From banker to escape room maestro – today, we’re talking to James Ducker, the founder of CryptX Escape Rooms.
James has an interesting background and a non-linear journey into the visitor attraction sector.
He worked in banking for many years – he was at HBOS during the crash and became a whistleblower when he grew disillusioned with the financial sector.
In the summer of 2016, he took a family holiday to Barcelona, his children were eight, eleven, and sixteen at the time. Sick of hearing “Dad, we’re bored” – James booked an escape room in the heart of the city, a move that would subsequently change his entire career path.
“I built rooms where children can play. A lot of rooms do not want children playing. They do break things, but actually, it might be less than what adults do, particularly drunk adults, or hens, or stags.”
What will you learn from this podcast?
- How James went from banking to escape rooms
- His process for creating exciting rooms and puzzles
- What makes a “bad” escape room and practices to avoid
- The inspiration and history behind his rooms
- The psychology of why people play escape rooms
- How he effectively markets his rooms
- How he defines a target market
- The pros and cons of the escape room industry as a whole
- The future of health and safety procedures
- The importance of customer feedback
- Top tips for those just starting on their escape room journey
Otherwise, enjoy the interview below.
Your hosts, Kelly Molson and Paul Wright
Our guest, James Ducker
Kelly Molson: Welcome James. Now, you’ve had a very long and successful career in finance previously, which seems like quite the opposite of running an escape room. How did that leap happen?
James Ducker: The leap was two-fold, really. Number one, enjoyment and number two, a disaster in the finance world. Briefly covering that, the crash obviously was 08, 09, 2010 and to be blunt, I couldn’t handle banking at that point. The [were] moles, so I left to do some consultancy work.
[But] I was already looking for something else to do, and I was in Barcelona with my family. Barcelona is the most amazing city, in my opinion, [but] what else do your children do than turn to you and say, “We’re bored. Can we play an escape room?”
I’d vaguely heard of the concept. I agreed being locked inside a room at 35 degrees Celsius in Barcelona seemed like a great idea. So we did one and loved it. Simple as that. I think we played another eight or nine in that two week holiday.
[We] came home and the kids said, “Will you build one in the garage?” I thought “Well if I’m going to build one, I might as well build one.” And within two months I had the lease agreed on this place and we were building.
Kelly Molson: Gosh, that’s so quick. Two months from deciding you were going to do it to starting. Love it.
Paul Wright: You’re a man of action?
James Ducker: If it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done, yeah. And why not? Even on holiday in Barcelona, we were already planning the rooms. We’d already started talking about the type of rooms we wanted, the games we wanted to put in there and the concepts.
The first concept was the haunted pub which was based on a true local legend of Cambridge, The Eagle Pub, where the window had to be left open. The whole concept was about opening the window in that room. It was built towards that.
Paul Wright: What’s the process you go through to create these escape rooms?
James Ducker: It depends a little bit on what method I’m going to use to attack it. So, at the start, we were a lot more story-based. What is a background story and then what would fit?
So it would just be sitting around the table, saying, “All right, I’m in a pub, and I know I want to open that window in the end. Fine, what would you find in a pub? Let’s just list everything you’d find in a pub.” Obviously, I went and did some important research.
Kelly Molson: In pubs?
James Ducker: In pubs. Vital practice. My aim is to develop things that you would get in the everyday world, or usage, and try and make them into a puzzle.
There are other ways of doing it, more technological based. [For example], I want to do some sort of product placement game. I said, “Right, I’m going to find a till – I want to use the till to make it a puzzle, not just to be a till that exists on a corner that you can see.”
So you go round and talk, and it is talking and talking and talking. And getting ideas, and then putting as many into the pot as possible, and then [you] start delivering flowcharts.
Paul Wright: Who do you do that with?
James Ducker: Anybody who’ll listen, and argue with me. It is an argument process.
Paul Wright: How long does it usually take?
James Ducker: So, if you’re talking from the first inception to the builds, a few months. Three or four months, something like that. My general build length is only one month. That is very short. There are rooms that I know of that spend six months building, and then another few months testing. I’ll build and open in a month.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
James Ducker: It’s just 28 days.
Kelly Molson: So where does the testing part come in? Who does the testing for you?
James Ducker: Mainly me. My theory, and we’ll come on later to the controversy that I have in the industry, my theory is that if I can break it, the public can break it.
So, I will try and break my own stuff. Not physically break it, but break it in terms of flow, in terms of skipping puzzles, in terms of beating the room earlier than you should beat it. And if I know the room better than anybody else, if I can beat it early, it’s beatable.
Kelly Molson: It sounds very much like our web design testing process. Let’s break our own websites.
Paul Wright: Yeah.
James Ducker: Yeah, so as you said about coming from finance, the team that whose name will no doubt come up during this conversation, S2, who have done 1300 odd escape rooms, I speak to them a lot and draw from their experiences.
They’ll talk about people who don’t understand puzzles, don’t understand games, don’t understand design. Actually coming from a finance world, I didn’t [either]. I’ve almost got lucky that there are some transferable skills, I hate phrases like that, that I can use.
