UK Escape Room Goes Virtual in Magnificent Adaption to Coronavirus

Posted on 2020-06-05 by escapetheapp.

An Interview with UK Based 'Room Escape Southend'

2020 has been a year of twists and turns that no one could have predicted. Arguably most prominently of all, the arrival and subsequent measures put in place to combat Coronavirus. Social distancing regulations and the closure of much of the leisure industry has left many businesses unsure about how to cope. Escape rooms globally have been hugely affected and forced to close their doors while we deal with the pandemic.

Tough as times may be, some escape room companies have found a way to adapt. We caught up with the inspirational minds behind Room Escape Southend and their brand-new virtual experience.

CSI Southend Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape SouthendCSI Southend Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape Southend

Guys let’s start with the obvious question. As escape room owners, how did you react as Coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown of the UK took place?

Honestly, we panicked pretty hard. Even before Boris locked down the country, we had basically accepted we were probably going to need to grab temporary jobs at Tesco’s stacking shelves to get through it. We’re a relatively small business and not cash rich. Our ticket prices pay the salaries of us and our team month in month out so it’s not as if we had a great deal to fall back on.

Tell us a little more about the business and how you’re set up.

Well we’re actually quite different to a lot of escape rooms we know. Because we have predominantly a local customer base of repeat visitors and we actually tend to completely change our rooms every 3 to 4 months. It keeps the experience fresh; our customers love it and we enjoy the creation process. We have a big audience of repeat guests.

At our location we have three rooms. We love variation with narrative driven experiences but ultimately, we’re huge fans of horror and we try to build that suspense atmosphere into our rooms as best possible. We also love to use live actors for our experiences which we know our customers like.

So, look, we all want to know how you guys came up with your Virtual Escape Room plans. Was this something you were working on prior to Coronavirus or was it purely reactive?

No, we had no plans for this pre-Coronavirus. Our first move actually was to reach out to our customer base and escape room community online. We made it clear that we were going to struggle and as a way to keep business going, we started off by offering open ended tickets so that our customers could book with us without confirming a date. It was the only way we could think of to keep money coming in while the rooms were closed.

We actually had an overwhelming response to this and sold a lot more open-ended tickets than we expected. Though our big brainstorm really came from getting very drunk one night and simply asking the question, why couldn’t people play our games online?

This actually happened about three days before the official lockdown was called and we had our first virtual room set up and testing about a week later.

That’s a pretty incredible response and turnaround! So presumably you run the virtual experiences from your existing rooms?

Actually, no. It was our first thought but having tested it we very quickly realised that using our existing room set ups just wasn’t going to be feasible. We have tunnels and other physical elements in our existing room builds that just made a virtual experience impossible. We needed to ensure movement and coordination between elements in the room was seamless to get it to work. We also didn’t feel it was a responsible move to still be going into our place of work and setting things up while the country was in lockdown.

Wait, but last I counted you have 3 virtual escape rooms going right now... So, where are they?

We created the rooms here in our home. Well, two of them are here using a spare room and the loft space. The third room is in a spare room at our brother in law’s home as he sometimes works with us and has lost out on work considerably due to Coronavirus.

Once Upon a Time Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape SouthendOnce Upon a Time Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape Southend

How is that even possible? Especially in the turnaround time you suggested.

Well I think it’s part and parcel of our difference to the typical escape room company. We love creating rooms and that’s why we change our physical rooms so frequently. Escape rooms can be really costly to fit out, but we do pretty much all of the work ourselves. Rather than paying for custom set ups or expensive components, we have taught ourselves how to build some pretty complex mechanics and electrical components for our rooms. Let’s just say we spend a lot of time learning on YouTube and from online escape room owners groups.

The rooms for a virtual experience don’t need to be too complex in terms of layout. The guests need to be able to navigate the room fairly easily and be able to see what’s around them. That way they can use simple commands like “go to the desk”, “Go to the locker” etc. Instead of complex environments, we make sure the narrative and the puzzles create the experience.

Ok, so how does it work exactly, how does your virtual escape room work?

The Escape room is physically played by the teams ‘Avatar’. Using voice commands, they control the avatar (us) and guide it around the environment instructing how they would like to solve and interact with the various puzzles and locks. The avatars don’t speak back or certainly as little as possible, so they really feel they are the ones in control. The avatar ‘being’ if you will, is built into the story. For example, our initial room ‘The Virus’, is a zombie apocalypse scenario in which the players control an AI (Artificial Intelligence) left behind by the professor responsible for the creation of the virus cure. So, in essence they have tapped into the AI and are controlling it within the laboratory environment to find and create the virus cure.

Our games have never really been about escaping. We’ve not focussed on the desire to get out of a room as such. We find it limiting and that the experience kind of immediately ends when you walk out of the narrative driven world within the room and back into an empty corridor. As such our games tend to instead rest of some kind of objective that needs to be completed to win. This works particularly well when it comes to the virtual experience.

The Right Key Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape SouthendThe Right Key Live Video Escape Game at Room Escape Southend

How many players can join at a time and which software do you use?

We’ve made it as easy as possible for our customers. We know that Coronavirus has caused people to work from home and use video conferencing more both for work and family contact. Zoom has become so popular and we know most people are now really familiar with the platform. We also found this was by far the best for video quality with up to as many as 6 users logged in at a time. As such, we set the maximum team size to 6.

It’s great to bring people together in teams like this and as many of our players have said to us, it’s not just about connecting during Coronavirus lockdown. Many of the teams who play our games are separated by great distances or have a member of the team who has difficulty leaving their home. So, with these virtual games no matter how physically distant they might be, they can all log on and enjoy the experience together.

Given the state of the world right now the ability to bring people together must be pretty rewarding. But how about from a business perspective, how is the virtual experience doing?

It’s actually doing amazingly well. To keep things simple, we’re genuinely making slightly more money than we were before lockdown given that we’ve also saved on staff costs and utility bills at our location. We’ve gone from being a popular local business to having a global customer and fan base virtually overnight. We’ve had players from California, LA, Australia, India, pretty much everywhere. Even countries I didn’t know existed and they’re all loving the games.

That is insane, how are these players finding you?

We have social media and escape room platforms to thank. We naturally shared our new virtual games on our social media channels but also on an escape room site and it just went crazy. The viral effect of the social media shares just seemed to keep going and it’s really driven everything because we’re not really spending on advertising at all.

Escape room players are pretty passionate when they enjoy their experience, so we’ve been lucky to get so much free exposure and overwhelming support for what we’re doing. People need entertainment and reasons to get together right now beyond the odd family Zoom quiz. We’ve also had other escape room owners talk to us and ask us how we do what we do which has been a big vote of confidence. We love the industry and we’re more than happy to help and offer advice to other businesses.

Thanks for reading!

And a big thank you to Wayne and Floyd of Room Escape Southend for taking the time to share their incredible bounce back journey from Coronavirus business crisis, to virtual success. They are a great example of adaptability and creativity in an industry which has plenty of both. Their story also shows how supportive and passionate the escape room player audience around the world really is.

The guys at Southend have three virtual escape rooms running and have some really exciting new rooms coming soon including a horror room we don’t want to reveal too much of, but it sounds like it’s going to break some new boundaries. Check them out if you’re looking to try out the virtual escape room experience for yourself.

Posted on 2020-06-05 by escapetheapp.

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