous amount of email questions from budding entrepreneurs of all stripes. The questions run the gamut of size/complexity/industry (I'd wager less than 2/3 are actually from potential escape room owner-operators), but I'm beginning to notice a trend that I'm not tremendously happy to see:

People "playing" business when they should be doing business, and failure to recognize the difference.

I saw this all the time at Microsoft and EA (this post's image brought to you by someone who wanted to make a sweet "business" graphic with no desire to understand how gears work), and it is disappointing to learn that this disease is agnostic to sector and industry.

Note to folks who have never created a business before: Creating a successful business is fundamentally no different than creating a successful product or service within the framework of an established company. Size/scale/complexity/risks will vary wildly, but at its core, we're talking about the same thing.

The metaphor of which I am most fond is successfully preparing a delicious meal. People who know me will immediately recognize the humor in this being my go-to metaphor (I'm not sure I've cooked a complete meal in my entire life), but bear with me:

Imagine your ultimate goal in this hypothetical exercise is to make a great meal. Before you begin, what are your primary areas of concern? Where are you focusing your energies? If you've never cooked anything before in your life, you might turn to videos of highly famous chefs working their magic. At the end of the video, you would see a beautifully plated dish in the most beautiful dining area you've ever seen.

You might be forgiven, then, if you are tricked into believing your efforts are best spent on the aesthetics. You might focus on the presentation of the dish. You might focus on how best to plate it. On how to get the word out about your amazing meal. On how to make the lighting in the dining room just so.

Congratulations, you're playing chef.

The correct things to focus on (I'm told by people who have actually prepared a meal before) are ingredients and preparation. I know some folks who would go even further: just focus on the ingredients, and the rest follows. That's it. Focus on making the damn thing taste good, as uninteresting as that is. The problem is: finding the right ingredients is a lot less sexy (and makes for a lot worse television) than preparing the final product after all the groundwork is laid.

Here's a paraphrased email that I see every day.

"Hey, I'm thinking about starting an escape room business and I love what you've done with Puzzle Break. I don't know anything about puzzles, or experience design. I don't have any business experience. I don't know what my budget is, or where I'm going to get it. My questions for you: Do you think I should use Groupon when I open? What sort of social media strategy would you recommend?"

Where to begin? This poor soul wants to jump to the end of the process without any of the hyper-important groundwork. There's one million things they don't yet know, and they are only asking about the least-important parts. They are playing business.

How to avoid this trap? My two pieces of agnostic advice:

  1. Be aware that you don't know what you don't know. Seek to reduce this gap.
  2. Making anything of quality (in any business, industry, or sector) requires a disappointingly high level of work on decidedly un-sexy areas that you rarely see on television.

NOTE: For anyone inside the escape room industry reading this: For long term success: No, you should not use Groupon or any other daily deal service.

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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On the Definition & Importance of Actual Puzzles in Escape Rooms

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio famously said on pornography, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

I was chatting with Puzzle Break co-founder Lindsay Morse about a topic on which we both agree: Escape Rooms with a greater number of actual puzzles are more fun than those with fewer puzzles and more "tasks". As the discussion continued, we discovered that neither one of us had a great way to put language to the definition of "puzzle" in this context. What is a puzzle? Well, that's hard to say, but we know it when we see it. Unsatisfied, Dr. Morse hit the dictionary:

Lindsay:  1st def: "to cause (any one) to be at a loss what to do or how to turn; to embarrass with difficulties; to put to a non-plus; to perplex, bewilder, confound"

that's for the verb, for the noun:

3a "something contrived or made for the purpose of puzzling, or exercising one's ingenuity and patience; a toy or problem of this kind"

so I think that actually hits what I'm trying to get out

the need to bewilder, perplex or confound at first

otherwise there isn't really much pay off for "solving" it

and it's really just a "task" and not a "puzzle" with that component missing

Ancient Greek has this amazing word "aporia" which means "to be at a loss" or "to lack the resources needed" and they talk about it a lot

partially, I think, because it feels so good to get out of that feeling

and I think the need for "ingenuity" to solve a puzzle ends up being key for the satisfaction

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it is about humans that make us like solving puzzles so much, and I sadly haven't come to an answer

back to the etymology...

they think the verb might have come first, and it might be related to "pose", e.g., "to pose a question"

