Escape games and immersive experiences are the latest entertainment trend

Luke Graham, special to CNBC.com
Immersive gaming on the rise

Ever imagined being locked in a room and challenged to break out using nothing but your skills and brainpower? Well, the latest trend in immersive entertainment will help you find out if you've got what it takes.

The name for this experience varies—Escape the Room (ETR), Escape Games, Puzzle Hunts—yet they all involve a team of people getting locked into a room, usually themed around fantasy or horror, and the players must then solve puzzles and challenges in order to get out.

Escape games combine elements of the theater with gameplay and special effects, and they are becoming increasingly popular.

They are the latest example of the experience economy: the concept that consumers now prefer to spend money on creating memories and experiencing something new, rather than passively consuming.

"The appetite for experiences has grown beyond just going travelling," Sheena Patel, a producer for Time Run, an Escape Game which opened in London earlier this year, told CNBC in an interview. "People do take pleasure in sharing something new with their friends that perhaps they haven't experienced as yet and I think memories are being given a lot more value."

Babbage, the robot mascot for Time Run, a London-based escape game
Time Run

The earliest example of the escape game began in Kyoto in July 2007, according to a study of the market by Scott Nicholson, a professor for Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.

The games firmly established a market in Asia and since 2012, the games have spread from there to Europe, Australia and the U.S.

Yet the trend still has room to grow, especially in western countries. There are only 70 venues in the U.K. and 17 are in London, according to Chris Dickson who runs ExitGames, a website tracking the market.

"HintHunt is accepted to be the first site to have opened in the U.K. and mail from them suggests an opening date of 1st April 2012," Dickson told CNBC via email. "Most escape games in the U.K. are very young; something like three-quarters of them are less than a year old.

"I'm only aware of one country where the genre has been tried and didn't take off: the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta."

The Crystal Maze presenter Richard O'Brien tests a prototype puzzle.
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Built for Millennials?

The audience for the games is broad. Research by Scott Nicholson found they had universal appeal, but a survey of 175 escape game venues around the world found 37 percent of players were from aged 21 or over.

This matches the experience of Hendra Harjuna, the director of Trapped in Singapore.

"Our biggest market is the millennials (about 40 percent)," she told CNBC via email. "They are always out seeking for alternative entertainment vs the usual bowling, cinema, KTV (karaoke) activities so an escape room is like the latest craze to do in Singapore at the moment."

Millennials (adults ages 18 to 34) are at the forefront of the experience economy and escape games are in a position to capitalize on them.

"People are looking for those memories, the special things they can share with their friends," said Nick Moran, a writer of London-based ETR experience Time Run.

"I think ETR games, because they are such an interactive experience, they allow people to carve out their own narrative with their friends, which is what people are used to doing in an experiential way across all media these days, which is probably the reason why it does appeal so strongly to millennials."

A puzzle from LeavinRoom, an escape game in Paris

The power of puzzles

Escape Games attract audiences for a number of reasons, but one factor is that puzzles are very popular.

"A good puzzle will look impossible at first, but is designed to be solved," explains Dickson. "Escape games can be more physical, kinetic and dramatic. Solving impossible-looking puzzles in an escape game is like a magic act—except you're not watching a magician on stage, the game guides you through to performing the trick and being the magician yourself."

This element of being actively, personally involved is crucial to escape games. Time Run's Moran compared the experience to playing a computer game.

"It is essentially bringing the video game experience to real life, allowing you to be a protagonist in your own adventure. We have all fantasized about being that Indiana Jones, that kind of spy-thriller protagonist and the ETR genre is the opportunity to really be the hero," he told CNBC in an interview.

"Most people never get that opportunity and realistically they wouldn't really want it if it arose in real life. An ETR game is a piece of escapism with very defined elements."

Props from the escape game LeavinRoom in France

The challenges of running an escape game

Most of the Escape Games have been financially successful.

"Holiday season has better profits," said Harjuna. "So far I think we have had about 50,000 to 70,000 players since we opened in Jan 2014."

However, Josh Ford, director of Time Run, highlighted the challenges of running an Escape Game.

"You are competing against venues that sell food and drink and can probably get more people in per square foot," he said. "(Time Run) is more about quality of experience and teams go through in small groups and so your business has to run for longer hours and kind of drip people through the experience."

Other escape games face similar obstacles.

"Escape games first started out as a low-cost business, which is the appeal for entrepreneurs as they rent a run-down basement and designed a game based on an abandoned basement," Jonathan Ye, director of Lockdown Singapore, told CNBC via email. "The new generation game rooms require more technology as players demand higher quality and innovative games."

And while there is plenty of room for more games in the U.K. and U.S., other markets are becoming saturated, especially Asia and parts of Europe.

"I think that the market will tighten in the future," predicts Pierre-Luc Fourier, co-founder of LeavinRoom in France, in an email to CNBC.

"Our brand Leavinroom was the tenth to open in Paris in January 2015, now there are almost 15 in Paris and almost 50 in France," he said. "You can observe the city of Budapest, the place where the pioneers of Escape Games are located, and there are 50 companies, but they have a catastrophic booking calendar, just because the concept is becoming older and the population is not large enough to allow all the escape games to survive."

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Time to enter the mainstream?

As more venues open and word of mouth spreads, Escape Games are likely to become mainstream entertainment.

"Our expectation of the market is that it will become so mainstream across the U.K., that people will see it as an alternative to going to the cinema, or bowling with friends," said Nargiza Murodova, co-founder of Enigma Quest, an Escape Game opening in London later this year.

Sheena from Time Run also predicts the games will rise in popularity. "If you can provide an elevated version of entertainment that people know and love, be it cinema, theatre or gameplay, it will eventually trickle into the mainstream. We have certainly found that we have people from families to slightly older people coming in and enjoying it just as much."

Moran suggested how other businesses enter the immersive experience space.

"Now that people have realized the market is there, it is like 'what can we do that is interesting and different and exciting within this marketplace' and there's a lot you can do if you really try."

Clarification: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Chris Dickson runs ExitGame.