Escape Rooms and Team Puzzle Experiences: The Ultimate in Teambuilding

Almost exactly 3 years ago from our Seattle HQ, I wrote a treatise on Why Escape Rooms are the Best Teambuilding Activity in the World. Since then:

It’s high time I revisited my bold claim that Escape Rooms are the best teambuilding activity in the world.

I like this picture because I took it at the exact changover from 49:21 to 49:20. And the jets.

I like this picture because I took it at the exact changover from 49:21 to 49:20. And the jets.

In many ways, I’m happy to report I nailed it. When I wrote the first teambuilding article in 2016, we had only been serving customers for ~2 and a half years. I knew from my experience as a Microsoft and Electronic Arts exec that Escape Rooms were filling a gigantic need in the corporate teambuilding / morale space. However, we still didn’t know if Puzzle Break experiences would stand the test of time. We hoped, but did not know, the often-fleeting corporate activity zeitgeist would remain focused in the world of interactive experiences for teams as a way to both build new relationships and strengthen existing ones. It has, in spades. We serve more corporate customers than ever before at all of our locations, including our original Seattle spot.

However, it would have been foolish to rest on our laurels. Puzzle Break was the best teambuilding activity in the world in 2016, and it would have taken a special kind of hubris to assume we would remain so with no effort. Since then, we’ve spent more money than ever crafting one-of-a-kind team experiences that are painstakingly crafted to maximize team engagement and improvement.

Additionally, we’ve doubled down on our efforts to bring Puzzle Break Escape Experiences to offsite events across the country. Too often, we would get requests for 50, 100, 300, 1000+ players. Have you tried cramming 1000 folks into an escape room? It ain’t a pretty sight!

Got a conference or meeting space? Puzzle Break’s got an unforgettable teambuilding experience.

Got a conference or meeting space? Puzzle Break’s got an unforgettable teambuilding experience.

We are now proud to offer multiple large-scale offsite experiences that capture 100% of the magic that makes escape rooms special in a way that scales infinitely in any space. Not only that, but we can effortlessly run our offsite games in any space, for teams of any size, at any time in the middle of any agenda, all with minimal disruption or planning required. We deploy a team of specialists to corporate meetings, global team offsites, morale events, product launches, you name it. Anywhere in the US. We set up quickly, temporarily take over any space, run an unforgettable escape experience for an unlimited number of simultaneous players, and vanish. Our ever-increasing portfolio of portable experiences has been a smash hit, and we couldn’t be more excited about the future?

Want to bring Puzzle Break to your next big event? Head over to our Portable Teambuilding page, or shoot us an email at booking@puzzlebreak.com to get started!

-Nate

Dubbed 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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Nate Martin's Escape Room Pet Peeves

I’m frequently asked for escape room design decisions that I think are bad. I almost always dodge the question for two very important reasons:

  1. As a known entity in the industry, I’ve more than once made the mistake of voicing my own opinion without properly caveating it. This has had outsized consequences, and it’s generally better to keep my mouth shut. Life pro tip for everyone.

  2. Critically, liking something doesn’t make it good. Not liking it doesn’t make it bad. In all creative mediums, it is extraordinarily tricky to properly label criticisms (positive and negative) of designs made by creators. Two examples from recent films: I loved Bad Times at the El Royale, but recognize it had several elements that wouldn’t land with many audiences. I absolutely hated The Post. I normally love political thrillers, it was nominated for 6 Golden Globes, made several best-of-the-year critics lists. Good? Bad? These are subjective terms.

Now, that said, there’s plenty of escape room design decisions that I don’t like. Or even hate. As a player. It’s important to distinguish that these are simply not-my-thing. There’s surprisingly few designs that can be objectively labeled.

Nate’s Personal List of Escape Room Oh No No’s, Part 1

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

These designs do NOT treat-my-self.

  • Permanent low lighting. Not to be confused with complete darkness, ambient lighting, or temporary-we-get-the-lights-up-later scenarios. My vision isn’t perfect, and I do not respond well to artificially inflating the challenge of a game by making things harder to see. It’s (often, but not always) lazy design, and frequently used to mask less-than-perfect production design.

