The employees of Level99 show up to work every day, searching for that perfect blend of challenge, fun, and frustration. Their workplace ― a low-key industrial building in Norwood ― is full of the types of tools you’d need to craft colorful magic crystals, build cannons that shoot racquetballs, or design a giant arcade-style claw game that will be played inside a faux submarine. Matt DuPlessie, the founder of Level99, plays the role of Walt Disney — if Walt had earned a mechanical engineering degree from MIT.
DuPlessie has a solid claim to having created the first escape room in Boston in 2004, though he isn’t one to brag about it. More recently, he has been working with Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich to elevate the escape room genre with Level99, which opened its first location at the Natick Mall in mid-2021. A second location is expected to open at the Providence Place Mall by January, and the company is hunting for locations in other cities.
The concept: escape rooms for people with short attention spans, along with craft beer, pizza, and pub food when you want to take a break. When you enter any of the 44 rooms at Level99 in Natick, you’re not locked in for an hour as with a typical escape room, where the goal is to get out before your time is up. Instead, you’ve got a maximum of four and a half minutes to solve the challenge you encounter. It could be a puzzle, like figuring out how to set a dinner table when every guest has a long list of requests, or it could be physical, like dodging bamboo poles that are trying to whack you inside a dojo. You’re not given instructions in advance, and if you violate any of the unwritten rules of the game, you’re bounced from the room. Then you can decide whether to line up and try again, or choose a different room. Admission is $30 for two hours, or $50 for the entire day. (Prices on Saturdays are slightly higher.)
“There’s a hunger for this type of entertainment,” DuPlessie says. “People want to do something real, put down their phone, go out with their friends, and eat real food. They’re tired of twiddling their thumbs and looking at a screen.”
According to DuPlessie, more than 90 percent of the customers at the Natick location say they came specifically to play at Level99, as opposed to roaming the mall and stumbling across it. The company does minimal paid advertising, DuPlessie says, relying on word of mouth and social media posts on TikTok and Instagram to pull in new players.
With its massive population of college students, Boston has proved to be a welcoming place for interactive entertainment concepts. DuPlessie started a company called 5 Wits in 2004. It featured Egyptian and espionage-themed environments in the Fenway and at Patriot Place in Foxborough. David Spira, who runs the website Room Escape Artist and organizes a conference for the industry, says that “the very first company that made something that looked like an escape room was 5 Wits.” Both of those locations are now closed, but 5 Wits still operates a half-dozen in other states, and DuPlessie is the majority shareholder.
The first US franchise location of a Swedish concept, Boda Borg, opened in Malden in 2015. DuPlessie was involved in designing three of the rooms there, including an Alcatraz-themed prison escape. Its rooms are more “segmented” than Level99′s — completing a challenge in the first segment gives you access to a second and third space — and while it sells snacks and beverages, it doesn’t have hot food or a liquor license.
The latest entrant, Immersive Gamebox, opened in June at the Natick Mall, just down an escalator from Level99. That concept, from a London-based startup, is very different: Groups of players enter a room where all of the walls are digital displays. They use body movements to compete in games like Angry Birds, Squid Game, or Paw Patrol.
Chad Ellis, the chief executive officer of Boda Borg’s Malden franchise, says that it is approaching the same level of monthly visitors as it saw before thepandemic. Ellis says he has begun discussions with the franchiser about the possibility of opening another location. He has already secured rights to open a Boda Borg in Houston, or in any US city with a population under three million, but his top choice would be Chicago.
Ellis says that he doesn’t view Level99 as a rival.
“While we do compete, [their opening] has done more to increase people’s awareness of the space.” He says that he doesn’t charge DuPlessie and Level99′s employees to visit Boda Borg, and vice versa.
“I’m kind of hopeful that Boston will become a reality gaming hub for these larger concepts,” Ellis says. “The interest in this type of activity is much bigger than the places you can do it.”
The Boston area is also home to many smaller escape room operators, like Trapology and Boxaroo. Victor Hung, a veteran of Boxaroo and Level99, is working on a new concept, Midnight Mansion. Hung says it will resemble so-called “open world” videogames like the Legend of Zelda franchise, “but in real life,” and he is targeting a late 2024 opening.
Enabling Level99 to expand to Providence is backing from Shaich’s Brookline-based investment firm, Act 3 Holdings. Shaich says that while Level99 is the first entertainment-centric concept that Act 3 has funded, it satisfies several of his key criteria for making an investment.
“We’re looking for large categories or niches with tailwinds behind them, and looking to be able to build a better competitive alternative, and a dominant brand,” he says. Shaich says that Act 3 owns half of Level99.
Back at Level99′s Norwood workshop, DuPlessie grabs a stack of printouts — just about as much paper as he can hold with both hands — and makes the point that creating a fun night out for college students, or a Wednesday afternoon off-site for a corporate group, is a bit of an obsession for him. The printouts are all designs for different proposed challenges, many of which didn’t make the cut.
“We brainstormed 2,000 ideas for Natick over two years,” he says. But “90 percent die on the vine” after the first time they’re presented to the group.
Others die after the Level99 team built a mock-up, like a prison escape challenge where you would lose if a searchlight touched any part of your body.
“It was hard to know if it caught the back of your foot, or someone else’s hand,” says Kyle Reid, a former Walt Disney “Imagineer” who joined the company last year. “It didn’t quite pan out.”
Challenges that make it past the mock-up stage get assembled in a back room at the Natick location, or in the Norwood workshop. Then they’re shown to some of the company’s diehard fans. (Because Level 99 uses a tracking wristband to let customers check in to each challenge, and also keep track of when their time is up, it has a database of its most loyal and accomplished customers.)
“It’s so much more valuable to test with real people than employees,” DuPlessie says. “We’re all too close to it.”
One mantra at the company is “easy to learn, but hard to master.” Games shouldn’t be too opaque for a first-time Level99 customer to grasp — but they should also be able to vex the company’s veteran visitors. The company uses Microsoft Excel, along with its own custom-coded software, to analyze how people play its games, and to strike that perfect balance.
“Our goal,” DuPlessie says, “is to crack fun, to figure out what it genuinely is.”
And then export that to cities around the country. Surrounding DuPlessie in Level99′s workshop are disassembled pieces of rooms and game elements that are ready to be installed in Providence. After that, he says, the company’s third, fourth, and fifth locations will probably be outside of the Northeast.