Escape Room Design Principles

Escape rooms have the power to transport players into an alternate reality for sixty minutes at a time, but all the hard work done to get them there can be squandered by breaking a few good design principles. Yes, no matter how on point your scenic design and briefing videos are, we’ve found that breaking these guidelines can suck guests right out of the experience.

No Busy Work

It might seem like busy work is a good way to keep players from escaping too quickly, but it can pull them right out of the experience. Take these two scenarios for example.

Inside a lab, you rifle through documents, open cabinets, and look inside white coats. First, you find one test tube. Then three. Next, nine more. Suddenly, your heart drops as you realize your fate: you’re going to be organizing over a hundred plastic test tubes into a grid for lord knows how long. *Riveting.* Especially while your party is having fun exploring the rest of the room in the name of dividing and conquering.

“Ugh. Do I really have to do this?”

And would you look at that, the test tubes wind up spelling something out in numbers or letters. Who would have thought.

Now, picture yourself in an ancient Greek temple. As you admire the art and columns surrounding the room, your eyes fall upon a dreaded crossword puzzle that’s at least four feet wide. Someone has to do it, and it’s probably going to be you, knowing your party. Nevermind that a crossword puzzle doesn’t make much sense in a room themed after ancient Greece, but hey, maybe Aristotle would have been a big fan of the New York Time‘s version.
Busy work isn’t fun. When you’re doing one of these errands, it’s clear what it is. There’s no hiding the fact that the puzzle was designed to waste time. And worse, it’s not fun for players. It helps knock them out of being immersed in the world and story you’ve worked so hard to create.

Challenging, but not impossible.

Escape rooms should be tough. There’s no two ways about it. It’s common for guests to ask which room is the most difficult and get excited about taking on the challenge of beating it. However, escape games shouldn’t be soul crushingly hard.

No matter how much enthusiasm a player might have about how challenging a game is, their interest and excitement wilt when they hit a wall. At the moment when hope of escaping the room dies, their enjoyment takes a nose dive.
What we shoot for when designing rooms is to get people in “the zone” — the proverbial state where you lose yourself in the moment and are able to focus completely at the task at hand. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this state “flow” and described it as having the following characteristics:

1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. Merging of action and awareness
3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
5. Losing track of time
6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

On a bigger scale, this is the kind of experience we want guests to have throughout an entire escape room: lose themselves in the moment and feel rewarded by the end of it. Making puzzles unreasonably difficult breaks that experience. Instead, aim to make players feel like their brains are close to firing on all cylinders.

Don’t Skimp on Printed Assets

Little details matter. An Egyptian tomb might have been painstakingly crafted to make museums and even Indiana Jones jealous, but all that could fall apart with a laminated piece of paper. No matter how epic a guest’s mission is, laying fingers on a plastic sheet will break the illusion, even if subtly, of being in ancient Egypt. It feels cheap.

Sure, we know that guests will shred papyrus like Taco Bell shreds lettuce, but there’s a better solution than lamination. Printing assets on canvas (which you can age!) not only looks and feels better, but it holds up even better than laminated paper when it gets bent, greasy, and grimy.


Merely by getting customers into a venue, we’ve captured their imagination about what worlds and challenges await them. We strive not to squander their excitement and enthusiasm by following these three principles.

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