Everything this site “knows” about running an exit game, from never having run one

Latest update: version 0.2.6, published March 2015. © Chris M. Dickson. Many thanks to those site operators and contributors who have provided their thoughts in response. Feel free to link to this document; please contact regarding reproduction rights for this document.

Note that this document was last updated in March 2015 when there were fewer than half the number of games in existence in the UK than there are today. There is much more competition now than there was then, so the chance of a new business succeeding will be much lower. Consider the guidance below to be out-of-date; it remains online for reference only.

This site gets a number of enquiries from people interested in getting into the exit games business, so for the sake of convenience, here is a brief overview. It’s a reflection of how well existing exit game sites are doing that so many people want to follow in their path; it’s also easy to see a site that has attracted startlingly good reviews within a very short space of time, has become booked out for days in advance, multiply the number of teams served per day by the admission price and then see pound signs flash in front of your eyes. The truth is more complicated; the only people who really get rich are the property owners to whom you pay rent (which might be a bank to which you pay your mortgage) and “it takes a lot of work to become an overnight success”.

The ground rules

This site does not accept adverts or other commercial considerations; it receives nothing in return for featuring the links on this page. It does not endorse any of the products and services mentioned below and accepts no responsibility for the consequences of using them. Nevertheless, this site wants to see the exit game industry at large flourish and offers the links and advice below in that spirit. 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 below looks positively harmful, please shout up at once.

Please note that this site currently has no interest in getting into the business of exit game operation and is not available to participate in partnerships to this regard. This site is not able to invest in any exit game projects and is not able to assist you with finding investors. At the time of publishing, this site is not aware of anyone looking to invest in somebody else’s exit game project.

Tip 0: don’t ask us

Exit Games UK takes delight in being, purely, a fan site of exit games and also related public puzzle gaming topics. This site has no experience of running a site – and, at the time of publishing, no experience of working in one either. Accordingly, this guide makes no claims at being a primary source or drawing on first-hand experience; it’s far more the result of attentiveness and codified common sense than consultancy. You’re strongly advised to contact actual operators from large and small sites in order to get their perspectives and experience as being far more useful than any advice we can offer.

It should be easy to find the relevant contact details on the specific sites. However, site operators are very busy people; sometimes their exit game is not their only business, making them busier still. The advice below may help a little if they cannot spare the time to help. Some site operators have previously suggested that they might be willing to offer mentoring or other advice; while there’s no guarantee that these offers will still be open (especially if they prove popular…) this site would be happy to make introductions between potential industry entrants and potential mentors. (See also Puzzle Break of Seattle’s Nate Martin’s reflections on his first year.)

Particularly good starting-points might include companies who are willing to sell you exit game design services, or even sell you a franchise to expand an existing exit game brand. It is possible that they may be able to supply consultancy and/or help with business plans, though this may be specifically tailored towards taking up their business. In no particular order, such companies include, but are not limited to:

This site also thoroughly recommends researching the growing academic literature on the topic for a theoretical background – for instance, the MIT Game Lab has a few posts about it already and may well have reason to study the genre much more over time, and Dr. Scott Nicholson is working in the field as well. (This link might well change if his early research leads to published work, but at the time of going to press, he has a white paper with some preliminary findings available, which is a must-read to compare global practice.)

Is running an exit game right for you?

Starting a business will always require a certain depth of pocket. Exit game businesses are more expensive than those in some other industries, but cheaper than those in many other industries. As a very rough rule of thumb, you might expect to spend around the cost of a new car to get started. That’s deliberately very vague; while you can buy a new car for under £10,000, it’ll be clear to everyone that you’ve taken a cheap option. Now there’s nothing wrong with a good value car, but you won’t find many taxi businesses based around them when part of the appeal is a certain sense of style.

The approximate cost of the most popular new cars may be a reasonable starting-point to consider – and, as tempting and as sensible as it is to add on the alloy wheels, the metallic paint and the parking sensor at a few hundred extra pounds a time, there will be at least as many entirely justifiable bells and whistles you can add to your exit game project. On top of that, you should expect that the first months of opening may well not cover the ongoing costs of operating. A site that manages to get revenues equivalent to a hundred teams paying full price per month, within three months, is doing considerably better than most. (It’s been done faster, especially in London, but many sites take a lot longer than that, even while displaying other strong signs of success.)

As a minimum, when you’re pricing up your exit game project, line items on your budget are likely to include building labour costs (quite possibly including foreman and surveyor as well as builders), building material costs, electricians’ costs, rent, business rates, water, electric bills, public liability insurance, deposit on the property, electronics, staff costs (not just salary but National Insurance and these days also pension), accountancy, buying all the puzzles and furniture and having replacements on hand so that they might be deployed quickly. Be sure to specifically budget for marketing, especially if you’re moving into a market with established competition.

Additionally, you need to consider whether you have the right skills and personality to be a site operator. Enjoying playing exit games is a necessary condition, but far from a sufficient one! The following checklist might get you started. You don’t need to tick all the boxes yourself, but the more gaps you have in your skillset, the more you may need to consider getting outside help, which won’t come for free.

