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Escape Rooms are the Next Frontier of Gaming

They blur the lines between pop, tech and nerd culture, and they're booming.


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SCRAP now runs one of the leading escape room facilities in San Francisco, offering five different game rooms with themes as diverse as the "Room of Doom," where users have 10 attempts to try to bring a '90s pop star back to life after she's been mysteriously murdered, or "Spellbound Supper," a spooky sit-down dinner with a witch who players have to outsmart. Iwata credits San Francisco's unique and quirky culture with the initial success SCRAP found in the city, and attributes its long-term success to the tech industry, which has helped to sustain its popularity.

"I think that a lot of tech workers from diverse backgrounds is one reason for the popularity of escape games, because those types of people naturally accept new things and prefer brain games," Iwata said.

Just ask Nick Schilbe, CEO of Santa Clara-based Off the Couch Games. Schilbe is a self-proclaimed techie himself — having founded and sold a few startups of his own — and his latest venture is as a newfound entrepreneur in the burgeoning industry of escape rooms.

Off the Couch Games, whose front lobby is equal parts man cave as it is a reception area, pays tribute to Silicon Valley's history and also speaks to the audience he caters to — be it couples on a date night, families, groups of friends or the hordes of tech companies he hosts for offsites and team-building activities.

"For having such a large population and being a highly desired area to live and work in, there's a massive shortage of things to do in Silicon Valley that everyone finds to be fun, regardless of their background, athletic level or experience," Schilbe said. "With Silicon Valley being at the heart of startup culture, I think there was a desperate need for an alternative to run-of-the-mill team-building activities, and escape rooms are filling that void."

The concept of escape rooms has grown so popular in the Bay Area that an entire blog is now dedicated to reviewing and ranking the best rooms across the region —

Escape Room Tips is the brainchild of William Chen, a data science manager at Quora by day and escape room reviewer by night. What started as a hobby has quickly grown to be an industry metric for the rapidly developing community — something he also hopes to grow to encompass major cities across the nation. For a business model that's already seen tremendous expansion in a short period of time, Chen agrees that the Bay Area in particular is a hotbed for escape room growth. He similarly argues that the out-of-the-box thinking encouraged by tech companies is one of the reasons the industry is growing in Silicon Valley.

"A lot of tech companies have a puzzle-oriented culture to begin with," Chen said. "Google and Facebook and Palantir, for example, run puzzle hunts to recruit people. Ultimately, I think the demand is here. There are always companies looking for team-building events, so I think escape rooms fit that space really well, especially for an activity that happens indoors."

Zhang sees a mix of people at OMESCAPE, but she attributes about 20 percent of her customer base to tech companies and startups. And many of the individual groups that attend, she says, often hear about OMESCAPE through their workplace. Part of the reason her team decided to expand to a second San Jose location was to accommodate the demand from tech companies and their workers for interactive games.

"Engineers are pretty smart and are willing to take on intellectual challenges or puzzles, so they make pretty good early stage customers," Zhang said with a laugh. "They want to try new things. If we said this was a physical challenge, I think most would pass. But when we say it's all intellectual and in real life, not on a console, I think that changes things."

If anyone embodies the long-term appeal and popularity of escape rooms, it's probably Dan Egnor. The Palo Alto-based software engineer shares the Guinness World Record for most escape rooms completed in 24 hours along with three of his friends. The group traveled to Russia last October ("Of all the places in the world, this is the one place where you could play for 24 hours straight if you wanted to.") and completed a whopping 22 escape rooms, only losing one. Since first trying an escape game seven years ago, he's completed 530 rooms in total, which he reassures me is not that high of a number compared to what some of his friends have done.

"One rule is to never do the math about how much I spend on this," he said. "I like to say, 'Other people go on vacation, take a cruise, stay at a resort. But this is what I do.'"

Egnor thinks the industry is here to stay, especially in the Bay Area. He points to continued advancements in virtual and augmented reality, coupled with the possibilities to expand escape room experiences to the worlds of action heroes, film franchises, video games and more.

"It's a question that everybody in the industry has on the tip of their tongues: Is this a fad?" Egnor said. "Is it going to fizzle out? Or is it going to evolve? What's on a lot of people's minds right now is how escape games intersect with VR, which is increasingly an effect many escape companies are now offering."