Xtreme Vendor Vetting

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15 Questions to ask before contracting with an escape room designer.

Hey, have you heard the news? Escape Rooms are all the rage right now and there is a stampede to get into the market. The Facebook groups are flooded with new perspective owners thirsting for knowledge who want to get in on the action while the action is good. The unfortunate thing with this current state of affairs is many owners simply are not creative enough to create a good quality game on their own. Or, as is the case in many cases, they work a full-time job and don't have the time to dedicate to designing and testing a game on their own, and want to start with a purchased scenario to get their business up and running. 

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There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to find a quality game designer to either purchase a pre-existing game from or have one created for you. There is a very high demand for new and innovative game designs to bring to market. There is also a great opportunity for us who are existing Escape Room owners to monetize our already successful game scenarios. There is also a great opportunity for fly-by-night game studios to sell you a crap design. Scrolling through the Facebook groups Escape Roon Startups, Escape Room owners, Escape Room Buy-Sell-Trade, Escape Room Exchange, and Escape Room Ideas and Discussion groups there are many games and entire businesses for sale. While there are several known name "brands" out there that are escape room designers, they are vastly outnumbered by people looking to make a buck or thousands of bucks. Quite a few of these designers over promise and under deliver, often leaving a new or prospective owner holding the bag with dwindling cash reserves and nothing but a confusing sheaf of papers that they cannot make heads nor tails of. 

Many designers will expect full payment up front for the product after signing the contract and you will have little to no recourse should a grievance arise between you and the designer.

We are in a global economy and the Escape Room industry is maturing around the world. There are hundreds if not thousands of battle-tested games out there that are for sale, many of which are produced in Eastern Europe, Asia, and China. I don't have personal experience with any purchased game designs either from the U.S. or worldwide but I do have friends that have and let's just say that some of the plans were difficult to read, understand, and implement. Others were well designed and worth every penny. 

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I was inspired to write this list after a phone call with another owner who was going through the process with a designer and their conversation had devolved into a shouting match and accusations of misleading information. If you are considering reaching out to a game designer to purchase a game design you may want to take the process slowly. The old saying haste makes waste will definitely impact your pocketbook if you buy a game design that you are not happy with. Many designers will expect full payment up front for the product after signing the contract and you will have little to no recourse should a grievance arise between you and the designer. In many cases, the price is upwards of several hundreds of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. 

When you have your first conversation with the designer treat your game buying decision as a job interview because it is.

I put myself in that owner's shoes and asked myself what would I want to know before I spent thousands of dollars for a room design from a person I have never met and know nothing about. Here is what I came up with. When you have your first conversation with the designer treat your game buying decision as a job interview because it is. You are hiring a contractor to produce for you. Ensure that all of your reservations are assuaged before you write a check. Do yourself some due diligence and ask your game designer these 15 questions. If you don't get answers that satisfy you, as we say in the Marine Corps pop ninja smoke and get the hell out of there. 

1. What is your background and level of expertise in game design?

This question is to gauge the level of competence that your game designer or design company has and if they can meet your specific requirements. A strong background in game design theory, puzzle design, scenery design, lighting, prop selection, and a host of other things can be revealed when asking this question. 

2. How long have you been in the Escape Room business?

Some game designers have never owned an escape room business but are still very good game designers. The real question is how long have you been designing escape room games, puzzles, and scenarios. Only you can determine what length of time will make you feel comfortable. The industry in the U.S. is very young having only about 3 1/2 years of development time. The bulk of game designers in the U.S. will have 1 or 2 years or less of experience designing and selling games. 

3. How many games have you designed?

Scenario development and game design are like any other skill. Hopefully, they get better as time progresses. Is this the designers first game design or tenth? How comfortable are you with being potentially a test case for a new game designer?  

4. Do any of your games infringe on ANY Intellectual Property rights?

Big media is fiercely protective of its intellectual property. There are horror stories of little mom and pop businesses receiving cease and desist letters or being sued by the mouse with ears, or the jumping lamp. When it comes to games that infringe on a protected property you are opening yourself up to a world of litigation. Is it really worth it to have the kid with the lightning bolt on his forehead in your game? If the game you are thinking of buying is infringing IP I would strongly encourage you to find a new game designer. I am not a copyright attorney, but I wouldn't risk my name, my business, or reputation playing too close to this flame, I don't want to get burned.

