What “NOT” to do in Escape Room Design

Running an Escape Room gives an owner/designer plenty of time to solicit customer feedback.  Some folks out there that visit our establishment FOX-N-OTTER Adventure Puzzle Rooms in Asheville, NC often have visited dozens before us.  To date, the person that visited the most Escape Rooms had personally paid for, and journey’d through 93 different scenarios.  When someone like that stands in front of you, the first question you are dying to ask is:  “Which one is your favorite!”  While that answer is always given with vibrant detail, there is another answer given with the same gusto!  Enthusiasts love to share which ones are the worst!  They then detail the awful and explain what not to do in Escape Room design.

There a surely a heap of things NOT to do in Escape Room design.  Releasing a wild rabid animal onto the set, using real smoke for effect, and having players engage with props that stain their clothing are obvious, but there are some tactics the industry uses that make game players cringe.  We have collected 3 of the top reported things NOT to do in Escape Room design.  Here they are in no particular order.

First, we have had dozens of escape enthusiasts say:  When a prop is broken, but not taken out, it stands as a distraction and is irrelevant to the storyline.  This is most commonly a problem reported about franchise agencies.  When a room only contains a half dozen large interactive puzzles the size of a refrigerator, and the sensor inside one malfunctions, what does a company that didn’t design the prop do to fix it?  They often wait for a technician or order a new version of the same prop.  In mean time, there is often a work-around for the puzzle for days, sometimes weeks in which players are exposed to this prop that simply does not do anything.    The problem with this is that it teaches players that some room elements are irrelevant but look clearly designed for the room.  The fix for this is simple:  Let players know a prop is malfunctioning before hand so that they can focus their attention on what matters.  Broken props are not the same as Red Herring clues, and should be dealt with directly and outright.


The second issue we hear escape enthusiasts complain about a lot are redundancy.  When Escape Rooms were a new concept, little more was needed than padlocks and observation.  The problem fans have with that approach is that it often creates a linear and repetitive gameplay.  Having a locked door with a locked drawer inside followed by a lockbox, a locket with a code in it containing the information needed to get into another lock is just not thrilling.  A huge cringe for folks surrounds the notion of locks is simply variety.  One way around this is to use sensors that release locks, but people are getting bored with games that feature simple object placement and maglocks.  The answer to keeping intrigue in our barriers is often to build multi-level codes.  So, one particular way we can do this is to have numbers obtained correlate to colors, then correlate the colors to pictures, then correlate the pictures to position in the room.  That way, players aren’t just matching pictures to the right location to set off sensors, they are doing multiple steps to come up with one lock answer.


The final issue that escape enthusiasts prefer NOT to see in Escape Room design are the rooms they refer to as “hacks”.   A “hack” is a room that has had little to no investment, stand alone props that convey little to the setting, and ultimately provide gameplay with no immersion for the players.  These abound in cities where Escape Rooms rush to the scene.  They commonly use Groupon to target audiences and draw in folks that have had a great experience elsewhere.  They land on over-used plot settings like “labs”, “stopping something nuclear”, but ultimately they don’t create the environment gamers enjoy.  Sometimes this is because of the fiscal investment in a room, sometimes it is because the whole scenario is rushed.  The fix to this is to double it.  Whatever is often “good enough” for a setting — double it.  If the room is a hospital exam room, put more than an exam table, a few tools and a counter system in there.  Put anatomy models, an overhead lamp, stools, muscle charts and posters, hazmat cans, and more.  Whatever you have making up your room — double it.


Most of these major disappointment issues surround lazy or poorly maintained venues.  Remember that to be successful in this industry it requires constant attention and constant investment.  Game designers should not only have creative backup plans for broken props, but also they should always be working on new puzzles.