Sunday, August 28, 2016

Getting Larry Some Gold

Robert Laura wrote an article in Forbes about the "gold watch" as a gratuitous symbol of 30 or 40 years employment with the same employer. He noted the time piece gift tradition originated "in the 1940s with Pepsi Company when gold was $34 an ounce versus today's market price hovering around $1350." Laura also pointed out that in those bygone days, people stayed with a company "three or four decades as opposed to current employment longevity which averages a mere four to five years.

One profession where the gold watch standard should remain in vogue is the professional toy and game inventing business. A surprising number of the legendary inventors certainly meet the criterion of sustained dedication to their job of creating new playthings. One example is Larry Jones, founder and driving force behind Westlake Village, CA based Cal R&D Center. Jones is nearing five decades in the business since he opened a studio in the 70s using his industrial design talents to license new toys to industry marketers.

Says Jones, "I founded the Center on the premise that kid's toys should challenge their curiosity as they provide entertainment while creating smiles and laughter. I liked the idea that my working with toys was all about play which meant to create them, we could play 99 percent of the time. At Cal R&D, I have followed the words of Mark Twain who once said, "in all of his vast experience, he had never seen one shred of evidence anywhere that supports the notion that life is serious." " I've woven that thinking of not always being serious into my business of inventing new playthings."

The state of California has always been a hotbed for toy invention and Cal R&D has been a key stop for knowledgeable toy marketers in search of the next mega-hit. That relationship between Cal R&D and toy industry marketers has resulted in an avalanche of new playthings. Jones estimates that he has licensed some 350 products and been granted well over 80 patents. Among his successes were Cricket, the Animated Doll, Micronauts, which lived in the world of action figures, Data Race mini-auto racers, Microvision, the first interchangeable game cartridge system for hand held games , and Bucky the Wonder Horse, a long time favorite of preschoolers.

Jones remains actively searching for the next fad toy whether the result of his own "out of the box" thinking or in partnership with other inventors. He has adjusted to the many changes in the industry over his five decades in toys, games, and start-ups. He has also branched out into other industries that are welcoming to inventors and has found success particularly with confection marketers. Jones offers much advice in three books he has published on the topic of invention. His quick tip to inventors hoping to find success today is..."Everyday you wake up, you may get advice that is different! But the simple truth is that you must be very active and learn all you can about the industry and its people. Keep learning! The more you learn, the more times you will hit the target's bulls-eye with your ideas."

In an industry that touts "product is king", independent inventors have long been kingmakers as they originated all those new products. Those toiling using the strengths of their creativity for three, four, and in Jones' case nearly five decades deserve a little gold be it a watch or some other special trinket. Perhaps the Toy Industry Association should reinstitute the old tradition of the Pepsi Company and recognize the longevity of a special group of toy inventors. The industry would have been a much less dynamic business without them.

Slow News Day in Western Massachusetts

Newspapers today have the difficult job finding "all the news fit to print" to fill their pages for readers who like home delivery. Now with the advent of digital news, they have the added need to fill the screens of their subscribers who like delivery on electronic gadgetry.

The need for news by MassLive, the Springfield Republicans digital feed got me a slot about, The Toy and Game Inventor' Handbook and my former career with Milton Bradley and Hasbro Games. I loved the headline reference grounding me as a "former Longmeadow resident", the idyllic suburban community which is home to many Springfield area doctors, lawyers, Mass Mutual execs, and one or two Cartimundi managers (current owners of the former Milton Bradley manufacturing facility in East Longmeadow, MA). Longmeadow was a wonderful place to live while I worked at MB, Hasbro Games, and wrote the Handbook.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Play for the Millenials

In the mid-1980s, there was a category of extremely popular games that enjoyed brisk annual sales. Those games were recognized in the industry by several different names; party games, social interaction games, conversation in a box, or most fittingly, adult games. This boxed entertainment targeted baby boomers over the age of fifteen with game play intended for social gatherings of adult friends. Contents, theme, and play structure were aimed at adult interests. One of the most popular games of that era was Scruples.

No other inventor capitalized on the popularity of this category more than Brian Hersch. His LA based studio seemed to originate hit after hit after hit including Outburst, Taboo, Oodles, SongBurst, ScrutinEyes, Mad Chatter, Malarky, and others. Hersch and Company was the creative drive behind Platinum editions of Taboo, Outburst, and Scattergories in the 90s.

Says Hersch, "Our adult party creations were lubrication for rusty social skills. Some games were filled with edgy, often naughty fun for baby boomers. I got several reports where trade buyers asked the marketers to make some tweaks in content before placing big orders. Any new game had to get through a buyer before it could reach end consumers so on occasion the final edit was done by a very unlikely source!"

