Critically, escape rooms and team puzzle experiences have only continued their explosive growth in the corporate space
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
*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.
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
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?
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!
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.