Other people don’t have those skills and still build rooms. Rooms that I don’t necessarily like. There are few and far between that I don’t actually like. The design process is hugely important and what I call flow, the flow of a room has to be right. Even if you have really good puzzles but bad flow, it won’t work.
Kelly Molson: What makes it not work? What element is it of that flow that makes it not work for you?
James Ducker: Again, there are probably too many answers to identify one. Too many things to look at, too few things to look at, objects that are there, what’s known as red herrings in the industry. I have my own definition of a red herring. To me a red herring is something that you give value to and then don’t use.
So, if you lock away a diary in a drawer and that diary’s got lots of information in it, you’ve unlocked that drawer, you’ve opened that drawer, therefore, that diary is important. It’s automatically got value.
You then don’t use it but spend 10 minutes looking through that diary because it’s “clearly” important because it’s locked away and it’s got things written in it. [But because] you don’t use it, that to me is bad design.
Some rooms will use that as, I’ll use the phrase we use in the industry, a “time suck”. I’ve got a room, I want you in there for 60 minutes, so I’m going to put a diary in there that’s going to take you five minutes to read. All I’m doing is sucking time.
Paul Wright: And it has nothing to do with the escape.
James Ducker: Nothing to do with it. So when I leave, the egotistical part of me will sometimes talk to the owner and say to them, “Why don’t you take that time-suck out and put a good five minute puzzle in? What’s the difference?”
It’s frustrating – that sort of flow of pushing people around rooms that you don’t want them to look at or you want to suck their time away, rather than concentrating on what could be a good idea or a good room.
Kelly Molson: So how many rooms do you have here currently? You mentioned that you have a haunted pub concept. Tell us a little bit about the rooms that you have here.
James Ducker: Originally, we built the haunted pub and the jail. The pub I thought was a fairly common concept because I played a few over in Spain. [But] actually, you come back to England, there’s very few of them. There’s only one down near Bournemouth.
The haunted pub was based on the local story of The Eagle as I said, in Cambridge. And the jail was again, a fairly traditional jail cell, jailbreak. Half the team are locked in the cell, half the team are outside, so the first thing you have to do is break out the team in the cell and then all of you have to get into the warden’s office and escape. That was back in November, December, two years ago, 2017. That’s 2016, I correct myself.
About a year in, 18 months in, I decided [to change the rooms] because of the location of this place – not having walk-in business, not having tourists, the clientele has pretty much stayed and it won’t really move, not too much transience about it.
I decided to change the rooms probably a little bit early, if I’m honest, from an economical perspective. But they then changed, so the jail became a school. Simply, you’re in detention and you have to break out. Slightly less story-based and slightly more fun and puzzle-based. I already said earlier about how I design rooms, that one was designed slightly different to the way that I did the first ones.
The haunted pub became a jewellery heist. [I thought], “Right the industry is developing, I want to take it from a 60 minute time-based game where you could get out in 30 and perhaps feel a little bit upset, value for money wise, into you will be in there for 60 minutes and it’s going to be how much money you steal, not what time you get.”
Kelly Molson: Oh, that’s a good twist.
James Ducker: Nice twist. It’s coming on a lot more in the industry, a lot more people doing it. I added the element because I felt that an escape room should still be about escaping, but you had to do more than one mission at once. You had to escape, you had to steal jewellery and then I thought, just for pure boredom sake, “I’ll have a third mission which is based on the Illuminati.”
The Illuminati has still never been solved, in nearly two years we’ve been open now.
Paul Wright: Wow.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
James Ducker: It probably means it’s too difficult.
Kelly Molson: What a challenge for everyone listening to this though. Come on.
James Ducker: It is doable. The issue is concentration. And the design of the room is – can I get you to concentrate on more than one thing at once? The answer with the public is no. But if you get teams in there, perhaps six people, you’ve got two on escape, two on jewellery, two on Illuminati, you’ve got a chance.
But it is designed to be a room that if you’re two people who are new to escape rooms, you can come in and escape. If you’re four and you’ve played a few rooms, you can come in and enjoy it.
But if you’re an expert team and there are more and more and more now that have done over a hundred rooms, there are more than a hundred people that have done a hundred rooms, you can come to this place and you will still be challenged.
Paul Wright: So, at what point are you going to say, “I’m going to scrap that room?” Or are you just going to keep on going until someone does actually crack it?
James Ducker: Even this morning, I had a discussion with the Manager here about changing, funnily enough, the flow of the design.
Paul Wright: Right.
James Ducker: Two years in, the room hasn’t been… or that mission hasn’t been completed. The question that experienced people listening will be asking themselves is, “Is it too difficult? Or is it just not very good?”
So, you can get rooms that are so difficult because actually, they’re not correct. They have leaps of faith, the puzzles are too long or they’re too difficult et cetera, et cetera. So we might tweak it slightly to give people a slightly better chance, and what we talked about this morning is changing the first puzzle into the third, because the first puzzle’s actually quite difficult, the second’s easy, the third is easier, then the fourth is more difficult again. And that flow is arguably the wrong way round. It should start easier and build to more of a crescendo.
