• Fun On The Spot - Games

    Rob Mathewson is the Big Picture Guy for On The Spot Games. Read his musings on games and the game industry.

    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    Making Games that Stick
    I just finished reading Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which is excellent examination of the concept of "Stickiness", which was originally introduced in the business classic The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell. This book has caused me to re-examine the marketing messages used in all of the games that we are currently offering at On The Spot Games.

    One particular concept from this book that "stuck" with me was "The Curse of Knowledge". This curse afflicts anyone who has expertise in a particular subject who attempts to share their knowlege with others. The curse occurs when you, as the expert, take for granted the myriad of subtle bits of information that you have acquired over the years that it has taken you to become an expert. As a result, you make what you believe to be a very compelling presentation of your knowledge that do not make sense to your audience, while they make perfect sense to you.

    The book offer an excellent illustration of this problem as it describes an experiment that involved two groups of people known as "tappers" and "listeners". The tappers were asked to tap out the rythm of common tunes such as "Happy Birthday to You" to the listeners and the listeners were asked to guess the name of the tune. Beforehand the listeners were asked to predict what their success rate would be. As a group, their predictions averaged about 50%. Reading this you might agree with this prediction, as you hum the tune in your head and tap it out. But in reality, the only thing the listeners could hear was the tapping without the benefit of a background tune. Their success in guessing the tune was only 2.5%. Quite a bit less than the optimistic prediction of the tappers.

    I've come to realize that The Curse of Knowledge, has really afflicted the messaging of many of our games. Many of the game descriptions that we've written for these games are literal descriptions of what you do when you play, which takes for granted the experience we are anticipating from playing the game. DidYa Know, for example, is currently described as "Family Storytelling Fun". Hmph. If I've never seen this game before, what does this mean to me? In the future, I'll be revamping this message to evoke the true experience that I'm expecting players to have. Something along the lines of "The Game that Brings Back Sunday Dinner Conversation." Stay tuned...

    Wednesday, November 08, 2006

    Tested Kotsuku Tourney
    I tested our live Kotsuku format for the first time last Friday at Goodie Gumdrops in Burien, WA and a fun time was had by all. Following the "Game Show" format as spelled out in the Official Kotsuku Tournament Rules (free download available) to 8 participants ranging in age from 6 to 11 squared off for about 60 minutes of play. During that time about 30 or so games were played and Joshua from Burien was eventually awarded the Tournament Championship after collecting 12 victories.

    Friday, October 27, 2006

    Blog Split

    I am splitting up the Fun On The Spot blog to separate the straight game and game industry topics from the parenting and social commentary. This is partially for business reasons (it created easier search paths that will link back to fots.com ) but also to make it a more consistent read for those interested in either subject.

    This is now the game space. The family and friends blog is robonthespot.blogspot.com.

    Sunday, October 22, 2006

    Kotsuku Tournaments
    I recently noticed a note in my kids' school newsletter asking for rainy day game ideas that the school could implement during lunchtime recess. You would think that schools in Seattle would have a deeper reserve of rainy day activties than just about any place on the planet short of the Amazon. But the reality is that keeping kids occupied is a moving target, especially in the digital age.

    It took me a few minutes for me to realize that, for once, the school could actually benefit from my current profession. This was certainly never the case when I was selling adhesives and cleaning solvents. But games? You bet I can help with games!

    It didn't take too much thought for me to realize that Kotsuku was the game that I should use to help the soggy, cafeteria-bound kiddies. - Even though, I think there are many more lessons to be learned by playing Letter Hold 'em poker. But I don't think the board of Ed will be endorsing a poker game anytime soon. - Kotsuku has a perfect combination of qualities for entertaining the kiddies; The rules are simple; Games can be played in 5 minutes or less; Equipment requirments and set up time are minimal; and finally, the skills necessary for winning are all school-friendly, including spelling, vocabulary and spatial thinking.

    A Kotsuku Tourney can be conducted with as little as a pad of paper and a pencil, but ideally a white or black board is used to allow others to watch the action from a distance. The board should be fitted with a 5 space x 5 space grid with each individual space measuring roughly 6 inches in each direction.

    Game Play
    Each game starts with a seed word of three letters (e.g. ray, dot, bug, etc.) with the letters scattered around the grid, which can be chosen by the players or possibly a teacher who officiates the match. Players then take turns writing letters in the grid in an attempt to be the first to complete a word of there letters or more. Each letter in the alphabet can only be used once and a winning word can be completed in any direction, frontward or backwards.