All good stuff, but I'd go even simpler. In escape rooms, most objectives can be broken down into two primary components:

  1. Figuring out what to do
  2. Doing it

"Tasks" are extremely focused on #2 and almost completely ignore #1. "Puzzles" focus on both. Ironically, traditional jigsaw puzzles (as in the image accompanying this blog post) fall into the task category. At Puzzle Break, we like to focus more on puzzles and less on tasks. The "A-ha!" moment (and it's accompanying endorphin rush) when a player figures out what they need to do has been described as similar to crack cocaine, and I think the comparison ain't too far off.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), many escape rooms are eschewing meatier and more rewarding puzzles in favor of easy-to-grok tasks. Spoiler-light examples from some rooms I've played:

  • Using a blanket to retrieve an out-of-reach key.
  • Using a spoon to unscrew a screw.
  • Using pairs of sticks to manipulate an object in a maze or out of a container.
  • An electric maze game.

In a vacuum, there's absolutely nothing wrong with tasks in an escape room (except when they are frustrating and unfair to execute). Well designed tasks have a time and a place, and they can definitely enhance an experience. However, experiences that sacrifice puzzle content, A-ha! moments of discovery, and general mental acrobatics in favor of exclusively "do-this-objective" tasks are missing out on a vital component of what makes escape rooms so very fun.

 

-Nate

 

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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On being everything to everyone.

The following is a short piece I wrote for a discussion group. It is targeted for folks in the escape room community, but I feel the greater message holds true for entrepreneurs of all stripes:

If I may offer some unsolicited advice on how to run your business: Don't be afraid to find a niche. Don't be afraid to ignore perfectly sound advice when it doesn't "fit".


I've been doing this longer than most everyone in the world. When we started, we got most of our room content from thrift stores. As we started to grow and our resources increased, we had a very clear set of obvious choices. Our rooms needed to have higher material quality, we needed to get more customers, etc.


As Puzzle Break continued to grow, we naturally fell into a niche of huge rooms, huge numbers of players, some awesome gadgetry, but also some stone-age puzzles, and a pretty hard difficulty level tempered by in-room monitors to enhance the experience.


As time passes and the industry continues to grow, our choices have grown less obvious. Where do we focus our efforts? What type of experience are we trying to curate? What audience are we trying to cater to?


Reading about some of the wonderful things some folks here have created, it has proven all-too-tempting to try and do it all. Be everything to everyone. And let me tell you, it’s a trap. Barring unlimited time and resources (and apologies for wasting your time if you’ve got unlimited time and resources): you please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.


Here’s some of the areas you can focus on (not a comprehensive list by any stretch):
You can focus on newbies.
You can focus on puzzle vets.
You can focus on the folks in between.
You can focus on old people.
You can focus on young people.
You can focus on millennials.
You can focus on making extremely tech-heavy rooms.
You can focus on making familiar low-tech puzzles.
You can focus on making Hollywood-caliber set décor.
You can focus on an extremely lean budget.
You can focus on small rooms for 2-4 players.
You can focus on large rooms for 12+ players.
You can focus on medium rooms 6-8 players.
You can focus on tourists.
You can focus on locals.
You can focus on corporate clients.
You can focus on bargain-seekers.
You can focus on heavy story.
You can focus on a strictly objective-driven experience.
You can focus on shorter experiences.
You can focus on longer experiences.
You can focus on rooms designed to run for years.
You can focus on rooms designed to run for weeks.
You can focus on the physical aspect of the experience.
You can focus on the mental aspect of the experience.


What you *cannot* do is “all of the above”. Time and again I see rooms and discussions where people fall into a trap of trying to do everything at once with muddled results.


All that said, don’t *not* do something if it’s a good idea and a good fit, but: There is absolutely no shame in saying “no” to something that is a good idea for someone else, but not you.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Why Escape Rooms are the Best Teambuilding Activity in the World

There are many types of activities companies can do for corporate teambuilding. There's go-karting, classes where we apply pseudo-science to learn about our personalities and work styles, restaurant outings, laser tag, obstacle courses, improv theatre, the list goes on and on. And every item on this list shares something in common: They all pale in comparison to the best teambuilding activity in the world: Escape Rooms.