  • A sound grounding in business to follow legal requirements.
  • Practical handywork skills for both construction and repairs.
  • Comfort with computer hardware and software.
  • Willingness to work very… long… hours…
  • The patience of a saint with a bad team – or, worse, a team who might break the props on which you spent good money.
  • Sufficiently outgoing nature to spend lots of time and effort getting the word out there about your site.

Maybe you love exit games, but running a site isn’t for you? This site loves exit games, but it also loves puzzle hunts, puzzle contests and all manner of other puzzle games, and would much rather promote one of those done really well than an exit game done badly. It’s important to set players’ expectations accurately either way, but running a game that isn’t a commercial exit game will mean that you don’t have to deal with certain conventions that exit game players expect. It may also suit you not to have to run things on a commercial basis and you are likely to earn great respect and adulation from running an interesting game successfully on an amateur basis. Of course, there’s still the problem of paying the bills, and not many other business models which have been shown to work. The puzzle-making industry has no right to exist; a paying puzzle-making job is a hard-earned privilege and may work best as just one aspect of a portfolio career.

One saying goes that if you want to run your own restaurant, you should get experience at working every job in a restaurant first. There would seem to be some sense in getting experience at working at somebody else’s exit game before starting your own; this site knows of at least one site operator who has done just that and speaks highly of the experience. On the other hand, the geography of the situation may make this impractical, so it’s far from essential; however, there would be sense in paying a slight premium to hire someone with experience.

This site would recommend spending an hour and a quarter watching Portland’s 60 Minutes to Escape who made a brilliant presentation at the Adventure Design Group about the design process and creative decisions that went into their first room, Spark of Resistance. The 60 Minutes to Escape people have an extremely wide range of skills, arising from a broad base of different, vaguely related, experiences. Additionally, their approach of treating it first and foremost as a passion project has served them well, though it may not be right for everybody. It’s very clear that there is an immense amount of love, as well as relevant experience and thought, that went into that project. The team behind the site is one of the largest that this site has encountered, but they come across in the presentation as really lovely (and the two with UK connections were just as lovely in real life)!

There are a couple of case studies with hard data. The Spark of Resistance talk above suggests a real-world price barely into five digits of US dollars. However, the talk emphasises how low rents are in Portland, where the site was established, and also how many people there were working on the site, how many different skills each of them brought and how used they all are to working on artistic projects on very low budgets. (See, for instance, Room Escape Artist’s comments for an independent view as to just how well the room turned out.)

On the other hand, the Kickstarter for Enigma Escape quotes a real-world price in the upper five digits of UK pounds, noting the prestige of their location, the height of the rent they have to pay and local prices for the construction that they have engaged. There’s no right and wrong approach here – there’s no data to compare how much the ongoing labour and other expenses are, and how much revenue the two sites attract.

Is it a good time to get into the industry?

This site thinks so, noting the extent to which games have changed and developed already as the genre has expanded over the last year and a half, and considering the extent to which it might be expected to change further over time. Dealing with two possible objections here:

Are exit games a fad?

This site likes the saying “poker is a fad… and has been since 1870”. Games will grow and wane in popularity. Poker arguably peaked in around 2006, but seems to be coming on strong again in 2013-14. By contrast, bridge was probably more popular and mainstream in the 1930s than poker has ever been, but its popularity is fading over time as its player base ages and ages. Gin Rummy was Hollywood’s game in the 1940s and a tournament game on par with poker up to the ’70s, but now very small indeed. Nothing lasts forever, but those games which can change with the times and reinvent themselves (for instance, poker through its online boom) have more longevity.

Arguably a more direct comparison is the laser game industry, another “come and play an indoor game with fancy equipment and cool toys that you won’t get anywhere else” sort of game. This boomed in the UK in roughly 1990-1992, peaking at probably close to two hundred sites, but most of them closed within a year or two. However, the best-managed sites have survived ten, fifteen or twenty years, where business plans might have been based around them lasting for three or five. The industry has quietly but steadily grown once again, with more manufacturers than ever before, though the majority of them are struggling to serve more than a couple of centres, and LaserArena suggests that there are well past a hundred sites once more.

If you consider that technology has advanced and cheapened to the point where even some kids’ soft play centres can afford their own very simple laser game setups, arguably the industry is now bigger and better than ever before, even compared to its initial boom. Yet people have been playing for 20+ years, so the novelty of the genre as a general-purpose leisure activity must surely have gone by now for very many, and surely many sites must rely on business from birthday parties. If that could be a future for the exit game industry, it wouldn’t be at all a bad one.

There are (possibly surprising?) similarities between the birthday party model and the corporate group model, though a certain sort of upmarket appearance is necessary to attract companies, especially companies rich enough to take your opportunities seriously. A company willing to pay, especially a business rate, to take over the site for a whole day may be much better business than trying to scrap to fill timeslots one at a time.

