Nightmare in a Strip Mall: Live-Action Escape Games Hit Alberta
The popularity of live-action escape games in Alberta has been rising at an infectious pace. But is it a lucrative business model or just fun and games?
by Elizabeth Hames
Photo John Gaucher
It’s a cool fall night as you tiptoe across the field, listening for the otherworldly predators rumoured to prowl these parts. You clutch an axe as you wade through the stream of fog hovering above the grass. Your partner looks at you, touches her nose and points to a stand of trees. It’s the symbol for danger. You freeze and turn your ear toward the woods: nothing, and then the crunch of leaves and a low growl. You tap your partner and turn to run, but something stops you in your tracks. Lumbering shapes crest the hill behind you, backlit by the moon. The growl in the trees grows louder and echoes on all sides. There’s nowhere to run. You grip your axe tighter with both hands, holding it in front of your chest. Backs together, you stand your ground, like bison defending their herd. Only these aren’t wolves on the hunt. They’re zombies.
It sounds like a scene from a B-movie – and it’s not far from it. It’s a scenario every player of Edmonton’s Dead Landz game hopes to find herself in. And Sabrina Powers and Jeff Baker, co-founders of Simulation Events, the company that runs Dead Landz, will do everything they can to ensure customers are treated to the thrill of a lifetime. “I think our enthusiasm shows in all the games we have,” Powers says. “The people that do come out have a really great time.” Baker is less diplomatic: “It’s the best. Weekend. Ever,” he says. Sure, the zombies are all volunteer actors, and the weapons are made of foam. But to these zombie plague “survivors,” the game is real.
Dead Landz is one of several live action escape games that have cropped up faster than a mummy can toddle in Alberta in the past two years. Generally, they require players to solve a series of puzzles to “escape” a room or precarious situation, and many of them work themes from popular culture into their storylines. Baker says the popularity of the television shows The Walking Dead and apps like Zombies, Run! have done a lot to garner interest in the games. “You’re watching [The Walking Dead] and you’re all thinking, ‘That was so dumb. Why did they do that?’” he says. “Or you’re thinking about what you would do in that situation. This gives them the opportunity – and they usually end up dead.”
Alberta’s escape games follow on the heels of a trend that has swept across the globe like a zombie plague, beginning in Asia and tracking westward into Europe and, later, North America. In the past five years, the number of escape games worldwide has gone from zero to 2,800. But while the popularity of these games has been rising at an infectious pace, is it truly a profitable business model, or is it all just fun and games?
Chapter 1: The Cannibal Room
Edwin Tsui, co-founder of Calgary’s first escape game, The Locked Room, doesn’t think it’s all a lark. He leads me into the back of The Locked Room’s stripmall storefront, where builders are drilling holes in the walls of what will become the company’s fourth escape room. The first thing I notice is a disturbingly realistic rubber corpse (well, most of a corpse) dangling from the ceiling. It’s carved up like a shawarma meat log, and bares a pained, ghoulish expression, like it was slaughtered mid-scream. “This is our cannibal- slash-zombie-themed room,” Tsui says matter-of-factly. He’s an engineer by trade, and speaks only in facts. His opinions, if he has any, are known to him alone. “Your team is split into two. You start off in a different cell each.” He points to twin cages constructed out of metal piping. They’re large enough to fit a half-dozen people. An old-fashioned meat grinder hangs from the wall, and a stainless steel sink rests ominously next to the cages. It looks like something you might find in a butchery, with wide, sloped edges for draining blood toward the sink. “We’re still looking at decor, but we’ve got some different industrial items that give it a butcher shop kind of feel,” he says.
Photo John Gaucher
Most live action escape games observe a similar storyline as the Cannibal Room: You (the player) are trapped in a room from which you must escape. To find your way out you must work with your teammates to solve a series of puzzles. To anyone who has been unfortunate enough to watch any of the films in the Saw franchise, this may sound familiar. But while many of these games employ nightmarish elements to help explain the plot (players are often told they’re locked in a room by a killer out for blood), none are quite as gruesome as the splatter films.
Still, it’s unnerving. But that’s the point: Horror sells, and it’s not just zombies. Any trend will do. The Locked Room’s first two rooms were zombie and medieval-themed, profiting off the hype of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones respectively. But when they moved to their new location in April, they decided to switch up their themes with a pirate room modeled off Pirates of the Caribbean, and a video-game-themed room, which works plot points from early Nintendo games into clever puzzles and clues. Tsui says there’s also a room styled in horror film logic, in which the hosts tell the players a serial killer posing as an Okanagan-based sommelier will make wine from their blood if they don’t escape within the hour.
The rooms are consistently full, bringing in about 600 customers each week over three days in operation (Friday, Saturday and Sunday). Many of the clients are companies treating their staff to team-building days. Business is so good, Tsui was able to leave his job at ATCO to pursue The Locked Room full-time. By the time I met him, three months into operations at the new location, he said he was making more as a co-owner of The Locked Room than he was as a project manager. Now, The Locked Room has between nine and 10 employees at any given time, and Tsui says he is considering expanding the business, possibly adding another location.
