The Growth of the Escape Room Market

2020.10.05.

As of writing, the escape room phenomena continues to grow. But the concept itself is far from new. Though they're a relatively recent entertainment in the West, in the Far east they've been a round for over a couple of decades. Let's have a brief look at the history of escape rooms and then see what the future holds for this exciting and profitable pastime. 

Greek Mythology

Every school boy knows the story of the Minotaur and how the Athenian hero Theseus defeated it in the Labyrinth. Our hero had to both navigate to find the creature, and then find his way back out again. As we all know, help was at hand. Never the less, this story is really the archetype as far as myths and tales go concerning the human condition in it's attempts to escape or circumnavigate complex missions. Then return back to us, victorious. By so doing they enrich both their own lives and those around them. 

Mazes From Hedges

During the reign of Elizabeth 1st and subsequent English monarchs, the building of complex mazes in formal garden setting was de rigeuer for a number of years. These evolved from knot gardens coming from  Renaissance Europe. One of the most famous can be found and explored at Hampton Gardens. It was originally planted with Hornbeam in 1700 and was commissioned by William III. It's the oldest maze in the UK and is regarded as one of the most difficult to navigate.

Video Games

The escape genre received a shot in the arm when John Wilson introduced his "Behind Closed Doors" in 1988. This was a text-based adventure escape game from Zenobi Software that was written for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. Being produced in the years before PC's, it's reach was very limited. The the proper escape game of "The Crimson Room" was created in 2004 by Toshimitsu Takagi. Thanks to his name, this type of game quickly became known as "Takagim" games. 

Japan Makes It Real

Three years later in 2007, the Japanese company of SCRAP turned the concept into themed live escape rooms. The founder, Takao Kato wanted to create total immersion games. After having watched his mates playing online, he decided to host live events whereby attendees had to escape from his room settings. Soon all the live events were sold out. So he developed the idea of themed rooms with mysteries and puzzles that needed to be solved in order to progress. And all against a ticking clock. Before too long, Escape Room started to appear all over Asia. In 2011 a company called Parapark opened the first escape room in Budapest, Hungary. It was a huge hit and soon the game was being exported all over the world. 

Today, there are over 2,500 escape rooms in the US alone, with over 14,000 in world-wide. Theindustry appears to continue to grow at an exponetial rate. Most of the entrpreneurs who set them up claim that they break even in slightly less than a year. If there is a limitation to escape room growth, it's the limitation that comes from having static rooms. Once you've built and decorated a room, plus designed all the clues and puzzles to be built in, then your options for changing out bits and pieces are very limited. What's more, is that thanks to the present pandemic, many customers are wary of venturing into an escape room and being in close proximity to other players. That's where online virtual games now come into play.

Instead of running around a physical room looking for clues, you can now play over the internet. A games master is in the actual room and he's there, wearing a camera, to do your bidding. So, if you're trying to discover the whereabouts of a Russian Nuclear Submarine or stealing important documents from the Italian mafia, you can feel safe and secure on your sofa at home, whilst the games master does the heavy lifting. Games room operators are going through a period of innovation. They need to keep their customers happy with their escape room games, whilst at the same time respect the social mores bought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. So we can find them tweaking their business formulas to try and get better value, both for the customer and for themselves. Some are using pre-recorded scenes whereas others have opted to go online completely, and having the games played over video conferencing software like Zoom.

One thing that's not clear, is just how long escape games can last if they're fully online. Part of the fun was the group element of problem solving together. Many owners are worried that once a game has been played over the internet, some of the spontaneity will be lost. This might translate to less return bookings. Among escape rooms there's greater competiton with 2018 seeing some rooms unable to remain in business. This has led to serious price competiveness along with an increase in marketing costs. Each customer aquisition is costing more, and that's in spite of the proliferation of social media. As time passes, we can see that the market for escape room games is starting to become over-saturated in some areas. Another factor that we previously mentioned was the static nature of the rooms themselves. But hopefully all these limitation can be overcome with the development of wireless Virtual Reality(VR).

Using a virtual headset to show virtual worlds takes all the physical work out of building and maintaining actual rooms. Right now, with the click of a mouse or the touch of a button, you can create instant and exciting new rooms to play in. You can also instantly set different levels of complexity to the clues and puzzles. Not only that, but by creating virtual environments, you can also people them differently. Want some flesh eating zombies to chase the participants? Tick! Want space aliens? Tick! Want to be involved in a bank robbery? Tick! If it can be designed and programmed, then you'll be able to find it during your escape room experience.

With wireless VR, it really is like just stepping into a video game. And to make matters even more immersive, having wireless head sets allows participants to walk around unhindered. in fact, there is nothing to hold back the experience. Reactions are instant and really feel real to the point of being disconcerting for the beginner. As such, the only limitations are those from the software end. provided that programmers can keep up with demand for newer narratives and visuals, then the escape room scenarios that VR can create are virtually endless. 

With no rent to pay, limits on staffing and no Health and Safety local government requirements, it's easy to see that the future of escape room lies in wireless VR. With the present pandemic showing no signs of lessening, business owners of escape rooms will need to embrace this new technology as well as sell the idea to it's customer base if they wish to survive.

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