Is it too late to get into the market?

Only one site can be the first in the UK, but at the time of publishing, there are still some large chunks of the country where you could still have the first site in the region, and many major cities where you could still have the first site in town. There is likely to be an element where the earliest bird catches the most worms (perhaps, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch will never sustain two competing businesses) but there are still a great many fertile markets yet untapped and more only partially tapped.

There is a theory that a reasonable proportion of people with the time and money to spend playing an exit game are likely to be tourists on holiday, thus cities which attract more tourists are likely to have more players, particularly over time. More subtly, perhaps any large city can supply people willing to play during evenings, weekends and school holidays (indeed, many US exit games deliberately only open during evenings – often, only a few evenings per week – and at weekends) but it takes tourists to fill up the morning and afternoon slots on weekdays. Mind you, with all due respect, you would hardly think of Warrington as a tourist destination by itself and Clue HQ based there is having no difficulty at all selling out through long weekdays.

If anything, as time goes by, it seems to be becoming easier and easier for centres to hit the ground running. There’s an extent to which the more successful centres are in towns far away, the more famous and popular the industry becomes by repute, and the more people are likely to have heard of and welcome the concept straight away when it comes to a new town, rather than being unfamiliar with it and needing full explanation. (At the time of writing, exit games are the #1 TripAdvisor activities in Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Warrington and Macclesfield – and until a recent TripAdvisor change, they were the #1 attractions in London and Manchester as well.) This site firmly believes that a rising tide in the industry raises all boats.

There will come a point where different cities’ markets become saturated, but finding it won’t be as simple as establishing a rule of thumb like “one site per million/half-million/75,000 population in the conurbation”. The Budapest metro area, population 3-4 million, is currently supporting 65+ sites as of November 2014, and even that is a number that has (net) risen by 20 in the last nine months. Canadian weblogs put the number of sites in the greater Toronto area alone (population about 6 million) at close to 30, with plenty more under construction, and Chinese sites estimate the number in Beijing (population maybe 11 million) at 167 or “over 200”. This site feels that it would take bravery to say that even London could reach those sorts of numbers, but if Singapore (population 5½ million) can reach 13 sites then that, at least, seems realistic.

Putting some very rough numbers on it, this site would expect to see some degree of slowdown once the UK reaches 40 sites – and, considering the number of sites that are known to be in the works, if you’re starting from scratch now (i.e. January 2015) then you’re unlikely to open before, say, number 40 or number 45 – would expect to issue a metaphorical amber “your proposed site needs a distinctive location or a distinctive reason to exist” alert if/when the UK reaches perhaps 70-80 sites, and would expect to issue a metaphorical red “something has probably gone wrong and your proposed site now needs to be very very special in order to exist” alert if/when the UK reaches 100-120 sites.

That said, if it’s important to you to be on the bleeding edge of a craze, this site reckons that 2015 (and maybe 2016) will be the year of the cat café. The most famous cat café books out so far in advance – literally months ahead – that there must be room for a great many entrants to that market as well. (Addendum: this site has nothing but good things to say about Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium and Lauren who runs it. She is so kind and so happy… honestly, if you really, truly love cats, and you have the sufficient skills to look after them and to run a business, forget the exit games and run a cat café instead. The adage “do what you love and you’ll never have to work another day in your life” has never been truer. This is not suggested as a soft option in any way; it’s got to be much more emotionally demanding work at the very least, because you are looking after living beings and caring for their health, rather than just simply overseeing a bunch of inanimate puzzles, but can someone love exit games as much as cat people love cats?)

Three of the keys to success

Based on e-mail with site operators, exit game reviews posted to the public and other perceptions, here are three important factors in making your exit game a success. All three are extremely important; the ranking might be a little arbitrary. Possibly counter-intuitively, these will be presented in perceived ascending order of importance.

#3: the room itself

At time of publishing, the vast majority of exit game players have only played a single game; there will be an extent to which that the extent to which they love the experience arises from the novelty of encountering the genre for the first time. Accordingly, it may be a while before the majority of players are first and foremost discerning over the specific contents of the room. The contents of the room certainly are an important factor, but perhaps a #3 factor rather than a #1 factor.

More specifically, to adjust a possibly familiar adage, “cool toys for show, reliability for dough”. Giving people the chance to see something, or to play with something that they may not have experienced before, is the sort of thing which turns a four-star review into a five-star review, but so many participants are so unfamiliar with the genre that many participants may set the bar lower than you might expect. Cool toys are also relatively likely to be easily broken, or expensive to replace, or to be so complex that people won’t be able to figure them out without specifically having instructions given to them.

Conversely, featuring contents that don’t work is a good way to break teams’ suspension of disbelief, or at least snap them out of the story, turning players off and give them a reason to worsen their review. (Be sure that repairs or replacements between games are routine, or that convincing workarounds exist when repairs cannot be put in place.) There is room for both high-end and lower-end games, possibly with price discrimination between the two, but many sites may find it better to do a good job of dealing with relatively unsophisticated equipment than a less good job of dealing with the most complicated equipment.

