I first tried an escape room in the summer of 2014. Several months earlier, friends had explained to me the premise of escape rooms in exhaustive detail. In this initial outing I was with in the company of about ten players. Some had prior experience with escape rooms and the other first-timers had an instinctive disposition to the concept based on a general interest in puzzles. Nearly all of my escape room experiences since then have been with co-solvers that fit one or both of these categories.
I’ve been working for Puzzah! for a little over six months and in my daily duties I visit with many people who are not well acquainted with recreational puzzles and know nothing of escape rooms — or “puzzle rooms,” which is the more general term that Puzzah! prefers for its live-action adventures. Customers find out about us from business-review websites or from friends and co-workers or by noticing our downtown Denver storefront. They enter our store and have loads of questions, usually starting with some variation of, “What exactly do you do here?” Once customers have a basic understanding of the puzzle room concept they will ask more questions, and many of the same questions come up frequently. Escape rooms seem to inspire shared areas of curiosity among the newly initiated public. I’m reminded of the question that many crossword constructors cite as far and away the most common one posed about the craft by outsiders: “Which do you create first, the grid or the clues?” Will the puzzle room genre eventually generate an analogous question? I can share the questions that I commonly get asked at work, and forgive me if, in discussing the answers, I lump some shameless praise on my employer.
The most common question I get asked by Puzzah! customers is, “How long have you been open?” The question is typical, business-related small talk, but for puzzle rooms it seems to carry an added significance. I believe that many Puzzah! customers use the question as a way to ask, “How long has this type of business existed (without my knowing about it), and is it a trend that will last?” I try to address this potential subtext when I respond. Puzzah! opened in 2014 and was one of the first puzzle room businesses in Denver, though similar business have been operating in other North American cities for at least five years, and in cities throughout the world for at least a decade. When I discuss the future of the puzzle room genre with customers I find the most practical approach is to be confidently optimistic.
A close second for most common question is “How often do you change the rooms?” In the case of Puzzah!, the answer is never (so far). Our rooms are elaborate and expensive installations and even the oldest of our rooms remains a popular choice for reservations, so Puzzah! has never had reason to retire a puzzle room. Because I have the advantage of this inside information, I initially found it tiresome when customers wondered if our rooms changed out with the frequency of movies at a cineplex. But I’ve come to understand that the question is completely reasonable. Many puzzle room businesses change out rooms more frequently than Puzzah!, and we will eventually retire a room to make space for another. Also, arcade adventures with virtual reality systems are becoming more sophisticated and the technology will eventually enable the possibility of puzzle rooms that are both immersive and instantly interchangeable. So the question about how often we change rooms could also be curiosity about the staying power of this entertainment genre.
Many customers ask me how I know what is happening in the rooms when a game is in progress. Puzzle room businesses have various methods of monitoring player activity: video cameras, radio communication, in-room staff (sometimes posing as characters in the story). The method generally depends on the operational concern for surveillance, be it player safety, dispensing hints, etc. Puzzah! uses computer sensors rather than cameras or in-room staff. Customers are generally relieved when I tell them that we are not watching them through cameras. Even though we are collecting data on their overall performance, the fact that they are not being “watched” seems to alleviate their self-consciousness.
Customers who ask about cameras often have a general worry about the comfort of their experience. These customers will ask if the rooms are horror-themed, if someone is going to jump out and scare them, and if an inability to solve the puzzles will trap them in the room forever. For Puzzah! the answer to all of these questions is no, though the question is reasonable for the puzzle room industry as a whole. That first escape room I played in 2014 included a moment when the proprietor donned a rubber mask,dashed into the room, blew an airhorn, and exited. The action had no practical or thematic bearing on the room’s objective. It was simply a cheap scare. Many puzzle room businesses attract customers by being mysterious, threatening, and often macabre. The rooms are interactive haunted houses in which the danger somehow enhances puzzle solving. This marketing approach has a devoted clientele, but I see a positive reaction when I answer customers’ questions with reassurance rather than intimidation.
Nine out of ten customers that visit Puzzah! for a puzzle room adventure are doing it for the first time. The price point for a puzzle room is relatively high among comparable entertainment options and the public has a right to get as much information as possible before entering a room. As time goes by I would expect the percentage of novice customers to decrease, and their questions will become more savvy. They will want to know about success rates, hint systems, scavenging rules, and so forth. That will be the day when my confident optimism in the puzzle room industry is justified and I begin to sadly miss the innocent queries about how long we’ve been in business and how often we change the rooms. Still, if I get too sad about it I can always go out and buy an airhorn.