The Case Against Escape Room Technology

The Case Against Escape Room Technology

The escape room industry seems to be engaged in an arms race as everyone jumps on the technology bandwagon. Every day new a new escape room opens somewhere in the U.S. Many owners are fascinated with adding bells and whistles to their games without knowing how or why they should. A current attitude is that escape room games have to have a high tech aspect to be fun, nothing could be further from the truth. Here are 5 reasons that you as a new escape room owner may want to consider holding off on adding technological props and gadgets to your games.

5. Escape Room Technology is expensive.

It's a simple law of economics. If demand exceeds supply, the price will rise. Escape Room props and gadgets are not inexpensive.  It is no secret that there is a high demand for cool technology based puzzles. Because of this demand prop producers can command many hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for their products, and rightfully so. This piece is not a condemnation of the escape room prop builders, many of whom I am on good terms with. When you buy a high-end prop you are not necessarily paying for the sum total of those parts which may actually be only a couple of hundred dollars in total. What you are paying for is the expertise of the builder. Engineering, coding, construction, design, marketing, and product research and development are not cheap. That cost has to absorbed somewhere and that is in the price that we as escape room owners are willing to pay for this expertise. 

Will the price of escape room props and gadgets come down? Maybe, but probably not. There are so few QUALITY escape room prop designers and builders active in the market today. Their products have an insane demand and often have wait times from several weeks to many months. 

Because, you know, Tech!
— -Why do we add tech?

But Brian, I will build my own stuff! Great! Designing and building your own tech props might be for you if you have the skills necessary to build, design, code, and engineer that dream prop. If you want to invest the time to learn these skills, you may save yourself some dough, but you are trading off that time that could be used elsewhere to build your business. Think of what you would pay yourself per hour to learn all of these skills, now multiply that by the amount of time it actually takes to create that amazing technological wonder for your escape room. Now you know why this stuff is expensive.

4. Technology in Escape Games is complicated.

Don't get me wrong, having tech in escape rooms is cool. Highly integrated tech puzzles can be amazing when done well. Purchasing a few escape room props from a site like alibaba.com and adding them to a game because you feel there is a need to have tech, "because, you know, tech!" Is normally a sign of poor planning. Deciding what tech props you are going to use is the easy part. Incorporating that tech logically into your design is the hard part. I have played games where the tech was seamlessly integrated into the game and made sense to the overall narrative of the game. I have played others that had technological props that made absolutely no sense in the context of the game and were there "because, you know, tech!" 

There is nothing more exciting than putting a thing in a place and making a seemingly magical effect happen. That sense of awe and wonderment is the reason that many of us love to play live action escape rooms. The amount of engineering that goes into an escape room that has incredible electronic props can be staggering. Thousands of lines of code, miles of wire, adding new circuits to the service panel or rewiring entire rooms can be expensive and is not for the amateur. During the design phase of game development is when the decision to add tech should be made. Adding tech as an afterthought can result in costly, and untimely modifications to your game room. 

Clue Control incorporates Z-Wave automation and ModBus TCP/IP which means that you can automate your props that use Arduino and other controllers. -
— Shawn Yates, Owner, technologist and helper at ClueControl Inc.
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There are escape room management tools that can help with the integration of technology in your Escape Room. Escape Room Master and Clue Control are two well-known vendors that provide technology integration solutions for escape rooms. Escape Room Master provides a full suite of tools and applications to manage and integrate technology into your escape room. "Clue Control incorporates Z-Wave automation and ModBus TCP/IP which means that you can automate your props that use Arduino and other controllers."  If that last sentence made absolutely no sense to you, then you might want to consult with the professionals.

3. Electronic Escape Room Gadgets can be unreliable.

It's a shameful secret of escape room technology, inevitably it will break, usually during a critical part of the game causing rage in your players and ruining the game experience. In my own game DEFCON-1, we had this happen this weekend. A group of returning customers came to play our newest experience and were pumped to play. A critical puzzle in the game which requires a series of switches to be turned on and off correctly. The players did exactly what they were supposed to do and WAHWAHWAHWAAHHHHHHHHHH, nothing. We had to send the GM in to bypass the solution with our magic magnet. This isn't a high tech puzzle. It is analog switches wired in series that trigger a Frightprops.com, simple prop timer, nothing overly complicated. After a quick round of troubleshooting, I determined that I couldn't fix it immediately and we had to mark the puzzle out of play temporarily, diminishing the experience of those groups that came the rest of the afternoon. I came in the next morning and did some advanced troubleshooting. Apparently at some point, one of my solder connections had broken loose from rough handling by a previous group. A quick repair and the prop is back in service. However, it was extremely embarrassing to see the disappointment on my guest's faces when that prop failed. 

Escape room props, especially home built props have to be ready to sustain a ton of abuse. When considering whether to add tech to your escape game, consider whether you can afford for your game to be closed in the event that that critical piece of technology fails. The benefit of building your own escape room props is that you know how it was built, and you know how to repair it. A common bit of advice in the Escape Room Owners Facebook group is to have spares of everything. For some locations, it is not economically feasible to have multiples of that expensive set piece. When ordering high-end electronic props purchase a repair parts kit, you won't regret it.

Learn about the Fright Props simple prop timer here.

2. Escape Room Tech does not equal a great game.

There are games in existence that have an amazing level of set design and some extremely advanced technology that are just not a fun escape game exerience. A common misconception is that the addition of technological elements will increase the level of fun players will have. This is a fundamentally flawed thought. Every person's idea of fun is substantially different. Having played the incredibly frustrating laser maze type game, I don't find them fun. When we add tech it should be to enhance the experience not supplant the core escape room mechanic of solving the puzzles and achieving the goal of the room. Tech when overdone will actually take away from the player experience. Beautiful set design with broken tech will lead to an angry player experience. Read this review below and see how broken tech effects the player experience.

This is a real review! 

This is a real review! 

1. Escape Room generation what?

“In case after case after case, I see these and think “this would work so much better on several levels as a low/no tech puzzle”. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of groupthink out there that “more tech = better experience”, and for all players’ sakes I hope that goes away sooner than later.”
— Nate Martin - CEO Puzzle Break

The key to a great game is great puzzles. That's the bottom line in the escape room industry. Most players have never experienced an escape room and are thrilled by their first time. There are plenty of amazing games today that don't have any tech and wizardry in them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a very well designed game that doesn't have bells and whistles. A plane Jane, "Generation 1" escape room can be just as engaging and rewarding as that 100,000.00 Disney quality set design with every bell and whistle imaginable. Without getting into the whole escape room generations discussion let's just leave it at this, whatever your choice is to have tech in your room, do it right and ,keep it well maintained. 

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Brian Vinciguerra is a retired Marine and is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Cracked it! Escape Games in Jacksonville, North Carolina. (He's the cute one with blonde hair, and yes this was an intentional family portrait.)