Thinking big: what would a million players a year look like?

A heart marked "1,000,000"One of this site’s writers was talking to one of his co-workers the other day and the co-worker said “So do you know about this (name deleted) escape game in (city), then? My wife played it the other day and she loved it.” Yes. Yes, it’s possible that one or two things about it might be known. This site considers it great news, as more and more evidence, albeit anecdotal, that the word is getting out to the masses. Fingers crossed, some more enthusiasm may well get them to play the others that exist as well.

One of the bigger questions that this site wonders about from time to time is just how big exit games can get. (For the sake of expediency and laziness, let’s stick to the UK here.) A million players a year is a big, splashy number to talk about; by comparison, UK Paintball claims “over a million paintball players per year in the UK”, with one brand alone claiming half a million players in a year. (Another reputable source estimated about 1,100,000 players +/- 150,000 players.) These figures count one person playing once a month as twelve players, which seems like a reasonable basis. (This site’s monthly player count estimate differs by factoring to count unique players.)

There are some hobbies which lock their players in by incentivising, or even requiring, players to spend very considerable sums of money on specific equipment for that hobby alone. This site contends that it’s to the exit game industry’s credit that that isn’t a factor; the low barrier of entry makes attracting new players easier. Granted, the games themselves are often not cheap, but the habitually high reviews provide evidence that almost all players consider that you do get what you pay for. (There are other parts of the puzzle hobby, particularly online, which do not have a price tag.) On the other hand, the lack of commitment and the lack of replay value for an individual room means there’s a challenge for the industry to go from “this is something fun I did once” to “this is one of my regular hobbies”. Sites with more than one different game are a step in the right direction.

In round terms, one million players a year is 20,000 players a week, which might mean 12,000 players during the week and four or five thousand players on a Saturday. To keep the numbers simple, let’s say that a busy Saturday might see as many as 1,200 teams play, and let’s assume that each room can service an average of six teams per day on a Saturday. Then, all as an order of magnitude calculation, a million players a year might feel like 200 rooms all fully booked out every Saturday. (And most of Sunday, and fairly heavily on weekdays as well.)

The last time The League Table was computed, it estimated 55 open rooms (not sites!) in the UK, plus more in the Republic of Ireland. The total has gone up since then. Nevertheless, we would looking at roughly a trebling in size of the industry, plus an increase in utilisation of the less popular sites to approach that of the most popular sites. Escape Hunt in London has ten rooms, ClueQuest and HintHunt each have five these days, Breakout Manchester have four and some others have three. Some sites have plenty of room for expansion; many others may not have much space to get past 4-5 rooms within a single site, others limiting themselves to as few as two rooms, or one. If the current average is 2.5 rooms per site, and if that average might rise towards 3 rooms per site, we might expect 70 sites to be required (and Escape Hunt not to be the only mega-site).

You might choose to create an immediately familiar, but very crude, model of this as one centre located at a town for each Premier League or Championship football team, 16 more dotted around locations with lower league teams, plus 10 more dotted around Scotland – again, perhaps in line with football powerhouses – as well Northern Ireland and the rest of Wales. This provides some basis for modelling big conurbations featuring both more and (in some cases) better-used locations than smaller conurbations. A slightly less crude model might emphasise tourism destinations more highly, with business destinations and dormitory towns emphasised less highly. (Question for site owners: which football team do you identify your site with? Silly analogies are fun!)

Is a million players a year realistic? The population of the UK is something like 64 million, so (again, keeping the numbers very simple) this might roughly be looking at 1% of the population playing at least one game a year, a substantial proportion of those being “hobbyists” who play more than one game, and tourists from outside the UK playing in UK sites as well.

Getting as high as 1% is far from easy, though. While there will always be some very young players, some very senior players and some players with disabilities, all of whom will be at least as welcome as others, it’s not unrealistic to knock – say – 30% of the population out straight away as considering themselves to be too young, too old or too impaired to be interested in playing. We can then factor out those who identify as being without disposable income, when everybody is struggling, and those who identify as having no interest in intellectual activities. Maybe that’s another 30% right there. (That’s a pretty wild guess, but compare to video game player stats.) So you’re looking at a target market of perhaps 40% of the population, thus the industry is looking to get 1-in-40 of those to play in a year. Does that seem reasonable? Alternatively, considering how popular these games are with the early adopters who have tried them, does that seem low?