There is no definitively optimal degree of difficulty for an exit game. The original Real Escape Game‘s organisers had a variety of games with success rates being low single-digit percentages, and that didn’t stop players coming back time and time again. It may be the case that different countries have different degrees of tolerance for the beautiful defeat rather than the ugly victory. Nevertheless, at least some UK centres make a virtue of the difficulty of their game and do not appear to have struggled as a result, suggesting that there is room in the market for a variety of levels of difficulty.

A related issue, though, is the issue of how to organise hinting: how many hints to offer and under what circumstances. Again, there are a variety of approaches and no definitely optimal one, much as different players have different preferences and place different levels of importance on victory. This site has written on the subject previously, and an approach that permitted flexibility to cope with different teams’ preferences seems like good practice.

It may be tempting to have a room that is designed so that players can stand a realistic chance of solving it completely without hints; there is a risk that this may require lowering the level of content to a point where the best teams can power through massively more quickly than the time allowed. Such a quick finish may be anticlimactic if the most exciting conclusions are the ones where the time pressure is most keenly felt at the end – and there’s an argument that the perceived value for money may suffer as well if people finish a nominally hour-long game in well under half an hour.

A large part of the immersiveness of a game comes from the strength to which you can trigger reactions from players’ senses. Accordingly, while people will pay attention to the way the contents of an extent room looks, it’s a good trick to pull off if you can to be evocative with background sounds. (Perhaps a gentle soundtrack with a subtly accelerating rhythm may help convey a sense of haste.) Smells could be harder still. This site has not yet seen people try to pull this off with taste as well but the notion is there to be tried. All of these could contribute towards getting people to buy into the story; for some people, story is a big part of the experience, whereas for others, it’s less important.

As the number of competitors increases, a distinctive name and theme will become more important. There are already many sites with similar names as it is, which risks confusion. Check this site’s list of exit games for inspirations, and also the other directories which exist; the Escape Room Directory also details room names which will give you more of a clue as to what themes can be done, or might be becoming overdone. One way to make the theme of your room distinctive is to give it some local flavour, which cannot be replicated nearly so authentically elsewhere.

In board game design, one frequently-asked question of designers is whether the theme dictates the mechanics in their games or whether the mechanics are laid down first and the appropriate theme for the mechanics found later. Both approaches are valid and games arising from both philosophies can prove popular. A similar dilemma applies for exit games, though Prof. Scott Nicholson is quoted (at the MIT Game Lab escape room Game Jam) as saying “Don’t start with the puzzle, start with the core player experience and narrative frame that informs the mechanics“.

At time of publishing, this site has only yet seen one negative press story about an exit game. In the Toronto area, one of the dozens of sites which exist thought it would be cute to set a room in a depiction of a mental hospital. Someone with experience of such a hospital was offended by the site playing to an old and inaccurate stereotype, fearing that it might inaccurately stigmatise people with mental health issues, and complained, getting the site bad publicity. (Other sites around the world have used similar themes, too.) When 1 in 4 of us will have mental health issues in any particular year, this would be a very quick way to turn people off. Please don’t contribute to that ever happening in the UK.

If you’re up for some dark voodoo, the sanctity of the clock many not be as paramount as you might expect. It’s not clear if this is a technique actually in use, but it could be interesting to have a clock where not all the seconds ticked down were a whole second long. People will be watching the clock for the first few seconds of the game so trickery at the very start would be easily spotted, but conceivably having a clock that ran slightly faster than real time might hurry the players up just a shade and get them into the frantic nature of the game.

The advantage of short time units early in the game would be that the last seconds on the clock could be ever so slightly longer than real seconds, as people will amaze themselves with quite how much they manage to pack into their last nominal minute or two, creating a memorable conclusion. When you see a pro basketball game, in the last minute of each half, the clocks will not just display whole seconds but also tenths of seconds. This might surely add to the drama and might be worth emulating.

Now some subtlety would be needed in this; if people spot that you’re engaging in clock malpractice, however benign, it may cause ill feeling. Alternatively, a way to head off accusations of malpractice could be to have some authentic-feeling countdown device that explicitly wasn’t a clock that counted seconds, but counted down some other unit at the rate of your choice, as appropriate for your game universe. (“There are only 60 litres of oxygen, and they will be gone in 60 minutes” doesn’t have to mean that they all run out at the rate of one litre per minute; if players want to assume litres translate directly to minutes, that would be up to them.)

#2: customer service

Legend has it that one of the early laser game sites had a manager who insisted on performing all the game explanations himself. He would start “Hello, my name is Barry Bastard, and I live up to my name”. (Maybe something ruder still.) He would then proceed to shoot the players, purely for his own amusement, while they were playing the game. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with someone playing the character of a pantomime villain given appropriate context, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that site didn’t last long.

