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

Nate Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the oldest contemporary escape room company based in the United States. Puzzle Break is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Long Island 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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