Another point of reference is that in 2013, there were something like 170 million paid admissions to UK cinemas. (The trend over time dipped to about 70 million in the early ’80s at its lowest and has been broadly recovering, with fluctuations, ever since.) Might half a percent or one percent of that seem a reasonable aspiration?

This site is bullish about these estimates. If you are, too, then it’s clear that the market has plenty of room to grow and it’s not close to being too late to get involved. Perhaps a million UK players in 2017 is not out of sight; a real optimist might see a seven-digit year being reached sooner still.

Latest news and views

"Daily News" newspaperA quick round-up of recent points of interest:

  • Congratulations to Logiclock of Nottingham, as discussed a week and a half ago, who opened their booking site a couple of days ago and were taking bookings from today onwards. The piratical theme of their first room is a rarity for the UK; perhaps there might be the scope for them to get some authentically local flavour for a later game by adapting one of the UK’s best-loved legends, though perhaps it might be difficult to hint at the flavour of a forest inside a room.
  • Scotland are hosting New Zealand’s rugby team tomorrow and some of the All Blacks have been playing Escape at Edinburgh today. The site has a fantastic photo and comment about one team’s visit and another one on Twitter.
  • Escape Rooms of London, always well-regarded within the comments section here and thought of as one of the more challenging sites in the country, have a 10% discount code available for slots before 5pm on weekdays until the end of the year.
  • This site enjoyed Room 505, a stop-motion video on an escape game theme that evokes the conventions and atmosphere of modern video games, with the best sort of silly conclusion.
  • One idle reflection that recently occurred: it’s relatively uncommon to see photos of teams made up entirely of older players. Family groups spanning the generations are frequent and delightful, but many in the third age community have considerable time and disposable income. Some games are more kinetic than others, and issues of mobility and sensory acuity are more likely to be relevant here, but when at least one site is considering deliberately targeting a younger audience, might there be the scope to attract an entirely new audience to the industry as well?

How did you start married life? Locked in a room

The newlyweds! (By kind permission of Breakout Manchester)The photo above is by kind permission of Breakout Manchester, and they retain the copyright for it.

The happy couple pictured above got married to each other on November 10th, then went straight from the wedding ceremony to Breakout Manchester. Happily they escaped from their game and beamed with joy for their photo. The Breakout Manchester staff enjoyed it nearly as much, teasing at the event with a Tweet evoking the Bridal March then posting the photo with hashtags #Congratulations #WeWouldHaveWornHatsToday.

This site told them “Best way to start a honeymoon I can imagine!”; Ella responded “Or could have to lead to instant divorce 😉 Great way to spend part of our day!” They also took advantage of Manchester’s other offerings, visiting the Palace Theatre, as well as going bowling and ice-skating. Many congratulations and warmest wishes from this site to the two of them; the best of health and happiness, and may they deal as handily with all the puzzles that they encounter in their married lives as they did with the ones at Breakout Manchester.

(There’s some more exciting Breakout Manchester news: after starting with two rooms created and installed by Mazebase, their third and fourth rooms were original – and, in turn, they have gone on to install a copy of one of these original rooms at a site in Finland! Clearly this is another good option well worth considering if you’re thinking about getting into the business yourself and starting by franchising a room.)

New section: Getting into the exit games business

"Come in we're Open" graphicThis site is happy to open a major new section, detailing its theories and conclusions about running an exit game.

This is, of course, extremely presumptuous as the people behind it have never actually run one. Nevertheless, having paid attention to sites’ operations, there are enough commonalities and good practice available to be observed that it would appear to be useful to try to draw them all together into a single document. The advice within can never be more than just suggestions, and there are many famous quotes about just how little advice can be worth. Hopefully it can be taken in the sense of “food for thought”, and give both potential market entrants and existing players some suggestions. The majority of points within should be globally applicable, though there are a few that are more specific to the UK and Ireland.

Corrections, suggestions for improvement and other comments from site operators are especially welcome and will be gratefully received; please send them through by e-mail. If any of the advice looks positively harmful, please shout up at once. It’s a living document which will be updated from time to time; many thanks to those site operators who have provided their opinions on an earlier version of it already.