It may be instructive to look through popular review sites and see why popular and successful exit games do pick up a small proportion of negative, or even only relatively negative, reviews. There are some people out there who cast grudge votes, often grudge votes against the concept of the exit game concept being as popular as it actually is. However, the complaints are frequently not about the game itself but about the service they received; excellent service and an uninspired room beats uninspired service and an excellent room in the vast majority of cases, particularly for less experienced players who may be better-placed to get a feel for whether they found the service welcoming but who may not know a great room from a merely good one.

While mistakes can and do happen, err on the side of graciousness above and beyond the call of duty in dealing with them to avoid rather stinky-looking bad reviews. Asking the aggrieved party what they want to happen, then making it happen, is such a rare and customer-friendly level of service that it can smooth over ruffled feathers remarkably well and turn a potential bad memory into a good one. For instance, if you’ve double-booked yourself and both parties turn up, could you pay for one of them to play at another site (or to go to the movies, or to go out for a good meal…) and for a taxi to get them there, send them a handwritten letter of apology and then still honour the moved party’s original booking at a later date? It wouldn’t be a cheap lesson for you to learn, but it would be the sort of impressive customer service that could be talked about favourably. Also compare it to the way that airlines deal with overbooked flights.

It’s key to set players’ expectations accurately. If people are going to be booking online and finding out about your site online, your online presence can go a long way towards not just intriguing potential players but preparing them for the game they are about to play. Your online presence, combine with your in-person explanation of the game, should convey a sense of difficulty, yet make people feel OK about failing. It may be easier for staff to make players feel good about themselves when their team has won than when their team has not, but a well-defined sense of partial progress may permit a qualified happy ending. Some sites use the technique of letting some teams play on after the deadline so that they can enjoy completing the game even if technically they have lost by not quite completing it in time.

The basics: set up an environment where whoever is answering the phone can use their excellent telephone manner. (Quoting a mobile phone number and carrying the mobile 24/7 makes this harder, though you may prefer it to having voicemail.) Everyone related to the business should be polite. There should be lots of smiling and many compliments, but they both have to be meaningful; use whole-face smiles, and give perceptive, specific compliments where they’re appropriate.

Customer service starts by making an excellent first impression by having a web site that’s easy to find, easy to navigate, fills you with confidence (check your spelling, grammar, appearance and tone) and makes it easy to book. The next “first impression” moment starts with a warm welcome as soon as the teams enter the building – and, in a mixed-use building, the one after that starts with a warm welcome when the teams enter your space.

A well-done briefing can go a long way towards establishing the atmosphere – and, at its finest, is much more than a one-way street. The reason you set out ground rules is to tell the team what your expectations are from them. However, particularly as you become more familiar with the process of giving the briefing, you might be able to pay attention to what the teams are saying and doing and thus find out what their expectations are from you. Going further, perhaps this is your best – maybe only? – opportunity to find out what’s important to them at that moment in time, and perhaps this might even more effectively be done in the small talk before the briefing even begins. Some questions to consider might include:

  • Has the team played this game before?
  • Has the team played any exit game before?
  • How important is it to them that they win?
  • Do they fancy their chances?
  • What aspects of the game might they most expect to enjoy and might be emphasised?
  • Do they come across as clearly confident and smart?
  • Is there anyone whose special event it is and might perhaps deserve to have more of the attention or heroics steered their way?
  • Conversely, is there anyone who would prefer to remain in the shade to some extent?
  • Is there anything that might be emphasised in the debriefing at the end?
  • At the most basic level, do the team come across as just plain sober, or do you need to keep a particular eye on whether they even need to be playing at all or not?

Help the teams feel smart; don’t say or do anything that might make the teams feel chided for their struggles – and if players are having a bad day, they can misinterpret even off-hand remarks and take them as criticism where none was intended. The parenting adage of “Catch them doing something right and give them praise for it” applies surprisingly closely. All this needs to happen even when you, or your staff members, are having a bad day.

Feedback from your customers is a gift when you can get it, no matter whether it is positive, negative or (especially helpfully) a mixture of the two; accept it attentively and with gratitude, even if you disagree with it, even if there are reasons why it’s objectively wrong. How your customers perceive your game is a measure of how it really is, to them, and that’s more important than how it really is, to you, because they’re the ones paying you for it.

If you have gone to great lengths to put certain subtleties in place which are missed by everyone, perhaps they have been ineffective. (On the other hand, some subtleties should be designed to be effective and yet go unnoticed, particularly when it comes to safety and making safe working practice automatic.) Enabling a way for people to give feedback that isn’t face-to-face at the point of contact is valuable; some people may be too rushed, unconfident or introverted to say it there and then, but their points of view are still valid.

Some sites are much more effective than others at getting their customers to get the word out, or to review the site in public. At least one site embeds a TripAdvisor widget into their own web site, which helps convert experiences into reviews. (It does mean that the reviews come tagged with “Review collected in partnership with this attraction: This business uses online tools and resources provided by TripAdvisor to encourage and collect reviews (including this one) from its guests” notices, but that’s no problem.) At least one site takes photos of teams in sight of signs saying “We’re new! Please review us on TripAdvisor and help spread the word”, which does seem to be effective. At least one site proactively contacts every customer and asks them for feedback at a later point; there may or may not be a connection here, but it gets not just excellent reviews but converts an unusually high number of teams into enthusiastic reviewers.

