Above: Matthew Ao presenting the plan to East Lansing's City Council.
A new type of gaming business will be opening downtown in the coming weeks: escape rooms. The for-profit business known as “ESC The Room” will be located in the basement of 301 M.A.C. Avenue (the northwest corner of M.A.C. Avenue and Albert Street).
As we reported in ELi’s January 5 Council Capsule, East Lansing’s City Council unanimously approved a Special Use Permit application from Matthew Ao, owner of the business. The permit “[allows] for a game room referred to as an ‘escape room’ where participants work to solve puzzles as a group in order to win the game.” Before the approval, Council had a variety of questions for Ao, many of which stemmed from the core question, What is an escape room?
I followed up with Ao to learn more about this new-to-downtown establishment.
Generally, an escape room includes a player or group of players being “locked” inside a room and using clues planted throughout the room from the floor to the ceiling to solve an elaborate series of puzzles to “escape.” The number of puzzles or riddles to solve depends upon the room’s level of difficulty. One room could have over 20 such puzzles, which could include finding a key for a locked chest, deducing clues from a journal inside a desk, or even solving a mystery.
For safety reasons, players may leave at any time via the unlocked passage through which they entered. Rooms are also continuously monitored by staff through the use of video cameras.
Escape rooms first became commercially successful in Japan and soon after found much success in China and other parts of Asia. They’ve since expanded to other continents, with a couple hundred now in the United States. (Ao has visited rooms in both the US and China.) There are fewer than ten in Michigan, including one in Okemos. ESC The Room will be East Lansing’s first.
Constructing an escape game room is no small task. I asked Ao about his process, and he responded, “Coming up with the puzzles takes hours. […] I generally will start with an object, and then build around that. For example, I want a little journal that somebody wrote in, with pages mysteriously missing. My goal is to try to immerse the players in a story, and I think a journal would help with that. Now [I could hide] the missing pages around the room, and once all the pages are found, the dates on each page could reveal the combination to a locked box somewhere. The players would have to figure out to use the dates based off hints inside [the] wording of the journal.”
At ESC The Room, Ao will operate three rooms to start, each with a separate theme (which can be updated or changed-out over time) and with varying levels of difficulty. For his three levels, he envisions success rates of approximately 90%, 70%, and 50%. For all rooms, the time limit for completion will be one hour (i.e., a player or team has one hour to “escape” the room). Up to six players may participate in a single room at once. Nothing is particularly “won” or “lost” in the game — it’s instead about the challenge itself. (Ao may track and display times for each room.)
Games will be by appointment only, with reservations available 12:00-10:00 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 12:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. Friday-Saturday. Each game will cost $20 per person. Ao anticipates opening on February 15.
While he hopes that a wide range of people are interested in ESC The Room, Ao does have one particular target audience in mind: businesses looking for unique team-building exercises for co-workers. “I think this would be something most any company should be interested in trying out with their teams,” he told me.
Ao completed his undergraduate studies with a major in Computer Science at MSU in 2014 and is now a software engineer at TechSmith. A son of Chinese immigrants, he was born and raised in Novi, Michigan.
ESC The Room isn’t Ao’s first entrepreneurial venture; he cofounded the tech startup The Song Market, LLC, and developed and published a couple of Google Chrome extensions. Ao is also currently in the process of re-opening (this week) LAX, a billiard hall with private karaoke and mahjong rooms, located in the upstairs of 301 M.A.C. Avenue (above ESC The Room).