Categorize Your Room (Opinion)
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The escape room world is growing. When escape rooms were new to the world, rooms attempted to be the best of all worlds (puzzles, immersion, challenge, story, etc.). Now creators are learning that not everyone likes the same kind of room. Some players like a room that is focused on story and immersion. Some competitors prefer puzzle heavy room, and some players enjoy rooms that are more of a physical challenge.
I recently asked 177 escape room enthusiasts which category the prefer. Here are the results of that survey:
Immersive Adventure: 62%
Puzzle Room: 33%
Physical Challenge: 5%
The escape room industry has grown to the size that it can no longer provide rooms without giving more detailed descriptions of what they are like, and that description must include a room category. This is the same thing that happened to the film industry. When the industry was young, most movies were very similar, but over time, creators got creative. They learned that they could reach more people by setting clear expectations for the movie goer. Some people love actions movies but hate chick flicks (me!). There are fanatics of science fiction, comedy, horror, mystery, and on and on. Usually people like multiple genres, and some genres are more popular than others. The escape room industry has actually used those genres to create stories and themes. I expect escape rooms to continue to use those genres, but it must begin to be more clear about room categories. You could have a room with a horror theme that focuses on physical challenges or on puzzles. I have seen three categories of escape rooms emerging, but I’m sure there will be more. Those three categories are puzzle rooms, immersive adventures (often called quest rooms in Europe), and physical challenges.
There is almost always some crossover in a room. Puzzle rooms will have some elements of immersive adventure and often a physical challenge. Immersive adventure rooms will often require a puzzle solve or physical challenge. That is good. We love it when an action movie includes some comedy, and we love it when a science fiction movie includes some romance. With that said, the best game designers are clear about the category of a room. Players who have a special affinity for one of the categories should know which category your room is in.
I love puzzles, but I’m not too interested in story. I realize that many escape room enthusiasts do not agree with me on that. In my experience, some story is necessary to keep the room moving forward, but rooms that are focused on story just make me want to leave the room to go to a movie. But that’s simply my preference. It comes from my hurried, competitive nature. Some people see a record board in the lobby of an escape room and get discouraged because it appears the owners care more about competition than about story. I see a record board, and my heart begins to race with excitement. In my opinion, there are too few escape rooms that have fully embraced the competition that makes their rooms fun. Jeff Sam, an escape room enthusiast says, "If I could only choose one [category], I'll take the puzzle room, as an immersive room lacking decent puzzles would probably be over in under 30 minutes. Plus, if I really want a good story I'll read a book or watch a movie."
Many people do not enjoy solving puzzles, but they love story and adventure. Their imaginations are likely much better than mine, and they crave the chance to mentally escape our boring world and enter the world of a creative story teller. Attempting to force arbitrary puzzles onto a story that doesn’t need puzzles actually takes away from the immersive experience, but tasks and even physical challenges actually fit very nicely into most stories. These rooms should focus more on special effects, sound tracks, actors, and other elements that immerse the player in the story. I recently played a room that was set in Tesla’s home study. It was a very story heavy room, and I can imagine that fans of story would have loved it, if there weren’t locks on everything. I loved the room, but in that scenario, the locks took away from the story because I doubt Tesla locked the door to his restroom. The story could have been told much more effectively with tasks, but then the puzzle lovers would have given them a bad review on Google. Category clarifications would set proper expectations for those players.
I’ve played escape rooms that have required you to shoot a gun, use bolt cutters on a chain, climb a rock wall, etc. These are examples of physical challenges in escape rooms. Physical challenges do fit nicely in puzzle rooms, but I expect the physical challenge category itself to grow. The growth of axe throwing, rage (smash) rooms, and trampoline parks suggest to me that people are looking for ways to get out and exert themselves physically, and they’re willing to pay for it. Unlike previous generations, most people don’t get the opportunity to swing an axe, push a plow, build a shed, or drive a tractor. Our bodies were designed for physical activity, and our obesity is revealing a weakness in the average lifestyle.
I think this is an exciting problem because it will allow designers to perfect their rooms for their audience. The old days of escape rooms were last year, and the good days are ahead.