Rankings of any kind always stir up a lot of emotion. Especially when they have a big impact on a particular industry. One such popular ranking, which decides which escape rooms are the best in the world, is TERPECA. Today you have the opportunity to meet its creator - Rich Bragg. In the interview with Rich you will learn about the history of TERPECA and how it works from the inside.
Rich Bragg is a very experienced escape room enthusiast. I had the opportunity to meet him in person during RECON 2022 in Boston. We had a long chat about the Escape Room market, his company embedded in the world of Escape Rooms and Escape Room Championships. But the most important topic was TERPECA. He told me so many interesting things that I decided to invite him to the pages of Escape Buzz and ask him more about this initiative.
Bartek: Hi Rich, we are here today to talk about TERPECA, of which you are the founder. It was created from your passion to escape rooms. So let’s start with a simple question - how did your adventure with escape rooms begin and what - beyond TERPECA - connects you to the industry?
Rich: I was always into puzzles for as long as I can remember, but my love for puzzle-driven immersive experiences predates escape rooms by more than a decade. It started in 2000 when I was in graduate school at Stanford, and there was an article in the school magazine called "101 Things You Must Do Before Graduating" and one of the things on that list was to play "The Game" -- a weekend-long, van-based puzzle hunt that involved teams of about 6 players that would rent a team van, solve puzzles, and visit cool locations, all following some kind of story or plot. After learning about this, I played the first chance I got the following year, and was instantly hooked. After that point, I sought out and played everything I could in this vein, and still do to this day, although those experiences are now exceedingly rare.
As much as I enjoyed it, the Game community was generally pretty underground and fairly niche. I wanted to change that, so in 2012 I quit my job and teamed up with a friend to start a company called ClueKeeper with a goal to build a software platform that could help facilitate creating the types of games that I had grown to love. I still run ClueKeeper to this day - it is now available in seven languages and is used all over the world, often by escape room companies that want to offer experiences that extend beyond the walls of their establishments, but overall it is still a pretty niche business.
Now, coincidentally, it was also in 2012 that I played my first escape game, when SCRAP, generally recognized as the first escape game company in the US, opened up in San Francisco. Their first few escape games were what we now refer to as "ballroom games", in which there are multiple teams all playing at once in a big ballroom, and while those were fun, they seemed not all that different from the types of various puzzle hunts I'd played in the past. After a few ballroom games, in late 2012, they launched "Escape from the Mysterious Room", which was the first single-team escape game which is more or less what we envision when we think of escape rooms today. And of course, it was super fun and I was excited to see where this might go.
In 2014, my friend Dan Egnor, who is now a TERPECA Board Member, a designer for Palace Games in San Francisco, and well known in the escape room community in general, organized a 6-game escape room crawl for a group of about 10 friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before then I had never played more than one game in a day, but this was a huge success and a bit of an epiphany that escape room crawls could be a thing. A couple years later in 2016, Dan organized a 6-day, 37-room trip to Los Angeles for about 20 people, and it was clear at that point that escape room travel was going to be a big part of my life going forward.
Since then, I've developed connections to the community in many different capacities. I'm active on the Escape Rooms Discord, and before that, the Escape Rooms Slack, where TERPECA was born. I've attended escape room conventions such as TransWorld and RECON at different times representing ClueKeeper, TERPECA, or just myself as an enthusiast. I've twice participated in the Red Bull Escape Room World Championships, and now three times in the ER Champ online competition and have seen what the "escape rooms as sport" side of the industry looks like. In 2018, I was on a team of four that traveled to Moscow and set the Guinness World Record for most escape rooms attended in one day at 22 (which has since been broken twice and now stands at 32!). And I've traveled all over North American and Europe playing rooms and meeting up with fellow enthusiasts and owners wherever I've gone. The one constant is how warm and friendly this community is everywhere I go, as it seems like I have instant friends all over the world that share this common passion for escape rooms.
Bartek: TERPECA is now 5 years old and well established. But let's cover the basics. What is the idea behind it? How was it changing and evolving over time?
Rich: The initial idea for TERPECA was a combination of a couple things. One was a desire to know where the best games were to help plan future trips, but the other was a frustration from other escape room rankings like USA Today where the outcome was determined by anonymous polls that would always turn into more of a marketing contest than a useful determination of which games were best.