Paul Wright: I suppose you have got the element though where it’s the marketing around that, about saying, “We’ve got a room that’s not been cracked yet,” and there’s going to be people out there who do want to crack it.
Kelly Molson: It’s a big draw, isn’t it?
Paul Wright: There are a lot of things you can talk about with that.
James Ducker: It’s fairly recently [that] a Facebook page for escape room enthusiasts [has been created]. A UK one, a European one, and obviously a worldwide one, which is mainly dominated by the Americans.
And fairly recently, Ken Ferguson who runs exitgames.co.uk, which is probably the main site enthusiasts use, started talking a little bit about the jewellery heist, and saying that if you want the sort of thing that we’re talking about then it’s the place to come.
Kelly Molson: Excellent.
Paul Wright: People want to be challenged, don’t they?
James Ducker: They do. Most people want to be challenged. It’s interesting – the public. You’ll get different groups, some aren’t here for a challenge, they’re here for affirmation.
Paul Wright: Okay.
James Ducker: They want to beat a room to feel good. Some rooms will pander to that, so you’ll get rooms that deliberately have high percentage escape rates. 80-90, towards 100% escape rates. I’m never going to build a room like that. I want there to be a challenge.
So, the school has got about a 25% success rate in 60 minutes, but I added 10 minutes bonus time. I said the teacher has been delayed by 10 minutes and if we need an extra 10 minutes, [you can take it]. It takes the success rate up to about 70%.
Kelly Molson: We probably always need that 10 minutes, don’t we? You talked a little bit about the location. When we drove here this morning, we drove through beautiful Cambridge countryside, it’s a lovely place to be.
I’d guess it has its limitations for you in terms of not getting walk-ins and it’s a destination rather than a, “I’m in the city, I’m going to go for a few drinks and then I’m going to do an escape room.” How does that affect how you have to market and how hard you have to market?
James Ducker: In a huge way. Marketing is a frustration. A constant frustration. The budgets are reasonably high. Nearly every customer, and this is partly because there are only two room as well, is a new customer. So every month, you’re having to buy, in some way shape or form through marketing, new customers. If you have three rooms, four rooms, five rooms, whatever it may be, you would have the repeat business from that.
So yes, being out in the countryside very much has its limitations. It has its positives that we try and get across, so the most important one is free car parking next to the building. The next one would be similar actually, you don’t have to drive into Cambridge city centre. The lease obviously is cheaper.
Does it affect people is a question I ask myself constantly. So, there are some rooms in central Cambridge and they appear to be very successful and booked.
What changes a person’s mindset as to why they would or would not book a room? It doesn’t seem to be, bizarrely, price. So, the city centre rooms are more expensive and you’ve got to drive in and you’ve got to pay for parking. You’re getting towards double the price of this place.
Kelly Molson: Wow.
James Ducker: Yet, it’s still successful. So, without criticising any other rooms, their models work on much higher numbers than mine do. Arguably because of the finance world background, I look at lower risk and say, “Do you know what? If there was a prolonged period of problems, would I survive? Yes, because lower overheads, lower costs.”
That could be snow, which always affects us. People get snowed in, they, therefore, can’t get here. That applies the same to any other venue.
The next venue that I’m looking at is exactly that. It’s not in a prime location, but then I’m not willing to take the risk. I admire those who are. There’s a new room in central London which is pretty famous, based on Sherlock. It’s a joint venture with the BBC. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands, if not more in terms of build, but then their ticket prices are £55 a head, whereas we charge £15 a head.
Paul Wright: Wow.
James Ducker: Then you get onto the next discussion of, do people expect something different? Actually, no. When people come here they expect, not necessarily the same build quality but they expect the same experience, the same enjoyment, similar puzzles, similar ideas. They don’t actually think, “Well it’s three times less expensive therefore it should be three times worse.” Neither should they.
Paul Wright: Do you regularly speak to your customers and get the feedback? Do you just speak to them face-to-face or, how do you…
James Ducker: So again, it’s all decisions or business points. I was 1 hour 50 slots – so 1 hour 50 for a 1 hour slot. [I’ve just gone to] 2 hour slots. The biggest reason for it is the most enjoyable part for me, that sounds the wrong way round with customers, is talking to them at the start. They will always have 5-10 minutes chatting to me in this room or the one next door before they go in.
They will then have their hour or 70 minutes, if they need it, and we will then have 5-10 minutes at the end, talking, running through the room, and that still only takes us to 90 minutes, worst case, so it still gives me another 30 minutes to reset before the next team arrive.
Other business models, let’s say central London because of the high costs, they will run on 90 minute models. So they still need 15-20 minutes to reset. We can now see that they’ve only got a couple of minutes to talk to you at the start, no real-time to talk to you at the end, out the door you go. That’s not what I enjoy, but it also doesn’t help me as a business.
