Houdini would have loved the ‘escape room’. Not exactly Harry’s style, but a professional escape artist would never turn down a challenge like this. And you? Perhaps you wonder how funny it is to spend 60 minutes locked in a room, overcome enigmas to free yourself. A lot. Eulàlia Pujades assures it, a total fan of this fashionable entertainment. “I appreciate the mental challenge, I got hooked because I wanted to see if I could solve the tests on time,” she explains. Experience is not lacking for this neighbor from Rubí (Barcelona), chemist and project manager at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). She has played 1,260 live rooms, 50 online and 120 table. «It all started one Christmas eight years ago, I tried the only escape there was, ‘Parapark Barcelona’. I was excited to experience the adventure in the first person.
Alberto Romero, promoter of this type of activity, shares the idea. “We want people to feel like they are the protagonist of a movie or a video game and have fun working as a team.” Years ago he opened the ‘Mad Manson’ room in Bilbao, when there were only two other games, in Barcelona. “We even appeared in a video report for ‘The New York Times’. I created a wink with an adventurous touch of a game that my sister gave me as a child, that differentiated us ». Now it manages, among other rooms, ‘You will also float’ (Vitoria), awarded for the best ‘escape room’ at the Escape Room Awards 2020. It dies of success, and not because the proposal is scary (which too): impossible to find a place until 2023.
A little history
The initiative to enter this voluntary ‘prison’ made into entertainment was born in Japan digitally in 2004, and in 2007 the first physical rooms opened. The anime and film director Takao Kato started with ‘Real Escape Game’. An experience for adults –many allow children–, it arrived in Europe in 2011 through Hungary thanks to Parapark. It jumped to Spain in 2012 thanks to that franchise, although it was not until 2015 when it began to gain followers. People who apply their deductive skills to solve puzzles, open locks, find keys… So faithful that their fervor has multiplied by ten the number of games in Spain from 150 (100 companies) that year to 1,500 (900 companies) in 2019 –Blogger Ken Ferguson estimated 50,000 in the world–. Not even the pandemic has managed to curb this fever: 300 did not endure the forced break, but the number has remained at pre-Covid levels. By provinces, Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia dominate in quantity.
How much money is needed?
From the ‘Escape Room Lover’ guide, Marçal Serrallonga explains that the budget to set up this type of business “is very open, but if you want a state-of-the-art one, we’re talking about 100,000 euros; the decorations are more and more surprising and that entails high investments». Designing them is not easy either. «You have to master the common thread, create attractive themes, novel riddles. Technical knowledge is needed to develop mechanisms », he adds. Unai García, from the ‘EscapeUp’ platform, maintains that “it is a long process that, even when ready, requires testing the enigmas and if the times are realistic.”
The secret: immersion
The income of these businesses depends on the number of reservations. A session involving between two and six people costs between 60 and 100 euros. They started out lasting one hour, but today some extend to two. “In 2017 they lived a golden age, the market was saturated, customers became demanding and the simplest closed,” says Serrallonga. In addition, ‘street escape’, ‘hall escape’, ‘cluedos’ and virtual reality centers have emerged. The evolution affects the decorative quality and the diversity of challenges. ‘Adventure games’ is the name of the new generation where the player feels immersed in the adventure, faced with automatically activated tests. “You have to immerse the audience in a narrative that they don’t want to get out of. It is no longer about escaping, but about living a story,” confirms Romero.
In many cases, room owners and workers coincide. “Or at least the former are part of the game creation process and day-to-day, as game master (game director) or coordinator. In general, these are businesses created by freelancers in which they try to be involved, “says García.
A study on the sector carried out by your company in 2021 confirms that the taste for mystery and adventure games of medium or high difficulty predominates. The majority age group of ‘escapers’ is between 24 and 32 years old, although 33 to 42 is also frequent. Above all, groups of four or five people sign up and 64% of customers are already fans.
Is there a future?
More than 60% of the companies consulted in the survey intend to offer new games, so it seems that way. Devotees are not lacking. «When you solve the tests it gives you a brutal adrenaline rush. It is a way of disconnecting”, defends Pujades. It has even generated escapist tourism that moves around the world. “They prepare trips based on where the most famous rooms open or looking for news,” says Serrallonga. Master Houdini said: “My mind is the key that sets me free.” Could yours do it?
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.