On being everything to everyone.

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

-Nate

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 Escape Rooms are the Best Teambuilding Activity in the World

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

Enter: Escape Rooms.

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

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

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

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

· Have a stupendous amount of fun.

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

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

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

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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Escape Rooms Big and Small

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

-Nate

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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Packing.

Hello!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

 

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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