From Poltergeists to Puzzles

John DenleyWe interview John Denley, CEO of Escape Room International, to learn more about his unique, revolutionary take on escape room design, and what to expect in the future.

John Denley

John Denley is no stranger to the haunt industry, having built his very first haunted house way back in 1992. He holds the distinction of being the first vendor at the TransWorld Halloween Expo to sell pre-designed haunted houses, in a day when most other vendors were peddling costumes. While some thought him crazy at the time, more and more haunt vendors started appearing as the years progressed, proving that there was merit behind the concept after all. Meanwhile, Denley’s business took off like a rocket. His reputation for building high-quality, immensely detailed haunts earned him quite the noteworthy clientele, including Madison Square Garden and Disney.

Eventually, his business went global, with Denley being the first to bring haunted houses to China. While there, he had the opportunity to experience an escape room for the first time (escape rooms having grown popular in China much sooner than the in the US). Denley immediately knew he’d struck pay dirt:

“We came back and thought, ‘These are just like small haunted houses;’ lots of tech, lots of detail, and we figured we had a jump on the industry. We thought to ourselves, ‘Well, we’re techies, but we also know scenery better than anyone, or at least just as good as anyone.’ We could come in, and instead of four thousand square feet, we only had to do four hundred square feet of theming, so this was a perfect fit for us.”

Denley and his crew soon opened their first two escape rooms. One was themed around a zombie outbreak, while the other tasked players with driving the all-important stake through Dracula’s heart before sundown. Both were smash hits, and before long, Denley parlayed this success into Escape Room International, a business which builds top-of-the-line escape rooms from the ground up for clients all around the world.
Escape Room Dos and Don’ts

Denley lists five key mistakes novice escape room designers typically make, and how to get around each one in order to create a memorable, quality experience:

John Denley

1. Too small: Not only do large groups of people typically not enjoy being cramped into a tiny space like sardines, but there’s also the issue of puzzle visibility. All too often, one person will be huddled over a particularly involved puzzle which no one else in the group can even see. In addition to limiting group sizes to make the space comfortable for all participants, Denley also suggests increasing the size of puzzles in smaller rooms in order to prevent them from being completely obscured by the solver.

2. Too linear: Many novice escape room designers tend to build their games in such a way that only one or two puzzles be solved at a time. While this works well enough for small groups, the problems become obvious once larger groups get involved: only a few members of the group are actively participating, leaving everyone else standing around watching and not having a whole lot of fun. Denley suggests opening up the puzzle structure to allow several to be solved at a time, ensuring that the entire group can be engaged as much as possible.

3. Lackluster theming: While this includes obvious areas like prop and set design, one area many novice owners overlook is the finale. As Denley notes, “At the end, we don’t want a little bomb prop that goes off, and a little screen just says ‘boom’. We want to see the missile fire; we want to see the asteroid blow up…. We want Dracula to sit up and scream when you stake him. We want huge finales that cause people to go, ‘Wow, that was a blast!’”

4. Too difficult: Denley describes the ideal escape room as one where groups can have the adrenaline rush of escaping in the last minute, but still have an overall success rate of around 70%. As Denley states, one reason people enjoy escape rooms is because they give people powers they don’t have in real life: “They could be a great detective, a superhero, a scientist working to solve this viral outbreak that threatens to turn everyone into zombies.” He sums it up thus: “People don’t go to escape rooms to be outsmarted. They go to have fun, to be entertained.”

5. Lack of hospitality: In Denley’s opinion, the biggest mistake an escape room business can make is not making the customer feel appreciated. The ideal business should engage customers from the moment they walk through the front door, get them hyped about the experience they’re about to have, personalize their experience within the room itself, and then keep the customers engaged up to the moment they leave. Denley provides a simple suggestion that can not only help retain existing customers, but also bring in new ones: offer a discount coupon to incentivize a return visit. Not only are the current customers more likely to come back, he notes, but they’re also likely to bring along more of their friends so that they can enjoy the same outstanding experience for themselves.

Thinking Outside the (Locked) Box

John Denley

Denley describes the ideal escape room puzzle as one that encourages creative thinking; the solution could be right in front of their faces, but players need to use their minds in unconventional ways in order to reach it. He gives the example of a telephone on a desk locked inside of a glass case:

“There’s an old rotary phone in a case that’s locked, and the journal they’ve got might say, ‘Your journey will not be easy. All you need is TIME. Everything you need is on my desk.’ Now they start wandering around the room, even though you just told them everything they need is on the desk…. So finally they realize, ‘oh, TIME!’, and they take the lock and they start putting in every possible number, because there’s a million clocks around the room… but they’re not looking for any of that. Why is there a phone in the box? It’s simple: spell the word ‘TIME’ on the phone, and use those numbers to open the lock. We’ve had people from Harvard University, all these Boston colleges, take 30 minutes on it, and when they finally get it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, it was right in front of me!” It costs next to nothing, and even the enthusiasts go, ‘Wow, that was really cool,” and sometimes they’re even more impressed with that than some high-tech electronic gizmo.”
What’s Ahead?

Denley draws a parallel to the haunt industry to describe how escape rooms are evolving. While haunts started out with fairly simple concepts and designs, expectations have grown much higher over time, with patrons now expecting movie-quality sets, designs, and costumes, and unique themes they can’t find anywhere else. The same is true with escape rooms: whereas simple themes like “escape the prison cell” and basic paper-and-padlock puzzles prevailed in the early days, more elaborate stories and massive, high-tech games are fast becoming the norm (though Denley clarifies that going high-tech is not the end-all, beat-all solution; most players would vastly prefer a game that’s simple but clever and fun to play over one that’s flashy and elaborate on the surface, but dull and generic in execution). Even gamemastering is slowly evolving, with the notion of a person sitting in a secluded room in front of half a dozen camera feeds giving way to in-room actors providing assistance and hints in a way that doesn’t break the immersion of the game.

Fortunately, in this regard, haunters have the edge, already being acclimated to building large, elaborate sets and having that “do-it-yourself” mentality. As with Denley himself, it simply boils down to taking what most haunters are already doing in massive environments and scaling it down to a single room. However, Denley warns about taking the haunt mentality too far; one pitfall he sees many escape room designers with haunt backgrounds falling into is relying too much on horror tropes. As Denley explains, “70% of the recreational buying market is women…. I can’t imagine on Sunday morning, Mom coming down and saying, ‘Hey, kids, let’s go to the serial killer room!’ But they’ll go to the superhero room, no doubt. So be smart, keep your audience in mind.”

With visionaries like Denley leading the charge, no matter what direction the industry takes, it’s sure to be exciting and imaginative. If, like he says, the haunt industry is any indication, there’s a lot to look forward to in the wonderful world of escape rooms.

To learn more about Escape Room International, visit www.escaperoominternational.com.

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