Breakout City is on edge. A serial kidnapper is terrorizing the town, snatching my neighbors from the airport, the park, and the mall. He’s taken four so far, and my partner and I are determined to prevent a fifth, so we track the sadistic bastard to a seedy roadside motel. But somehow he knew we were coming, and the next thing we know, we’re trapped in a windowless room with an hour to escape.
The madman likes to play games. He has placed clues that could help us escape inside locked drawers and scrawled on notepads; he even hid one on the label of an empty shampoo bottle. In his gravelly voice, he issues a warning through the walls and initiates a countdown. We’re less worried now about saving his victims than becoming them.
We pull back sheets, throw open cabinets, and yank magnetized posts off a bed frame. Five padlocks clearly need to be opened, but how? And what do those faded markings on the wall mean? Desperate, I crane my neck toward the ceiling and ask for a clue.
A few rooms away, an employee of Breakout Louisville is watching our every move. She suggests we look at the sides of those bedposts, where we find a number that unlocks our first drawer. The situation is tense, but it’s no more real than the hotel room itself, where the water faucets don’t work.
Breakout Louisville is one of the thousands of escape room complexes that have opened in the United States in the past few years. The interior offices of this former insurance agency have been converted into a haunted mansion, a train planted with explosives, and other creepy set pieces where young couples, puzzle addicts, and corporate cogs pay around $30 a head to break out of rooms they’ve volunteered to be been locked in. Along the way, they solve problems, decipher clues, and answer riddles, each getting them a little closer to emerging a winner. Losers are also allowed to leave the room, but without the sense of accomplishment.
“That [MarketWatch] article was kind of a disaster for escape rooms, because it framed up this whole industry as one giant get-rich-quick scheme.”
In the past four years, the escape room industry has grown from about two dozen U.S. facilities to more than 2,300, according to David and Lisa Spira, who scrupulously monitor the industry on their blog, Room Escape Artist. Traditionally, most are standalone mom-and-pop shops opened by hopeful entrepreneurs when the trend peaked in 2015 and 2016. But in 2018, the game is changing: Larger firms are opening more rooms, and many small-time operators are being pushed out of an increasingly competitive market. Four years of explosive growth has led to a shakeout, and novelty is no longer enough in an industry whose future as more than a fad appears to be in question.
“It’s no longer the absolute Wild West that it was,” David Spira says. “Four years ago, which is ancient history in escape room terms, it was common for escape room companies to open up with less than $29,000 in the bank, a dream, and some moxie. That’s who were driving the initial growth.”
Many, he says, were inspired by a 2015 MarketWatch article baring the enticing headline “The Unbelievably Lucrative Business of Escape Rooms.” The article itself wasn’t quite as high on the guaranteed success the headline would imply, but it nonetheless inspired an untold number of entrepreneurs who saw an easy way to get paid.
“That article was kind of a disaster for escape rooms, because it framed up this whole industry as one giant get-rich-quick scheme, and it could have been viewed as that before that article, but the article itself led to this land grab by so many different people who had no idea what they’re doing,” Spira says. They either knew a little something about puzzles but nothing about building quality sets, or the other way around. Or they knew nothing about either essential aspect of a good escape room and bought their designs and games from a vendor. The industry has matured to a point where, in the U.S. at least, if you want to get in, you have to have some serious skill to back up that desire.”