The first challenge in playing a Claustrophobia adventure game is to find the entrance to the venue. In the square behind a block of flats across the river from Gorky Park in central Moscow, a door stands next to the children’s playground. There is no building attached to the door; only a small brick block as the door leads down into a bunker under the playground. It is one of more than a dozen Claustrophobia venues scattered around Moscow, recognisable only by the company’s key-like logo that is discretely displayed on the door. Most are housed in apartment buildings, with a few in run-down industrial lots. This particular one leads to a mocked-up sewer that is home to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adventure.
In early May, Afisha Daily, Russia's main entertainment online magazine, published a list of Moscow's 21 best quest games, eight of which are run by Claustrophobia, the leader of a new and rapidly developing segment of the entertainment industry.
Just a few years ago, this kind of entertainment was unheard of in Russia. But today, despite the troubled economy, people are flocking to to part with a few thousand rubles to play these quest games – similar to the “American Horror Story” television series. You have to book and pay in advance, and getting an hour-long slot can be hard because of the high demand.
Arriving at the bottom of the stairs, you are met by the ‘keeper’ who makes you empty out your pockets into a locker. Phones in particular are strictly banned, as the company doesn’t want punters sharing the solutions on the internet to the string of problems that you have to solve to negotiate the course over the next hour.
We are a group of five, one adult and four small boys, and the keeper takes us down the black, bare corridor and lets us into a small room with a cage grill on one side leading into the second room. The clock has started to tick and we have 60 minutes to work out how to rescue a hologram of April, the heroine of the story, from her chains in the last room. There are various logic problems, codes to break, locks to pick and secret keys or buttons to discover in the course of getting to the end of the adventure. It is a lot of fun.
A new quest
The company was set up by Russian Bogdan Kravtsov, who arrived at the idea for the company totally at random. ”I was riding a commuter train and was making up some stuff to occupy my mind,” he tells bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview. The stuff he was making up evolved into the concept for a quest game.
Curious, Kravtsov decided to find out if anyone else had already set up a quest game and it turned out that there was no entertainment of that kind in Russia, although quest games were already popular in other former Comecon countries like Hungary. “Surprisingly, Budapest was the capital of quest games,” Kravtsov says, explaining that 20 companies are running 40 quest games of various complexity.
Kravtsov spent some time exploring Budapest’s quest game scene and decided to take the idea back to Russia, with some tweaks. “Quest games that I took part in didn’t have a special atmosphere, you just resolved one problem after another,” he says. “We’re offering more serious problems and we also have some unexpected stuff. They don’t have things like playing the piano to get a cue. They’re doing it in a more simple and cheap way.”
With no competition, the business opportunity was obvious, but the trick was to get the concept right. “Just copying what others were doing wasn’t enough for us,” says Kravtsov. “From the outset, we were focused on realism of the environment, attention to details and maximum immersion in a game.”
Each Claustrophobia game has a theme. Other courses we explored were based on the story of the movie “Aliens” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, but not all the themes are related to movies. The hardest course we have attempted so far – there are three levels of course from easy to hard – was a game where you had to escape from the office of a dictator before the people riot and overthrow the government.
And the courses are pretty high tech. There are interactive computer screens, specially made equipment making use of light and sound, and even keys disguised as doorknobs. A lot of thought and effort has gone into creating ingenious clues and problems. According to Kravtsov, the initial investment was just RUB1.5mn ($22,600). “Subsequent funding came as reinvestment of profits,” he says. “More recently, we invested more than RUB15mn ($226,000) in the development of the web site and IT infrastructure alone.”
Claustrophobia has proven to be enormously successful and Kravtsov has rapidly expanded using a franchise model; collectively the company is running 153 quest game rooms in 11 countries, including Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the US. Just five of them are operated by the company directly, with two more being set up now, while the remainder are run on a franchise basis. Claustrophobia won’t disclose its financial results, but “the company is profitable”, Kartintsev says.
The crisis has not hurt business at all. Incomes are falling, but Russia had such a comparatively high income level that the 10% drop in salaries seen since December 2014 has done little than squeeze most of the middle class and most can still afford to spend a few thousand rubles for an entertaining afternoon. “We basically launched during the downturn, and the company's most rapid growth coincided with the time when the economy bottomed out,” says Kravtsov.
He adds that Claustrophobia hasn't taken any specific steps to adapt to the recession environment. Moreover, the company projects expansion and growth. “Before the end of this year the number of quest game rooms in Russia is supposed to hit 200, while that figure abroad should reach 100,” Kravtsov says. “Our goal is to remain the world leader in terms of the number and quality of quest games. We also plan to enter the markets of Latin America and China.”