Why Escape Rates And Difficulty Levels Are Meaningless. (Opinion)

Nothing more than a marketing ploy in the escape room industry.

I will let you in on a bit of a secret: Escape Rates and difficulty levels mean nothing. I’m going to outline why and how escape room owners use these arbitrary numbers to manipulate you. Sales is a dirty game – It’s all about emotional manipulation. “How to make friends and influence people” is a bestselling sales novel, and it tells you everything you need to know on the cover. People buy emotionally, not logically, so you have to infiltrate the customer’s emotions if you want to make sales. Some of that has to do with those meaningless numbers known as difficulties and escape rates.

Difficulty Levels

How many times have you seen a game with a difficulty level of 2/10? Most of you have probably never seen it – I’m not sure if it even exists. Why is that? Well, let’s say there was a game with a 2/10 difficulty level. You and your friends book a timeslot and arrive to crush it. Maybe you’ll set the new record, you think to yourself. This will be fun. Then you arrive, meet your game master, put your things away, and off you go.

Shortly after starting to work through the room, you realize the game is unnecessarily complicated. You can’t figure out how anything is supposed to work. The numbers don’t make sense, the letters don’t make sense, nothing looks like it’s supposed to look, and you begin to get angry at the person who built this stupid game. Before you know it, the time has expired, and you have failed. It stings. You just failed a room that’s 2/10 difficulty – you must be an idiot.

Now, imagine that same room, but it’s a 10/10 difficulty. Suddenly, you don’t feel as stupid. You may not get out in time, but it’s a 10/10 difficulty! At least you gave it your best shot, right?

This is the emotional aspect of escape room difficulties. As owners, we know that if you come to play a game and fail, you won’t leave our facility feeling good about yourself. So we jack up the numbers so that if you do fail, you won’t feel bad. If you don’t feel bad, then you’re more likely to come back and spend more money. The hard truth is that what is easy for me may be hard for you, and vise versa. Suppose you encounter a room with many numbers, and you always struggled with math in school. In that case, that room is going to be extraordinarily difficult for you to complete. It’s probably going to feel like a 10/10 when in actuality, someone who did better in math class is going to fly right through it.

Escape Rates

I once heard of a meta-analysis that was done in Canada among 3 small escape rooms. They looked at groups of people who won games or failed to see how many returned. It didn’t take long for them to notice that groups who won games overwhelmingly returned to play again. Conversely, players who lost tended to never come back.

As escape room builders, most of us don’t build rooms with the intention of them being unbeatable. We want our players to win. Players that win come back to play again. Ensuring a 100% escape rate is the BEST scenario for our bottom line. But it’s an IMPOSSIBLE task to build a room that EVERYONE will beat. We all have so many different ways of thinking. If I asked you to think of a blue house, I guarantee you would be thinking about a very different home than the one I was thinking about. Does that mean that the home I’m thinking of is easier to imagine than yours? Of course not.

If you want to escape any room, the solution is usually as easy as bringing more friends. More friends = more diverse imaginations. Someone once told me, “It is tough to build a room that is just as good for two people as it is for four,” and I have found that to be true. Some escape rooms require a minimum of 4; why? Is it because they hate couples? Of course not. If they wanted to allow groups of two, they could just charge you the same price as a group of 3 or 4 or whatever they’re willing to take for one of their finite number of timeslots. The reason for the 4 person minimum is so that you have a good time. Groups of two will rarely do well in a well-designed game unless they have a lot of experience.

So imagine the above scenario I gave regarding difficulty levels and apply it to escape rate. You arrive to play a game, and you fail. “How many people get out of this room?” you ask after your game. “Well, it was 100%, but now it’s 99%,” responds your game master. Do you see why it’s advantageous to us if we place a low escape rate on our games?

Games at Prototype Escape Games

So now that we’ve outlined the irrelevant nature of difficulty levels and escape rates let’s talk briefly about the games at Prototype.

All of the games at Prototype Escape Games are non-linear games. Non-linear is always harder than linear. If you bring one person with you to play a non-linear room, the odds are stacked against you. I build my rooms to be teamwork-focused. Everything I do in there is built with the question: “How can I make this impossible for one person to complete without help?”

Some of my rooms are 4-person minimum, and others I have allowed couples to play. If I took a look at all of the groups who have played my rooms, I could make some general statements:

  • All of our games are non-linear, so our games will be harder than other games you may have played.
  • Blackout and Dog Days are the same difficulty level.
  • The locker room is hard if numbers make your brain fail.

That’s it. Those are the only conclusions that can be drawn after watching several groups play my rooms. Everything else is entirely subjective.

SO there you have it. I blew the lid off one of the industry’s secrets. Next time you see escape rates and difficulty levels, keep in mind that the owners just don’t want you to feel dumb if you don’t get out.

Photo of Prototype Escape Games Owner

Joseph W. Brazfield, Owner
Prototype Escape Games
Jacksonville, FL