Inspiration for The Locked Room struck when Tsui and his girlfriend were vacationing in Prague in February 2014. They were looking for interesting sites to inform their itinerary, so they logged on to the travel website TripAdvisor. “Despite there being so much architecture, so much history, great beer,” Tsui says, “the top things to do were actually two different escape rooms.” So they tried it — and they were entranced. When they returned home, Tsui’s girlfriend pitched the idea of opening an escape room of their own. There were a few in Toronto and Vancouver, but none in Calgary. So Tsui brought the idea to Adil Hooda, with whom he used to work at ATCO, and Hooda’s business partner Kyle Fitzgerald (you may remember the duo from such Dragon’s Den pitches as the Ugly Christmas Sweater and the zombie-themed five-kilometre race, Zombie Survivor). “They seemed like the right people to bring up this idea with since they were into a little bit more unorthodox business ideas,” Tsui says. Hooda and Fitzgerald liked the idea, and by the end of August 2014, the trio opened up a pop-up with two rooms to test the market. By the end of their three-month test run, Tsui says they had an average of 250 people paying $24.95 plus tax coming through their doors each Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was so popular they were able to use the profits to open up their permanent space in a strip mall in the northeast corner of the city. Escape rooms have overtaken the zoo on TripAdvisor’s Calgary page, taking the number seven spot on the “Top Things to Do in Calgary” list.
The success of The Locked Room has influenced the barrage of escape rooms opening up across the province. There are at least three others in Calgary, and another three in Edmonton. The creative freedom and low startup costs – consisting of little more than a lease, construction and permitting – are a draw, but Kyle Murray, a University of Alberta marketing professor, says chances are, once the initial boom dies down, only the strongest will survive. “My guess is that there might be one or two places that survive in the long term. Kind of like there’s a few comic book stores or other niches businesses,” he says. “But it’s hard to see that becoming something that’s mainstream the way other leisure activities are.” But you never know with fads, Murray says, adding that yoga pants could have easily gone the way of the Tamagotchi when Lululemon first entered the market. Yet, they have (unfortunately?) become part of mainstream fashion, and terms like “athleisure” are now part of the vernacular.
Whether or not live action escape games share the yoga pant’s fate or that of the Tamagotchi, Tsui says he’s not threatened by the competition, being first to market and all. And a community of well-designed escape rooms could actually be a boon for business. “Competition is good from an awareness perspective, especially when the market is still young,” he says. “As long as the competitors are at an acceptable quality level. If it was a really poor experience, that would really hurt the escape room industry.”
Photo John Gaucher
Chapter 2: The Murder Mystery
Tsui better hope that Eric Boudreau’s murder-mystery-themed escape room, Escape Capers, is as polished as The Locked Room’s. When I visited Escape Capers in July, Boudreau was on track to open his doors to customers in the fall. Boudreau is a veteran of the film industry, mostly corporate gigs. And, although he had yet to welcome his first customer, he believed in his product enough to recently leave his job as an editor to pursue Escape Capers full time. He’s spent the past year raising funds through Alberta Boostr and successfully applying for funding through Futurpreneur, a non-profit dedicated to supporting budding entrepreneurs. He’s dedicated his weekends to scouring garage sales for antique furniture and ornaments to lend the rooms that air of authenticity so crucial to the believability of the game. And this summer he transformed a 3,000-square-foot building into an escape room experience he believes will rival that of his competitors.
Unlike other horror-themed escape games, the plot to Escape Capers takes notes from the movie Clue, which is based off a murder-mystery board game of the same name. Players are told they are guests invited to the dinner party of a wealthy Calgary man. But when they get there, he tells them via video message that he’s poisoned them all and they have an hour to find the antidote. Script-writing is the fun part for Boudreau, who is working on a feature-length screenplay that sounds like a cross between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Minority Report. And escape rooms certainly seem to be more about the writing than the money for Boudreau. “This is going to be awesome,” he says. “This is going to be like, you make a movie and you’re at the premiere every night. It’s kind of the moment of the film when you get to watch people enjoying your work.”
Chapter 3: An Epic Death
For Dead Landz’s Powers and Baker, escape games are more like an interactive play than a film. While the opening monologue to the game is scripted, Powers and Baker monitor the game from a command centre and regularly intervene like sadistic demi-gods . Each player enters the game with nothing but the clothes on their back – no food, water or tools. They must interact with the game’s actors or other players – be that by bartering, begging or “killing” – to get enough food and water to last them the length of the game, anywhere between five and 16 hours. They’re told there’s been a zombie plague outbreak and they have to solve a series of puzzles or clues to find the antidote — all the while avoiding zombies. If they’re killed, they return to the reception area, are handed a mask and return to the game as a zombie. While the objective of the game technically is to find the antidote, Powers says it is more fun to die. So if Powers and Baker find a group of people is too successful at outrunning their zombie actors, they go so far as to orchestrate zombie ambushes, start rumours, or plant actors in the game whose sole mission is to lead a group to their doom. “Our job is not to help you survive,” Powers says. “Our job is to give you an epic death.”
With a philosophy like that, it’s no wonder Dead Landz has developed a dedicated fan base. Powers says one Dead Landz fan comes down from Nunavut for every game, and a group who call themselves Team Red have a presence of at least a dozen people at every event. “They run it like a military group,” Powers says. “They have battle plans.”
While the venture has been successful, it has yet to prove profitable enough to steal them away from their other businesses. (Baker runs an indoor airsoft gun battleground – think paintball – and a retail business, and Powers owns a tanning salon and a property tax assessment company.) But Powers has designs on making Simulation Events her primary focus and is considering expanding Dead Landz to other markets, possibly through a franchise model. She’s also considering a reality show based on the game. “I would love to make [Dead Landz] my full-time job,” she says, almost yelling. “Oh, my God!” For now, she’ll have to be satisfied orchestrating zombie attacks every few months.