Experiencing a (real) virtual escape: How a business innovator created his EXIT strategy

When Justin Tang, founder and director of EXIT Canada, relocated from Hong Kong to Canada in 2013, he wanted to act quickly to capitalize on the growing popularity the real-life escape room concept was gaining in East Asia and successfully port it to Canada. 

In November 2014, EXIT Canada, which simulates escapes from virtual reality game rooms, won Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Innovation of the Year Award. EXIT has inspired several other similar businesses to open shop throughout the Lower Mainland.

EXIT started out as a real-life escape game where participants are challenged to discover ways out of locked, themed rooms. Some of EXIT’s original scenarios included trying to escape from a prison cell, a laboratory and a sunken ship reminiscent of point-and-click puzzle video games. However, Tang and his team plans to expand and extend this concept into other video game genres such as action-adventure, role-playing games and racing. His team has fleshed out around 30 new themes for use in future franchised EXIT locations throughout Canada. Ultimately, Tang’s dream is to create a brand that can rival theme parks like Universal and Disneyland: an interactive theme park for gamers.

“I always wanted to bring virtual entertainment into real life and I could see the opportunities in Canada. It sounds like dream,” says Tang. “And everyone has a dream. But if you don’t work for it, it’ll stay a dream.”

From a booth in Hong Kong to an Innovative business in Canada

Justin Tang, founder of EXIT Canada. | Photo by Simon Yee

Justin Tang, founder of EXIT Canada. | Photo by Simon Yee

Before starting EXIT, Tang was working in Hong Kong as an exhibition booth producer for several years where he helped construct fancy, elaborate and intricate booths that evoked imagery and atmosphere of the products being sold. For example, a jewelry store booth exhibit could be shaped in a form of a diamond. It was doing this job that provided Tang with valuable experience on how to design and maintain a brand and also contributed to his decision to bring the newly burgeoning business of the escape game to Canada. His parents were skeptical about his decision to move to Canada, but supportive.

“In Asia, the real-life escape game concept was only a few years old. Somebody in Japan came up with that idea and I thought, okay, this could be the first step towards bringing virtual reality into real life,” Tang says.

Success is 99% failure

For the first several months in 2013, Tang started the business by himself and was the only one working on the design, layout, gameplay and investor materials. The stylized ‘double-E’ (出) in his company logo is a Chinese symbol for ‘out’ and his initial promotional video was purposely vague in order to foster curiosity and attract prospective customers and investors to try it out and experience EXIT first-hand. But Tang credits his team, especially his earliest employees who started out as customer service representatives but became pivotal creative artists and designers, for the success that EXIT had experienced throughout 2014.

“Admittedly, in the beginning months, EXIT’s gameplay was way worse than it is now!” says Tang. “No one person could do everything best, and I wanted to find out what my team was capable of. And I think they’re reaching an A-grade to my C- grade [in 2013]!”

Regarding what makes EXIT’s gameplay different from other escape game parlours, Tang quoted the old aphorism: “Success is 99% failure”, which he applies equally to the difficulties users face when trying to escape, as well as to his own dreams.

“Over there [in East Asian parlours], if you create a game that is too hard to play they don’t like it. Here, we have many customers who book the same rooms to try to beat it,” Tang says.

Tang says EXIT doesn’t compromise on theme and gameplay to make it easy because the customers he attracts are those who are in it for the experience, not just to win.

“Our game success rate is 1% but our gameplay attracts people who never give up. Every business would be happy to see repeat customers, but for us it’s more rewarding to see how they are not giving up.”

Visit www.e-exit.ca for more details.