Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Is Donald Trump an "ism"?

During my corporate days working with new products and inventors to find a mega-hit, (or at least a game that would justify a multi-million dollar TV promotion budget), there were certain directives offered by the Marketing Department to guide the new product search. I dubbed those directives, "isms". "Isms" were usually light on specifics for a new product's form but rather more suggestive of what to avoid in a game theme as envisioned by our marketers. After all, they had the research on game consumers' pulses as the basis for these "isms".

For inventors, "isms' were cautionary flags on what not to design into their new ideas. A wonderfully unique new game could be judged unsalable and rejected during the marketing selection process simply because the inventor stumbled onto an "ism" and unknowingly designed it into the new game idea.

Examples of "isms"from those years included: "Pirates won't sell". This "ism" prevailed in the days long before Johnny Depp starred in the popular Disney's series, Pirates of the Caribbean. The "ism" "Space won't sell", was wiped away by George Lucas as he created a toy licensing cash cow with his cinematic magic in the Star Wars block busters. An "ism" that may still prevail is "Clowns won't sell". Perhaps clown appearances in too many horror movies makes them less desirable as playthings.

Fast forward to more recent times when I had a neat co-development opportunity on a politically themed game somewhat similar to a former party game titled, "WWJD". Before progressing too far, I ran the idea by a highly respected and experienced game sales executive. Yikes, his reaction was yet another "ism" - "Politics won't sell". It seems a trade buyer's political party bias and the divisive topic of politics for U.S. voters were enough "ism" specifics to squelch the idea.

Today with non-stop news surrounding the 2016 POTUS campaign, we have the surprising emergence of a controversial personality who has made past appearances on mass-market games. Donald Trump was central to the theme of Trump: The Game released in1989 and again in 2004. The strength of his billionaire status and his Apprentice TV show were enough star power to get him onto games that did not deal with politics, Both were more related to Monopoly where acquisition and negotiating of properties generated mega-wealth. Who better than billionaire developer Donald Trump on a board game to let players fantasize about basking in billions? The games did not sell particularly well, and experienced only mediocre ratings from boardgamegeek and gamersalliance. They had short lives and quietly faded from retail store shelves.

Now with Donald clamoring around the prime time political scene, will a toy marketer ignore the "politics-ism" and give Trump another chance in the world of play? Perhaps Trump on board games was not the right fit. President Trump: The Game might make a provoking adult party game. Maybe Donald is better suited to non-game categories. A bloviated gobbledygook spewing action figure seems appropriate. Or a Dashboard Donald novelty with AC air ruffling his iconic mane might find a place on cars everywhere.

Trump's entry into the POTUS political arena will be a true test of the "politics-ism".  In Donald Trump's world, that test will be whether "HIS Politics will or won't sell" to a market much bigger than the one for toys and games.

My recollections of the Milton Bradley 1989 Trump: The Game introduction:

• Great NYC Toy Fair media buzz surrounded Donald's Game. . .

• Showroom exhibit was magnificent, energetic, and eye-popping. . .

• All  showroom personnel were  instructed to talk-up the game. . .

• Some Mid-west customers unfamiliar with Trump caused sales concerns. . .

• Donald's chopper delivered him to our E. Longmeadow office for short visit. . .

• Marketing colleagues started wearing Trump's iconic red ties. . .

• Several colleagues tried to emulate Trump's coif..I kept my close-cropped G.I. style. . .

• Game had strong trade sell-in, weak retail sell-through...didn't become an MB classic!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Not Your Father's Lego

According to NPD, 2014 retail sales of construction toys were $1.85 billion dollars with a significantportion coming from long popular Lego sets. Construction toys as a category in 2014 were up 13% over the previous year. With digital play increasing over use of traditional toys and games, it is encouraging to see that basic construction toys are steadfastly popular with kiddos where they cause imagination and hands on skills to build dimensional physical objects.

The creators of Boxly, a new construction toy using oversized corrugated panels, did considerable market research on existing construction toys before they decided to invent a product far from Lego but nonetheless a plaything that fits into the same industry category. For the three Stanford University design engineering students, their product originated as part of a class assignment rather than as a random idea for a commercial venture.  It was their decision to create a toy that would meet children's inquisitiveness and imagination in simple self-directed creative play. The playful band of three designers said on their website, " We believe creative play has the power to develop confidence and independence through hands on exploration." website