You will have to take on staff to run the games at some point. Be sure to recruit only those who care more about people than they do about the games, and be sure to reward them sufficiently to retain them. (This isn’t just in terms of rates of pay; it’s in terms of respect, fair treatment, reasonable conditions and maybe even career development.) They should expect to find it hard work, though perhaps more draining emotionally than physically. That said, it should be far more pleasant than plenty of other hard jobs – and, hopefully, the vast majority of people they’ll be dealing with will be happy and having a good time. Being able to deal with people who aren’t happy as well as people who are is essential.

People will tell very quickly when they’re being talked down to, and people wouldn’t pay good money to play an exit game if they didn’t want to be challenged. Accordingly, a gifted victory is no sort of victory at all and will feel bad all around. On the other hand, nobody loves Barry Bastard. Perhaps the difficult balancing act is to read the personalities (…or at least the ages?) of the players and find out how important the victory is to them, relative to a game well played, and draw the line accordingly; the customer is right surprisingly frequently, especially when there aren’t other customers watching.

Location

Location is a customer service issue. First impressions count, and they may be set by your online presence, then set again by the process of finding your site, well before the process of getting inside and starting to play takes place. The exit game industry is not really predicated around walk-up business, so the priority for the shop front might better be clarity and ease of identification than beauty. (“Intriguing” is a good look, though; be sure to make it easy for those who are intrigued to find your online presence so they can learn more.) People do sometimes criticise sites for being difficult to find and the last leg of the journey is often the most difficult.

As for where to position your site, ease of access is important for converting marginal customers who might be put off by a relatively tricky journey. You’ll know the extent to which public transport is a big factor in your city, and the extent to which parking is problematic. The journey is part of the experience so an evocative journey to reach the location is definitely a bonus if you can manage it. A relatively insalubrious part of a well-suited area may be better than the best part of a difficult-to-reach area, but an area sufficiently downmarket that people feel unsafe or don’t feel happy waiting there (…because of who else is there…) may leave a sour taste in the mouth.

While the tradition in Hungary was for sites to be in, or even beneath, ruined pubs, some UK customers sometimes criticise sites for the roughest standards of decor. (You might be able to create an atmosphere where some degree of “lumping it” feels authentic, but this is easy to spot.) In particular, customers relatively frequently criticise sites for the standards of their toilets, which is a customer service issue at its most fundamental. Some customers have criticised staff for the state of their waiting areas. Making the waiting areas as comfortable and fun as possible may also positively affect players’ opinions.

Mixed use buildings, such as office blocks with multiple occupiers, are well worth considering if the price is right. They are likely to be well-situated, may be able to deal with some of these physical plant issues and might even have other useful facilities on-site. They may well also be able to permit you to expand relatively easily should your business warrant it; settling for a location that limits you to one team at once really puts a hard cap on your potential revenues, and a location that limits you to two teams at once may not be all that much better. On the other hand, mixed use buildings may make it harder for people to be sure from outside that they’ve got the right place, or to be able even to get into the building to play your game.

Finding the right location is one of the most major challenges of setting up; the bigger your proposed site, the more precise the necessary fit, and the longer you can expect to take to find your location. (Even someone who’s been through the process before and knows exactly what they’re looking for, from the benefit of having learned from their mistakes, can take several months to find the right place for their second location.) You’ll know if you’ve had to settle and whether you can live with the consequences of your settling.

One major factor to consider is that of planning laws. Does the building you are considering for your location have the appropriate permission for an exit game? Might planning permission be required for any changes you need to make? Might “Change of Use” applications be required outright? This site isn’t an expert on the matter and this is one that you cannot afford to get wrong, so this guide will emphasise that it’s well worth paying for local expertise on this matter and that nothing in this document constitutes legal advice. This can represent a financial outlay, but also might represent a very slow step in the process; perhaps you might think in terms of allowing three months to obtain the right appropriate approvals, unless you know otherwise.

England and Scotland have different use classes from each other for buildings that you may be considering, and quite possibly Wales and Northern Ireland may have different local legislation again. There is no reason to expect Ireland’s planning laws to resemble the UK ones. Even within a country, different local councils may well have different priorities and different interpretations of the same sets of planning laws. Delays in the regard of obtaining planning permission can be very considerable – especially when councils may not be familiar with the sort of business you are trying to establish and how it might be categorised into an appropriate use class.

Failing to obtain planning permission where it is required, or not complying with any conditions that are imposed as part of planning permission that is granted, may constitute a planning breach. Your council may or may not permit retrospective planning permission, which may or may not be granted. In the worst case, if planning permission is not granted, an enforcement notice might be served against you to return the building as it was, which could put your entire business at risk. Refusing to comply with an enforcement notice (especially if you have appealed against it and lost the appeal) may leave you open to prosecution.

