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"Room Escape Games" Prove Ideal Getaway for Urban Thrill-seekers

Highly interactive, adventurous and intellectually stimulating, real-life room escape games have become one of the most popular leisure activities among young consumers in China, as well as a popular choice for corporate teambuilding.

Photo: Promotional work for real-life room escape dating party. (Mr X)
Promotional work for real-life room escape dating party.
Photo: Promotional work for real-life room escape dating party. (Mr X)
Promotional work for real-life room escape dating party.

Real-life room escape clubs made their Chinese mainland debut in 2011 and it's now estimated that there are more than 500 such establishments across the country. Typically, these are concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

In a real-life room escape game, people are locked in a themed scenario room (such as The Da Vinci Code, Lost in the Pyramid or The Mayan Temple) and set tasks that follow a specific storyline. The idea is to race against the clock (usually 60 minutes), search for clues, solve puzzles and escape from the room.

A survey of the room escape businesses in Guangzhou reveals it is becoming ever more reliant on large mechanical contrivances, instead of just clues, critical thinking skills and deductive reasoning. At the same time, room escape games have also been adopted for corporate training, TV shows, dating and socialising activities, generating fresh business opportunities for their growing number of operators.

Youthful hits

Guangming Daima (literally "bright code") is in a commercial building on Beijing Road, a busy pedestrian street in Guangzhou. When curious, excitement-hungry young visitors arrive at the store, typically in groups of four or more, employees help them put on blindfolds, line up and place their hands on the shoulders of the teammate in front. The group is then escorted to a completely dark room.

Describing the process, Xie Siming, General Manager of Guangming Daima, says: "We create a sense of mystery from the very beginning. For each session, players are divided into groups of four to 10 players. They are free to move around in the room, after a staff member has read out detailed instructions. After first taking off their blindfolds and groping for their flashlights, the players will try to escape from the room by analysing the clues given in the form of text, symbols or wall drawings.

Photo: A young couple experience a room escape. (Qi Ren)
A young couple experience a room escape.
Photo: A young couple experience a room escape. (Qi Ren)
A young couple experience a room escape.
Photo: Room escape games target urban youth. (Mr X)
Room escape games target urban youth.
Photo: Room escape games target urban youth. (Mr X)
Room escape games target urban youth.

"In real life, there are no opportunities to escape a locked room like a character in a film, but in this type of game the players will have a real-life experience of using their analytical skills, observations and teamwork to do so."

Confident about the business prospects of the game, Xie has quickly expanded his number of outlets to six within a year. He reckons it takes as little as a month to recoup investment on the facilities.

The biggest expenditure is renting the venue, followed by staff salaries. The size of a real-life room escape location can range from several to tens to thousands of square metres. It can be located in an office building, shopping mall, residential building, old factory, warehouse, basement or activity centre.

Lin Minhua, the manager of Silent Hill room escape, says her first outlet was in a residential building, a decision she made in light of the affordability of the rent. A number of constraints, such as floor levels and interior layout, however, meant there was enough game design flexibility. Her second outlet was in a shopping mall, where there was more foot traffic and longer business hours.

Explaining her operating procedures, she says: "Our business hours are generally until midnight but, during the holiday season, some customers will play until 3am. Even though rent at the shopping mall is higher, we have lowered prices to lure more first-time players, particularly young couples and student groups."

Mr X is in a bustling business area in Guangzhou's Yuexiu District. It is 2,000 square metres in size and comprises five themed rooms fitted with infrared lights, lifts, dynamic power generators, mirrors for special effects and mechanical contrivances as traps. Xiong Weidong, the company's President, says room escape has become popular on the mainland over the past two years, despite securing little media attention. He believes it is now one of the leading choices for young people to gather and relax during weekends.

Room escape games are still in the early stage of development on the mainland and are yet to penetrate the second- and third-tier cities. To many, the future prospects look extremely promising, especially given the relatively untapped opportunities in the tourism, corporate training and TV sectors. As such, it could represent the ideal vehicle for for aspiring young entrepreneurs to start their own businesses.

Meticulously designed themes

In order to capitalise on the existing interests of potential users, room escape games designers have been keen to replicate scenarios from books, films and cartoons. In addition, they continually update the equipment and puzzle paths in order to provide players with a constantly renewed sense of novelty.

