Year 1 of starting a new escape room business.

As we celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the opening of Pandora’s Locks Mystery Room Adventures, I wanted to reflect on and share with you the origins of the business, the struggles it encountered, the current state of things, and where we’re headed in the future.

I should begin by saying that this is not my first business. I’ve done many things over many years, some more successful than others, but opening a business is not new to me. Back in 2013 or so, I was looking for a new business venture to take on and the concept of escape rooms had popped up on my radar, having heard about their success in San Francisco and in Asia. As I was beginning my research, a family tragedy hit and we found ourselves pre-occupied with that for a few months. In that time, someone else opened first. In the months that followed, another and another opened their doors and my opportunity for first mover advantage had passed. At this point I had become involved with other events and decided to wait and see how the escape room business would play out while I was doing other things.

In the fall of 2015 I did my first escape room with friends and enjoyed it. Shortly after, my wife and I brought our friend’s kids to an escape room. It wasn’t a particularly good room, but I was surprised at the amount of people there and my business senses started analyzing everything: square footage, staff needs, build-out costs, customers, prices, etc. It was time to do the math and see if this business was viable.

I’ve always been a creative person and a storyteller. From childhood I used to create games, whether in Basic on a C64, or on paper, including a few board/card/RPG games over the years (some we still play today). I’ve written scripts, directed film projects, and used my creative energy in a number of non-business ways. This seemed like an opportunity to combine creative storytelling and game-making with a potentially viable business model.

At this point, research mode began. I asked everyone I know who’s ever done an escape room to give me feedback on what they did and didn’t like, especially for local rooms (which I had compiled a spreadsheet of). I read a great white paper from Scott Nicholson that compiled knowledge from thousands of owners around the world, and later his follow-up paper, Ask Why. I recruited friends and did as many rooms as we could, prioritizing the good ones. I joined private Facebook owner/enthusiast groups, and combed through every scrap of information I could find before writing out the business plan.

As fast as I could put this info together, it looked like a prime location had opened up. Not perfect by any means, but with unique advantages that would pertain to only me (it was right next to my other business, a block away from my home, and a good relationship with the landlord where they dealt with construction, electrical, and anything to do with city permits). It was a bit smaller than I would have liked, but the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. At this point, room design had begun while construction was taking place. It was January 2016 and we had planned to be open by the end of March.

Well, that didn’t happen. Throughout the process, we discovered that anything that could go wrong, did. Whether it was contractors taking too long and designing things badly (that needed to be replaced) or just discovering that tech was harder than it should have been, as a result we suffered major delays. By the time we opened in August 2016, we were 5 months behind schedule and $50k over budget.

During this time, we narrowed down the room concept ideas, designed puzzles to fit those themes, and created all of the tech to hold it together. Fortunately I had some friends with amazing skills to assist with the coding, wiring, and prop creation that managed to bring my crazy ideas into reality, sometimes in ways even I didn’t think was possible. We were pushing the boundaries of what an escape room was, using tech we designed ourselves, and building experiences beyond what was the norm.

One of the biggest problems I’ve always felt with escape rooms is the lack of immersion. They never felt “real”. Whether it’s a calculator and electronic locks in an Ancient Tomb, or the Subway Terrorist that left boxes with padlocks behind, it always felt… not real. I wanted to change that. I wanted to create rooms where everything made sense, where you felt like you were actually in that environment. Where you were solving puzzles that didn’t feel like puzzles, more like a natural solving of a scenario you’ve been put into. Sometimes this fits naturally and sometimes you need to adjust your story a bit to make it fit, but it can be done.

In the end, we had 3 rooms of very different themes: Vault 405, a “control room disaster” scenario loosely based on the Fallout franchise of games; Where’s Becky?, an 80’s-themed mystery where we tried something new – multiple endings (which we’ve since removed); and finally, Escape Wonderland, an outside-the-box adventure in the Mad Hatter’s house of riddles. Our rooms were all open, but it was just the beginning.

