Written by Andy, Tim & Contributors

The Stories Behind The Stats: Deadlocked Escape Rooms

So far in this series we've looked in detail at some of the challenges facing businesses who operate closely with us in the hospitality sector, such as pubs, bars and bottle shops, largely showcasing clever pivots into new channels or different ways of working. One of the biggest losses, and one of the hardest things to try to live up to, is the ‘experience’ factor. Generally, perhaps, the feeling has been that while we can’t replicate face-to-face service and atmosphere, consumers have been truly appreciative and supportive of at least being able to get access to good beer or good food.

But what do you do when your product is your experience? The pandemic and lockdown has impacted independent businesses of all shapes and sizes in all sectors. One that caught our eye recently is Deadlocked Escape Rooms. Their operational challenge has been one of the most severe examples we’ve seen, but their creative response has been one of the best.

Read on to find out more...

Give us a quick intro as to who you are...

We're James and Charlie, the weirdos behind immersive escape room company Deadlocked (and the bespoke wedding reception escape room company 'Wedlocked'). We create crazy, themed experiences to lose yourself in for an hour or so to escape reality!

We've been running our base in Reading alongside various popups for 3 years now and have entertained thousands of locals, companies and tourists with our hand crafted puzzles and unique storytelling.

We both come from a professional acting background (you can find a plethora of our movies in your local HMV horror sections) and are both experienced game designers.

How did the pandemic affect your business?

The first thing we noticed, right back in February, when we first heard of 'Covid 19', was our bookings starting to slow down. We'd gone from being sold out most weekends to having huge gaps between games, leaving us and our staff a bit lost and confused.

Then we started getting the calls for cancellations - we don't normally offer a refund, as much like any other theatrical experience we sell our tickets in advance and can't really resell but of course we didn't want to jeopardise our customer's health or our staff by forcing people to come, so we were issuing thousands and thousands of pounds worth of refunds for pre-booked games.

That was seriously painful, but we took the hit in our stride.

We started noticing strange things going missing - people would come by the rooms for a game, and raid our cleaning cupboards on the way out! We were nearly offering a free loo roll with each escape room, the panic was crazy around the great TP shortage, I think one of the most surreal experiences for us was using bike locks to secure our toilet rolls to the sink.

Then of course we had to close our doors officially. That was the hardest thing to do, because we didn't know how long it would be for, what support there would be, or how we would pay our rent. We were, and still are, terrified about losing our rooms, that we've both worked so hard on to build ourselves, with zero outside help.

We made the decision to create an online version of an escape room game, something we were previously developing as a boxed game, and worked night and day for weeks to transform it with the new intention of gifting it to any of our wonderful customers who would accept a gift voucher instead of a refund and to anyone who bought a voucher to support us.

This original 6-hour game, called 'The Insiders' is a super immersive quest based in the world of corporate espionage, set across 3 chapters with a few days break in between each one so you wouldn't know when you might receive a message or fresh bit of intel on your mission. The game went a bit viral - we had people from all over the world asking to play it, and we gifted it out across the world to help ease the lockdown boredom and help people to 'escape' the situation a bit.

We gave it to loads of other escape room companies to gift to their customers too, and it became really popular after being heralded in Stylist Magazine as one of the top 5 games in the world and also mentioned in The Independent. We were very, very proud to be quite pivotal in the online escape room industry.

For us it was about keeping the conversation going around escape rooms, so people wouldn't forget about us or so the trend for escape room experiences wouldn't die whilst people were unable to actually get to a venue, it was about keeping the words 'Escape Room' relevant, even in a lockdown. Now it's a huge industry in it's own right, which is amazing.

What are the main challenges you're facing right now?

The main challenge that we face right now is a common one - uncertainty. We still have rent to pay with no concessions, and we have no idea when we will be allowed to open to the public again. It is currently physically impossible to maintain social distancing in escape rooms, and there are a lot of touchable props that will be very difficult to sanitise in between each group.

We have always prided ourselves on being able to offer an incredible experience even for small teams of two players, because to be honest we made our rent from big corporate team building days, and so were able to run really affordable games for smaller teams and families.

But it's going to be a long long time before we are booked for those big gigs again, and Christmas parties (our real bread and butter for the year) are almost certainly off. Even though our online games are being played, they aren't really making us a lot of money. We have been saving every penny we have to put towards the massive redesign we'll need to make our rooms Covid-19 guideline compliant.

But it's not all doom and gloom, we'll keep figuring out how to stay afloat. We don't need a lot of money. We're both a bit hippie and we're not materialistic in the slightest; it sounds corny but as long as we have our health, and our puzzles, enough for pizza and beer, we'll be ok.