  • Unlabeled Lock Orgies

  • Getting blindfolded/hooded before entering a room. I don’t have too strong a beef with this, but I also think it adds little to the immersion of an experience. Importantly, the teammates I most frequently play with have severe issues with improperly disinfected items coming into contact with their mouth and face. How often do they wash these things, we’re left to wonder.

  • Inattentive Game Masters. Not strictly a design decision, but an exacerbating factor. If an escape room design requires precise hinting (not necessarily a bad thing at all), an inattentive/inexperienced GM can immediately sink the experience.

  • Multiple color puzzles. I’m color blind. I cannot do most color puzzles. This is fine, my teammates can see color just fine and I can often find other things to work on during a color puzzle solve. However, if puzzle after puzzle after puzzle contains color elements, the experience is dead to me.

  • Red herrings. Ugh.

Also ruin things.

Also ruin things.

 

Stay tuned for parts 2 – N!

-Nate

Dubbed 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 do all escape rooms do these things?

When Puzzle Break opened its doors in Seattle in August 2013, it was the first American-based escape room company. When we were designing our first rooms and the operating processes for our players, we didn’t have a lot of proven precedent to go on. The few international companies at the time gave us some inspiration (fun fact: the very first escape room I ever played was SCRAP’s Escape from the Mysterious Room), but the lion’s share of everything we did had to be figured out as we went.

Escape room entrepreneurship, Nickelodeon TV show edition.

Escape room entrepreneurship, Nickelodeon TV show edition.

As such, many of the early decisions we made were either arbitrary or driven by unique-to-Puzzle Break variables. We opted to deliver the pre-game briefing outside the room because our first location had access to a large lobby perfectly suited for the task. We designed our first room’s content & flow to take advantage of the massive square footage available to us. We started with a public-ticketing model that was vital to the success of a room that supported up to 14 players. We offered a comprehensive game debrief and walkthrough (intensively so for our teambuilding clients). We took a post-game photo and uploaded it to social media.

Fast forward to 2019. I’ve seen estimates that there are over 3000 escape room companies in the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number is higher than that. And as the years have passed since Puzzle Break began in Seattle, a curious, if unsurprising, trend has emerged in the explosive growth of escape rooms: Arbitrary emulation.

Pro-tip: Save hours of time by using “ctrl-c”

Pro-tip: Save hours of time by using “ctrl-c”

Whenever a new escape room company launches, they can look to every escape room that came before them for inspiration. Thankfully, we haven’t seen too much evidence of outright content plagiarism (I’m tremendously proud of the industry for this), but there’s a staggering amount of process plagiarism. Escape rooms across the United States are riddled with operational processes that have been blindly copied and copied and copied. By and large, I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with the lion’s share of this (though you’ll find the exact wording found on the Puzzle Break FAQ page on a curious number of escape room websites), but I find some of these to be strange, if not downright stupid.

Examples of escape room operational processes that are often implemented for no other reason than “other escape rooms are doing this”:

  • Group photo – OK, there’s objectively several good reasons to do a post-game team photo, but it’s insanely ubiquitous. I’ve personally played ~400 escape rooms and I have always had a photo opportunity afterward.

  • Worded sign props for the group photo – 3000+ escape room owner-operators did not independently come upon the idea of offering whimsical slogans on 2’x1’ foam core. Literal meme made manifest. I hope to see an epidemiological study on this phenomenon someday.

  • 60 minute game length. I’d estimate that 99% of escape rooms have exactly a 60 minute time limit. 5+ years after escape rooms came to America, I’m deeply surprised I’m not seeing more 30, 45, 75, 90, or 120 minute games.

  • Confiscating players’ cell phones – This maddening practice needs to stop. Giving players a safe place to optionally store their valuables (including phone) is a great idea*. Arbitrarily forcing paying customers to give up their phones is pure nonsense that invites disaster. Doctors on call, parents with children, real-life obligations don’t always stop for 60 minutes on command. Obviously, we want to enhance immersion and prevent illicit photos of sensitive content, but there’s better solutions to these problems than mandatory confiscation.