With TERPECA, I set out from the start to design a system that would do its level best to actually try to fairly compare games from across different markets in as meaningful a way as possible, and I spent a fair amount of time thinking about and designing how the best system I could come up with would work. My number one goal each year is to do my absolute best to present a ranking that most accurately reflects the collective opinions of the project's contributors, as if we were all a bunch of friends sitting around comparing notes. Obviously TERPECA isn't and can never be perfect, because there is no ground truth to discover here, so any ranking should always be taken with a grain of salt. However, I do believe that determining a ranking that most accurately represents the opinions of the impressive set of contributors we have is itself a worthy and useful goal, and it is that that I am striving for.
As for how it changes and evolves, every year I meet with the board to discuss what went well and what didn't, and how things should be changed the next year. We also have an annual post-awards survey to collect data from the community about what changes they'd like to see and what's working and what isn't. Major changes in the past have included things like adding an online room category for 2020 and 2021, and then removing both that category and the company category in 2022. Smaller changes have included things like rules around room eligibility, conflict of interest rules, language rules and more. And sometimes we add new things, like this year we started collecting information on how scary rooms are, based on feedback from many contributors that this was something they'd like to see. And finally, every year, I look at the details of the algorithm to see if there are any ways I can improve it, and so far, every year I've found ways to make it just a little better than the year before.
Bartek: The awards have a big impact on the industry. In my opinion, they have strongly contributed to the growth of an escape room tourism movement. They are also a great marketing asset in the hands of escape room owners. There is no doubt that your project has an impact on many businesses. How do you feel about such responsibility? Do you feel the pressure?
Rich: First off, I am beyond honored by the idea that TERPECA has had any kind of meaningful impact on the industry whatsoever. What started off as literally just a fun side project I was planning to do over a couple weeks back in 2018 has really become much much more than I ever dreamed it could be. I don't really know to what extent it has helped this "escape room tourism movement" you speak of, but I do know that I personally make heavy use of the results from the project for my own planning, so that's certainly its own reward. Funnily enough, this year I had two different owners reply to the email we sent them letting them know they'd been nominated with a request to be removed from our "spam list", so I can't claim world domination just yet.
But yes, I absolutely do feel the responsibility and the pressure more than you can imagine, and I do more so each year. Ask any of the ambassadors or board members and you'll realize just how serious I take this responsibility. Knowing that people do care about these awards and that it even can affect some people's livelihoods in some way is a huge motivator. Basically, from about mid-September until the awards show in December, running TERPECA is a full-time job, and sometimes more. I am committed to doing every last thing to make things as accurate and fair as possible at every step, and even though I have tried to delegate as much as possible to the ambassadors and board members, I'm still involved in every phase of the process to make sure that the rules are enforced similarly across all countries, we do our absolute best to identify and weed out any bad actors, and much more.
I don't think some people realize how much work this all is, so I do tend to take any efforts to manipulate the system as a personal affront. There have been occasions where people sign up with the clear intent to deceive us with a goal to help their own businesses rather than help with the goals of the project, and as my goal here is to support and promote the industry, I see these actions as akin to me going into their escape room and intentionally breaking all the props. Fortunately, I actually have a background in spam-fighting, so I think we do have a pretty good track record of catching the folks trying to do things like this, but every time it happens I take it pretty hard.
That said, I get tremendous joy and satisfaction from the positive reaction and vibes I typically get from around the community, both from grateful owners and designers being recognized for their work and from players that find the resource useful, and that's what keeps me motivated to keep pressing on.
Bartek: Let's go back to the escape room tourism. Recently this became a strongly noticeable trend. Teams are traveling the whole world mainly to explore local escape rooms. For example, Greece is currently a very popular destination. How about you? Do you travel to explore escape rooms around the world?
Rich: Absolutely. At this point in my life, escape room tourism is probably my absolute favorite pastime. I'm constantly thinking about where I'd like to go next and when I can realistically make it happen. The TERPECA results are the primary input for me personally when it comes to choosing both destinations in general and what to play at those destinations. The trip I'm currently most looking forward to is one to Athens in late April so we can play the newest #1 game on TERPECA, Chapel & Catacombs.
Bartek: You are reviewing countless reviews of escape rooms from all over the world. Do you notice any region-specific features of escape rooms?
Rich: Absolutely! There are definitely region-specific features nearly everywhere I've been.
