The Guy Who Designs Puzzles for Escape the Room

If you haven’t heard of Escape the Room, you’re missing out.

The concept, which was initially inspired by online games, is much more thrilling as a live experience. You’re locked inside a web of 150-square-foot rooms for an hour, maybe with your closest friends or maybe with strangers (you decide which is scarier), where you must work as a team to find hidden objects and decipher clues in order to solve the puzzle and break free.

Behind the curtain — or in this case, behind a big TV monitor on a perch outside the room — is Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, who co-founded several Escape the Room locations with his friend Max Sutter. (“Think of it like a karaoke bar,” he says. “Anyone can open one.”) They now have three spots: New Haven is their flagship, but the Escape Industries network, which they co-founded with local partners, also includes Sacramento and Rhode Island. They build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years.

“When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer, so similar tendencies are at play with the Escape the Room design,” Rodriguez-Torrent says. He’s experienced 20 or 30 different rooms, but he’s still no master: “I should be better than I am.” Here, he discusses the key to success (in Escape the Room, but also in life), how he creates puzzles in a former brothel, and the time he almost banned a bachelor party. Spoilers ahead.

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Sutter.
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent (right) with his co-founder, Max Sutter.

Age: 26
Based in: New Haven, Connecticut
Graduated from: Majored in East Asian studies at Yale

Previous jobs: I was applying to be a police officer when I injured myself, so I had to back out at the last minute. I was also bartending and working at a gallery of Chinese art.

The first time you went to Escape the Room: It’s been around for almost a decade outside the U.S., but is fairly new here. At the start of 2014, I read a New York magazine article about the first person to make it a big thing in New York, and I immediately said, I need to try that that. Now. I booked two tickets and got a friend from high school to go with me — I was blown away. But I kept noticing that it was low-budget and not very well thought-out. I thought, If this were me, I’d do it differently.

How so? I wouldn’t have [an employee] in the room telling me what I could and couldn’t touch. Instead, I’d have someone watching via a monitor so the game wasn’t interrupted.

Your escape route to this career path: I talked about it to my friend Dylan, the friend I first went with, and he became our investor. I partnered with my friend Max, an engineer, to do a beta test. People liked it, so we set up our first real game in February 2015. It’s a wonderful combination of puzzle and experience design. I love the idea of designing challenges for people and taking them out of the real world.

What was the process of setting it up? Can anyone start their own Escape the Room? Yes. By the time we opened our first location, we were the 50th in the country. Now, there are almost 1,000. Think of it like a karaoke bar; anyone can open one. There are a few franchises that have 40 or 50 locations, like the zombie version, but ours is own our company. We design it all with our own branding.

The makings of a good room: Old office spaces. One of our locations used to be a chiropractor’s office; another one is a former brothel. We put in new flooring and crown molding, we paint the walls. Each room varies from 120 to 250 square feet, and each game is composed of one to four rooms that people can move between as they progress. That lends itself well to an office suite. We decide on the maximum number of players per game based on a combination of square footage and game complexity.

Once you have the physical space, how do you develop themes for each room? We brainstorm themes we’re excited about that would also fit the space. The premise of our crypt theme is that it’s a movie set about a crypt that is also set in an actual crypt. It includes a 1940s-style dressing room with a vanity, a crypt space with stone tile floors and a coffin in the middle of the room, and brick walls. Another theme is a space station, which is set in space with a lot of fun LED lighting, metallic paint, a hangar and captain’s quarters.

Then, when we have a theme, we keep a list of puzzles on the back burner, ones we were thinking of for earlier games: video puzzles, logical puzzles, audio puzzles. We figure out whether a puzzle fits with a particular theme. It needs to appeal to all different types and keep a diverse group occupied for an hour.

One of the rooms in Escape New Haven.
The Space Station puzzle.
So the sky’s the limit. Our only limit is what the government will allow us to create. The local building instructor wouldn’t be very happy with a trap door or bars. There are fire codes, building codes, and limits on what we’re able to create.

