Escape rooms keep changing and evolving. Since I first started looking at them five years ago I’ve seen the market grow from a couple games here and there to seemingly every city now having an escape room. They also have evolved from random logic puzzles strewn across a room to complex interactive experiences. In some cases modern escape rooms have more in common with classic ARGs or LARPs.
We witnessed great change in the last five years, but what does the next five years hold for us?
Here I will outline some key trends in the escape room industry and speculate on what the future may hold. The popularity of escape rooms is still on an upward trajectory and certain owners are pushing the envelope on what’s possible in an escape game. We’re witnessing an increase in influence from other mediums while more people become designers; these ‘outside’ influences will make for better games.
When I wrote my book, Escape the Game, two years ago I did so because I saw too many rookie mistakes in game design in escape rooms. Thankfully, in two short years many of those mistakes no longer get made. Indeed, the average quality of an escape room in 2017 is greater than in it was in 2015. This trend will continue.
At Wero Creative, we’ve seen the wants of clients grow inline with what I’ve outlined below.
The growth of the escape room market has been stellar. As I was writing this post Room Escape Artist posted about the expansion of the industry in the USA. In 2014 they recorded only 44 escape rooms in the country, midway through 2017 and the number is already standing at 1,800!
Theatre and Performance
In July, Disney announced that their new Star Wars theme park will be like a real life Westworld. Each visitor will be their own Star Wars character complete with their own storyline; every Disney employee in the park will also be in character. The ultimate idea is to allow visitors to explore the entire area in a game like experience. It’s a long-form escape game.
Disney isn’t the first to think of making experiences this immersive (as in having elements of interactivity, gameplay, and actors). Indeed, this has been going on for years and predicted in too many Sci-Fi stories to list.
Interactive theatere has been around for years with theatre groups creating plays that directly involve the audience or take place in unique locations. In the last couple of years we’ve seen the theatrical and escape room worlds meet. In the early days of escape rooms their might be an ‘actor’ present in the room. The simplistic characters within the escape provided little to the story while they gave hints and enforced the game rules. Today some companies push the boundaries of actor engagement in gameplay further.
One such company is the Brooklyn-based Third Real Projects. You can see on their projects page an evolution of interactive events that follow the industry trend. Their current production, Then She Fell, captures this well, just read the description:
Then She Fell is a fully immersive, multi-sensory experience in which only 15 audience members per performance explore a dreamscape where every alcove, corner, and corridor has been transformed into a lushly designed world. Inspired by the life and writings of Lewis Carroll, it offers an Alice-like experience for audience members as they explore the rooms, often by themselves, in order to discover hidden scenes; encounter performers one-on-one; unearth clues that illuminate a shrouded history; use skeleton keys to gain access to guarded secrets; and imbibe elixirs custom designed by one of NYC’s foremost mixologists.
Other companies doing similar work include Strange Bird Immersive with an intense Houdini themed guided seance. This is notable because it represents the traditional escape room approach with theatre added instead of the other way around.
Secret City Adventures is another escape room company that has evolved into producing more theatre-like experiences. Due to design constraints at their first series of self-produced rooms (located in a tourist destination) they used people to monitor the players in case of damage. Fittingly they incorporated them into the game as actors. A logical route. This year they are running an escape game in another tourist destination which spans the entire site of an old village. It involves actors to deliver the story and game while the teams scurry from the post office to an old school house and beyond.
In Nashville, the CMA Music Festival created an “outdoor escape experience” for festival attendees. It encouraged participants to explore Nashville in interning ways. In previous years such a game would be called a LARP or ARG, but the awareness of escape rooms have changed the way we talk about these games.
Here we have proof of the viability of escape games that incorporate traditional theatrical techniques and novel locations to get attention (and players). Expect to see more escape games like this in the future.
The ESC Game Theater in New York provides a series of mini-games to entertain players. While not a proper escape room the facility provides us a window of what can be for escape games. The games are short, challengning , and plentiful while their business model is similar to that of an arcade. Worth looking at, and the Verge did just that.
It is common for people within the escape rooms industry to get hooked on the “generations” idea of technology in games. Don’t fall into this trap. Just use the right technology for the room, theme, and budget. The very breakdown of generations doesn’t make sense when you look at escape rooms outside of North America.
Instead, look at what is happening around you. Game designers are incorporating all sorts of technology into their rooms, sometimes a rope and pulley system is perfect and other times you might want to use lasers. As always, refer back to your theme to decide what to use (knowledge of the person building the room matters too).
A great example of this is a room made by two Disney Imagineers called The Nest by Scout Expedition. Within the room players need to find audio cassettes and listen to them to reveal the story. Instead of using some high-tech solution they chose to use something that works with their theme and is a proven, reliable, technology.
Indeed, in an interview with the Verge the designers talk about the importance of designing the entire set and using it to tell the story.
