Opinion: No escape from out-of-home VR

Develop’s editor Jem Alexander discusses the out-of-home VR market and how escape rooms are delving into digital.

Escape rooms are exploding all over London. The rooms themselves aren’t literally exploding, of course, but I’ve noticed frankly ridiculous growth in the market in cities all over the world. It seems that being locked in a room with a group of friends and attempting to solve the puzzles inside to win your freedom has universal appeal. 

Being a game set in meat-space, with no digital component (indeed, many of these rooms require you to leave your phones and other devices outside the play space), they’re distinctly separate from the broader games business. However, these experiences are still very much related to video games, forged as they were in the fires of Flash gaming. Crimson Room, the first example of the genre, is responsible for what is now a rapidly growing real-world business. Not bad for a wee Flash game that plonked players in an empty room with nothing but their own curiosity and a locked door.

And it’s highly likely we’ll come full circle, with escape rooms delving back into the digital world, thanks to an expected explosion in out-of-home virtual reality attractions. VR in the home is proving to be fiddly at best, and impractical at worst. For the Vive and Oculus, a dedicated VR play space is necessary to fully enjoy the experience and many people simply don’t have the room. The technology’s youth means costs are high and compelling content is rare. 

This will change and the industry will adapt to these constraints, figuring out a set of best practices for the ultimate at-home virtual reality experience. Although it will be a long way from the Holodeck for some years, and may be much more limiting than some anticipated when they were sold the VR dream.

"It’s likely we’ll come full circle, with escape rooms delving into digital."

Jem Alexander, Develop

But these limitations in the home actually create opportunities, not only for escape room owners but for game developers as well. Speaking to several escape room designers, interest in experimenting with VR seems very high. The technology will allow them to fully immerse players in their worlds in ways where a decorated set might fall short. It’s essentially the jump from theatre to cinema. 

Suddenly escape room owners are creating virtual worlds, something which comes with its own unique set of restrictions and foibles. Luckily, there’s an entire industry full of skilled and  knowledgeable designers, coders and artists with the necessary experience to create these interactive digital environments.

At which point escape rooms, and out-of-home VR experiences in general, very much become part of the video games industry. Game developers will help build them, funneling decades of expertise into this new medium, and then the crossovers will come. There’s already been a (non-VR) Resident Evil escape room, but that’s just a taste of what we could see in the coming years. 

The ultimate dream is that this heralds the rebirth of the arcades. A space where games aren’t sold as products, but as experiences. Judging from continued growth enjoyed by escape rooms, there’s a pretty penny to be made, especially once passionate, hardcore gamers catch wind of it.

Jem Alexander has been in the games industry for ten years, stuck in a perpetual leap frog between journalism, publisher marketing and development. Previous homes include Square Enix, Sony PlayStation, Riot Games and Six to Start. He’s now editor of MCV’s sister title Develop and can be reached at jalexander@nbmedia.com.

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