Joining Forces: Puzzle Break Enters the PanIQ Room Family – An Interview with Puzzle Break Founder Nate Martin
Life is full of meaningful connections. PanIQ Room was founded in Europe in 2012 as the second escape room company after Parapark, and Puzzle Break followed suit in America in 2013 as the second facility of the continent after SCRAP. With both brands boasting rich histories, the two companies have joined forces, making Puzzle Break a part of the PanIQ Room family. PanIQ Room is proud to feature Nate Martin, co-founder of Puzzle Break, and is honored to continue his legacy with the hope that the Puzzle Break name will shine even brighter with PanIQ’s support and network.
Can you tell us about your first escape room experience and what motivated you to create your own business around escape rooms?
I spent the better part of the 1990s engrossed in the golden era of point-and-click adventure PC games from Myst to Grim Fandango and everything in between. In early 2013, I was a successful-but-not-terribly-fulfilled software executive when I happened upon SCRAP’s Escape from the Mysterious Room. It was an amazing experience, but contained many design decisions that I didn’t think would fully connect with an American audience. As my soon-to-be co-founder and I started discussing how well a real-life escape room would do in Seattle, we decided to try it ourselves. We opened our doors to our first location in August 2013 and the rest is history.
You have an exceptional partner in Dr. Lindsay Morse. How did you both become business partners, and how have you shared roles within the company since?
She is indeed exceptional! She has an unmatched love of puzzles & stories and her design DNA is foundational in every Puzzle Break experience. After the initial burst of success of our first room (we were moonlighting for the first couple months), we quit our day jobs and grew from there.
If you had to choose, what do you think is the most important element of an escape room: creative puzzles, elaborate theming, or immersive storytelling?
I don’t think there’s a single “right” answer to that question. There are great rooms out there that focus on each / some combination of those categories. As the escape room industry continues to grow and mature, there’s increasingly interesting niche areas of focus to accommodate audiences of all proclivities.
That said, I’m a puzzle guy through and through. My personal enjoyment of an escape room is directly proportional to the quality of the puzzles and the rest is just noise.
Which do you find more challenging: developing new games (creative phase) or running a business (operational phase) with a high customer satisfaction rate?
Creating excellent escape rooms is uniquely challenging (particularly since we had to create the roadmap from scratch ourselves), but it’s only “one” thing! Growing/running a successful business is “every other” thing and can be overwhelming without a lot of support from an excellent team.
Your blog site on the Puzzle Break website is very informative. Why did you find it important to write about entrepreneurship and escape rooms, aside from the obvious SEO benefits?
I have a lot of strong opinions and the world needs to know! =)
But seriously folks, there’s not a ton of scholarship on escape rooms / escape room entrepreneurship (yet). I’ll take any opportunity to signal boost.
Puzzle Break struck a strategic deal with the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line in 2015, which was a huge step for a small and emerging company. Can you tell us more about that experience and how you managed to work with such a large entertainment conglomerate?
The cruise industry is absolutely bonkers. Every day can bring a new unexpected challenge. From a flight delay devastating an itinerary to a taxi strike in a port town to an insurmountable shipyard language barrier to cross-planet shipping logistics gone sideways, you have to be prepared for anything! It can make operating on land feel like a breeze.
Royal Caribbean has been a great partner. Their entertainment team has the grand vision to deliver some of the most truly epic experiences you’ll find anywhere on the planet, including some inimitably ambitious escape rooms that would be impossible to deliver without an experienced army. When you factor in the difficulty of doing that work at a global scale in the middle of the ocean, it’s awe-inspiring. I’m very proud to be a part of something so exciting.
While many escape room companies struggled during the pandemic, Puzzle Break managed to have extremely lucrative years thanks to its virtual escape room games. Can you tell us more about how you came up with the idea and executed such a high-quality product in a short period of time?
Since we opened our doors in 2013, a significant percentage of our clientele has been B2B audiences. Due to increasing demand greater than our physical locations would allow at one time, we designed and developed our first large-scale we-come-to-you-in-person portable escape room experience in 2015. It was a steep learning curve to capture the magic of a single group escape room into a scalable form factor, but 5+ years of doing those portable games gave us a huge advantage when the pandemic hit.
We were able to use all of our design and operational learnings from those portable games and release a series of 6+ virtual escape room experiences with impossible speed. The strength of the Puzzle Break brand, the quality of the experiences, and our alacrity gave us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring the magic of escape rooms to a global audience in their team of need. As an added bonus, virtual escape rooms are perfect for a world embracing work-from-home.
How do you currently view the state of the escape room industry and what trends do you see in the future?
My current view of the escape room industry is “brimming with respect”. It’s impossible to overstate how challenging the pandemic was for our industry, and I am truly and deeply impressed by how my colleagues were able to navigate the madness in such creative and thoughtful ways.
As for the future, my prediction has been and remains: specializations. Most escape rooms out there have more in common with each other than not. Length, difficulty, target demo, group size, themes, etc.: we keep seeing the same things over and over. Imagine if every movie was the exact same genre, shared the exact same structure. What a boring world! It is only a matter of time until we see meaningful divergence in designs to give each audience the perfect experience for them at heretofore unseen levels.
Do you remember who was your favorite guest? Any celebrity clients or memorable charity events?
We’ve had more than our fair share of celebrities, but I’ve never been too comfortable revealing identities. That said, if you’re a business leader in the Pacific Northwest or a puzzle-minded musician on tour in Seattle, you’ve probably been through our doors.
And I could never choose a favorite guest (or room!)
How do you feel about PanIQ Room taking over your legacy? We aim to smoothly integrate Puzzle Break into PanIQ Room, create a stable workplace for your employees, and cultivate strong relationships with your business partners. We want to express our appreciation for the hard work you’ve put into building your company.
I appreciate the kind words, and commitment to thoughtful stewardship. One of my favorite things about PanIQ is how nice everyone has been. There are too many jerks in this world and kindness is an effortless lever to improve the world bit by bit.
Growing an escape room business is no easy feat, and PanIQ’s global expansion is truly impressive. I’m very proud of what my team and I have created at Puzzle Break, and I’m eager to see what another global leader in escape rooms can do to take it to the next level.
What are your plans for the future? Will you continue to visit escape rooms as a customer, or are you retiring from the industry as a founding father of escape rooms?
Professionally speaking, I look forward to continuing to advocate for the escape room industry, personal & professional development through gamification, and experiential entertainment writ large.
As for being a customer: I’ve played ~500 escape rooms across over a dozen countries and I look forward to running up the score more aggressively than ever!