Early November 2014 Dealwatch: coupons and discounts to play escape games for less

Price tag suggesting deal, sale or bargainThe usual Dealwatch rules remain in operation:

  • Do check voucher companies’ terms, conditions and guarantees and this site takes no responsibility for deals that fall through for whatever reason, which sadly did happen once;
  • Many of these deals only permit a limited number of vouchers to be purchased and then the deal will expire. It’s quite possible that deals may have expired between being published below and your attempt to use them;
  • This non-commercial site does not attract any commission for promoting these deals, or for you using them;
  • These deals are not exclusive in any manner.

ESCAP3D‘s Dublin location have a LivingSocial deal available for another week, or until all the vouchers sell out. Teams of six can play for €39 rather than the full price of €80. The voucher is only valid for new customers, and between 1:30pm and 6pm on Mondays to Saturdays. A cancellation/re-scheduling policy of 48 hours applies. How do you pronounce ESCAP3D, by the way? This site always thought it was a stylistic form of “escaped”, but it could just as easily be “escape-three-d”.

Last Dealwatch, this site described a Groupon deal placed by The Gr8 Escape of Belfast. While that’s history now, the site has a Facebook offer available for another month, offering 25% off if you’re booking either of its two Christmas-themed rooms to play after 5pm. The site has also revealed its future plans: “Winter wonderland – a froz3n surprise will hopefully be available in mid December, it will be a two room challenge designed to be easy enough for 7-11 year olds to complete within 45 minutes.” That’s extremely distinctive and very, very cool. If a major chunk of the long-term future of exit games is to cater for the birthday market, which it might well be, this seems like the state of the art.

Puzzlair of Bristol recently posted about their latest discount, supporting Bristol Handball. Follow the Bristol Handball Twitter account and book using the HANDBALL code for 10% off. (Handball is a fine game; much more fun to watch handball on Eurosport 2 than basketball on Eurosport, er, 1.) Puzzlair also have a a Christmas coupon scheme going, where you can exactly personalise the wording on your gift to whatever you think its recipients would most enjoy. No lunar porcine involvement is required.

Escape Hunt of London are promoting the Escape Hunt Challenge; book to play all three of its rooms and get a 20% discount. Beat all three rooms and win a limited edition T-shirt as well!

There are still some deals announced last time that are ongoing. GR8escape York have a code letting the first 30 teams to book play for just £30, and Escape Quest of Macclesfield’s social media competition is running for just a few more days, finishing well before (and announcing the winner of a free game in good time for) the site’s big launch on November 19th. Locked In Games of Leeds have two unsettling rooms, an even creepier new teaser video and a code of lockedinnovember to be entered at the checkout stage for £30/team games all through November… if you dare!

The Imitation Game

"The Imitation Game" theatrical release poster(If Wikipedia can claim fair use for low-resolution scans of film posters, seems like fair game here…)

The Imitation Game is a recently-released film starring Benedict Cumberbatch playing Alan Turing, depicting his code-breaking work during the second World War. The titular imitation game is one form of the competition in natural language and artificial intelligence proposed by Turing which became more widely known as the Turing test; that came towards the end of a career arguably first notable for a hypothetical abstract computing device also later named after him.

So the Turing machine and the Turing test bookend his cryptographic work, which is another field where his work is still celebrated today. (His wartime papers on the subject were so influential that their contents were restricted for 70 years as a matter of national security.) The school of mathematics at the University of Manchester run an annual cryptography competition named after him; this site has already written about the University of Southampton’s National Cipher Challenge and there is some degree of similarity, though the NCC permits sixth-formers to take part and the Turing competition restricts teams to those in Years 11 and below. Registration starts in December for the next competition, expected to run through the spring term of 2015.

Cryptography isn’t just for schoolchildren, though, and nor are its competitions. While some puzzle hunts use its techniques, at least in part, and armchair treasure hunts use the field extensively, explicit competitions are less frequent. Not unknown, though; see Simon Singh on his Cipher Challenge at the end of his The Code Book. GCHQ have also occasionally run competitions like 2013’s Can You Find It?, now sadly offline.

All this leads up to another cryptography competition, open to all ages, tied in with the new movie release and featuring film merchandise donated by StudioCanal as prizes, some of it signed. There are three codes to crack (from first glance, two likely relatively accessible and one more… thematic…) whose deciphered messages provide clues as to which square on a slightly abstract map to explore for fictional buried silver.

The film has its general release in the UK this Friday, on 14th November, with the competition (whose entrants must be resident in the UK) open until midday on Friday 28th November. Happy hunting!