Boxly is a collection of single ply corrugated panels which uses uniquely designed connectors duringplay. The creators knew they had a viable construction toy after viewing hours of successful and engaging fun play by their ultimate consumers-- young children. When product prototypes were put into the hands of kids, there was no "adult assembly required"; the kids did the assembly and played and played and played all by themselves.
To produce Boxly for a broader audience, the design team turned to a funding effort on Kickstarter. Says Sasha Spivak, one of the three designers, "We are ecstatic to exceed our funding goal during the thirty day campaign on Kickstarter. Raising $31,425 confirmed that there are backers who share our vision for our new construction toy". The designers are now transitioning to producers and marketers of Boxly as they fulfill commitments to KS backers as well as fill new orders coming from the online store on their website. Looking at their pictures on that website, you see a team of three creators who will bring energy and enthusiasm to their efforts to carve out a place for Boxly in the construction toy market. Welcome to the toy industry, Boxly creators!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Changing With the Times

In the mid-1990s, ThinkUp was a recognized source in Hasbro Games' search for new opportunities. It was often scheduled into "show times" during sweeps to see toy inventor ideas in NYC. ThinkUp was and remains a creative, Philly-area studio with all the development skills to represent new ideas in illustrations, CAD designs, and looks-like/works-like playable models.

Jerry Cummings, the chief thinker at ThinkUp, knows the 100 to 1 odds against getting a mass-market toy or game idea licensed. As a talented artist, designer and inventor, he takes on the annual speculative challenge of creating toy and game ideas, ever hopeful his next creation will become an industry mega-hit.

ThinkUp has maintained the best of its design talents from pre-digital days and added new skills for today's world: the creation of "pitch" videos.  Video captures product features consumers see and can measure a potential marketing licensee's interest and commitment before model making. Even with 3-D printing, making a fully functional replica of an idea is time consuming--and expensive.  http://thinkup1.com/how-we-do-it/

ThinkUp has expanded beyond licensing proprietary toy and game concepts into other consumer product categories as well. And the studio will digitize product concepts for other inventors, create marketers' promo videos, or even take pixel magic into playful animations with unique characters. A ThinkUp venture called My Pixel Kids uses those animation skills in a YouTube series of classic nursery rhymes. Five Little Monkeys

Says, Cummings of ThinkUp's transition and expansion from its early days of b-boards and model making," We work very closely with clients to minimize false starts or late stage rejection of concepts. Speculating exclusively on what might be the next hot toy or game in our studio only to have it rejected in a marketer's selection process just didn't seem to make full use of our creativity. We still love our own proprietary toy or game ideas, but we are not averse to helping another inventor or marketer create a success. We take delight in using our skills in any successful effort and not just limiting ourselves to a ThinkUp idea to get all the glory--and rewards".

Friday, May 29, 2015

Words from the Wise

The original edition of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook, included "profiles" of some eighty creatives, who could enter "occupation-professional toy inventor" on any application. These were high achievers in the speculative, high-risk world of licensing ideas to industry marketers. Time has taken some of these incredible talents from the industry like Ralph Baer, acknowledged "father of the video game business", and Fred Kroll, who pushed roller carts filled with new toy and game "opportunities" around the old 200 5th Ave. NYC Toy Center for sixty-six years! (Fortunately for Fred and Hasbro, Hungry, Hungry Hippos dropped off one of those carts!)

In our third edition ebook, some profiles have been altered but much of the advice and perspectives from eighty pros continue to ring true. For any inventor, who hopes to create new playthings,  thoughts from these old pros on what makes great toys and games and what sparks their original ideas are invaluable. They live the life captured in quotes of Thomas Edison, "Have a great idea, have lots of them" and "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Inventors profiled in the Handbook averaged thirty ideas annually. (That's a lot of ideas and a lot of perspiration!)

Recently, several pros offered prospectives on challenges facing toy inventors today. Mary (Game Bird) Ellroy and Hank Atkins feel that "larger companies seem focused on brands rather than unrelated concepts no matter how good they are". Tim Moodie acknowledges, "the loss of larger game companies reduces likely licensees for his ideas." He shares Mary Ellroy's view, "that opportunities are emerging with new, interesting marketers". All three agree, "that new toy and game ideas need to compete with gadget play", and they favor "adding electronics or some novel technology if possible."

There is timeless cautionary advice as well. Seeing the advantage of now popular crowd-funding, Ken Evoy, Canadian licensor of many playthings, counsels,"Never mortgage the house. It is much safer to find venture capital. The worst thing is to spend your money on 10,000 pieces, sell a few thousand, and have the rest end up in your garage." Hank Atkins opines that a single license will not generate sustainable royalty income, saying, "Don't give up your day job." And co-author Richard C. Levy, with over 125 original concepts licensed and approaching 40 years in the business of fun and games advises, "Never give up, never grow up." To meet the challenges of inventing today, it makes sense for creatives to mix into their thinking several dashes of sound advice from the wise--and successful--pros.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cat Paw! Toy on Letterman Goes Viral

Some of you may not have seen Anna Kendrick's reaction to the Cat Paw toy on the David Letterman late night show. Her rather risqué' comments in this video clip went viral resulting in great PR for this  new toy! If you missed it, check it out here.