So talking to them at the start, what rooms have you played? What did you like or didn’t you like? Once they’ve played my rooms, similar stuff, what did you like, what didn’t you like? Did you notice this?
There are certain little eggs in the rooms that I hope people will notice. They don’t make a difference to the room but they’ll make a more enjoyable experience if you do notice it.
Paul Wright: What do you mean by eggs?
James Ducker: So there’s a banner in the school that’s actually based 99% on Back to the Future.
Paul Wright: Okay.
James Ducker: So when I was building the room I [thought about] what I liked about school. I thought about Ferris Bueller but I didn’t manage to get [that] in, or Back to the Future, which I have managed to get in.
The only thing that’s changed on the banner is that is says “Napwell High” not “Valley High”. So it’s little things like that that I show them afterwards. How many children [that] have not seen Back to the Future is very upsetting.
Kelly Molson: I have the same issues with people who haven’t watched Top Gun, so I feel your pain.
James Ducker: See, I should have got Top Gun in there.
Perhaps with a bit more experience in build design, I can start to do a few extra things that perhaps I couldn’t at the start. So, putting Easter eggs in, or putting some jokes in. Again it’s something that I would like to do more of.
There’s an enthusiast up north who I speak to or play a couple [of rooms with] and listen to. He would like some UV lights on an Egyptian tomb. He gets very frustrated that things aren’t in theme. UV would not be used in an Egyptian tomb, so he wants the UV to say something like, “Don’t be silly, this wouldn’t be found in Egyptian times.”
More jokey, more fun. Not a red herring because you’re telling them this is what they value, what [they’re] looking at this for. Little things like that I’d like to do more of, and again, as an industry I don’t think we’ve really cracked the jokey side of all of this.
You’ve got horror, you’ve got the scare, you’ve got some fun games, but you’ve not so far, in my experience, got the fun side of that.
Kelly Molson: It sounds like you spend a lot of time with your visitors. Do you think the personal experience they get helps them come back? Do you think that’s a draw for them?
James Ducker: I do, anecdotally, yes. From the sort of stats we can get, and stats are difficult in the industry because it’s so new, but the sort of stats that we can get, it seems that my repeat business is higher than most, which is lovely.
Only two rooms again is the frustration, which is why we need another venue. But yeah, the personal experience adds to it.
There’s actually been a recent discussion on the Facebook group about whether games masters, GMs as we’re called behind the scenes, should interact with people in rooms. And it’s very divisive. The serious players say, “No, because I’m in a room I want to be immersed in that room, there should be no outside influence unless absolutely needed.”
Unfortunately for them, I’d probably say “Don’t visit here, because I will get involved.” I will put things up on the screen that I think are funny. I will take the mick sometimes, quite a lot, as people go through the rooms. I have a little laugh button when people take too long to solve something.
Kelly Molson: Just mocking them, ever so gently.
James Ducker: Sometimes, not so gently! So yes, there is a TripAdvisor review out there, shouldn’t admit this, should you? My favourite one says, “Thank you for 60 minutes of abuse. It was a pleasure.”
So yes, I enjoy myself and the staff I have here get to enjoy themselves. I think that’s really important that we enjoy ourselves, you enjoy yourselves.
Paul Wright: That’s why you’re doing it, isn’t it?
James Ducker: Yeah, end of the day, it’s enjoyment.
Paul Wright: Yeah.
Kelly Molson: And what other marketing channels do you use? We talked a little bit earlier about how you do have to work a bit harder because of the location. What does that mean? Where do you look at when you spend your advertising marketing budget?
James Ducker: So nearly all my budget goes on two places, which is Google AdWords and Facebook. I tried and wasted a lot of money in lots of other areas. Mainly, print, adverts in newspapers and magazines, even some online magazines. So, all of that really has proven to be virtually fruitless.
Paul Wright: Why do you think that is? Is it because you can’t measure it? Or is it-
James Ducker: The measurement that we use is that we use a separate code every time we advertise, so if it’s a 10% off discount code it would say, whatever, use this on booking. Nobody uses it, so that is our assessment of where things are going right or wrong.
Paul Wright: Do you think people just aren’t seeing them? Because they’re not reading print?
James Ducker: I still think print is perhaps too specialist yet. Yes, obviously readership levels are down and all that sort of stuff. The nearest village to us which is now basically a little town, Cambourne, I’ve tried advertising in the local, and I know people read that. I live there myself and that’s what you read, but they just [aren’t], for whatever reason, looking for escape rooms at the time.
Paul Wright: Who is your target market then?
James Ducker: [I’m] quite a negative person on this stuff. The target market is everyone. And because of that, it’s really difficult.
Partly because of the family-based issues, I built rooms where children can play. A lot of rooms do not want children playing. They do break things, but actually, it might be less than what adults do, particularly drunk adults, or hens, or stags, and all these sorts of things.
I allow children. I do children’s parties. I downgrade my rooms… downgrade is a really nasty word, I change my rooms slightly. I add bridges, leaps that I expect adults to make, I bridge the gap for the children with some bits I add to rooms. So, from that point of view, kids can come and play.
