How to Build Your Own Escape Room
A designer, developer, and tech startup founder reveals the secrets behind creating “Startup Escape,” a tech-inspired escape room
You’ve walked through the door into a cheery startup office. Past the sea of monitors, colorful motivational posters adorn brick walls. There’s a cabinet full of swag T-shirts and laptop dongles, and a Nerf gun lazily pokes out from under a couch. A monitor on the wall dutifully ticks down how much money is left in the bank.
You’re in one of two places. Maybe you’re in the office of a real-life startup — or maybe you’ve found yourself in Startup Escape, the startup-cliché-filled escape room I built.
Last year, I turned my love of escape rooms into one of my own. Here’s how I got started, along with some of the unique challenges that go into designing and building a real-life immersive puzzle game.
This article contains light spoilers for Startup Escape in San Francisco. If you’re interested in playing, I recommend you do so before reading!
I never specifically set out to actually build an escape room. The first escape room I tried was in a rainy strip mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, and by the end of the weekend, I had done three. Day trips to Bay Area escape rooms ensued, and I even found myself on a rainy day on a trip to Vietnam visiting as many $3 game rooms as I could manage. I eventually started bringing my employees to escape rooms since they were fun bonding experiences that were heavy on teamwork, low on alcohol, and completely expense-able.
I soon found myself caring less about solving puzzles, though, and more about reverse-engineering the usability, design, and tech. Website usability boils down to making things smoother and easier to use. Three clicks should become two, buttons need a clear label, and so on. If you brought that mentality to an escape room, however, it would make for quite the straightforward “game.”
Of course, you can’t throw out usability completely; otherwise, nothing would make sense. You need to find that perfect balance where you nudge people close enough, make sure it’s engaging rather than frustrating, and at the end, let the user feel clever they figured it out. It’s a…