Guess who invented it? None other than Richard C. Levy, my co-author of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook. In past NYC Toy Fairs, Richard and I gave numerous anecdotal presentations on the TIA's Creative Factor programs about toy and game invention and licensing new product ideas. At Javits 2015, Richard went solo in an interview with host, Michael Artsis of Be Terrific, offering fascinating snippets to chronicle his long and successful career in the toy and game industry. Artsis seemed mesmerized, yet playful, as Richard described his career in the professional inventing community punctuated with demonstrations of not only Cat Paw, but his other latest creations, Dirty Words Game, and The Electronic Waving Flag.

Richard's Be Terrific interview shares his thoughts on the creative process used by the author/inventor respectfully dubbed Mr. Outside in the introduction to the Handbook. Throughout his long and fascinating career, Richard has been an inventor creating outside the corporate walls while thinking outside the box as well! See his amazing story here.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Kickstarting Fitness

Michael Volkin appears to be more of an inventrepreneur than a "professional" game inventor (though he admits to having read, The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook). He has had successes on Kickstarter to fund his unique games. His specialty games harken to the adage, "necessity is the mother of invention".

Volkin's games grew out of  his real-life needs to "gamify" what he confronted while fulfilling his patriotic duties in the U.S. Army as a "company fitness trainer". By his own admission, he "accidentally invented" his line of games as he tried to make the grueling work of military fitness more fun.

Today, Michael Volkin has retired from the military, and is a best-selling author and entrepreneur with over 20 years of fitness experience.  He is considered the foremost authority on basic training, the subject extensively covered in his various books and described on his website, Ultimate Basic Training.  Volkin was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for the fitness programs he developed for the troops while stationed overseas. The core training approaches he designed are found in Strength Stack 52 and HIIT the Game, both products embraced by fitness conscious backers in their successful Kickstarter launches.

Volkin chose to use the Kickstarter model to get to market and forego traditional paths common to many toy and game inventors who license ideas to marketers or who personally exhibit at New York Toy Fair, just as 287 first-timers did this past February. Michael Volkin connected with enough fitness backers to reach funding goals and launch his products. However, a key question remains to be answered. Can a product reach more consumers through placement at thousands of retail outlets after successful sales pitches to 10,000 buyers at Jacob Javits Center or by using digital pitches to "backers" on Kickstarter?

The success of any product depends on reaching the maximum number of users! I asked Michael about his reasons for using Kickstarter to launch his products. He stated, "For me, it's an easy way to announce to the world not only the features of your product, but your intent on how you plan to roll out the product. People who back your product become evangelists for you, they root for you, they post reviews of your product, and they help build an early customer base."

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Very Sparkly Idea

In writing The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook about the business of creating new playthings, Richard C. Levy and I used the words of  nearly one hundred professional inventors to describe their approaches when creating their next new product. In fact, in our inventor profiles published in the book, we asked the question, "What sparks original ideas?" Answers were quite varied. Among the replies: following trends, studying objects, watching children, daydreaming, fitful sleep, a refreshing shower,  and perhaps most unique, sunbathing au natural on an isolated tropical beach!

Some inventors use a more pragmatic and traditional approach to "spark" new ideas. They envision an unmet need/try to fill a void. That certainly was the spark for new games by Donna Christian and Leslie Lawrence who had a vision  to create games that respect and celebrate the Hispanic culture. The first two entries in a new product line marketed by Cass Group, LLC focuses on the celebration of young Latina girls' Quinceañera, a very important coming-of-age event in the lives of Hispanic girls. These “first of a kind” games hope to enhance the lives of young Hispanic girls as they dream about and prepare for their all-important 15th birthday.

My Quinceañera™ Countdown Game

My Quinceañera™ Angry Old Godmother Game

Both Donna and Leslie were volunteer mentors in Springfield, MA schools for years. During this time, these two former Milton Bradley Company creatives developed many relationships with young Latina girls which ignited a spark to fill a market void. They have since licensed My Quinceañera™ Countdown Game and My Quinceañera™ Angry Old Godmother Game to Cass Group, LLC, a start-up marketing group made up of three former Hasbro Game executives: Phil Jackson, Mark Sullivan and George Reich.

The link below shows these first products in what is foreseen as a line of games and activities targeted for a growing audience.

My Quinceañera™ Website