Safety is a major issue. Every business, no matter how small, must comply with the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which requires a health and safety policy – though, if you have fewer than five employees, it need not be written down. Employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety Information for Employees Regulations to display the approved Health and Safety Law poster in a prominent position in each workplace, or to provide each worker with a copy of the approved leaflet (available as a free download) that outlines British health and safety law. Again, this guide does not aim to provide a full overview of safety requirements, but when the checklist towards the top suggested that you need “A sound grounding in business to follow legal requirements” in your set of skills, this is one of the most crucial areas to cover in your research.

#1: marketing

The exit games hierarchy of needs might look something like:

              /\
             /  \
            /Cool\
           / Toys \
          /--------\
         /  Relia-  \
        /   bility   \
       /--------------\
      /    Customer    \
     /     Service      \
    /--------------------\
   /   M A R K E T I N G  \
  /________________________\

The most basic fundamentals are at the bottom. Cool toys are no good if they don’t work; the best room doesn’t matter if the players feel badly treated by the customer service; having great customer service doesn’t matter if the marketing isn’t right and so people don’t know you exist, or can’t find you. Any site, no matter how successful, can stand to become more successful still by making their marketing more effective.

Unfortunately, marketing is difficult; people make considerable money from being good at it and it’s not a bad background for exit game site operators to come from. The main advice this guide can offer is to try lots of different things and see what works, and that even the most successful site operators are likely not to be spending enough resources marketing their site. Search engine optimisation is an industry all of its own.

Online presence and social media are major parts of an exit game marketing campaign, because so many potential participants are the sorts of smart, hip young gunslingers who are likely to be able to be reached that way – and to contribute towards getting your word out that way. Many of the sites that have hit the ground running most quickly are the ones who have been most successful at getting their social media presence established, even well before the physical site has opened. “Riddle of the day” / “puzzle of the day” campaigns are fairly frequent, though often not long-lasting. Encouraging people to tag their friends as potential teammates, in order to get your content out through them, seems to work if you can pull it off. Publicising other people talking about your business seems to work well too.

There is a tradition of taking team photos and posting them online, to the point where this is probably now an expected part of the experience. Normally this will be accompanied by branding for your company; it’s possible to do this classily and atmospherically, or also less well. (Some US sites expect their unsuccessful teams to hold up some quite aggressive signs about their defeat. This is surely not best practice.) Some sites tie this in with optional costuming activities, which is a good way to add value. (If you’ve seen it several times, it might feel like a bit of a cliché, but most people won’t have seen it several times yet.) Some games’ atmospheres will lend themselves to such costuming more naturally than others, and so some forms of costuming will feel more fresh, and thus be more likely to be shared by customers through their own social media, than others.

Social media are necessary but not sufficient for getting the word around. Some sites have done very well with striking up partnerships with other local businesses for cross-promotion purposes. Prioritise getting to know other businesses and events with a connection to games and puzzles; if someone’s interested in taking part in a treasure hunt, they’re likely to enjoy hearing that your business exists, so this may be a good sort of event to sponsor. Likewise, it may be worth advertising within games clubs, games groups and at games conventions.

Even old-fashioned local business poster campaigns have their place. Traditional forms of media are worth contacting to get the word around: local newspapers, magazines, radio and even TV in this day and age of hyper-local “Channel 8” stations are likely to enjoy an invitation as offering distinctive content for them to share. There is some sense in distributing early freebies to those well-placed to spread the word. (You don’t need to send any here; this site will give you as much publicity as it can and doesn’t take freebies.)

One tactic that people sometimes use is offering discounts. There are a number of schools of thought here. One extreme is that people love what they perceive to be a bargain; certain furniture stores and pizza chains are notorious for featuring almost constant sales to the point where you know that you’re doing something wrong if you’re paying full price. Another extreme is that such an approach devalues the product and people will choose to wait for later vouchers and sales if you have conditioned them to their regular existence. A middle ground is to offer discounts that are available only when the site is less popular, probably weekdays and daytimes. (In theory, could there be the scope to take this further and offer airline-style dynamic pricing?)

There are a variety of approaches to make discounts happen. One frequent technique is the use of social buying sites such as Groupon, Wowcher and LivingSocial. These are rightly notoriously expensive for the operator; not only might you offer a 60% discount, the social buying site will take another hefty slice, leaving the operator with little revenue. (On the other hand, they need you as much as you need them and so there may be room for negotiation.) On the other hand, they will get the word out to a great many customers very quickly, many of the vouchers sold may not be used, which translates pretty directly to money for nothing, and search engines seem to love them. Your social buying deal may expire but the search engines’ links to it may not, meaning that a small campaign may be worth the expense.

Any site that is confident enough in its product and brave enough to enact a “if you don’t like the game, you don’t have to pay” policy will have what is both a remarkable customer service coup and a remarkable marketing coup on their hands, particularly the first site to try it. Have a look through the rest of this site’s business-themed articles for other suggestions and see if there are ideas you like.