Xie was previously in the magic and conjuring business and sees a parallel there with room escape games, as things in the sector are frequently not always what they seem. For instance, his four themed rooms (The Da Vinci Code, Lost in the Pyramid, Hostage and Hitman) have four types of codes (English words, numbers, motifs and keys) that are all cleverly concealed. Players may even have to identify an "unusual" beam of laser light among many beams. They might have to look for a warm-coloured English word by covering their eyes with a colour filter and then read the reflection in a mirror or wipe away the removable parts of the number "8" to get the number "3."

Photo: Room escape themes are surprisingly intricate. (Jun Hao)
Room escape themes are surprisingly intricate.
Photo: Room escape themes are surprisingly intricate. (Jun Hao)
Room escape themes are surprisingly intricate.
Photo: Playing board games prior to entering a room escape. (Mr X)
Playing board games prior to entering a room escape.
Photo: Playing board games prior to entering a room escape. (Mr X)
Playing board games prior to entering a room escape.

According to Xie, room escape game design has evolved from a few simple cards, some chairs and desks, to the extensive adoption of mechanical gadgets. In the future, the role of different senses may be emphasised and a computer or games master could direct non-player characters (NPCs). In addition, he intends to add local elements, such as Chinese-style vampires, as themes.

Explaining how game design encourages continues discovery, he says: "Each decoding step is linked to the next and increases in difficulty. The idea is to provide a game in which players can overcome all the challenges and achieve a sense of success. The challenges, though, should never embarrass the players."

Silent Hill's Lin Minhua says film and opera informs most of her game designs. She says that specialist knowledge should not be required to crack the codes. Rather, common sense and players' blind spots are tested. The appropriate deployment of "traps," such as swapping the front and the back, reversing the order, or adding unrelated items as distractions, adds to the fun of the game, she believes. Furthermore, the appropriate use of sound, light and sprayed mist can produce impressive effects.

Xiong says game design, particularly those featuring mechanical contrivances, involves the work of many people and requires a great deal of attention to detail. Health and safety concerns also have to be taken into account when designing gadgets and traps. The latest electronic and mechanical innovations also need to be incorporated, as well as design elements from installation art, architecture, astrology and chemistry. He says this ensures that there is constant novelty and fun for players. Meanwhile, those waiting to play are provided free board games, Wi-Fi and snacks.

Multiple business models

The popularity of the real-life room escape variety show X-space has recently drawn a great deal of attention and demonstrates that room escape can diversify into fresh business formats. Xie says that in cities such as Hangzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai companies are trying out room escape games in conjunction with a restaurant as their main business.

Real-life room escape is also becoming a favoured format for companies running training or socialising activities. Xie says it particularly suits team-building exercises. As work colleagues must cooperate with each other before they can successfully escape from the room, it nurtures a team spirit. At the same time, it allows them to let off steam and meet future work challenges in better spirits. Furthermore, some schools are also getting on board, with both students and teachers taking part in spring or autumn break excursions.

Another source of revenue is young couples staging their wedding proposals via real-life room escape games. Xie says: "For example, when a couple open the last box and there is a bouquet of flowers and a wedding ring, the man can seize the opportunity to propose right away. Many operators are willing to work with individuals to cater for such proposals. And – most importantly – the success rate is high."

Photo: Room escape games as a school activity. (Mr X)
Room escape games as a school activity.
Photo: Room escape games as a school activity. (Mr X)
Room escape games as a school activity.
Photo: A real-life room escape marriage proposal. (Mr X)
A real-life room escape marriage proposal.
Photo: A real-life room escape marriage proposal. (Mr X)
A real-life room escape marriage proposal.

Xiong, meanwhile, plans to host dating parties at his Mr X venues. Customers of both sexes will be able to meet and build rapport through ice-breaking games. They can then enter the rooms in groups and, during the course of a game, can choose to impress or learn more about a participant who takes their fancy.

Xiong says: "When a person is put under stress in a locked room, his intelligence, logical thinking, attitude and potential can fully reflect his behaviour under pressure. By offering an effective option for urban singles to meet the opposite sex, real-life room escape dating parties are becoming increasingly popular."

Xing Fang, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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