Spain, for instance, is not only big on horror, but also many to most of their games have cold starts in which you start the game immediately upon arrival, and often you either have to use the restroom ahead of time or sometimes you even unlock the ability to use the restroom from within the game. Greece seems to have very long games - many are 2 hours long or more! So playing 4 games in one day in Greece is more like playing 8 games in one day in the US. Those are just some examples from where I've been. I understand that there are a number of games in Israel that are food-themed, which you don't find in many other places, but I haven't yet been there to experience that for myself.
But, yeah, each place I've visited certainly has had some things that are its own flavor, and it's always exciting to visit a new region to experience those differences.
Bartek: TERPECA is still growing, but does not cover the whole world right now. It focuses mainly on Europe and the United States. Do you plan to expand it to other parts of the world?
Rich: Well, for starters, we're absolutely actively looking to expand to underrepresented regions where there are rooms that can be played in English. For instance, we had a few contributors from some Scandinavian countries this year that participated for the first time, so hopefully we'll get some more from there. And I'd definitely encourage people from places that aren't currently covered well to apply to contribute so we can fill these gaps.
As for places without rooms available in English, that's a tougher question. While I'd love to include all rooms available in any language in principle, we do revisit this on the board every year, but it seems each year we've actually gotten a little more galvanized in our current approach.
The biggest issue in supporting non-English games is that the algorithmic approach we use requires that rooms should be as connected as possible, meaning ideally there'd be at least one person that has played any pair of rooms. In practice we don't achieve this, but so long as there is some path between any pair of rooms, it still basically works. However, if there were ever two separable sets of games that had no comparisons, the algorithm would break down. This might be the case, for instance, if we included all the apparently amazing games from China, none of which are available in English. We'd be able to rank all the games in China relative to each other and all the English games relative to each other, but there would be no meaningful way to compare those groups to each other.
Furthermore, since English is the language that even Europeans typically will play games in when they visit other European countries beyond their own, it has for better or worse become the de facto language of escape room tourism, which is the target audience for TERPECA anyway. Thus, by keeping English as the common thread between all the games we recognize, it keeps the project focused and useful for our specific audience.
Bartek: As a daily work I run a ranking of the escape rooms. I can clearly see the difference between experienced players and beginners in terms of the approach to rating escape rooms. It is quite frequent that the opinions of these two groups differ. In TERPECA you allow only experienced players to participate - could you tell us where this idea came from and does it meet the expectations?
Rich: For starters, as an enthusiast myself, I have always found that I could get the best and most reliable information about what games to play by just asking other enthusiasts.
Beyond that, the reason that we require 200 rooms to be a nominator is that the number should be big enough that most nominators will have played some games outside their own local market, as in my experience you don't really know how good the games around you are until you've played in a few other places. It also means that we can attribute real meaning to what it means for a room to receive even a single nomination - the idea that someone who has played 200 rooms thought a game was one of the best they've ever played holds a lot more meaning than a similar claim from someone who has only played 10 rooms.
The reason there is a limit for voters is a little different. To some extent, it is still useful to be sure that we're getting the perspective of enthusiasts, since as you've seen enthusiasts may have different things they look for than newbies. But also, by making the club a little exclusive, not only does it keep the applicant review workload from getting out of hand and allow us to carefully scrutinize every application, it also helps keep the feel that this is not just your standard internet poll - we take it very seriously and want to be sure you're invested enough in the industry to do the same.
I believe this approach has worked well for us, although to be fair, it's difficult to say exactly how different things would look with a different approach without having done it. I do think that in general the idea that enthusiasts are giving their opinions to help out other enthusiasts is a pretty cool concept, since on a micro scale that's exactly who I'd seek out for their opinions on something like this anyway.
Bartek: What's next? What are the development plans for TERPECA? Do you plan any major changes to the formula?
Rich: Well, we haven't had our annual offseason board meeting this year yet, so I can't say for sure what changes are in store for 2023. I do think that after 5 years, I'm feeling like things are getting pretty dialed in more and more each year, so I wouldn't expect anything too drastically different aside from just trying to expand the reach. But you never know what might crop up between now and September.
As for the formula, I don't expect major changes there either, but as the general approach of creating global rankings from partial ranked lists is actually an active area of mathematical research, if and when I learn about an approach that I think will do a better job than what I am currently using, I'll certainly consider switching to it. More likely though, I'll find some small tweaks that will make small improvements, as I've done every year so far. That said, this is actually the first year that I'm not going into the following year with something I definitely think needs to be improved with the algorithm, so that's promising!