Pictured: Game masters taking several kilos of dangerous cell phones off the streets.

Pictured: Game masters taking several kilos of dangerous cell phones off the streets.

 

-Nate


*NOTE: On August 5, 2017 I forgot the face of my father when I lost the key to our valuables’ locker at Wicked Escapes in Boston. I am deeply & forever ashamed.

Dubbed 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 on Royal Caribbean, Part 2

This is a part two of a series on the history of the first escape rooms at sea by Puzzle Break and Royal Caribbean. Part one is here.

Harmony of the Seas, on the Seas

Harmony of the Seas, on the Seas

Escape from the Future was an instant hit. We deliberately designed the experience to be large by contemporary escape room standards: recommended for 6-12 people. Lots of content, lots of collaboration, and lots of new life-long friends made on your cruise!

One quirk of Escape from the Future is that it’s a pop-up room. We designed and produced the components such that the entire operation could be taken down and the space reclaimed for a nightclub. This was an efficient use of real estate, but Royal Caribbean was ready to go bigger for our next projects.

While Escape from the Future was first deployed to Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean secured a dedicated venue for Puzzle Break aboard the upcoming Harmony of the Seas (the largest cruise ship in the world). At the same time, we partnered with veteran LA based production company ShowFX to ensure our next game, Escape the Rubicon by Puzzle Break would blow the world away.

With a large dedicated venue for a permanent build, the most experienced escape room designers in the world, and a budget to realize a Hollywood-level vision, we got to work. We again set out to create a large game, but with a focus on theatrical elements, unforgettable moments, and technology-driven puzzles.

The end result was stunning.

Do you think you have what it takes to Escape the Rubicon?

Do you think you have what it takes to Escape the Rubicon?

Our first Escape the Rubicon game on Harmony of the Seas was nothing short of revolutionary.

From the industrial materials to the puzzle integration to the blockbuster special effects, Escape the Rubicon raised the bar for not only escape rooms, but immersive entertainment everywhere.

Quaid, start the reactor!

Quaid, start the reactor!

Making history is never easy. We learned (and continue to learn!) a lot of lessons about material choice, puzzle design in a unique environment, maintenance, quality control, and everything in between.

Fortunately reception to Escape the Rubicon was off-the-charts positive, and we immediately got to work on several new projects. Armed with our newfound learnings, we were poised to continue to shape the direction of entertainment.

Next up: Great to More Great

-Nate

Dubbed 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 on Royal Caribbean, Part 1

As many of our fans are well aware, Puzzle Break has had a close partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruise Line since 2014. Less common knowledge is the history of the partnership, the evolution of our offerings, and the current Puzzle Break escape rooms and games available on the Royal fleet. In this first part of a series, I’m going to discuss how it all began.

Actual in-game photo of Puzzle Break: Observatorium aboard Independence of the Seas. A magnum opus, until the next one.

Actual in-game photo of Puzzle Break: Observatorium aboard Independence of the Seas. A magnum opus, until the next one.

Not only is Puzzle Break the first American escape room company, we also have the proud distinction of being the first escape games on the high seas! In 2014, there were fewer than 10 escape room locations in the U.S., and two of them were Puzzle Breaks. As we were figuring out our next move as a business, I had coffee with San Francisco based game designer Rebecca Power.  She designed The Racket, a famous experiential/social/gamified event for large groups. We were discussing how we could further expand immersive entertainment to unlikely markets, and cruise ships came up in the conversation. I *love* cruising, and immediately seized on the idea that escape rooms could be the next entertainment revolution in that industry.

Not only are escape games the the most fun that anyone can have doing anything, they are a fantastic way to both share an unforgettable time with family and the perfect activity to make new lifelong friends. Instant cruise hit, for sure. I just had to make it happen. Nowhere to start but at the beginning, I started cold calling. With the almighty power of dumb luck on my side, I almost immediately found the perfect partner in Royal Caribbean with newly minted Vice President of Entertainment Nick Weir. He immediately grasped the limitless potential of the concept, but he understandably needed to see it in action first.

