State of the industry (or one take on it, anyway)

In my entirely subjective opinion, escape room companies in Singapore fall roughly into two categories: the ‘commercial’ and the ‘enthusiast’.

The most obvious ‘commercial’ outfits are franchise players such as Escape Hunt, Freeing SG and LOST SG. I’d also put Xcape Singapore in this group, even though it’s a homegrown brand, and possibly Roomraider SG as well.

To me, these companies come across as more strictly-business and potentially cynical. That’s not to say that the rooms themselves are bad – Freeing SG has some very fun aspects, LOST SG provides a polished and satisfying experience, and Xcape Singapore has some very ambitious rooms. But you definitely get a sense that these are pure commercial enterprises.

This extends to less friendly customer policies. Freeing SG, LOST SG, Xcape Singapore and Roomraider SG will combine strangers who book the same timeslot, and tend to be strict about player group sizes as a result. Escape Hunt doesn’t combine groups, but has much higher prices for small groups.

This commercial approach also applies to their marketing methods. LOST SG is possibly one of the slickest players here, having invited many lifestyle bloggers on sponsored visits and managing to get media coverage in various outlets. Escape Hunt is very successful on TripAdvisor, receiving glowing reviews from escape room newbies who don’t know any better, and waging a strong PR offensive against negative reviews – not rudely, but simply by implying that the reviewers are mistaken in their opinions.

In contrast, ‘enthusiast’ companies give a strong impression of being in this business due to a genuine love of escape rooms.

The purest example, for me, was the now-closed Phantom Joker Escape. They had creative rooms with a loving (some would say excessive) focus on narrative and plot. Almost all of their puzzles were fair and non-generic, and there were some truly epic moments in store. But there was arguably not enough focus on the bottomline, with their prime location in a Tanjong Pagar shophouse costing a reported $12,000 each month in rent.

I’d also consider The Escape Artist, BreakOut Games, Encounter, Unravel and Exit Plan as ‘enthusiast’ companies.

Enthusiasm doesn’t always mean quality, of course. Exit Plan in particular is a company I’m conflicted about, because I liked the staff very much when I visited, but their rooms are among the worst I’ve ever played.

In the early days of the escape room scene here, around 2013, ‘enthusiast’ companies also tended to have low-budget rooms — but this has largely changed. The Escape Artist, as a pioneer in the escape room scene, had very no-frills rooms in their first Bukit Timah outlet, but have since become more ambitious and high-tech. Today, Encounter and Unravel in particular have special effects and technology to rival even the big franchises.

‘Enthusiast’ companies also tend to have much more forgiving customer policies. All of the above companies do not combine groups during booking, and as a result, they’re flexible with group sizes as well.

There are some escape room companies which are harder to place. Lockdown.sg and Trapped.sg are independent businesses, as far as I can tell, but don’t quite have the same feel as their ‘enthusiast’ counterparts. I haven’t been to Trapped.sg, but their three-person room minimum and arguable over-selling of their rooms make me reluctant.

Lockdown.sg is an interesting one. I visited them back when they were fairly new, and the staff then were friendly and happy to discuss elements of their room design afterwards. I feel that their expansion to three outlets might have diluted that personal touch somewhat.

Is any of this relevant to the average escape room player? Well, particularly since Phantom Joker’s closure, I’ve come to believe that players who want the escape room scene to thrive should throw their support behind good ‘enthusiast’ rooms. Spread the word, encourage your friends to play, and leave good reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor (if the rooms deserve them).

Good ‘commercial’ companies such as LOST SG will thrive without any help: they have deep pockets and marketing savvy, and can take care of themselves perfectly well. ‘Enthusiast’ companies which are equally good or better, however, might not perform as well despite their quality.

On my escape room blog, I don’t discriminate in the reviews themselves. Quality rooms should be recognised regardless of whether they are run by a big firm or a small one. But if I have to recommend rooms to friends, say, then I’ll always recommend an independent room over a franchise-run one, if it fits the bill.

The less pleasant corollary is that I believe bad rooms should be called out — especially bad ‘commercial’ rooms, which could be kept afloat by a franchise’s marketing ability alone.

 

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