Bartek: Let’s talk about the formula for a moment. TERPECA is currently focusing on the games themselves. However, escape rooms are service companies that serve customers. Maybe it would be valuable to evaluate the whole customer service, from booking the game to the end of the visit, including on-site service and good practices of the company. At some places you get the impression that running an escape room business ends with building the room itself. What do you think?
Rich: Well, in the very first year, 2018, we actually had a Top Company award which was nominated and voted on directly and separately from the Top Room award, and the idea was to capture things just like what you mention. However, it turned out that in the end, the company rankings were almost entirely correlated with the room rankings, and we didn't really see a lot of meaning in the differences. This is why we then switched to derived company awards from 2019 to 2021, and then finally eliminated the company awards in 2022.
Beyond that, as one who has always used the TERPECA results to select rooms to play and places to visit, I found that I pretty much ignored the company results when doing so anyway. So while I do think it is interesting to consider those facets independently, in some sense, I think they're baked into the room-specific awards in cases where they meaningfully impact the player experience already, and when it comes down to it I think escape room travelers are picking rooms based on the rooms and not based on the companies. I think if people have excellent experiences or bad experiences with customer service, it is going to impact how they perceive the game for better or worse, and I fully expect it will impact how they rank those rooms as a result.
Bartek: Let’s go back to the awards themselves. Will there be an Oscars-style live gala? Will there be physical trophies for winning escape rooms?
Rich: I'd be lying if I said I haven't daydreamed about both of these things, but sadly I don't see either happening in the near future.
The biggest issue in both cases is financial. Currently, TERPECA is entirely volunteer-driven and has literally no source of income, and it costs real money to make trophies and host events. And not only do I think this volunteer-driven nature actually resonates with the community that these awards are not financially driven and are done only for the love of the pastime, but also as soon as money is involved, it would introduce a lot more complexity to the whole organization. We'd need to do accounting, file taxes, and do a lot of that kind of stuff that we currently don't have to do.
There are also some additional complexities with having an awards gala, since if we're honoring companies from around the world, it seems like it would be a big challenge to get enough escape room owners to get there in person to make it worthwhile. They can do it in Spain for their annual awards because at least in that case they just have to go a relatively short distance, but that doesn't scale when it is worldwide.
That said, I'll never say never and maybe someday these things will happen.
Bartek: More and more awards are emerging on the escape room market. From local ones, as in Spain or Poland, to global ones, such as Bullseye Awards or Golden Lock. How do you assess this trend? Are there already too many awards, making their value devalued?
Rich: I know that there are a lot of people working really hard to build great experiences in this industry and having different ways to be recognized for that is great. I know that even the ones you've mentioned all take a slightly different approach from one another and I believe there is a lot of value there that TERPECA alone does not provide.
I guess it's not really for me to say whether there are too many awards or not. I have a specific goal in mind with TERPECA and to my knowledge, no one else is trying to fulfill the same niche that we provide. If they were, and were executing on it more effectively than we were, I'd be happy to pass the torch.
Bartek: Are there things you need or people you are looking for to help you with TERPECA? Maybe someone reading this will be able to help.
Rich: Sure! First and foremost, if you're an enthusiast that has played 100 or more escape rooms and wants to help other enthusiasts find the best rooms, please sign up! Beyond that, I'd say the biggest need is to find new ambassadors for countries that have world-class, English-friendly escape rooms where we don't have representation yet. Ambassadors cannot be owners or close affiliates of any escape room businesses, and ideally would participate as a TERPECA nominator for at least one year first.
And of course, you don't even need to be an official ambassador to help evangelize the project - please encourage any eligible enthusiasts you know to sign up and help us grow.
Bartek: Thank you Rich! I hope we will meet soon on big Oscar-style TERPECA gala!
Escape room enthusiast with over 550 visited rooms. Co-founder of escape room marketplace lock.me, escape room board games series Escape Tales and Escape Room World Championship Er Champ. In his spare time guitar player and lover of psychedelic progressive rock.
Have you ever wondered what working in an escape room looks like? Probably a lot of people think - owners build the room, and then sell tickets, let groups in and give hints if necessary. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Running an escape room involves many other aspects that players often don't know about.