So you’ve got right the way down to probably six year olds that could come and play. Seven, eight, somewhere around that level. Right the way up to the grandparents.
Kelly Molson: Is that quite unique? Can you not find that locally?
James Ducker: Not massively. It’s getting more [common]. In particular one local company right up the road, we talk. I’ve [shared] the success that we’ve had and he’s started doing some parties for children as well.
It just takes a little bit more involvement from [the] games master, either you change the room or get a bit more involved on the loudspeaker. Or go in the room with them at times, and none of that takes away from the experience.
On the marketing side, your range is so big that targeting is really difficult. It’s really difficult, and I think what I’ve started to do now is target sectors or sections over different periods of time.
So during summer holidays, Easter holidays, it will be targeted at families. During the quieter periods, we reach out to the corporates, and you’ll have different leaflets going out to different places to do different things to different people. But that then increases your costs because you’re now doing five bits of marketing for the same company.
Frustrating, but over time, we hope that will change. Again, as an industry, we talk to each other a lot and we feel that it is becoming more mainstream. We had the Escape Room movie that finally made actual cinemas in February. There was one the year before that went straight to Netflix and the likes, but we’ve now got a mainstream movie out there as okay as it was. I liked it, I enjoyed it.
You’ve got the likes of James Corden who went and did an escape room with Ariana Grande last year. You can see that the One Show interviewed S2, so you’re getting more and more feedback on this. And over time, we hope it’s going to become so mainstream that actually one of your events [on the] weekend [might be] cinema, bowling [or] escape room.
Paul Wright: You’ve mentioned S2 a couple of times, who are S2?
James Ducker: S2 are Sharon and Sarah. They are S squared as they like to put a little two after their name. Arguably the most famous group in England – [as] players, they’re [at the] 1300 escape room mark. They hold my record for the school, they hold my record for the jewellery heist, they hold about 75% of the records in the United Kingdom. They know what they’re doing, let’s put it that way. One’s a doctor, one’s an engineer, clever girls.
Kelly Molson: That’s where we’re going wrong. They’re smarter than us.
James Ducker: It doesn’t have to be a smart thing, let’s put that one in there quickly. [It] doesn’t have to be a smart thing. It just so happens that they are very intelligent and the speed of [their] brains affects the way they play.
So, they’ll go through and they’ll see a puzzle and they’ll perhaps think there are five ways of doing this puzzle. And they’ll do those five ways before you’ve done one. And so they can get rooms very very quickly.
Paul Wright: You mentioned them at the start when you were just starting – did you get their advice and speak to them?
James Ducker: Annoyingly, not before I opened. They’ve now become friends so yes, you know, I’ve played rooms with them and they’ll come and play these rooms. Or we’ll just have a drink in the evening, go for a curry and have a chat. And it is about getting their advice and their feedback and what would they do.
I don’t do everything they ask, but it’s the jewellery heist I’ve changed, I’ve tweaked. Tweaking is really important once you’ve opened a room. And they have ideas and suggestions. They also have a way that they like rooms to be. The main thing is logical. If you make a room logical they should beat it quickly because they are that good. They should be around about the 25-30 minute mark, which is exactly where they are for school, which means most teams out there will be around the 60 minute mark. They’re about twice as good.
So yes, I will seek their advice and pretty much everyone’s advice. So you get right to the top of the S2s, right the way down to, this is going to sound bad, my family. Sorry. And they’ll come in and, for example, they feel the school is too hard. So they’ve played it and they’ve said, “Why don’t you do this, why don’t you do this, why do that?”
I’ve actually not really taken too much of that onboard! But there are elements to it, of course, there are. Where I say, “Yeah, okay, I could change this or I could change that.” Particularly if I get either children playing or a team that come in and say, “We’ve never played an escape room before.” I might do something a little bit different in a room. Tweaks [are important] in order for everyone to enjoy [the room].
Kelly Molson: Is the industry as a whole a supportive industry? Do you actively talk and collaborate with other escape room owners, managers? To work out how you can make the industry better?
James Ducker: Most of the industry is helpful. I believe there is more backstabbing than people realise.
Paul Wright: I think that’s any industry though, really.
James Ducker: Yeah, so I’ve gone into it too in the finance world, I mean, it doesn’t get more backstabbing than that.
The escape room industry, part of the frustration that I have is that it is known for being so helpful. So, you’ll constantly get comments on how great and helpful [we are] to each other. And then, I’ll be sitting here thinking, “I know that there’s one person in particular who’s being very unhelpful towards me or the business, or indeed the industry.” That’s tough to take at times.
I’d like there to be some sort of overarching body that could deal with these problems. There are some borderline legal issues where people advertise, or mis-advertising et cetera, et cetera. And they can be dealt with through the normal channels.
But there are also channels that should exist in my opinion – [for example] if you can show that another escape room is deliberately harming you because of locality, there should be some overarching body that says, “Come on, we’ll take away your license. We’ll take away your approval if this is a practice that you wish to seek.”
