Escape Rooms are the Next Frontier of Gaming 

They blur the lines between pop, tech and nerd culture, and they're booming.

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Schilbe of Off the Couch Games predicts that escape rooms will not only blossom as a widespread form of entertainment in the next five years, but also transform many of the marketing tactics employed by media companies and the entertainment industry, becoming a new vehicle to help promote new films, TV shows and consumer goods. TV trailers and billboards are great, but what if a studio could create a branded escape room that allowed players to feel as if they were actually inhabiting a film? Furthermore, what if a certain clue had to do with a soda can — is that a Coke or a Pepsi?

"My forecast is that there will be a diversification in movie budgets — whether it's marketing or production — for entertainment that we can't reproduce in our own homes," Schilbe said. "We can reproduce movies and video games, but not escape rooms. I think they'll become the de facto form of entertainment in the future, especially with the higher production quality that we're seeing with games out there."

Ask Schilbe if the industry is here to stay, and he'll say all signs point to yes. When he opened Off the Couch less than two years ago, he invested $150,000 into what he saw as a hobby. In just eight months, Schilbe hit profitability. After releasing a third escape game last year, Off the Couch's profitability has continued to spike dramatically. The only challenge? Not having enough bandwidth to accommodate the hundreds of tech workers that large corporations like Google, Amazon and Cisco want to send over for team-building activities.

"In terms of the industry as a whole, escape rooms in America are still in the infant stages — a lot of mom-and-pop investments by hobbyists and enthusiasts," he said.

"We've had requests to host 150 to 200 people, and even 500 people once, but we've had to turn away business because we don't have the capacity," he said. "With that kind of demand, we decided to take all our profit, reinvest it and use it to grow the business. Now, our short-term goal for 2019 is to expand our game count of four to eight by the end of June and 12 total games by the end of the year."

If all goes as planned, Schilbe hopes to host 24 escape room games by the end of 2020 in his 40,000-square-foot space and even expand to a second location in Austin, Texas. To help facilitate growth and expansion, Schilbe is emulating what he calls the "movie theater model," featuring games from across the country that he thinks would appeal to the Bay Area's techie demographic. Not only would this promote the work of other enthusiasts across the country, but it would also allow him to scale the business so that he might entertain large corporate parties.

"It takes about eight months to build a game from start to finish, so for us to realistically build 12 in a year isn't feasible. That's why we're establishing a partner network between us and all the other major escape rooms that I enjoy playing," he explains. "From L.A. to Colorado to Texas to Seattle, we're reaching out to likeminded owners with a passion for escape games in the hopes of creating the movie theater approach and featuring other creators."

If Schilbe reaches his goal of expanding to 24 games in the next two years, he'd be the largest escape room business in the country. As escape rooms begin take over as a go-to source of entertainment, the biggest devotees are embracing, and speculating on, the growth that's sure to come in the next decade.

"Escape rooms are a new outlet for creativity and an entirely new medium that is sort of refactoring the entertainment industry in a real way," Egnor explains. "The question is, how do we make this big without losing its soul and what makes it so great?" 

A version of this story originally appeared in Metro Silicon Valley.

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