Prior to co-founding Puzzle Break, I was a software executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. For years, I was subjected to a volume of varied horrors at attempted teambuilding that would knock you down. Seemingly every other week our whole team would be dragged to some mandatory trendy/world-changing/cancer-curing activity that our senior leadership had read about in a magazine or overheard at an offsite. All of these activities typically came in two flavors:

· A horrifyingly dry activity that (supposedly, despite no peer reviewed science) would improve team performance and was approximately as much fun as invasive dental surgery. Any improvement from these activities was typically A. ephemeral or B. nonexistent.

· Something actually fun (skydiving, an open bar, etc.) that was great for morale, but contained exactly zero teambuilding content.

Sound familiar?

Enter: Escape Rooms.

But Nate, you ask, what makes escape rooms so fantastic? Good question, thank you for asking.

There's an extremely long answer to this question that involves a detailed analysis of behavioral science and cognitive function (that I will not be covering in today's post). Instead, a hyper simple explanation for why escape rooms are the best teambuilding activity in the world:

At escape rooms like Puzzle Break, groups of players do exactly two things:

· Using their brainpower, they work as a team towards a common objective.

· Have a stupendous amount of fun.

That's all there is to it. We see it time and again at Puzzle Break: Leadership will bring a group to play (often dragged kicking and screaming), and the players automatically assume they are in for another unbearable teambuilding experience du jour. Then, once the game is going, they experience their first "a-ha!" moment as they overcome a mental obstacle as a team. The players buy-in to the experience. They use their brains, they work together, and they have a great time. And when they're done, they contact us to tell us two things:

1.       Their Puzzle Break experience built new relationships, strengthened existing ones, and vastly improved the team's performance.

2.       They want to know when they can come back and play our other games.

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Escape Rooms Big and Small

An oft-discussed (and nearly as oft-misunderstood) topic in escape room design is size. Proponents of small rooms debate hotly with proponents of large rooms over which is the better design, and which is the better experience.

 

In my view, this debate, without greater context, is nonsense. There are amazing small games out there. There are amazing large games out there (See: Puzzle Break's current offerings). And if I may read your mind for a moment, you're wrong. This isn't going to be a strawman argument about execution, at least not in the way you're thinking. Of course there are piss-poor escape rooms out there that are small, and large, and every size. However, many of these games are kneecapped by any number of problems unrelated to their size, ranging from terrible customer service, to low quality puzzles, to puzzles that are way too easy/hard (or worse: both), to gadgetry that fails left and right, and everything in the middle. These are rooms outside the scope of today.

 

What I'd like to discuss here are rooms that are bad because they are big, or because they are small, and why. These rooms definitely exist, and I'm sure the escape room super-veterans out there can think of a few examples of both. NOTE: Overcrowding is a problem agnostic to room size, and I'll get to that at the end.

 

First, small rooms that are bad because they are small. As it happens, real estate ain't cheap. Having several acres of escape room isn't an option for most operators, so, folks make do with what they have. And sometimes, the end result is playing an escape room in a glorified elevator. The most frequent problem with these tiny spaces (aside from overcrowding, which I promise to get to) is there's only a finite amount of physical content you can get into a place without warping space & time (note: if you've got a guy that can warp space & time, send him my way). One of the chief virtues of an escape room experience is a wonderful assortment of activities. Strictly speaking, less space = less content. I've played a handful of rooms with no more than 3 puzzles, and each puzzle was unfairly obtuse to draw out the experience to an hour (and in one case, 30 minutes). How can these problems be avoided from a design perspective? Ensuring there is sufficient puzzle content, and it is tuned properly for difficulty. And if the experience is less than an hour, scale down the price.

 

Next, large rooms that are bad because they are large. The most frequent problem with these (aside from overcrowding) is rampant "I have nothing to do" disease. When you've got 9 people staring at a single puzzle, and that single puzzle can reasonably be worked on by a maximum of 3 people, you've got 6 poor jerks sitting there with nothing to do. Worse, if this trend repeats itself for the duration of the experience, those same 6 folks are going to be in for a pretty bad experience. This can sometimes be a symptom of shoehorning an experience flow designed for a small group onto a large group, but this is an entirely separate conversation for a future post on various game flows. How can these problems be avoided from a design perspective? Ensuring there is sufficient puzzle content, and it is tuned properly for difficulty.

 

Notice a trend? Bottom line: Having the right amount well-balanced content for the right amount of players in the right amount of size will cure what ails ya.