As with any new business, there is a small rush of people that were aware and waiting, but mostly things were slow. Escape rooms weren’t new in this area, so nobody was beating down our door to write an article in the local paper or promote us the same way they do when these things are novel. It took a lot of time and advertising to let everyone know that we were open, and it took even more time for word of mouth to get around that we were good.

For the most part, the feedback was overwhelmingly good, but things you don’t learn in Beta testing start to become apparent after hundreds of players have gone through your rooms, and even more so after thousands have. All of the rooms were still too hard, people didn’t like the multiple story paths (and the ability to “lose” before the time ran out) in Where’s Becky, and nobody could figure out how to use the Wonderland Hint system (our hint systems are integrated into the room theme). On top of this, random infrequent tech problems started to surface, the kind where something will work for weeks then just randomly crash for seemingly no reason. Needless to say, we spent most of the year making changes, repairing things, tweaking here and there, and learning everything we possibly could.

Where’s Becky? underwent the biggest revision. New puzzles, new hint audio, same story but with major changes to the ending (completely removing the alternate endings) and general upgrades. It was 50% a new game. Still not perfect but way better than it was. Vault 405 got a ton of little changes, primarily to speed things up, make things easier, and prevent players from getting needlessly distracted. Escape Wonderland removed the hint system (replacement should be installed shortly) in favour of a slightly easier game, and got a few little tweaks. On top of this, we identified the majority of the tech issues and repaired them (I don’t want to say all because you never know, but things are running better than ever right now). It turns out Raspberry Pis are REALLY sensitive when it comes to their electricity needs, and ambient electrical interference is the invisible tech killer.

While dealing with the content inside the rooms, outside the rooms we discovered a few more problems we didn’t anticipate. SEO (Search Engine Optimization) was not good. Being in Downtown New Westminster made it difficult to show up when people search “Escape Rooms Vancouver”, and the search returned lots of horribly outdated lists and news articles with local rooms that were no longer open (or really bad). We needed to make a bunch of changes on our website, and even now we aren’t showing up as high as we should in the search rankings, especially since we are (at this moment) the highest-rated escape room in the Vancouver area.

Another issue was that we designed the rooms for enthusiasts instead of for average customers. The average customer currently has never played an escape room (or has only played one), therefore they have no basis to determine whether a room is good or not, and will book primarily based on location and theme alone (and maybe based on price). There are a lot of bad rooms in this city and people are booking them… then deciding that they don’t like escape rooms. As a result, a huge part of our promotion isn’t “come do our escape room” (as if all escape rooms were the same), but more “our rooms are better than and unlike what you’ve done at the other places”. We anticipate that this will change over time as the average player does a few rooms and starts to seek out better experiences, but in the meantime we’re fighting an uphill battle.

Random other growth things happened throughout the year; some staff changes, adding props and signage to the group photos, a bit more social media involvement and attendance at events, we licensed the designs for Vault 405 to a location in Arizona, and lots of sponsoring. I also attended an Escape Room Conference where I learned quite a bit about our place in the industry, some amazing new puzzle ideas and tech tweaks, and above all else a good grasp of what I believe the future holds and how to transition there.

We’re currently finalizing the new Escape Wonderland hint system and finishing up our crazy list of tweaks – mostly behind-the-scenes code changes, all minor stuff. As well, the bigger thing we’re working on is a complete revamp of Where’s Becky?. In its current form it’s still my least-favourite room, but the 80’s theme and room design are still awesome. I finally came up with a new story for the room that will be able to keep everything we love while incorporating more tech, some cool puzzle ideas, and better puzzle flow overall to tell a very different story that I think will push the boundaries (in a different direction) of what people expect from an “escape room”. (I hate that term, I prefer “interactive adventures”.) Ideally we’d like to re-launch the room within the next 6 months but who knows how long it will actually take.

In the more distant future, we’re working on short portable escape games that we can bring to conventions and street festivals and looking into large-scale events to run in other venues for short periods of time. Finally, we’ve got our next room concept figured out, and while it may be years before it becomes something you can play… it will be worth the wait.

Brian Hughes - August 2017