Thinking outside the escape room: Decode Detroit's pandemic pivot

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.


Decode Detroit entered 2020 ready to hit the ground running. After being named America's second-best escape room by USA Today in 2019, Decode expanded by purchasing a new Ann Arbor location at 3170 Packard Rd. in addition to its location at 16 N. Washington St. in Ypsilanti.


However, three months into the year, COVID-19 forced Decode to close for the health and safety of employees and customers.


"It was clear in March that we'd be lucky to serve half of the numbers we did last year," says Patton Doyle, co-founder of Decode Detroit. "We lost the sense of momentum."


Decode had to lay off all 13 of its part-time employees. After three months with no revenue and the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, Doyle knew Decode needed to offer customers a new, virtual, socially-distanced experience.


Decode received a Match on Main grant and a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan to pay developers to create a new game. Doyle says he and his team wanted to find a solution that was interactive, but safe and comfortable for participants to play.


"We wanted to produce something people could go play outside so they could be safe," Doyle says. "We also didn't want people to touch things if others were touching them, so we considered a lot of safety details."


As a test for outdoor games, Decode released a mini-puzzle game, "Spellcasting," that participants could play outside the Decode Ypsilanti location. The game allows people to solve a puzzle by matching colors on their mobile devices with the colors hanging in Decode's window.


In late August, Decode introduced a new full game, "Around the World in 30 Minutes," at its Ann Arbor location. The game is also played outside, with players viewing clues and destinations in the window displays and using their mobile devices to solve five challenges.


"We wanted to give people the sensation of travel, which inspired the idea of 'around the world,'" Doyle says. "We aren't able to travel to many countries right now, so this gives people the opportunity to travel virtually to these various destinations while also staying safe."


To ensure no large crowds gather in front of the display, groups can reserve a time to play. Registrations cost $34, and Decode recommends playing in groups of no more than four, ideally with the people in your home.


Doyle says player response to "Around the World in 30 Minutes" has been positive and inspired ideas for other possible games in this new environment.


"Let's presume we're operating like this for another year," Doyle says. "How do we make these spaces exciting and operable for people?"


With Michigan winter ahead, the Decode team is now working on another new game that keeps players warm without sharing common space. People will be able to play inside their own cars in the parking lot behind Decode's Ann Arbor building, viewing projections and listening to a radio broadcast to receive clues. The new game is targeted to launch in late November.


Doyle says he's looking forward to making the most of the situation – and the changing weather – to create a unique experience.


"It's a combination of what is interesting and available to us," Doyle says. "We have the opportunity to do things that wouldn't make sense in summer, so we'll be running this exclusively at night."


Post-COVID planning


While a new way of playing has been received well by participants, Doyle says Decode will still return to indoor operations once it's safe. He hopes to open another location in Detroit in the future as well.


"Our expertise is in the physical spaces," Doyle says. "We haven't changed the idea of something physical, but [this experience] has changed our parameters of what we might do with that space. There's a new creative vision from here."


In the next year, Doyle says his main priority is to bring back some Decode team members who were let go earlier in the year.


"This year is a challenge to survive, and we've definitely faced that," Doyle says. "For us, it's an opportunity to change and thrive. Even if we have to do games differently right now, we're doing something exciting enough for the players and it's sustainable financially."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at


Photos courtesy of Decode Detroit.