5. Has your game been heavily play tested? If so, what are the stats? What is the average success/failure rate?

Don't you want a proven and tested game. An Escape Room owner that is selling you their retired game should be able to easily tell you what the stats are for that room. This will give you some idea of difficulty of the game. What the popularity of the game was. What you can expect for your money. 

6. What Escape Room companies have you designed games for?

This is important because you don't want to replicate a game that is already being played in your market. Many designers will not sell a game to more than one location within a certain radius of each other. Some however, won't care. Again do yourself due diligence and research your competition and know the games that they currently have in play. You don't want to be flagged as an unoriginal copycat business.  

7. How many copies of your game are in circulation?

You want to know how saturated the market is with a particular game. There is a national chain that has over 20 locations across the country. Their locations all have the same games that they rotate. This is a great business model for the franchisor, not so great for the franchisee because If I did one of their rooms in another city, I am not visiting that franchise in a different city. 

8. Where are your games currently deployed?

Again, considering market saturation. Is this game available elsewhere in your neck of the woods or are you granted geographic exclusivity? 

9. What exactly am I getting for my money?

Are you getting construction plans, electrical schematics, build diagrams for puzzles, walk through's, checklists etc. Are there add-on's or hidden costs? Do you have to pay for graphics and artwork for promotion? Are tech puzzles provided ready to play or do you have to build them and program them yourself? What is the technical difficulty of the design? 

10. Do you have a redacted sample of a game design package that I could review before deciding to contract with you?

This can help you make an informed purchasing decision. If they provide a high quality sample package, you can rest a bit easier because their deliverable will probably be as good or better quality. 

11. Do you have testimonials from satisfied customers?

There is nothing better than a satisfied customer to help ease concerns. A good reputable designer will have a page on their website with testimonials or be able to provide them when asked. 

12. Do you have references that I may contact?

Ask for references from prior customers then call those customers and ask them what they thought of the process of working with the designer. If the designer won't provide references you might want to reconsider. 

13. Am I purchasing a license for this game or am I purchasing the ownership rights to this game?

There is a huge difference between a license and ownership rights. Most games you purchase are going to be a license granting you limited authority to use the game for the purposes of your escape room business. In most cases the license is not transferable. Read your contract carefully and ensure you understand the End User License Agreement. On the other hand, you may have contracted the designer to create a game just for you. You will probably pay a premium price if the designer is going to relinquish ownership rights to you since they may be giving up a far greater source of revenue than a one off job for you. Again, ensure that you read your contract and understand fully your rights as the game owner. Does the author retain reproduction rights? Consult an attorney if there is any question as to the contents of your purchase contract.

14. What is your cancellation and refund policy?

Upon delivery of products more than likely the designer will have a no refund policy due to the need to protect their intellectual property and the fact that you have a copy of that IP. Identify ahead of time before you sign the contract under exactly what circumstances (missed delivery dates, product does not meet agreed to expectations or specifications, etc.) you can cancel and get a refund of any monies paid.  

15. Do you provide service and support after closing the deal?

Not everybody walks away from every deal with a clear, complete, mutual understanding of the scope of the project. You might get deliverables that you don't understand. You might have design specs that are in a foreign language (quite literally). Find out in advance what kind of service after the sale you will get from your designer. Are they a full service firm that will fly (at your expense) to your location and help with installation, testing and troubleshooting? Do they only provide the documents and let you fend for yourself?

I am sure that there are about a thousand more questions that you might think of as you get ready to purchase your design. If your designer cannot, or refuses to answer these questions and whatever else you think of you might want to reconsider your prospective relationship. If they are forthcoming with information and you leave your meeting with a good feeling about the coming process than this article has served it's purpose. Just remember, decisions like this can make or break your company. Find a good designer that you trust, and you may have an ally for many years to help you grow your business.

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Until next time, what do YOU think? Let me know in the comments below.

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Brian Vinciguerra is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Cracked it! Escape Games in Jacksonville, North Carolina.