It’s a testament not just to the narrative contained on the tapes, but to the storytelling done by the physical space itself — something that the creators’ work as Imagineers made them particularly suited for. “We are most confident in being set designers, and creating the set,” Leinenveber explains. “We wanted the set to be able to inform the story just as much as the writing.”
Technology provides cool elements to a room but a designer ought not to rely on technology itself to make the room interesting. Technology is just a way to deliver game content – not the content itself.
AR in Escape Rooms
It looks like augmented reality (AR) will finally become useful thanks to Apple’s AR Kit. Just watching this video about gave me a ton of ideas of how to incorporate AR puzzles into a room.
— Made With ARKit (@madewithARKit) June 25, 2017
Indeed, finding AR being used in escape rooms is easy. With AR Kit the amount of cool puzzles featuring AR will only increase.
The AR used in this game, which is based on a tragedy that some Hongkongers will remember, sees team members viewing on the tablet’s screen how the living room where the fire started looked before the flames were lit. This is despite the fact that the real room the team stands in is actually set during the inferno, hence the game’s name. It’s a way to use the AR technology to view different time periods at exactly the same moment and work clues out in exactly the same room.
Some companies building AR technology for games already are banking on AR rising in popularity. Cluetivity, based in Berlin, have quite good looking tech (I’ve seen it in action at some gaming conferences). They are more like a treasure hunt than an escape game, but it’s indubitable the two shall merge. In Amsterdam you can play one of their games to explore the city.
In Toronto I met with *no campfire required who are working on similar technology for conferences and events. They expect their AR tool to be used in tourism and large scale events to encourage exploration and learning. This technology can be used inside a small space like a building or even just a room.
Every year, making AR experiences gets easier and we’ll see more escape rooms incorporating the technology into their rooms. In terms of nomenclature I expect that phrases like “mixed reality” or “hyper reality” to be used more. We shall see.
A quick note on virtual reality (VR) in escape rooms: I think that AR will win out over VR because more people can see what’s going on. VR single player escape games are something else entirely.
Political Escape Rooms
Technological change in games comes as no surprise nor should cultural change. Like other forms of storytelling, escape rooms can be used to invoke emotions and share issues that others ought to be aware of. Thus, we get political escape rooms.
There are overt politically-themed escape rooms like this one on the Cuban Missile Crisis or a series on escaping Cold War Berlin. These use politics merely as a theme, what I find more interesting are rooms that are political.
In the Canadian oil city of Calgary sits an escape game that you can play in one of their libraries. Called Unlocking Homelessness and made by Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth the game focuses on issues impacting indigenous homeless youth. The CBC has more:
Each room has a different theme. The party room is filled with props related to drug and alcohol addictions; the alley room, accessed by climbing through a cabinet, deals with death and grief; the nice house symbolizes success and explains how to maintain a happy life.
Growth of the DIY scene
The truth is that anybody can build an escape room experience. The hardest part is making it look good and making it an enjoyable experience to play. Challenges of these sorts can stop the hobbyist, enthusiasts, and aspiring professional designers from making rooms – if only due to the cost alone.
The growth of the DIY escape room scene is great to see! There are tons of puzzle ideas you can use scattered around the web (like this list of 101 puzzle ideas or the company Lock Paper Scissors). Like other DIY scenes many people get their ideas from experience followed by modification.
One individual is blogging their DIY escape room building experience here. I’m sure in the future we’ll see similar efforts and documentation to help even more people get into designing games.
Combine the growth of DIY escape rooms with the desire to add meaning (like politics) into games and we’ll see some cool new rooms.
Escape the Name
To be blunt: escape rooms is a horrible term. In my experience people don’t like the implication that the word ‘escape ‘ has. Escape from what? Is it like those Saw movies? I’ve talked to educational clients who about want an escape room, however, it can’t be called an “escape room” because parents wouldn’t approve of it.
Personally, I’ve never made a room that actually requires players to escape. I find it more fun to design experiences to motivate people to do something out of interest than out of fear.
Boda Borg is a great example of a game that is pushing some of the boundaries mentioned above and changing the name. They simply call it ‘questing’.
As escape rooms diversify in what they do and what kind of experience they provide (like theatre) then the term escape room becomes less appropriate. I’m at a loss to think of an appropriate alternative.
If the industry wants the next five years to see the same growth as the previous five then it will need to come up with a better term than escape rooms.
TL;DR of the Future of Escape Rooms (Conclusion)
- Competition is getting more intense in the escape room industry.
- Use of AR will increase.
- In the next five years we’ll witness a growth of interesting, meaningful, and technologically advanced games.
- Designs and ideas from outside the escape room world bring new life to escape games.
- Immersive experiences beyond the game are an attraction unto themselves.
- Technological gizmos are present in a lot of escape rooms. Use whatever is right for your theme.
- The DIY scene is growing and we’ll see more artistic/political games.
- Change the term ‘escape room’ to be something more palatable.