We hatched a plan to quickly convert one of our Puzzle Break escape rooms into a portable experience and run a pilot-by-fire for the toughest audience in the world: Ship Captains. These CEOs-of-the-sea have countless responsibilities of paramount importance, are fully responsible for teams of thousands, and might not take too kindly to surrendering their absolute authority in an escape room environment.

In late 2014 while the newly minted (and impossibly gorgeous) Quantum of the Seas was docked in Bayonne, New Jersey, Puzzle Break descended onto a rare conference of Royal Caribbean Ship Captains. We were nervous. The context:

  • Nick Weir repeatedly told that this would be the toughest audience we’d ever encounter, and we suspected he might be right.
  • The activity was scheduled at the end of the day. We were the last thing standing between folks after a long day at a conference and their dinner/drinks/sleep. Never a comfortable spot.
  • Designing the perfect escape room experience is an art. For this event, we Frankenstein’d some of our designs into a new portable experience that didn’t have an established pedigree of balanced perfection.
  • The stakes were high. I saw a future where Puzzle Break was on every ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet and a household name enjoyed by millions…
  • …But that’d be a tough sell if we didn’t nail the two pilot games.

I’ll never forget the first 5 minutes of the first pilot game. Mine and Nick Weir’s team were crammed into an observation booth as the team of captains filed into our makeshift Puzzle Break room. Silently, they began circulating the space and observing our setup. After what felt like an eternity (but was probably closer to 2 minutes), a few of the captains excitedly made a connection on a puzzle. They loudly and clearly explained what they did, how they did it, and what they recommended the team focus on. The excitement in the room exploded, and they were off!

The two pilot groups of captains both successfully escaped the room with about 5 minutes left on the clock and they had an absolute blast. As they headed to the elevators, I heard some of them discussing how they hoped they could get the game on their ship.

In the observation booth, everyone was elated. Instantly, our vision was validated. We had literally witnessed the birth of a new chapter in the entertainment industry, and we all knew it. My team headed home and immediately began executing plans to open the first escape room on a cruise ship.

Escape from the Future by Puzzle Break made history as the first escape room aboard a ship.

Escape from the Future by Puzzle Break made history as the first escape room aboard a ship.

Just a few short months later, a modified version of the very game played by the Royal Caribbean ship captains made its public debut: Escape from the Future on Anthem of the Seas.

Next up: Good to Great.

 

-Nate

 

Dubbed 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 am not a Serial Entrepreneur.

I’m a pretty fortunate guy. I hit a home run with my first serious startup in Puzzle Break. America’s first escape room. My team and I:

  • Opened several Puzzle Break locations across the country.
  • Forged a fruitful partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to put Puzzle Break experiences of all shapes and sizes on many ships with many more on the way.
  • Are in active conversations to create several new groundbreaking partnerships.
  • Served hundreds of thousands of players with over a dozen unique experiences.
  • Reached 7 figure revenue before our 3rd year, having doubled every year with no signs of slowing after our 4th anniversary.
  • Achieved a flattering & humbling level of fame for both the business and myself in the international entertainment & entrepreneurship community.

And we achieved all of this and more without a single dollar of debt. My team is great, our players are great. I couldn’t be happier; I jump out of bed every morning thrilled with the fresh challenges of every day.

Some of those challenges include figuring out how to plan for tomorrow and beyond. Part of figuring out a roadmap includes looking to other successful outfits in my field. As it happens, there’s a fairly common set of backgrounds you find in Escape Room entrepreneurs. The most represented folks come from:

  • Haunted Houses
  • Software (This is me)
  • Games & Puzzles (This is also me)
  • Serial Entrepreneurs (Who I’ll be talking about today)

Thanks to a number of factors, Escape Rooms and other live-action immersive experiences really started to explode in 2015. We’ve seen an enormous volume of serial entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this hot opportunity. Today, a significant percentage of escape rooms in operation today came from these folks. This is neither objectively good nor bad. As with anything else, we find folks in the game hoping to make a quick buck with a shoddy product, and also serious businesspeople who don’t half-ass their product and create some seriously high quality product.

ronswansonescape.gif

I’m writing this in late 2017 when a new hot trend has begun to emerge in the live-action entertainment space: Axe throwing bars. These are establishments where you and your friends can share a drink while tossing axes at a wooden target. Violent bowling, if you will.

