In season 3, episode 7, we chat with Tommy Honton, creator of the award-winning escape room Stash House. He is a master craftsman of experience design with his bottomless bag of tools, combining storytelling and game design to create memorable, playable experiences.
It’s no coincidence that Tommy’s been mentioned by so many guests on this podcast. It’s clear his huge network exists because he genuinely cares about elevating the escape room community and helping like-minded creators succeed.
It was fascinating to get a glimpse into Tommy’s methodical creative design process. His approach to escape room design is deliberate and thoughtful, designing all aspects of the experience based on what he calls an “adrenaline map.” I especially appreciated the insight into his beta testing process. Tommy is so passionate about elevating the craft of immersive gaming and advocating for other creators. It’s easy to see why many escape room designers consider him a mentor.
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Topics Discussed in this Episode
- Tommy talks about the difficulties of networking as an introvert, and how it all changed when he finally discovered escape rooms and immersive theater. [1:07]
- Tommy says his biggest motivation for networking and connecting with people is having an insatiable curiosity about projects that interest him, and an intense desire to see talented people succeed. [4:02]
- David comments that networking is socializing with purpose. [5:10]
- Peih-Gee mentions that Tommy’s strong suit is following through when he reaches out to connect with people in the industry. [5:27]
- Tommy tells us about how Marty Parker, one of the first escape room designers and creator of Trapped in a Room with a Zombie, was one of his first mentors in the immersive space. [6:27]
- Tommy talks about his experience working for the corporate machinery at Disney and how disillusioned he was afterwards. [7:41]
- Peih-Gee comments that that’s probably why escape rooms are such a cottage industry made up of creative minds who shied away from corporate life. [14:06]
- Tommy and David talk about feeling trapped in a job and offer their advice for others in this situation. [15:13]
- Tommy talks about how the illegal underground restaurant Starry Kitchen was one of his inspirations for Stash House, his award winning escape room in Los Angeles. [18:36]
- Tommy walks us through the narrative arc of Stash House. [20:05]
- Tommy talks about why he deliberately chose to not have a lobby because he wanted the theatrical part of the experience to start as soon as possible. [21:45]
- “The magic circle is practically invisible and people don’t know when they’re stepping into our world.” [22:58]
- Tommy talks about how he designs his experience based on “adrenaline mapping,” managing the excitement levels of his guests from the moment they find his game, through when they book it, arrive, and even when they leave. [24:41]
- Tommy talks about working with a controversial theme for his escape room, and how some of the influences for Stash House include the TV shows Breaking Bad and The Wire, as well as the video game Grand Theft Auto. [27:46]
- Tommy talks about how he wanted to tell a story that was uniquely set in Los Angeles. [30:15]
- Tommy discusses establishing stakes in an experience, and how he prefers smaller, personal stakes rather than larger grand stakes like “the world is ending.” [32:32]
- Tommy talks about designing the right experience for the right medium, including identifying the constraints and the right toolkit to use within each constraint. [38:25]
- Tommy tells us about creating a business card with a small ARG puzzle hidden on it that got solvers added to the beta test list for Stash House. [42:29]
- Tommy describes his iterative testing process and gives us an example of how he designs based on observing how people move around within the gamespace. [44:24]
- Tommy talks about why he considers observational data more useful than verbal feedback. [47:00]
- Tommy gives an example of receiving negative feedback on a certain puzzle, and how he changed the puzzle by observing player interactions. The puzzle eventually went from a most disliked puzzle to a favorite puzzle. [49:31]
- David mentions that when he tests his designs, he likes to record facial expressions and collect data on emotions experienced. [51:14]
- Tommy and David talk about the importance of continuing to observe and make changes after opening an experience to paying customers. [52:23]
- Tommy talks about his experience with escape jams, an event where a group designs an experience together in one day. [55:37]
- David talks about how some of his favorite moments from virtual escape jams are watching people go from panic to elation after going through the entire creative and testing process. [1:00:00]
- Tommy talks about the importance of giving back to the community through leadership in organizations like ERGO and LEIA that advocate for the escape room and immersive industries. [1:08:05]
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- REA Review of Stash House
- King’s Quest – popular point-and-click adventure game by Sierra
- Marty Parker – one of the first escape room owners
- REA Review of Trapped in a Room with a Zombie
- Starry Kitchen – an underground pop up restaurant
- David Simon – creator of the HBO series The Wire.
- A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin – Suspense novel with narrative misdirection (Don’t read the summary if you want to avoid spoilers)
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
- David Eagleman – neuroscientist and author
- Jeb Havens – game designer, video game developer, and creator of Escape Jams
- Linked Dance Theater – immersive dance theater
- Delusion – a haunted immersive experience
- REPOD episode featuring Jon Braver, creator of Delusion
- ERGO – an escape room advocacy group
- LEIA – an immersive theater advocacy group
About Tommy Honton
Tommy Honton is a writer and experience designer specializing in the intersection of interactivity and narrative. He has produced work around the world for audiences of all sizes and regularly lectures about writing, games, and design. He is also the co-creator of the award-winning escape room Stash House and co-founder of the interactive exhibition Museum of Selfies.
Other recommended podcasts
Escape This Podcast is a show that’s a mix between tabletop roleplaying and escape room puzzles.
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