Best part of your job: Delighting people. With one of our initial low-budget rooms, I had a customer who told me that escaping from the room with less than two minutes to spare had been one of the all-time best moments of life, up there with getting married and having a child. We’ve also had at least a half-dozen wedding proposals where we hide the ring in a final puzzle.

Most challenging part of your job: There’s a fine line between complexity and robustness. We can always create this open world with no rules, but then there’s a tendency for people to get overwhelmed. People like complexity, but at a certain point, you need to direct people to what might help get them out. The puzzles also have to be completely unbreakable if you have 300 people touching something every week.

Escape the Room is a unique model, in that once a customer has “solved” the room, there’s no reason for them to come back. How do you bring in new business? We build a new game every six months, so each has a lifespan of about two years. In Sacramento, we’re experimenting with a new concept called The Heist, which is repeatable. The point is to steal certain things, not to escape, but I don’t have data yet on whether that’s working.

The price of the fun: $20 to $30 is pretty standard for the hour. Right now in New Haven, we charge $22 for students and children and $26 for adults. We have nine employees in New Haven, including Max and me; there’s a team of eight in Sacramento and seven in Rhode Island.

The Escape New Haven team.
The Escape New Haven team.
What do you think is the main draw of Escape the Room? People want to do something challenging and exciting with teammates, get their hands on something that has nothing to do with technology. Otherwise they would just be on their phones. We initially thought it would really appeal to students, which is why we opened in a college town. But it’s even bigger among young professionals, who don’t have as many entertainment options as you do in college. Families also love it. We also get a lot of corporate team building events as well as bachelor and bachelorette parties.

A major point of distinction between our Escape room and others is that many have 10- or 12-player maximums where some players will end up spending the majority of their time sitting on their hands because the game isn’t complex enough to entertain such a large group. We are pretty firm believers in smaller games. Our new location, Escape New Haven, will have max sizes of four, six and eight.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Just how destructive customers can be. We try to create an open world with three rules: don’t break stuff, don’t hurt yourself, and there are no tools to escape with. Other than that, you’re free to do whatever, but some people go crazy. We’ve had to learn how to create rooms that are both interactive and robust.

Craziest thing you’ve seen someone do: Someone discovered a secret door and drop-kicked it and broke the door, which was incredibly hard to replace. Like, why would that ever be a choice? Someone decided to bend a glass cabinet door and reach inside. Glass doesn’t bend, so it shattered. We stopped using glass in that room. Once, there was a really drunk bachelor party that broke into our supply closet, grabbed some tools, and started using them in the room. I was about to send an email banning them, but then I got an apology from the guy, so that mollified me.

Another room in Escape New Haven.
The Crypt room, which is their newest game.
Most important thing you’ve learned from watching groups try to solve your puzzles: A major problem that groups have is functional fixedness. It means once you know an object is meant to do one thing, you have trouble conceiving of it doing something else. Something I got hung up on was a shoelace in a shoe. Once it’s taken off, it’s just a rope that can be used for something else. When you problem solve, you need to think of all the resources you have, not just the ones you think you have.

Dream job growing up: When I was little, I wanted to be a video game designer. There are similar tendencies at play with the Escape the Room design.

Hardest part of starting a business: I didn’t have an engineering background, so there was a big learning curve. Together, [Max and I] have learned a lot of things that will come in handy when we’re homeowners: what walls are made of, how to redo flooring. Having a partner who’s an engineer made me change the way I think about problems. What’s the most efficient way to do something? Have you done everything you can? If so, then you need to forget about it.

Tips for first-timers (or second- or third-timers…) >>

  1. Look at everything, touch everything. Each group member should get a side of the room and go over it with a fine-tooth comb.
  2. If you’re having trouble with something, make sure to get a second set of eyes. Everyone should rotate after a few minutes. Everyone has their own mental blocks and blind spots; people can see things very differently from others.
  3. After 20 or 30 minutes, come together as a group and digest everything you’re looking at. It’s hard to see big picture when everyone is working separately. Communicate when you’re looking for something.

For more design-minded No Joe Schmos, meet the mazemaker and the man who has perfected the art of stacking cards

All photos courtesy of Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent / Escape Industries.

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