Once you’ve got your site set up and people visiting, there are tasteful ways to maximise your revenue. If you have a comfortable area for the debriefing, perhaps people may want to wait around afterwards and may well wish to buy drinks. If you can provide other activities or reasons to stay, again you may be able to get people to remain on your premises. A team who is flushed with success from their victory may be in a relatively spendy mood for further discretionary purchases. Merchandising can be tastefully done and is likely to be popular with those who enjoy the game, being a further marketing tool to display to those they meet.

Some sites sell physical puzzles and board games, which seems to be a good fit. One site in Canada combines an exit game with a board game café (where you can borrow board games to play on the premises, taking advantage of the food and drink on offer while you play) which seems like an excellent and natural combination, but there’s a fine line to tread before you end up running both an exit game business and a food service business, with all the extra regulation (particularly regarding food hygiene). At least one UK location makes this work well; it may be a route to explore if you’re coming from a food service background. Perhaps vending machines might be a good compromise for many sites, and there might even be the scope for the inclusion of other coin-operated machines as well.

Good practice

Many exit games, whether extremely successful or less so, include unique examples of good practice that might be worth considering for adoption by other sites. On the other hand, some of them require a particular set of circumstances that will not generally be available. For instance, you may find it hard to site an exit game within an actual prison cell, as Jailbreak! does, unless you run a historical attraction based around that prison already.

While this document will not attempt to find one particular item of good practice from every single site (so if your site isn’t listed below, please don’t think that you are not highly rated!) and does not claim that the listed sites are at all unique in following such good practice, here are some examples that stand out and are worth considering:

  • Bath Escape not only offers exit rooms, but also detective tours. Surely there would be very strong overlap between people who are interested in one and people interested in the other, plus the latter will permit more games to be offered without a massive expansion in site size and rent.
  • Escap3d offered complimentary soft drinks for a while, which is a good way to give a good lasting impression if actually selling the drinks is not on the cards. Their one-week pop-up show at a local theatre will also get the word out extremely effectively.
  • The Great Escape Game offer players complimentary locker space so that their belongings might be stored while teams are playing the game.
  • Clue HQ keep track of the number of successful and unsuccessful teams, chalking up each team as a tally on the appropriate board, providing a real-time up-to-date measurement of each room’s difficulty.
  • Make A Break only ever referred to people as having performed an escape, in under 60 minutes, or a “near escape”, crediting them for a time of a little over 60 minutes. That’s a way to provide a happy ending, even if not one within the stated time limit.
  • Many sites offer guest books, and guest book comments can make for great social media content, but the GR8escape team name graffiti wall is an unusual and clever twist.
  • Each Escape site keeps track of the record time for escaping each of its rooms and celebrates record-breakers. That’s a tasteful implementation of the principle, but it’s possible to go too far and get people to take things too seriously, especially if there are prizes on the line. On the other hand, records are fun, and having different (sets of?) records for teams of different sizes may lead to a higher chance that the records will be broken, which adds to the fun.
  • The Gr8 Escape change their rooms very frequently and are possibly the most proactive in performing experiments like offering rooms targeted towards kids, offering more hints for kids playing the rooms and offering packages tailored round kids’ parties, all of which seem worth a try.
  • Cyantist feature an online escape-the-room game on their web site, which seems like an excellent way to get the principle across.
  • Similarly, many sites feature introductory videos on their web sites, but few of them are as effective at setting the off-balance, creepy atmosphere as that of Locked In Games, in keeping with the theming of their games.
  • Breakout Manchester have the best branded background wall in the business for team photos, have a brilliantly locally-themed room in Madchester and also have been particularly active striking deals with stag and hen party companies.
  • HintHunt struck publicity gold by teaming up with the LV= Love Life campaign and the Joe Blogs Network to get 20 popular, cool bloggers to come in and play their game. The positive writeups flowed freely. Bloggers can do that for you, and often generate inbound links highly rated by search engines, but this was an unusually successful way to get many of them at once. Another example was nuffnang’s birthday celebration which invited ten bloggers to, among other places, clueQuest. (Remember, this site doesn’t take freebies, so you don’t need to offer them to us.)
  • Escape Rooms agreed to be one of the locations for a door in a wall‘s A Stab in the Dark walking tour murder mystery game and thus earned exposure to 1800+ potential players who had already proved themselves willing to pay £30/player for some brainy, thematic, adventurous fun.
  • There’s an argument that clueQuest have the most effective brand in at least UK exit games because their Mr. Q is the most effective character in a field with little competition. Both their games and their ongoing social media develop an ongoing game universe based around him, though it’s important that their two games can be played in either order for storyline purposes.
  • LockIn Escape do a particularly good job at helping people find which of their rooms is right for them by not just quoting a single difficulty level for their rooms but also offering additional statistics suggesting the sorts of skills that are most emphasised in each room.
  • More to be added later.