Technology failure in escape rooms

May 13, 2016 by Nate Martin

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.


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One comment

  1. David Schofield

    One of the problems directly contributing to technological failure is a weak technological foundation.
    You would never find a commercial amusement park ride controlled by an Arduino or Raspberry Pi. They use hardened control systems known as PLCs, or programmable logic controllers.
    The great thing is that nowadays you can find Micro PLCs with Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other conductivity options, high I/O counts (and even analog I/O!) for very, very little money! An entire ruggedized, centralized I/O controller capable of controlling a rich two room interactive escape scenario can be had for under $250!
    One of the hallmarks of these units is that they can store their programming internally as well as be directly driven as remote field I/O, they are ruggedized, and if a problem is detected, they can reboot and reset themselves in milliseconds. They are designed exactly for this type of job!
    They are also standardized with a common set of programming languages and are able to be controlled from Windows, Mac, iOS, android, Windex, and many other platforms.
    But I will admit that the electrical I/O control system is only a portion of the problem. Sometimes sensors and actuators need to be ruggedized and re-thought. While developing a new room it may be necessary to use inexpensive hardware. But once you have something that works, replacing cheap switches with a beefier industrialized version from AutomationDirect (or similar low-cost vendor) will pay off in the long run, not just through reliability and reduced maintenance; but by rewarding players with a superior experience.
    Finally, remember that no amount of technology will substitute for a weak story or a cheesy feel. Invest in your creative core, and use technology to support whatever’s necessary to put you over the top.
    David Schofield
    Escape Room Control Specialist
    Systems Engineer
    Hotspot Office, LLC


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