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14:29

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.”


The IRL escape room boom has its roots in a few popular pieces of youth culture that enjoyed a particular moment in the mid-1990s — things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and manga. But point-and-click video games, which plopped players down in confined spaces and had them search for clues in an attempt to escape, are the real primordial ooze out of which the modern escape room emerged. And Takao Kato is the man who made it happen.

In 2007, Kato began holding the first Riaru Dasshutsu Ge-mu, or Real Escape Games, in bars, restaurants and the occasional abandoned hospital around Japan. The games were a hit among twenty- and thirtysomethings and soon spread throughout Asia. Meanwhile, in 2011, Attila Gyurkovics opened Parapark in Budapest, seemingly unaware of the concept’s popularity in Japan. The Hungarian capital, birthplace of Harry Houdini, soon became an escape room hotbed.

“At 13th Gate, you feel like you’re the Goonies for an hour. They have a giant water feature. They have a giant beach in their facility.”

The United States remained largely untouched by the phenomenon, until Kato’s company got the itch to expand and opened an outpost in San Francisco. One of Kato’s customers was Nate Martin, a tech drone who spent his career working for Microsoft and Electronic Arts. Instantly smitten, Martin opened the first U.S.-run escape room in Seattle. Today, his company, Puzzle Break, operates four locations in three cities and handful of floating escape rooms aboard Royal Caribbean cruise liners.

“The boom that I helped start was one of entrepreneurial accessibility,” says Martin, whose initial investment was a mere $7,000. “A big function of why escape rooms have risen to where they are is that it didn’t cost very much at the start to get one up and running.”

Those days are over. “But that doesn’t mean the industry at large is no longer booming,” Martin says. “The speed of innovation has taken us all by surprise. The types of experiences I’m seeing and being inspired by and have to create to compete meaningfully in the global marketplace are just orders of magnitude more complex, more technologically involved, and more narratively interesting.”

One company setting itself apart is Midnight Productions, which opened 13th Gate Escape in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three years ago. An offshoot of the nationally recognized and legitimately disturbing 13th Gate Haunted House, 13th Gate Escape is composed of six larger-than-average escape rooms that plant guests in dank jail cells, among Mayan ruins, or in a rusty Nazi bunker.

“We are not your average escape room that is just an office building and each office room is an escape room,” says Stephanie Hatfield, the general manager. When she and her partner decided in 2014 to get in on the escape room business, it wasn’t just because they saw an opportunity for year-round income — the holy grail for haunted house operators — but also because they have specialized skills they could bring to the space. “What sets us apart is our scenic design,” Hatfield says.

Spira, who reviews escape rooms along with analyzing the industry on his blog, said 13th Gate is one of the best escape rooms in the country because its owners give special attention to building immersive experiences, a talent they honed with their really, truly god-awful haunted house. “Cutthroat Cavern is a Goonies adventure,” Spira says of one of the six rooms at 13th Gate. “You feel like you’re the Goonies for an hour. They have a giant water feature. They have a giant beach in their facility. They know that they are set designers first and foremost, and they do what they’re good at.”

Other companies are standing out with whizbang technology that moves beyond the combination locks and magnets that dominated the first wave of escape rooms. At Orlando’s Digital Escape Rooms, opened by a crew of Lockheed Martin alums, that means incorporating touchscreens, robotics, and wearables that made one reviewer on Facebook “feel like the alien predator controlling things from my arm band.” San Francisco–based company Reason has taken the tech integration even further, outfitting its rooms with virtual reality headsets, 3D printers, and drones.

The tech turn within some escape rooms is an ironic development for a craze built on IRL experiences. Escape rooms are having moment, Spira says, because “the act of doing something without a screen involved and with your friends and loved ones is bizarrely revolutionary.”

Martin, who considers himself an ambassador for the industry in addition to Puzzle Break’s owner, agrees. “With escape rooms, you get in your car. You leave your house. You go to a place with your friends, and you do a thing with your physical bodies and physical brains,” he says. “This represents a big shift from the rest of where entertainment is going. It’s a nice disconnected bit of fun that I don’t think people realized they had been missing.”

For some players, escape rooms aren’t about fun—they’re about increasing buy-in among team members who leverage their core competencies by working together and thinking outside the box. Yes, the corporate set has caught onto the craze as the newest fad in team building — today’s answer to the ropes courses that Gen Xers in cargo shorts navigated during the original dotcom boom. Today, companies might send their sales team to an industrial park to be shackled together in a “dungeon” made from distressed Ikea furniture.

“The act of doing something without a screen involved and with your friends and loved ones is bizarrely revolutionary.”

“Out of everything, the team-building aspect of what we do is the best thing,” says Logan Abbott, general manager of Breakout Louisville.

Abbott, who’s described as a “John Cena–looking guy” by his assistant general manager (and by himself as more of a Mick Foley–looking guy), said he’s so convinced of the team-building benefits of escape rooms that he recently took his employees to another company across town to hack their way out of a room. “It really forces people to work together and get things done,” Abbott says.

For those companies that can’t take their employees to a bloodstained bathroom, escape rooms can now come to them. Breakout and Puzzle Break make portable sets that can be installed in a hotel conference room during an annual off-site. Because, as Breakout says on its website, getting co-workers to work together “surviving a zombie invasion or figuring out how to escape from a desert island…makes for better and more productive employees.”


Still, if the industry is to survive, it will need to rely not on office workers but hardcore fans, the kind who play every room a company has, then do the same at every other facility in town, then wait impatiently for them all to refresh their offerings. These are the people who can help turn escape rooms from a novelty into a staple of modern entertainment. And they’re the people Martin is depending on to help him accomplish his ultimate goal.

“My goal, which is a challenge, is to shift the entertainment zeitgeist,” Martin says. “I want escape rooms and puzzle games and immersive entertainment to be the thing that people do for fun, not just an interesting novelty. I want it to be commonplace.”

That’s ambitious for an industry that’s often lumped in with the faded fads of yesterday, such as the dearly departed cupcake and froyo crazes. While Martin says he understands the comparisons — it’s the “explosive growth” — he thinks escape rooms will be around for a while. “The raw, uncut, adrenaline, dopamine rush of these experiences will carry it on for ages, generations, I’m sure,” he says.

Back at Breakout Louisville, the adrenaline has gripped me and my partner as the seconds tick down. We’ve unlocked a magnetic shower door, microwaved a fake TV dinner, sent a message in Morse code, and figured out a cipher that gave us a phone number that connected us to a message left by the killer. We got a lot of hints along the way. Were the situation real, we’d already be dead.

With just over two minutes left to go on the clock, there’s a breakthrough. Thanks to some frantic combination of plugging cables into a wall, turning on fans to disperse a gas attack, and triggering a recording of Tommy Tutone’s “867–5309/Jenny,” we’ve arrived at a four-digit number. I punch it into the keypad near the exit. A light turns on, indicating that the game has ended, and we walk out the door that was unlocked the entire time.