The Adventure Continues

[more pictures and video will be added later]

After I missed the convention in 2016 it was about time to return to Stuttgart to visit Exit Venture’s Escape Games Convention. The Convention grew substantially and now included a day focused on founders and people new in scene. I skipped this day and arrived at the 20th in the morning, for the regular program.

VR games inspired by Escape Games

The first talk was held by Sven Haeberlein, (co-founder of Exit-VR) about Virtual Reality in the Escape Room business. He presented a short bio of the rise and fall of VR in the 90ties and its current comeback. Sven who develop various VR experienced proudly presented the first results of his co-production with EXIT Adventures. Driven by the idea to create something outside of the market of shooter & action games they will release their collaborative puzzle-driven VR experience in May. While I am personally not too intrigued by the VR experiences I have seen to date (unfortunately I did not get to test the demo they brought). I am aware that many creative people are busy experiencing with the possibilities and it is only a matter of time till some people will crack the secret to what will make VR a game changing experience.


After a break we continued with workshops. Four choices were made available. Professionalization in the B2B sector, Digitalization of Game Rooms, Authentic Set-Design and Light & Sound. I stepped right into a classical trap and chose the topics in which I am naturally most interested in. Only to realize that in those fields it is the hardest to teach me something new. The first workshop round about the use of sound & light mainly made me realize that there seem to be a lot of designers who don’t intuitively use these elements to create a stronger dramatically effect. Especially the sound workshop stayed very basic and only presented a few doubly surround background sound compositions to show people that this can enhance the immersion. I would have preferred to talk more about dynamic sound and how to speed up/slow down, provide feedback and clues through sound, but it seems that for most visitors this basic edition was good enough.

The session about light ended up more entertaining, as the workshop giver in a slightly chaotic but very sympathetic fashion demonstrated the difference it makes when you switch of the TL ‘cleaning light’ and use many different small lights from to create dramatic shadows. As a fan of David Lynch and Film Noire the effect of lighting is obvious to me, but it is always nice to get some theory behind things one usually does intuitively. A very practical advice was to avoid white walls as much as possible as with all the reflection it is very difficult to control the spread of light.  Admittedly even a ‘know-it-all’ like myself got one or two good tips and ideas out of this one.


How to work with light and shadow to create an interesting Escape Room scene


Numbers and Market Analysis

Immersed in conversations I almost missed when Lukas C. C. Hempel from bookingkit GmbH  presented his data and statistical analyses of the German market. While I will look more into it after I received their white-paper, I remember that two insights turned up particularly often in the following debates. Most money is made by very few companies. This appeared like a very low number to most people and while the data might slightly underestimate it a bit (as for instance B2B income and additional invoice services might not be registered in their booking system) it seems as if the market is divided between hobbyists who, design games next to their regular job and those who try to create a business cases that create enough money for them and their employees.

Another interesting statistic was the overview of returning customers. Of their 3-year data collection they concluded that 65% of first time ER visitors did not return to play an Escape Game anymore, while 16% return to the same ER providers and 19% return to a different provider. The following discussion made also clear how the scene is slowly shifting. While in markets with many small providers of only one or two games most Escape Games are happy to send their players to other Escape Games as they also receive players from them. Large Escape Game providers with many rooms on the contrary have very little interest to recommend their players other places. In this spirit it a bit of a missed opportunity that we did not talk about the fact that the 19% of migrating players probably also mean many of your players actually came from someone else first.

The most debated number though was the 65% rate of non-returner. It seemed inconceivable to most people who only see players leave their rooms with happy smiles and shiny eyes that those would not want to come back and play another time. Pretty much everyone I talked to was convinced that their own player-return rates are much higher. Thus either the visitors at the conference represent the most ambitious and most quality driven providers on the market or we all overestimate the impact we have on our players. As usual, it is probably a combination of both, as it is obvious that the people who travel far to a conference like this are the ones most interested in providing the best games. It is also a very natural thing that we remember vividly the people who are most excited about our games while we tend to forget those who leave the game quietly because they don’t want to tell us that it wasn’t really something for them.

Actors in Escape Games

The next speaker was Jörg Homeyer Show-Manager of the Hamburg Dungeon a long and well established scary theatrical experience. He explained to us vividly the pro and con’s of using actors in our experiences. While it is talked about at almost every Live Escape Event, very few providers actually seem to do it (turns out we were the only one in the room that has an Escape Games that involves actors / performers). I very much enjoyed the talk as it highlighted some of the problems that such an experience can bring with it, like the constant need of back-up replacements if an actor is sick, or the general influence of the human factor than can either excel or ruin an experience. He also talked a bit about the pool of people he used to recruit from. While L.A.R.P’ers or students seem like a good fit in the first place  role-players are actually often difficult to work with and the most motivated people from his staff have previously worked as animator entertaining people on cruise ships or Hotel resorts. Those seem to be the people with endless energy and a huge drive to guarantee a good experience for the people they perform for. Looking at the general opinion in the room however it became somewhat apparent that actors in German Live Escape Performances will probably stay a novelty for some more time.


Hamburg Dungeon

Unlike in Escape Rooms, Actors scaring people for years already in the Hamburg Dungeon


The next workshop involved a hands on session how to make a clean brick wall look dirty. The workshop about set-design was fun and light-hearted and I learned  examples of how we can observe natural aging of objects and simulate those effects in an ER. For around 40min we found ourselves back in arts-class of high school painting with sponges and brushes on a fake brick wall. Turns out I am much better in artificially aging, smudging and damaging thing than keeping things tidy and clean… thank you Escape Games for providing a place for me in this world!

I enjoyed to be part of to the final panel debate in which we talked in large about how to define quality in an Escape Room, what the future will bring in the scene and if we limit ourselves by thinking to much inside the escape room box…. well to be honest the last one was the opinion I expressed but it seems that many people tend to agree with it. Overall it is fascinating and a bit concerning to see how rapid this market developed. Three years ago most people wondered how they can prevent their players from destroying all their beautiful props. Now it seems more about market share, growth rates, buying, selling, licensing.  I understand that for some people all this happens a bit too fast and that all the talk about the ‘survival of small Escape Game providers’ is very threatening.

Escape Games attract hobby game designers, artists and DIY craftsman alike as very successful business men and experienced game designers. While the scene is still very friendly one can see first signs how people from both worlds can clash with each other. While some claim that others only want money others think it is ignorant to run what looks like an unsustainable business model. In reality it is neither just about “the need to fill one’s fridge” (an expression actually used by a successful investor who just bought a few escape rooms) nor is it only about artistic self-expression without any pride in earning some additional cash.

The scene is dynamic and very diverse and while for some people it is an opportunity to create their own little magical universe, for others Escape Rooms provide the dream of a new business opportunity with rapid growth. For all of us it is an adventure.

The exciting thing about the scene is that it empowers many young and creative people to start their own business and run it their own way. This can mean that you rush from one business meeting to the other trying to open many franchises, but it can also mean that you spend long nights together with your friends in a basement, drinking beer and speculating how many people in our society can squeeze through the new 40 cm narrow corridor. Let’s enjoy it as long as it lasts and make sure we support each other in the process. In this spirit, thanks to everyone who I met as the conference. I had a good time and I am looking forward to see you again at our conference @Up The Game at the 9th of May in Breda, Netherlands.