If you go to an escape room and ask if there are any other local ones around because you want to play and they deny all knowledge of local escape rooms, that’s harming the business. That’s harming the other person’s business and the industry as a whole – it’s stopping people from coming. That to me would deserve a phone call from the authorities saying that’s not really on. Direct them to the website, Exit Games, which has got every single escape room in England dotted with a little dot on a map.
It’s not as nice as perhaps people think, and it’s tough work. On the complete flip side, there are some amazing owners that do help, that do things for free. Hopefully, I’m one of them.
I’m helping a fairly local room at the moment build their new room because they’re a bit nervous about flow. They’re a bit nervous about non-linear. They’ve only built a linear room before, linear being one puzzle after the other, that’s all free. I’ll go up there and spend days with them, just having a chat.
Kelly Molson: That’s lovely.
James Ducker: It should be that way because I know they’re going to help me in the future and they do things that I can’t do, and all that sort of stuff.
There are people online that you’ll post something, “I’ve got a tech problem, this, this, this, what do I do?” And they’ll post not only a full answer but diagrams that they’ve drawn out just to help you. There can be some lovely stuff. We have a conference, we are that sad, once a year.
Kelly Molson: There’s a conference for everything.
Paul Wright: Are there awards as well?
James Ducker: There aren’t awards. I would like there to be awards.
Paul Wright: That’s got to be fixed.
Kelly Molson: Maybe that’s your thing?
Paul Wright: The next step isn’t it?
Kelly Molson: Maybe you set them up?
James Ducker: I’m not sure people would like my awards.
Kelly Molson: Well, you did mention that you were slightly controversial, so I think I’d be worried as well.
James Ducker: Yeah, I am. It is about saying things like we’ve just said though, about actually standing up and saying “No it’s not all fluffy and roses and beautiful. There are some problems, there are some mistakes, there are some things that should be better.”
Anger is not quite the right word, but as forceful as I’ve ever been, was only a few weeks ago in a room where a plug socket was used to hide something.
It is known. We know that they exist out there – [but] we believe that this should be struck off. There should not be a plug socket. Mainly because we’re going to have either children or adults, doesn’t really matter, stick something in a real plug socket and kill themselves.
So, I played this game with a plug socket and I challenged them afterwards, and they said, “Everything that hasn’t got something to do with this game has a sticker on it. That hasn’t got a sticker on it, therefore we’re telling you it’s okay.”
Perfectly reasonable argument. However, when that individual visits my room next week and kills themselves, I’m in trouble for it, it’s your fault.
Ken Ferguson from Exit Games did a very good speech at one of these conferences where he talked about training players. He gave the example if you walk into a room and you ask me to undo that chair, it’s the first thing I do, I will destroy your room. Because you just trained me to destroy your room.
I talked to this other owner about training. You trained somebody to look at plug sockets. That should be a no-no in the industry. Again, go back the authority point, that’s the sort of thing that authorities should just straight away take away. Other rooms have to be aware of other rooms.
Paul Wright: How does authority start? How-
James Ducker: All good important meetings take place [at] the pub after [conference]. [A group of us] had a chat and said as long as the line was very basic, there would be support for it. So things like health and safety.
There was the disaster that happened in Poland end of last year and the fire officers have been round to the majority of escape rooms in England and tested them and made sure they’re all compliant.
Personally, I don’t think that’s enough. I think the fire officers do their job and that we have rules and regulations in England, but actually escape rooms is such a different industry that we should have our own levels, our own expectations.
It’s not just about a fire exit or a door [being] marked correctly. It’s also about how the game starts. Are you handcuffed? How do you get out of those handcuffs in an emergency? I have played a room since the Poland game, there is no way on earth that my team would have got out had there been an immediate fire! So, clearly they passed the fire regs, but that’s not enough.
So that’s the sort of authority we’re talking about, I think there should be some sort of basic regulations that we stick to which is way above the regulations that we have to for the law.
Paul Wright: It only makes sense doesn’t it, to have that in place?
James Ducker: I don’t see the argument against it.
Paul Wright: No.
Kelly Molson: What’s next for escape rooms? Their popularity is growing.
James Ducker: If only we all knew. We do debate this a lot. There are some big players coming into the market.
Paul Wright: Sorry, when you say we, who do you mean?
James Ducker: Anybody on the Facebook groups. So the owners’ group or the enthusiast group. It is vibrant. It is constant, lots of discussions going on, and lots of arguments that go on. The arguments across the pond argue with the best.
The Americans are desperate for something called Gen to come in. Is it a Gen 1 room, Gen 2, Gen 3. Gen 1 would be padlocks, Gen 2 would be basic tech, Gen 3 would be more tech. So in England obviously we take the Michael out of the Americans and say, “I’ve got a Gen 3000 room.”
Gen, this concept of electronics really is a push that the market is having. It’s actually not a push that I’m a massive fan of. I still like a padlock. I still like to enter a code into a padlock, feel it open and it’s that touchy-feely.
