The Escape Game Austin is fairly unassuming on the outside. It sits at the end of a block with a little sign out front that's essentially a circular labyrinth with a lock in the middle.
Inside is where the magic happens, so to speak. The lobby is all angles and seating with a small customer service area. There's a set of three tablets off to the side, attached to a table in such a way that makes signing the necessary waivers to actually play the game bizarrely awkward. (I'm 5'11" and had to contort my body just to read the text.)
Behind the customer service area is a black hallway filled with doors leading to the various games. Each is themed—I played Gold Rush and Prison Break, which are themed exactly as they sound—but the doors and hallway are blank. It's like entering a void before the atmosphere of another planet. An architectural palette cleanser.
For those perhaps unfamiliar with the concept: an escape room is essentially an elaborately designed game where the whole point is to, as one might deduct, escape. Think the original Saw film mixed with a bit of Myst and you've got a solid start. There are fewer morality questions, but the underlying machinations are the same. The Escape Game is one company of many that have embraced this trend, though they've done so with celebrated panache—and a brand spankin' new $1 million facility in Austin, Texas.
Behind one of those doors is the control room where guides monitor their subjects as they scurry through their respective mazes. It's on the small side, consisting of a bunch of computers and monitors showing how much time is left for the ongoing games as well as several camera angles on each room. Cables and what appeared to be servers line a portion of a wall next to the room's only door. One watcher keeps an eye on each game, making sure nobody attempts to touch anything with a "Don't Touch" sticker on it or do something like, say, try to pass a round magnet through a metal pipe. My group may have tried to pass a round magnet through a metal pipe.
This can be a frustrating position to hold. While on my brief tour of the facility, I happened to stop in the room while one game guide (with a vaping contraption on his left) was having trouble getting his group to move on. There was a slide between a top room to a bottom rooms, but they were hesitating at the top. The guide started slowly escalating in volume as he began cursing again and again. The hints given by guides are designed to make the important bits easy to see, but not solve. You can lead a horse to water, in other words, but you can't make them solve puzzles.
It's something the company is all too familiar with. "You've got to keep everybody engaged," The Escape Game co-founder Jonathan Murrell told me over the phone. "But really for me the thing I enjoy most is when you're in the middle of the game and you forget that anything else is really happening except what you're trying to do." He points to an experience in Budapest from before founding The Escape Game where he and his group had to build a key and stick it into an old breaker box as an example. Doing so meant the lights came on and the doors flung open, but they built that key wrong four times before they ever got it right.
"To me, it was moments where you're doing something that's hands on, you're physically engaged in this real-life thing, and the clock's ticking down, and the pressure's going, and the adrenaline just starts going in that moment," Murrell said. "The moments like that are why I love the games."
The most difficult part is making a game that's both challenging and enjoyable. Too challenging and things quickly get frustrating, but too easy and patrons get bored. In Murrell's words, the idea is that "even a family on vacation can feel like they had a good time—even if they don't win." One particularly useful trick? Spreading the puzzles across multiple rooms.
"The design of the rooms is largely built around if you spend 45 minutes in the same place, even if you did the same amount of things, if you split that into two rooms people would feel like they had this progression," Murrell said. Even when there's little reason to add an extra room in terms of required space, it gives the experience a sense of flow. That keeps patrons interested and engaged, even when they're maybe not doing particularly well.
But it takes a whole lot of doing it wrong before they ever do it right. "We've had to scrap a lot, especially with our first couple games," Murrell said. "We would do our first demo round and it would take three hours, and we realized we had way too much stuff in there." In short, they tend to overbuild. Through testing, they figure out which parts are too difficult as well as which rooms are maybe too crowded. "We've never had to, thus far, scrap a whole room, but we've done a lot of culling." Much like video game design, it's all about iteration, but with The Escape Game undoing a mistake takes a lot more labor than pressing ctrl+z.
That doesn't mean games haven't been added to over time. They can vary from location to location simply due to when they were initially constructed or even thanks to local demographics. Take, for example, the Orlando location for The Escape Game's Gold Rush scenario. "We're going to add a little bit of content down there, because the game is moving really quickly in that city," Murrell said. They're not exactly sure why, but the data backs them up. It could be the lighting in one market makes a specific puzzle easier.
As with many escape games—and there are many, including over twelve in Austin, Texas alone—Escape Game started with nothing but padlocks. These days, it's padlocks of all shapes and sizes, alphanumeric locks, directional locks, puzzles solved by pressure plates, the list goes on. But the company's also set to raise the stakes with their next game. Set in space, the newest game is filled with digital-only locks. Easier said than done, it turns out.
"We had to design an app that would interact with a Raspberry Pi," Murrell said. "It would do wireless from an android tablet, so we could make a thematic tablet that fit our spaceship vibe, and then use that to control all of our activations in the room." Nothing's less immersive to Murrell than entering what's supposed to be a spaceship heading to Mars than a bunch of traditional locks and pin pads.
"But we don't have among the founding team a technical one in the bunch of us," he said. "That's been one of our big hurdles—finding the right resources and making sure that we're advancing in that direction as fast as we need to. About a year in we developed a custom game guide software because we realized nothing was being offered for the industry and we wanted to be able to moderate the games better."
The space version has a tentative release for Summer 2016, but could feasibly be delayed until they're comfortable with releasing it. And even after, the team will keep iterating. The whole process seems borrowed whole cloth from video game development, what with the iterations, level design, and shifting release windows. Speaking from experience, the rooms themselves feel this way too. There's an intensity not found in pen-and-paper puzzles like sudoku.
Which is also why Murrell's still thinking big. "My dream game is a submarine game where it starts to fill with water," he says. "That's the game I start drawing whenever we're having fun on a whiteboard."