Pop-up book graphicThis site recently very much enjoyed reading about an exciting publicity technique operated by Escape Hunt of London at this week’s World Travel Market conference. On a small (6 m2) stand, packed to the rafters, they had a very small (one-player?) little exit game for people to come and try.

Well done to them for promoting the exit game industry at large to a conference where people might not have expected to find it; despite the size of the room being about that of a typical WC, it was sufficiently well-packed to attract people’s attention and gain excited tweets from those who thoroughly enjoyed their very little lock-in, setting the record by escaping with six minutes to spare.

There’s definitely the potential for pop-up exit games, and indeed this isn’t unique. Two museums in Cambridge are hosting such games, one for each of the next two Tuesdays as part of the Curating Cambridge festival (more, please!) and this site has already written about the week-long Escap3d @ the MAC, again as part of a festival.

The world is bound to see other such events in the future. For instance, Escape of Edinburgh, Glasgow and also now Newcastle hinted at striking deals to run pop-up games at the end of a recent, really good interview they conducted with STV (and another one tailored towards their Glasgow branch as well). Extremely promising.

On a much, much smaller scale, it’s tempting to wonder whether there might be a future for other micro-escape games. That sort of size is about the size of a typical market stall; some cities may also provide high-profile, highly subsidised retail space to start-ups, such as Stockton-on-Tees’ Enterprise Arcade. Clearly you could put an exit game in there, but could you put one worth playing, one that might get people begging for more?

Hard to say, and it would be a very different model from that which exists at the moment. Markets are noisy; outdoor markets can also be windy – and, if you’re downwind from the fish stall, possibly also a bit whiffy. It would be hard to build up much of an atmosphere. It also takes time and detail for people to start to suspend disbelief and get into the game, which may be luxuries that a small market stall sized installation might not have. Exit games, so far, have not been things can do as impulse purchases; it’s more usual to require people to book well in advance, with the anticipation of the game contributing to the experience. It’s also key to think of the clientele; market shoppers are typically looking for bargains, rather than for experiences.

This is putting up strong arguments against markets possibly being a step too far. However, perhaps someone will be smart enough to find an ideal way for good things to come in small boxes, even in the exit game field.

The wisdom of crowds

200px-Kickstart_logo_largeKickstart? Kickstart… er…

There are a couple of exciting new additions to the blogroll. Escape Games Review is a weblog detailing the burgeoning exit game scene in the Greater Toronto Area; an excellent complement to Toronto Room Escapes. Both cover news, reviews and a few more general-purpose tips; both write extremely well and have very exciting developments to cover. (One extended metropolis can host as many different sites as exist in the UK and Ireland!) Toronto Room Escapes does not shy away from using the full extent of their ranking scale and the engineering perspective they can bring is welcome as well. Different people will have different preferences, but the more different perspectives that reviewers can bring, the better you can get a sense of whether a room might be for you. This site looks forward to being able to link to, and compare opinions with, other UK and Irish exit game blogs.

The Escapist Society covers the exit games of the Netherlands. At time of publishing, there were 18 sites listed for a country with a population of under 17 million. The Netherlands has always been a country where they appreciate puzzles and smart games, so it’s no surprise that the genre is popular there. The site is attractively designed with a good eye for beautiful pictures and contains good information about each site. Budapest has always been the place to dream of for a visit with exit games in mind, and Hungary is one of the best-value places to visit at the moment, but this site offers more reasons to consider stopping off at the Netherlands along the way some day.

As well as these examples of crowdsourced journalism, the wisdom of crowds often manifests itself through crowdfunding, and Intervirals had a cracking article on the topic. There are several crowdfunded exit game projects that have made it to fruition, but several others which haven’t. (A case in point: there’s a current Kickstarter for a site in the Netherlands, based in a bus. Well, that’s unusual, and looks extremely cool!)

However, Kickstarter is far from the only crowdfunding platform. There have been a couple of exit game projects in the UK that have used Indiegogo. Back in April, this site wrote about the crowdfunding campaign for QuestRoom of London. Sadly, the crowdfunding campaign didn’t make it. However, the campaign said “The plan is flexible; we’ll find a bank loan for the missing amount if we need to.” However, QuestRoom founder Zsolt Fejer has recently been interviewed by Financing Start Up Enterprise. It goes to show that just because a crowdfunding campaign is not completely successful, the project is not necessarily doomed. Keep following the QuestRoom Facebook for further updates, surely!