Pictured: Failed prototype of "Violent Bowling"

Pictured: Failed prototype of "Violent Bowling"

Now, many of those serial entrepreneurs are moving on from their escape room ventures towards this hot new trend. Logistically, there are many shared factors across the standard business models. I myself have been approached about a couple potential partnerships. They sound pretty fun! And as it stands, I have little interest. Why?

I am not a serial entrepreneur. Puzzle Break is the success story it is because myself and my co-founder have a burning, all-consuming passion for puzzles, games, interactivity, immersiveness, mental challenges, and fun. We didn’t get into the game to cash in to a trend. When we opened in 2013, there was no trend. We had to create the trend ourselves. And we knew it wouldn’t be that hard, because escape rooms are just that fun.

Escape rooms and large team puzzle experiences aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not interested in cashing in upon every opportunity that crosses my desk. I certainly do not begrudge those that do, but I realize how stunningly lucky I’ve been to live in a world about which I’m so passionate. I’m not a serial entrepreneur; I’m a puzzle addict that happens to be an entrepreneur.

-Nate

Dubbed 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 in Seattle's 40 Under 40

On September 28th I was formally inducted into the 2017 class of the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40.  This great honor has significant meaning to both myself and the greater escape room / interactive experience space in at large.

The only known surviving picture of our very first room: Escape from Studio D.

The only known surviving picture of our very first room: Escape from Studio D.

When my co-founder Dr. Lindsay Morse and I started Puzzle Break in August 2013, we had very few expectations.  My personal goals with that first room:

  • Bring a unique experience to the people of Seattle, particularly the poor souls forced into corporate teambuilding activities.
  • If successful, hopefully create some jobs.
  • Do something a little bit wild and have some fun.
  • And If I’m being completely honest: I was stinging of rejection from some prestigious MBA programs, and I hoped to prove them wrong.

That was about it. The idea of growing Puzzle Break into the internationally recognized leader we’ve become was far beyond my wildest expectations. Becoming a 40 Under 40 Honoree is a wonderful validation of the work we’ve accomplished. Not only by traditional business metrics, but also in the sense that I’ve been lucky enough to be at the vanguard of creating an entire industry from thin air.

We've come a long way since the beginning.

We've come a long way since the beginning.

I’m deeply honored and I couldn’t have done it without my wonderful team, including the creative powerhouse and relentless work ethic of Dr. Lindsay Morse. Special recognition must also go out to my leadership team of Erica Hankins, Dana Grant, Naomi Smith, and Suzanne Haws. When I give talks & interviews, I like to joke that my primary job as CEO is to take responsibility for the hard work of others. The fact of the matter is that there would be no Puzzle Break without all of us working together. Speaking of which…

Here’s some high level milestones since we opened that first room in Seattle’s Capitol Hill:

  • Puzzle Break has opened a new headquarters in Belltown, Seattle, locations in Long Island and Boston, and a year run in San Francisco.
  • Our corporate teambuilding offerings have serviced so many clients we had to stop adding logos to the website for loading concerns.
  • We run a successful off-site adventure program, where we bring Puzzle Break experiences to teambuilding events of all shapes and sizes anywhere in the US.
  • In partnership with Royal Caribbean, we have several Puzzle Break games (including the world-famous Escape the Rubicon) aboard six cruise ships and counting, with many more on the way.
  • On a personal note, I’m tickled to have been tagged with the nickname: The Founding Father of Escape Rooms. There’s a number of exceptional people growing this industry, and I’m proud be a part of that legacy.

And most importantly, we continue the Puzzle Break mission of doing something a little bit wild and having some fun.

They let me bring a prop to the photoshoot!

They let me bring a prop to the photoshoot!

-Nate

Dubbed 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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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

Dubbed 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.

Want to get blog updates (and only blog updates)?

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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

 

Dubbed 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.

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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

Dubbed 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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