Whether because of buying choice saturation or the re-emergence of rust to baby boomers' social skills, the adult category seemed to plateau. But enter the millennial players today whose game interests have changed dramatically as evidenced by the recent popularity of Cards Against Humanity. Brian Hersch, always the "marketing-meister",  has observed the emergence of this new demand for liberal game content. He is launching a very adult content based variant of Outburst on Kickstarter, called Midnight Outburst. Game geeks may see some of the same physical game components as original Outburst, but the content is giving the millennials the type of edgy play they want in social adult games.

Hersch concludes, "This generation is discovering just how well a game can facilitate social interaction. Millennials do not have the past sensitivities to language and content, and they certainly want content free of the meddling edits by conservative trade game buyers!"

Friday, August 5, 2016

Our Handbook Makes Forbes "Best"!

This blog post contains some unexpected and exciting news about The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook. Richard C.Levy and I always hoped that the Handbook, when originally released by Penguin/Random House as a How-To or Self-Help book, would be acclaimed as a compendium of topics important to novice inventors with dreams of creating breakout toys and to anyone active in the toy industry. Now available on Amazon in it's 3rd edition as an e-book, our hopes have been confirmed by an unexpected source. The Handbook has been selected as #2 on Forbes List of Best Books recommended by 2016 Shark Tank Entrepreneurs.

Forbes List link:

Forbes asked those Shark Tank entrepreneurs to recommend some good reads about business and the key takeaways. An example of strong support for the Handbook came from Mark and Lisa Burginger, founders of Qubits Toy, IncThe Buringer's said, "Two toy industry veterans offer an authoritative guide to toy and game licensing, providing everything an inventor needs to know about bringing a concept to market. This book is chock-full of real world examples. inspires by example and teaches you to trust yourself and your instincts. One of many important tips is to remain a kid at heart and never give up and never grow up."

Those of you that have downloaded the Handbook already, thanks. If you have an idea for the next hot toy or game, this book is a blueprint for that possible leap to the market.. Or if you're just looking for a good book to read, the Handbook contains some fascinating and charming history of the toys and games that were a part of all our lives.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Surfing for Games

The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook contains many suggestions by top toy sages on how best to keep up with industry trends. One common tip repeated by these in-the-know toy people was, "get out into retail frequently and see what's on the shelves." It's all there; playthings with latest entertainment licenses, product displayed by categories, attractive merchandising and packaging, marketers who dominate space, and a mix of new toys and games with the classics.

Any itinerary to Toyland's retail aisles should obviously include regular stops at Walmart, Target, Kmart and TRU. To be all inclusive, specialty retailers are a must stop too since unique and likely higher end playthings, often ignored by big box outlets, populate the aisles.

Add to brick and mortar visits, quality time surfing the wonder and convenience of internet websites in search of industry happenings. In the 3rd edition of the Handbook, we concocted a new section called the Websitary (coined by the contraction of website and glossary). It is a listing of websites we felt, at the time of publication, would likely be of interest to toy people. As an e-book, we were able to make these sites interactive.

Today, digital toy industry info abounds on the computer. If your thing is games, check out The site is maintained by inventor and active blogger, Kim Vandenbroucke who posts frequent reviews of games new to the market. In her blogging, Kim uses a special mix of skills from her industrial design training, experiences at a former Chicago invention house, and independent creative work from her design business, Brainy Chick.

Says Kim, "It behooves toy people to know what the competition is up to, what looks to be doing well, and what has flopped. In the seven years I've been blogging, the game arena has changed so much! Paying close attention to the market has been a fun adventure for me. I've played tons of games. I'd like to think blogging to the industry has made me better at designing toys and games while shining a light on the market for my audience"

Another blog that offers a wealth of information on the game side is Purple Pawn.
The site's stated mission reflects the commitment to the industry's game segment. "Purple pawn is a site about life, as seen through the prism of games." And by admission of Executive Editor, David A. Miller and his staff, "Purple Pawn covers everything cool, sick, famous. infamous, down and dirty, up and coming, cultural, or just plain weird in the world of people and analog games". Those promises sound to me as though Purple Pawn should be another regular blog stop in getting a pulse on the latest games populating Toyland.

Sir Frances Bacon wasn't a toy guy, but he is attributed to have said, "Knowledge is power". Enjoy building your industry knowledge through all those store visits  and by surfing the web.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Very Friendly Robot

Long, long ago, I had the memorable experience of heading Playskool's R & D Department for several years when it was located in Chicago. Actually, it was more of a D & D Department (design and development) since little "research' was done in Chicago. "Research" was handled at Milton Bradley's corporate offices in Springfield, MA.

