Is VR The Key to the Escape Room Profit Puzzle?
Escape Rooms are the newest location-based entertainment segment to embrace virtual reality and one where the value proposition is the strongest. Escape rooms harken back to ancient Greece, where labyrinths were a part of mythology. The athenian hero Theseus had to navigate a labyrinth to find and kill the Minotaur. Hedge mazes were popular with royalty from the 16thcentury on, found in elaborate English gardens.
In more recent times, escape games came in video game form, such as the 1988 text-adventure game Behind Closed Doors by John Wilson. Puzzle games with rich graphics followed in the 1990s with games like Myst. Toshimitsu Takagi released Crimson Room in 2004, generating hundreds of millions of plays.
The world’s first real-life escape room is widely credited to Takao Kato, who in 2007 opened Real Escape Game in Japan. By 2011 they were expanding into Asia, Europe, and North America.
In the 2010’s physical escape rooms popped up in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. By 2018 there were more than 5000 escape rooms in more than 1000 cities across 88 countries. It’s become a global phenomenon.
Escape rooms are a part of the trend of Millennials, having grown up with a preponderance of digital entertainment, being attracted to analog and physical experiences. From vinyl records to pinball and even a physical recreation of the game Pong, tactile experiences are the new rage.
But entertainment businesses built upon physical props, lock and key mechanisms and brain teasers have their limitations. The physical resetting of puzzles after every round is time-consuming. The reliability of puzzle elements is often sketchy, causing player frustration. Once a puzzle is solved, there’s no reason to play it again, limiting repeat play and forcing frequent redesign of rooms to keep things fresh.
More sophisticated entrepreneurs are turning to advanced show control systems to create more immersive and automated rooms. Special effects like spark showers, and even flames, can be controlled with computer and DMX systems, automating the process and relieving strain on employees. These rooms can cost $100K or more each, not including design. I recently visited a new escape room at the Crown Casino in Melbourne called Red Herring. Behind the wall lies a rack of computers, switches, and cables that network into a highly sophisticated DMX control system. This Gen 2 room as they call it represents the next level of escape room technology.
There’s another way to automate escape rooms while providing an unlimited number of puzzle variations, themes, and storylines. Virtual reality technology is perfectly suited to be the ultimate escape game solution.
The first wave of VR escape experiences emerged using HTC Vive room-scale setups. These 4-player games employed puzzles, co-operative gameplay, action, and storytelling. As often with new media, the results were mixed but promising. Virtual Room from France expanded into about 20 locations. Their flagship in Los Angeles has 9 Vive booths, in about a 3000 square foot location. The games run about 45 minutes, and up to 4 people can play in each game. Other companies in this 4-player room-scale category include Exit – VR from Germany, VR Cave from Canada, Arvi Lab out of Ukraine, and Escape VR out of California. More recently, video game giant Ubisoft entered the market with games based upon the Assassin’s Creed universe.
In talking to escape room owners, the problem with these games is they take up too much space for the number of players. 85% of escape rooms have a capacity of 7-12 players. Corporate events and parties make up a large portion of escape room revenue. 4 Player systems don’t fit the requirements of the location. The economics just don’t work.
A new company out of Australia seems to have a solution to this problem. Founded by a four-year veteran escape room operator, Entermission promises a higher capacity VR experience for their guests. They’ve been prototyping a virtual reality escape room business for the last 18 months. Their flagship location has 6 rooms each accommodating 6 players in around 170 square feet. The automation inherent in the software enables them to run at peak times with only two employees. It’s certainly one of the more profitable location-based VR solutions I have come across.
Entermission uses environmental haptics in the room to create an astonishing multisensory experience, similar to what you would experience in The VOID. Wind, heat, vibration and even scents are used to blur the fantasy/reality line so players are immersed quickly into the virtual experience. Players are seated in a custom fabricated chair with LED effects and a high impact Buttkicker that vibrates at key moments in the games. Hand tracking uses Leap Motion, so players can solve puzzles and grab items using natural movements.
Games run 45 to 60 minutes like traditional escape rooms. They have action and adventure components in addition to puzzles to appeal to a wider variety of audiences. I’ve played the games and they were fun and highly collaborative. Being forced to work with your teammates, and all being in the same physical space, creates a truly social experience, which is what numerous surveys reveal people want from virtual reality.
The cost of the turnkey Entermission system is about equal to that of a 4-player arcade system, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see this showing up not only in escape rooms but FECs and other entertainment venues. Click here for more information.
Next week we will begin to discuss the consumer, and how their context when they walk into your venue impacts their reaction to your VR solution.