 

NOTE: All rooms of all sizes can suffer from overcrowding. All too often I see operators "cheat" the number of players that should be in the room by various margins. A room that is a great experience for 2-4 players will allow up to 6. A room ideal for 3-6 will cap at 8. Rooms for 6-8 will allow up to 10, etc. This has burned a number of experienced players, and is particularly frustrating to me at Puzzle Break.

 

Our rooms are enormous with vast amounts of clue & puzzle content. Our largest room is bigger than some small houses, and has content for up to 14 people (I don't think any group smaller than 8 has ever escaped).  And every week, we get a mail from someone: "Hey I have a group of 4, can we play your largest room with no one else?" These poor souls have been burned one-too-many times and are trained into thinking a room for up to 14 is going to be better played with 4, and I can't say as I blame them.

 

Last but not least, be extremely wary about rooms with enormous player ranges. A room for 2-4 players makes sense. A room for 6-12 players makes sense. A room for 2-12 players is absurd. There's no experience (in my experience) that can possibly be a good time for both 2 people and 12 people.

 

-Nate

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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Packing.

Hello!


My name is Nate Martin. I am the co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break. And tonight, I am packing. More accurately, I am preparing to pack, which is at least 50% of the process. For what am I packing? Good question.


Back in late 2014, I entered discussions with the folks at Royal Caribbean Cruise Line about putting our games on their ships. To my mind, it was a great fit. Having cruised several times in the past, I knew first hand how hard it can be to meet like-minded folks on a floating cityscape. Escape rooms and team puzzle games are enormously fun group activities and a great way to meet new friends. The Royal folks wanted to take our stuff for a test drive before they made any decisions, so we packed up an entire escape room in a few boxes and flew to beautiful, exotic, and tropical New Jersey to do a demo game for their Captain and Cruise Director conference.


This was a real trial-by-fire. You see, each captain and cruise director are effectively CEOs of massive organizations. They answer to no one, and generally have extremely strong personalities.


EDUCATIONAL ASIDE: You might call them "Type A" personalities, but I hate this term. True fact: Type A and Type B personalities were invented by doctors hired by the tobacco industry as a way to demonstrate people who smoked a whole bunch were having heart attacks because of their personality, rather than, you know, smoking a whole bunch.


ANYWAY: Strong bullheaded audience. This is particularly relevant because a successful and entertaining room escape experience is almost always hallmarked by prodigious teamwork facilitated by the willingness to take orders. These folks were not in the habit of taking orders, and their having a great time was going to matter a great deal; Royal wouldn't want our games on their ships if we couldn't demonstrate how amazingly fun they are (which, as it happens, they are).


My team and I schlepped our escape-room-in-a-crate all the way from Seattle to the deck of Quantum of the Seas, docked in Bayonne, New Jersey. After some confusion with the security checkpoint (we brought a lot of metal with us). We set up the game in one of the dance halls, and after a not-terribly-long wait, the first group of captains arrived. They were grumpy. This was not unexpected; spending all day at a conference can often rate "Kafkaesque nightmare" on the fun-on-a-bun scale. And let's not forget: We were in New Jersey.


After a quick intro, they trudged into the room, reasonably determined to not have fun. I was starting to get nervous, but I had failed to make a critical assumption. You see, playing an escape room with your peers is a stupendous opportunity to demonstrate how smart you are. The captains instantly latched onto this fact, and immediately bought in to the experience. They tore into the game with a fervor, exhibited amazing teamwork, and escaped the room with a healthy margin.


Our game was a hit, and we shortly inked a deal with Royal Caribbean to offer Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future on their Anthem of the Seas ship. We launched in early 2015. I type this on an uncharacteristically warm evening in April 2016, as I pack. Or rather, am preparing to pack. In two days, I am flying to Germany, where I will be overseeing the installation and training for Puzzle Break: Escape from the Future and Puzzle Break: The Mansfield Museum Mystery, coming soon to Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas (not to be confused with Harmony of the Seas' Puzzle Break: Escape the Rubicon, which rates several blog posts by itself).

 

Called the "Founding Father of Escape Rooms," Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the first American escape room company. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island, Massachusetts and on Royal Caribbean ships. Prior to Puzzle Break, he was a senior executive at Microsoft and Electronic Arts. He has shipped software used by billions of users as well as some of the most beloved video games of a generation. @GuyFromTomorrow on Twitter.

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