Another example is that of Can You Escape? of Edinburgh. The Indiegogo campaign had a tremendous video and this site wrote about it, but the site didn’t become fully funded, and the plan to open in time for the Edinburgh Festival didn’t come to fruition. However, all good things are coming to those who wait and the Twitter feed is full of exciting information. This isn’t just a UK phenomenon; in the US, Trapped NYC’s Indiegogo didn’t get too far but this site, too, has made it to fruition (even if as a second location of another site, cutting down on the administration overhead).

So these are examples of crowdfunding campaigns that didn’t succeed but sites that are making progress nevertheless. Essa’s original article points to four successful campaigns as well. The question is: why do some campaigns succeed and others fail? It’s hard to know for sure, but this site very much enjoyed the Doubleclicks’ reflections on their own successful crowdfunded project. Now they may be a band rather than an exit game project (though if ever there were to be people writing music about an exit game, it would be as likely to be them as any other band at all…) but some of their reflections may well still apply, not least the one about putting yourself out there to get credibility first. It would be interesting to see if an already-successful exit game might be able to parlay their name recognition into success further down the line.

One other interesting project is being funded on pozible, a crowdfunding site with a focus on Oceania and South-East Asia. Australian company Pop Up Playground have been, among many other things, putting on their Fresh Air festival in each of 2012 to 2014, and they are crowdfunding for their 2015 festival. The most interesting-looking part is the prospect of “a bespoke puzzle adventure experience by the team from Escape Room Melbourne, designed just for Fresh Air“. Fingers very firmly crossed that that can come to fruition!

Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough

Hands holding a question mark and an exclamation markHere’s a treat, and hopefully it might get some discussion going. This site is proud to feature a guest post by Ed Roberts, proprietor of Breakout Manchester. Breakout Manchester is one of the busiest and most popular sites in the country and Ed has travelled extensively, playing games around the country for research purposes (and because he, like everyone else, is a massive fan). Here is a starting-point for a possible ranking table of different games’ difficulties; if you agree or disagree with his rankings, please share your opinions in the comments. Different people will find different things difficult, of course, but if there’s any consensus of opinion, then this would be useful for people deliberately looking for a relatively hard or relatively easy game. Thank you so much, Ed, and take it away!

So I’ve played a fair few escape games. Here in my opinion is how they rank from hardest to easiest. This is no indication of which games are good or bad; an easy game may be great, so may a hard game. Likewise an easy game may be awful as may a hard one. This is also based on nothing more than my personal opinion.

I’ve never played the Scottish, Bath, Bournemouth, Cryptopia, or Irish offerings so I can’t comment on these. I’ve also ranked the Breakout game rooms for where I believe they would sit. You will also notice some games I escaped from are higher up the lists than some other I didn’t escape from, for two reasons: some of the people I was with are better at these games than others – and, as with any game, sometimes there are good performances and other days bad performances.

Coming soon to Nottingham: Logiclock

Logiclock logoIn the last day or two, a long-time “Coming soon” splash screen has been replaced by a very enticing-looking web site for an exciting-looking forthcoming exit game, Logiclock, due to open soon in Nottingham. The site’s Facebook presence suggests that the project has been under construction, or at least has existed as a name, since before this web site started, so it’s good to know that there’s been extensive development involved.

The site will open with one room, Pirates of Nottingham.

There has been a secret pirate house discovered in the heart of Nottingham which is full of treasures. Many people have tried to acquire the treasures, however the pirates have always caught them during the mischief and threw them into prison. Up until now, no one has left the pirate shelter alive. The time has come for anyone to outsmart the pirates’s leery mentality.

Intriguing. Has there really not yet been a room in the UK or Ireland with a pirate theme? Apparently not, so originality points for spotting a gap in the market. The game is for teams of 3-5 players and scheduled to last one hour. Prices have not yet been confirmed, but start at £16 per person depending upon team size. The site also hints at a second room under construction and more might yet follow.

The location is reasonably central within Nottingham, between the Victoria Centre for shopping and the Royal Centre tram stop. It’s also a couple of minutes’ walk from one of the stops of the free Centrelink electric bus service, so certainly very easy to get to. With great pleasure, there is another red “not yet open” dot in the map, and Nottingham has always been one of the most prominent gaps in the market, so this might well turn into a major player in the market. No opening date has yet been announced, but if you’re interested, start following the site’s social media. Perhaps there’ll be some opening discounts too!