Kelly Molson: It’s tactile, isn’t it? It’s that element of being able to pick something up and hold it.
James Ducker: Or just try things as well. So when I’m training, which is a slightly weird word to use, teams after the event, no matter how good they are, I’ll still go in and say, “You could have got this, could have done that.” And one thing I will say about the four digit, or any digit, actual padlock, is you can try it as many codes as you like. It will not lock you out.
You give me a safe, or most electronic devices, and they will lock you out for a period at some point. So all of a sudden you get nervousness over trying ideas. But that’s what escape rooms are about. Developing ideas and flow processes and firing off each other and coming up with numbers. Usually numbers, sometimes letters. If you take away the padlock element, you’re taking away an element of [that].
That is not to say that tech can’t be used. That is not to say that tech isn’t fantastic to sometimes use in a very tactile way as well. It can be terrific.
Arguably the best room in England, it’s been voted as the only room in England in the top 50 in Europe, is Curio, which is owned by Escapologic in Nottingham. Fantastic company, Simon is the owner. He helps set up our conference, so he’s brilliant in the industry.
Their big thing, I think I’m allowed to say, is that the whole room is no technology. So it’s fantastic and everyone loves it, it’s why it’s the best room in England. Yet he’s gone a slightly different route of just changing people’s thought process about what they expect when they walk in a room.
Paul Wright: Because it’s completely different to any other. And it’s something that’s new and as soon as you walk into it it’s like, wow, this is cool.
James Ducker: Exactly that. You get different types of teams. Different types of thought processes. I’ve got ideas of what I like, but you’ll get those who say, “I just want to play rooms that are stunningly immersive”. So what you want is build quality. You want 10s of thousands, £100,000 spent on the sets.
If you go to LA, so I’m told, I haven’t been there, because of Hollywood you’ve got set designers that help as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great room in my opinion because I like puzzles. But set design is a massive thing. Is there set design? Are the puzzles any good? Is there tech? Is there not tech? You’ll get certain teams saying I want to play rooms with no padlocks because they think that’s next level or that’s what they enjoy.
So when teams are with me and they play the games, I’ll then say to them, “We talked earlier, what did you like? What didn’t you like?” And you’ll get children say, “Well, I want to play with more remote control cars.” And I’ll say, “Well there’s a great room in north London that I’ve played that I really enjoyed that’s got lots of cars.”
Or you’ll get a team saying, “Do you know what? It’s not as dark or as scary as I thought it would be.” Brilliant. Go up to Norwich, there’s a great room in Norwich that’s really scary, but no live actors. Then there are those who say, “Well, I want some live actors.” Brilliant. Same company, Escapologic in Nottingham have got The Butcher. It’s a famous room. The butcher will come in at some point to kill you.
Kelly Molson: That sounds terrifying.
James Ducker: 80% of teams leave before the end because they’re so scared.
Paul Wright: Wow.
James Ducker: Only really scary room I’ve played is Edith. I played with S2, that’s the only reason I took it on because otherwise I wouldn’t have got out. [A man] will keep appearing out of the darkness, just to make you jump. I knew there was a puzzle the other side of the room, I didn’t do it because I knew he was over there.
Paul Wright: I’m probably the same. I’m not one for getting scared. I don’t like it.
Kelly Molson: That’s off-limits.
James Ducker: I just can’t deal with live actors. And a lot of people say that to me actually. I can do scary but I can’t do live actors. And live actors, that brings us round to my actual thought process, where is it going? Well, things like live actors. So live and immersive theatre is this phrase that’s been around for a while now.
Are escape rooms getting closer [to that]? They are. It’s not where I want them to be because I think escape rooms should be based on puzzles, not on theatre. There’s a fairly recent room, that I won’t mention, that opened and people are saying you almost walkthrough. That’s not where I think our industry is. Is there not space for all of this?
Paul Wright: It’s very diverse isn’t it. It seems like there’s a room for everyone, but I suppose for the customer, it’s knowing what room is going to suit them?
James Ducker: Yes, and they don’t. Another frustration of mine, when people go on websites, what do they see, what do they book, why do they book? I’ve come to the conclusion that they book on name.
So the School of Hard Locks, just think about the connotations to schools, so clearly children are allowed. If you’re an adult, well I’m going back in time to my school days. It’s not going to be threatening, it’s not going to be scary, hopefully. So the name itself is really what drives people.
There are rooms out there that use strobe lights but don’t advertise it until you’ve already booked. That is wrong. But there’s nowhere you could sort of click on and say, right, I want a scary room within 50 miles that uses no live actors, go. We’ve not got to that level yet in the industry.
Paul Wright: Do you think that will come soon, rather than later?
James Ducker: Yeah, I do. The likes of Exit Games, which is terrific, and it was this first one that I booked or started and it’s got a dot for every room in the country, it tells you where they are and it has reviews of those rooms, but it doesn’t quite have the functionality that we’re talking about there.
Kelly Molson: They should call us because we could build that for them.
James Ducker: They should.
Kelly Molson: They should.
