Are you sure?

Room escape games: the latest craze in Budapest

Imagine that you and your friends are locked up in a dark, creepy cellar and have only one hour to escape. You have to find clues, keys and the way to the exit through a series of puzzles and mind-breakers. Sounds familiar? Then you have probably seen TV shows like the Crystal Maze or played classic point and click computer games from the ’80s and’90s like Myst, Zak McKracken, or the Monkey Island series. Or, quite possible, you spend half of your working hours playing the myriads of ‘escape the room’ flash games on the Internet. 

Less than two years ago ParaPark, the first real life room escape game, opened its underground doors in Budapest and unleashed a frenzy the Hungarian capital hasn’t seen since the opening of the first ruin pubs at the beginning of the new Millennium.

And the parallels with ruin pubs are not just a mere coincidence. Building up a room escape game is cheap (in fact, much cheaper than in the case of ruin pubs) and seems to be unique to Hungary. Also, “the owners are not professional businesspeople, but rather entrepreneurs, who invest serious amount of their own time beside the original financial funds,” says Gábor Rétfalvi, owner of collecting site exitgames.hu.

The rules are almost the same at every site: a group of three to six people are locked in a room and through a series of puzzles and mind-teasers must find their way out in exactly 60 minutes. Players are watched via CCTV, and sometimes helped with little hints, however the chance of getting out is still around 50%. Intelligence, good observational abilities and playing as a team are essential for success.

“We established the first such game not just in Budapest but, as far as I know, in the whole universe,” says Tímea Váradi, one of the operators of ParaPark. The original idea comes from Attila Gyurkovics, who mixed his acquired knowledge in supervision (professional personal skill development) with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s famous flow theory.

No flow, no glow

What is flow theory? Well, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Artists who would become so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep fascinated Csíkszentmihályi, the father of the theory. The process was named thus because several respondents in Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 interviews described “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. According to Gyurkovics, to reach the flow state, the puzzles should be challenging: not too hard, and not too easy. Players must have a sense of achievement, positive feedback, and be disconnected to the point where they are completely captivated by the flow. Those 60 minutes should be about nothing else but the game.

The big boom

ParaPark opened its first game room in the early summer of 2011 and in less than two years, more than 15 more sites have opened all over Budapest. However, return margins are not as lucrative as might have seemed at the start.

The first hype is over, now some kind of market consolidation must come. “While ParaPark still operates very well, the same couldn’t be said about all the rival sites. As far as I can see, most of them think about expansion (on site, in rural locations or even abroad), but are neglecting marketing,” Rétfalvi says.

The main channel for marketing is still through coupon sites, where price competition is high, sometimes to the extent of compromising profitable operations. “You can find 50% discount coupons to almost any rooms now, “ said Rétfalvi, who predicts significant market consolidation in the near future. “Half of them will be out of business in a year and a half.”

But even with some consolidation factored in, opening a collecting site seems like a good idea to Rétfalvi. “The site could provide some marketing for the rooms. We started the site two weeks ago, and already have plenty of reservations through it.”

Different ways to succeed

With so many escape rooms opening at almost the same time, organizers feel the need to differentiate themselves from their rivals.

Choosing themes wisely and building the rooms to a high standard are, obviously, essential. The keywords are mood and flow. For example, Escape Room opened in November and focused keenly on atmosphere, offering very different feelings in its four rooms (jungle, retro, beach and horror). ClosedIn will open a room in a few days with a Formula 1 theme, which might be sound a bit strange, however, it is more focused on the puzzles and riddles themselves.

Based on location and owners’ own fantasy, room themes vary from site to site, but retro, horror, jungle and crime scene are among the favorites. But with so many “different yet similar” sites around the town, owners must offer something extra to visitors. Szobafogság, with two rooms and two more planned, focuses on providing teambuilding events. Escape Room will hold birthday parties for children; however, the service is also popular among adults. PánIQ-Szoba offers a unique 120 minute-long escaping experience, rather than the “industry standard” 60 minutes.

Some of the rooms are designed to fulfill the expectations of exclusively foreign-speaking visitors, as owners hope for high numbers of reservations in the summer months from tourists, not least stag parties. However, that influx hasn’t arrived yet: visitors are mostly hardcore gamers and office teams.

Game without frontier

Room escape games have popped up in Budapest like mushrooms after abundant rain, but the “infection” hasn’t stopped at the borders of the capital. ParaPark has already opened rooms in Győr, Szeged and Siófok, moreover a mobile room appeared at last year’s mega festivals, like Sziget, Hegyalja, Efott, and Volt, which seems to be a viable business model to tackle the falling demand during summertime.

With real life room escape games a uniquely Hungarian invention, export seems a viable option to get away from the choking domestic competition, but it is not as easy as it might at first appear. “Just as in the case of ruin pubs, escape the room games could spread around town so easily, because they are relatively cheap to establish. Cellars or rooms could be rented at a very low price and the backbone of manual and operational work is performed by the organizers themselves,” Rétfalvi said. “Almost all the organizers have planned to expand into foreign cities, but when they face rental prices and work-related expenditures, they usually take a step back.”

However, there are examples of a move into Europe: ParaPark has opened a room in Barcelona and Escape Room has now completed its plans to expand over the borders. “Invisible Exhibition – a tour in complete darkness guided by real blind people – is a great success around Europe and we want to install our room beside it,” Escape Room owner Alexandra Kárpáti said. She also wants to organize programs for schoolchildren adjusted to their education level in mathematics and foreign languages.

But the real trap in escape room games is turnover. Once a room has been successfully exited, players rarely come back, so rooms have to find new players all the time or redesign the rooms periodically. “We change the game play every six to nine months,” Kárpáti said. “The installation could be the same, but you can change the content adjusted to visitors’ needs and demands,” she added.