How are you reacting? What's inspired you?

We are incredibly lucky to be surrounded by some incredible fellow small business owners, who absolutely pull us up by our bootstraps and keep us focused when so often we have felt like we were fighting an uphill battle.

Our very next door neighbours are the incredible indie Reading pub The Castle Tap - they have been hugely inspirational to us as they have been a hub for the community during this time, offering help to anyone they could. They have continued to offer takeaway beer and to be a pickup point for sustainable product company 'Maya's Refillables'.

We are also close to arguably Reading's answer to Lauderée, the insanely talented Wolseley Street Bakery. There have been quite a few times when we forgot to eat or brave the shops and they have checked in on us to make sure we at least had bread! Most memorably during an epic 6 hour live-streamed tournament of our games, Davy and Romi ran over to supply us with cake to keep us going right to the very end, I don't think we'd have kept up the energy without that.

We are also perpetually inspired by James' mum Judi, who even though she has been totally in solitude during the lockdown, has been a constant stream of positivity and support to us by listening to our rants, sending little treats our way just when we needed them, and helping us plan our next moves.

At times like this, you truly realise the value in community! We've also been trying to find lots of small ways to 'pay it forward' where we can. Kindness is so desperately needed in the weird new world, and the actions of people *right now* are shaping the way the future will form!

Tell us more about The Cyphstress

Speaking of community, we were utterly utterly shocked when Darron, (founder of Siren Craft Brew) reached out to us because he saw what we were doing, saw our passion and enthusiasm, liked it, and he wanted to collaborate.

We are huge Siren fans (James nicks the Calypsos out of the fridge, luckily Charlie adores Yulu) and we get really excited seeing it anywhere outside of Reading. So when Darron asked if we could do a 'simple puzzle pack' to sell alongside their mixed cases for their customers, we knew we were never going to do 'simple'.

We pulled out all the stops and created something crazy - a hugely emotive ARG - or 'Alternative Reality Game' that we named 'The Cyphstress'.

We design and code everything in house and we absolutely went to town. We made one small concession to our usual 'do it ourselves' way though and we commissioned a piece of art from the wonderful Robin Jeanes, who also runs a tattoo and wrestling convention that funnily enough we were actually both booked to be a presenting double act at before the lockdown.

We wanted to create a logo that paid homage to Siren's classic imagery, with a bit of our own style woven in. He did an amazing job and we're so proud of the artwork, we're nagging him to get t-shirts printed!

During the game you must navigate through custom interfaces, with beautiful professionally-recorded songs to guide you, use real internet stalking across social media to hunt down our hero, T, and join him in answering the Siren’s Call - a plethora of (coincidentally headliner beer themed) puzzles created for you by The Cyphstress, who wants to test your worthiness before brewing up a legendary beer, based upon an ancient recipe. Our favourite puzzles are the star puzzle inspired by Lumina and the ancient wall of Yulu!

The game touches on mythology, is teamwork heavy, with about 3 hours worth of puzzle solving content across two chapters and is easily the best thing we've ever created, in our opinion. It's very easy to make a captivating story when you love the theme, and we knew it would go down really well with puzzle fans and craft beer fans alike. After all, the Venn diagram between those groups is pretty much a circle - we're amazed this hasn't been done before and hope we can continue to make escape rooms featuring our favourite beers. That's the dream right there!

What are you most looking forward to about getting back up and running?

Whilst it's been an amazing experience running our games online whilst in our pyjamas, we are performers at heart and anyone who has played our real life games know how much we give of ourselves to that, every game.

We really miss making a connection with people and getting lost in our own little stand up routines with bigger teams who love to interact with us in character, and there's nothing like the buzz of watching a team solve puzzles and gaining confidence in skills they didn't know they had.

We get wrapped up in every game, even behind a screen we're the biggest cheerleaders and we can't wait to get back to watching teams succeed and most importantly, enjoy themselves, whether it's solving our Sherlock Holmes-style mysteries, shutting down and defeating our megalomaniacal AI, or jumping through time, fixing our wrecked spaceship and saving humanity in future timelines!

We've definitely made some new fans with our online games and we can't wait to welcome them all in person, and wrap them up in our world for a while, making them at the centre of their own adventure. That's our goal - but for the moment, it's an absolute pleasure to sit with a cold one, tune into our online games via our in character clue system and help players to defeat The Cyphstress!

See the rest of the Stories Behind The Stats here: sirencraftbrew.com/stories

The Cyphstress Mixed Case