James Ducker: I think there’s too much subjectivity in the review process right now, and again if you look at where they started, it’s about five years old now.
And it started with only a few rooms, hint hunts, time run, in London, and the big boys of the industry and the initial enthusiasts simply went in and said this is a good room, this is not a good room, in fundamental terms.
Now there are over 1200 rooms in England, it’s probably more like 1400, 1500, somewhere about that number. You can’t just say “good room” or “bad room” because of the subjectivity issues.
My last review actually wasn’t stunningly happy, but it was okay. He didn’t understand what I was trying to do. So you’ve not just got what a room is, it’s what’s it trying to be.
The jewellery heist was trying to be all things for all people. So when he walks in, as an enthusiast, an experienced guy, and he says it hasn’t got this and this, well I can’t put one room that’s built for you. It just doesn’t work anymore. [I’ve] got to build rooms that are open to everyone.
Kelly Molson: On that note, as we come towards the end of our podcast chat, we want to know what’s next for you? What comes next?
James Ducker: Next, so there is a planning application in with Rushton, which is about 45 minutes away. Hopefully, well it’s a bigger venue, it would have five rooms in it instead of two.
Kelly Molson: That’s exciting.
James Ducker: I want to build a slightly more scary one because I haven’t built a scary one yet. So a Sweeney Todd room is the idea. Having said that, two Sweeney Todd rooms have opened since I started designing a Sweeney Todd room, there’s something out there in the ether.
A who killed JFK room? A conspiracy theorists room, which sounds the same as the JFK, but it’s not. And then perhaps a more child-friendly [room], so specifically aimed at kids, specifically aimed at families.
I played a very enjoyable one in Kings Lynn that was aimed at children recently and I thoroughly enjoyed it, even as an adult. But I did beat their time. I am quicker than six year old children, I’ll make that clear.
So Rushton, another venue and hopefully more after that. Everyone in the industry is looking at expanding. There’s not a business out there that doesn’t say I want some more rooms. That will cause its own problems.
I believe Singapore as an industry has already got too big and therefore gone pop. Because the expense of AdWords gets higher and higher et cetera, et cetera. So there are going to be massive challenges to the industry. We’re obviously not going to talk about Brexit today.
Kelly Molson: Nope.
James Ducker: But disposable income, entertainment income, the money you’re willing to spend on entertainment is all going to be massive challenges for us. But definitely another venue and hopefully get the repeat business that we’ve got here, but into more rooms.
Kelly Molson: It’s really exciting.
Paul Wright: I just wanted to ask you if for anyone who was thinking about creating an escape room, what tips would you give?
James Ducker: Probably hire me.
Kelly Molson: I think that would be a great idea.
James Ducker: What would the tips be? You know, someone asked this fairly recently on Facebook and the comments back, three, four, five of them, were don’t do it. Think again. Do something else. It’s a lot tougher than you think.
Getting two and a half years in now and I’m basically happy. It’s taken a long time to get to where we are. The risk-reward would be my number one tip. Are you willing to put in the risk in order to get the reward? The larger the venue obviously the bigger the risk or reward. Do you go smaller or not? Most rooms would start smaller as I’ve done.
It’s almost a make or break I think this market, because at one, two even three rooms, making a reasonable profit, or making a living, is virtually impossible. As much as there are lots of rooms out there, everyone’s living at fairly low levels.
So number one would be, are you willing to take the risk and reward? And if you are, do it and do it properly, four, five, six, seven rooms, bigger venue. Better place. Invest, or loans, et cetera. But you consider the risk carefully before you do it.
Paul Wright: It sounds like innovation as well is key.
James Ducker: The industry will constantly develop itself. The room that you built today will be outdated in two to three years. But yeah, you need to be willing to innovate, have ideas, and try and put your ideas in place.
I’m not going to try and compete with the tech boys. I haven’t got that in me. As much as I’m teaching myself basic technology at the moment, that’s not my strong point, so I’m going to stick with strong flow, strong logic, strong puzzles, and let the others do that.
And if people want to play [the tech] rooms, I will send them to those rooms, I’ll tell them where they are. And if they want to play my sorts of rooms, hopefully, they’ll enjoy it.
Paul Wright: What you’ve been saying as well, it sounds like being part of the community as well has really helped you and been key.
James Ducker: Yeah, very much so. As frustrated as I get with it, I read it 10 times a day. There are constant posts and there are constant good posts and there are constant bad posts and you learn from the bad posts as much as you learn from the good ones.
What they’ve done wrong is important, it’s very important. And it’s nice that people admit what they’ve done wrong or the problems that they’re having, so yes, that community is massive if you’re willing to immerse yourself into it and, in particular, listen to the people that know what they’re doing.
The S2, the Kens, the Marks, there are people out there that do know what they’re doing and they’re willing to talk to you, so talk to them.
Paul Wright: And yourself, of course.
James Ducker: Goes without saying, almost goes without saying.
Kelly Molson: James, thank you so much for your time today, you’ve been a fabulous podcast interviewee.
James Ducker: Pleasure.
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