Trappings of success

WHAT was initially a way to make spare cash eventually turned into a lucrative business.

Close friends Leo Ka Wai, 30, Johnny Ong, 30, and Ee Wil Ken, 27, first established Breakout, a unique character-based escape game operator, with two other partners in 2014.

Each escape theme room has its own storyline, puzzles, tasks, and stratagems that have to be completed within 45 to 60 minutes.

Players will be locked inside each game room and will start with different scenarios such as being handcuffed, trapped, or even caged.

Using their wits, the clues given and utilising teamwork, they need to solve the puzzles to break out from their respective rooms.

With two outlets in Malaysia, and outlets in five other countries (the company is known as Novus in the US and Saudi Arabia), it looks like our guys are in the serious business of fun.

In an interview, the trio spoke about their Breakout journey.

How did it all start?

Ong: I was an engineer in Western Digital. They used to send me abroad for projects. My ex-colleague in China brought me to play this ‘escape game’ that was quite [popular] at that time. I liked it. I believed that I could do better. When I returned to Malaysia, I looked up Leo and the guy who handled our IT, Gavin Lim, who is my wife’s colleague. (Ong’s wife Low Kelly also became a business partner.) We then roped in Ken, who is my wife’s sister’s boyfriend, whom we found out was good in interior design.

Leo: Ken was our junior in college.

How long does it take to design a room?

Ong: Normally it [takes] two to three months to design a room.

Ee: We have clashed over ideas many times. Johnny needs to visualise the idea, and sometimes I might come up with something he did not imagine. So we need to draw it out so it is easier to see and get a better idea. There have been times when I thought he meant something, but actually he did not.

Leo: Sometimes Ken will conceptualise something.

Ong: I am really bad at drawing (laughs). Sometimes Ken draws or comes up with a good idea. So why not?

Ee: We develop the storylines together.

What inspires the concepts?

Ong: One thing about us is that we like to watch movies a lot, especially those made by Christopher Nolan.

Ee: We like sci-fi films.

Ong: I like stories that make you think after you watch them. A lot of times we would discuss a storyline, and change it to make it unique.

How different is the Breakout here compared to the ones abroad?

Leo: It is the same, but we do some localisation in terms of languages. In Saudi Arabia we have to do some cultural adaptations.

Ong: In Saudi Arabia they are quite sensitive to certain things like female portraits. So we have to remove those and do some [minor] changes.

How many Breakout rooms do your outlets have?

Ong: We have 12. In Nu Sentral we have seven, in Avenue K we have five. In the outlets outside of Malaysia, we generally have four to five rooms.

Ee: We have rooms of various sizes. When we first started in Avenue K we started out small and so the rooms are smaller.
We have bigger space in Nu Sentral and so the rooms are bigger. The rooms are roughly 200 to 250 sq ft.

When you came out with the idea for Breakout, did you ever imagine that it would sell?

Ong: No. Our first intention , was to make some extra cash. But when we started on it, we put all our heart into it. Maybe that’s the reason why it worked.

Leo: Most of our franchisees tried out our game rooms and liked them, and then approached us to open one in their country.

What is the demographic of people who regularly come to Breakout?

Ong: We attract a lot of tourists. Our main demographic are people aged between 18 to 35.