Patton Doyle never planned to be in the escape room business.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the August, 2019 issue
Doyle, twenty-eight, is a graduate of Pioneer, U-M, and MIT, where he earned a master's in transportation engineering in 2016. That same year, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan rolled out a $160 million, four-county transit plan. He moved back to Michigan hoping to be part of the twenty-year project.
But then voters turned down the RTA millage. After considering his options, Doyle jumped into an entirely different industry.
Escape rooms challenge players to solve a series of puzzles and mysteries within a set amount of time (usually sixty minutes), using clues, hints, and strategies to complete the objective. According to RoomEscapeArtist.com, the U.S. had twenty-two escape rooms in 2014, just under 2,000 a year ago, and many more expected this year.
"My mother is a puzzle designer who gave my brother and me incredibly elaborate birthday parties, including a two-day Amazing Race across Ann Arbor," Doyle says. His brother Peter is a computer science major at the University of Florida, his father is a skilled carpenter, and his friend Paul Roberts is a writer working toward an MFA. "We decided to pool our skills and talents and build an escape room of our own," Doyle says. "I'm really lucky. It's not often that you get to work with your family and friends and you love everything you're doing."
Many escape rooms offer random puzzle-solving challenges within a tight time frame, but Doyle's team, he says, "aspired to Pixar-level sophistication. We wanted a strong story element, and we liked the idea of employing artificial intelligence to assist--or sabotage--the players."
Last fall, they opened Decode Ann Arbor at 4072 Packard, a laboratory setting for a succession of puzzles. In February, they opened a second location in downtown Ypsilanti. The two facilities offer vastly different challenges and story lines, as will Decode Detroit, which he hopes to start work on later this year, assuming planning commissions, building inspectors, and architectural plans permit.
The Ann Arbor location offers technological
challenges; the Ypsilanti location enmeshes participants in a story of intrigue, priceless archeological relics, and secret societies, within the ambience of a nineteenth-century English mansion. In one game, you're a techno wizard aided by Minerva, your artificial intelligence assistant, trying to save the world from a pandemic. In another, you are James Bond, locked in an English mansion, striving, with the help of a virtual phoenix named Moosho, to discover the secrets of an ancient magical society.
"We bootstrap our business," Doyle says. "We've done most of the work ourselves. I got a builder's license so I could do more of the hands-on work--and there is a big crossover between this and my engineering classes."
Doyle operates his business with ten part-time employees ("and another ten extended-family members") pitching in. They tweak the challenges to the ages and skill levels of their audience: from ten-year-old birthday partiers to adults of all ages. Corporations hire the facilities during the week for team-building and problem-
solving bonding. And Doyle has also designed a series of puzzles that "graduates" of the Decode rooms can discover and solve on a tour of downtown Ann Arbor, in coordination with a host of participating local businesses.
"I may do something else in five years," he says, "especially if I compare my bank account to what I could have earned as an engineer. But no one can buy half as much enjoyment from a job that lets me work with my family building puzzles."
[Originally published in August, 2019.]
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