Each year. D & D was to create new preschool playthings with input from Playskool's Marketing Department. Unquestioningly, the most successful project launched during my time in the Department was to replace a clunky, mechanical action Computer with "something new and more exciting".

That "something new" assignment lead to Alphie The Robot; a friendly looking space age character full of beeps, hoops, music, LEDs, and play modes powered by a 9V battery. Unbeknownst to us at the outset of the project in 1977, that original Alphie would enjoy sufficient longevity to become an early preschool brand and appear in nine ideations over its market life from the introductory year of 1978 until 2011!

The "toy gods" looked favorably on the project from day one. An all-star team was assembled to make Alphie happen. There were many key players including:

Michael Meyers who had just joined Milton Bradley as Vice President Corporate R & D after successful product years at Child Guidance and Marx toys. Mike pushed his premonition that Star Wars, then about to burst onto big screens everywhere, would make "space" toys a hot commodity. His years heading significant R & D projects made him the perfect liaison between MB's budding electronics group and Playskool's design specs for Alphie.  Mike's important sidebar contribution was the serendipitous suggestion to name the then nameless toy after his pet cat, Alphie! Suggestion given; suggestion trademarked!

Paul Lapidus managed the talented Playskool designers who were tasked with creating an appealing space creature acceptable to preschool mothers and the internal corporate panel of critical observers. Through the years, Alphie would get several design "makeovers" and dimensional changes, but it was the toy's initial form and functions that won the hearts and minds of the toy trade and huge numbers of consumers.

Greg Hyman and Larry Greenberg had just been retained by Mel Taft, Milton Bradley's Sr. VP Corporate R & D to consult on the company's electronic projects. The timing was perfect. There couldn't have been two more co-operative and knowledgeable external partners. Taking Playskool specs for the toy's functions, Hyman and Greenberg's first step was to provide a "prove-it" breadboard and when approved to then layout the circuitry on a PC board that would become Alphie's microprocessor "brain" in production. Though Greenberg passed unexpectedly in 1992, Greg Hyman shepherded all eight subsequent Alphie electronic ideations as the friendly robot grew into a major Hasbro brand.

From that tip-off assignment for original Alphie, Greg Hyman went on to co-create and license over 120 state of the art toys including notables like Major Morgan, Talking Barney, Baby All Gone and Tickle Me Elmo. Documentation on much of Greg's toy invention can be viewed at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

Through a generous gift from Hyman and Greenberg to the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, RI, Alphie appears on a plaque in an examining room to offer a friendly, welcoming face to little tykes daily.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

An Ultimate Toy Maker

Maker Faires have been described as "part science fair, part county fair, and part entirely something new". You can add to that description, "part toy fair". The Faires are "gatherings of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, authors, artists, students and commercial exhibitors of all ages". Add mass marketers and trade buyers to that demographic mix and a Faire rivals Javits or Nuremberg. These well attended Maker Faires can be found globally with over 100 affiliated events around the world each year. A recent Faire in San Mateo, CA, now in its tenth year running, drew over 150,000 makers and kids over a weekend!

Bob Knetzger, a professional toy designer and inventor for over forty years saw the connection between his creative skills and interests to those of many hobbyists and toy lovers in the Maker Faire audiences. In his career, Bob built many prototypes and models to demonstrate his and partner Rick Gurolnick's ideas at Neotoy in their attempts to license new toy concepts. Among those many concepts was the wildly popular line of Dr. Dreadful toys. His experiences were more than enough to get Maker Media to publish his fascinating book: MAKE:FUN! Create Your Own Toys, Games, and Amusements.

In MAKE:FUN!, Bob lays out the tools and step by step plans for turning everyday materials into clever toys, games, and amusements; some of which have recognizable relationships to successful commercial originals. The book contains 40 highly illustrated projects that show how to use simple electronics, mold and sculpt plastics, and assemble toys that demonstrate scientific principles and  how many popular playthings work.

Among my favorites is the Mad Monster Candy Snatch Game. Perhaps the attraction to Mad Monster is that Knetzger uses the principles of the classic Operation Game to make a clever candy dispenser. Rather than withdrawing plastic pieces from Cavity Sam, a steady hand with the forceps earns a candy treat! Touch the Mad Monster in an attempt to extricate a piece of candy and he flashes, crackles, and says: "You make the Monster mad--You lose!" There is no candy treat for a shaky hand.

Hobbyists with a love of toys and desires to make them will find MAKE:FUN! a must have publication. Perhaps some budding inventor in search of a creative spark will springboard Bob's meticulous plans for the forty projects into a totally new toy. For Bob Knetzger, that would validate his long held contention that original ideas occur "when two old things bump into each other to make something new". It's a book that fits neatly into any toy inventor's library.