    The games move fast and players can cycle in and out in the same manner as pickup basketball, with the winner of each game staying on to play a new challenger. If an overall champion is to be decided, points can be awarded for wins (5) and ties (1) and tallied to declare a champ.

    Saturday, October 07, 2006

    Going out With the Family? Then Leave the Screens Behind.

    I love portable electronics. As a sales guy, I shutter to think what my life would be like if I couldn't call a customer from the road to tell him I'm going to be late and then looking up his customer history on my laptop in the parking lot before our meeting. Not to mention, keeping tabs on my email from the airport on my phone, or watching a movie on my laptop during the flight.

    Those same toys can be also become a parents best friend. We bought a portable DVD player back in 2000 when our boys were toddlers and I can safely say that the player was worth every penny of the $400+ we paid for it after our first cross-country plane trip to the East Coast. We've used that player on numerous flights and long distance drives. The kids really enjoyed it and my wife and I did as well. I only wish we had the same option available to us as kids.

    However, I've seen a few too many parents lean heavily on portable screens at the wrong place and the wrong time. Specifically, I'm talking about those who shove a screen in front of their kid's face in social situations when the family should be focused on each other instead of the screen. There's no more shameful site than when I see a family at a restaurant together with the kids' immersed in playing with their Gameboys or even watching a movie with headphones on, while mom and dad do their own thing. Talk about a wasted opportunity for the family.

    Such a scene tells me that either the parents of these families can't be bothered connecting with their kids or opt for the "who's your buddy" school of parenting and relent whenever junior brings along his screen. My goodness, folks. Life is too busy and opportunities to get your kids' attention are too scarce to waste an opportunity to engage the kids in a little conversation. See what's happening in their lives. Or if their not engaging, tell them what's happening in yours.

    Parents sometimes forget how much it means to kids when a grownup is talking TO them and not AT them. I will plead guilty to doing too much of the latter sometimes, especially when I'm caught up in the daily rituals that take place before and after school; "Pack your lunch." "Where's your backpack?" "Did you bring home your folder?" "Where IS your sweat shirt???"

    But when we're sitting at dinner, at home or in a restaurant, I really try to focus on talking "TO" them. If I feel like the kids are relying a little too much on grunts and single syllable answers, I turn into dad the storyteller and share a story about my day or dig into a juicy tale from the past. Why waste a good audience?
    Uno, The Gold Standard of Games
    When I set out to create our newest lineup of games, Uno was the one game I sought to emulate the most. Why? Well, this game has two qualities that are essential to a remarkable play experience. First, the basic Uno game is a model of simplicity; match one of your cards to the color or number of a card on the table and keep going until you are out of cards. There are some wrinkles thrown in depending on the version you are playing, but the essence of the game remains so simple that a game can begin within minutes after opening the box for the first time.

    Sure there are other simple card games that have endured like Old Maid or Go Fish. But, unlike other games with simple rules, Uno does not get boring. Each game develops its own twists and turns. Even though there is a certain rhythm to playing Uno, it's never repetitive. I'm constantly reminded of this when playing with my kids. If I stop paying attention or simply go through the motions, I lose every time.

    So, these two features, intuitive rules and engaging game play, have been established as essential components to any game that carries the On The Spot Game logo. And we convey these qualities with our slogan "That's Cool. Let's Play!"

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    Calvin and Hobbes Rocks for Kids and Parents
    It's been about a year since my wife and I discovered the magic bullet (for our kids anyway) to create voracious readers. Comics. Starting with the daily funnies in the local newspaper, we created a mini morning read-along. Each of our boys would pick out a strip or two for one of us to read to them in between bites of cereal. The usual favorites wouldn't be surprising to most parents; Family Circus, Peanuts and Garfield.

    Oh that Garfield. TJ and Jason took quite a liking to the fat orange cat. Before we knew it, we were overwhelmed with every Best-of-Garfield book ever printed. Ten editions and counting last I checked. Both boys began choosing a Garfield book each night for our evening reading. At this point my personal Garfield meter began to enter the red zone.

    Even if you are the biggest Garfield fan in the world, which I'm not, reading Garfield comics out loud for 30 minutes can be absolutely mind numbing. There had to be a better way to keep up the kids enthusiasm for reading, without driving myself nuts in the process. Then one day, my wife brought home a collection of Calvin and Hobbes from the library.

    Our kids, like any, were reluctant to let this new intruder comic take up any of their dedicated Garfield time. But after a little prodding, they acquiesced and let me sneak in a little C&H toward the end of our reading one night. And an amazing thing happened as we read, I started lauging out loud as I was reading. At one point, I was absolutely cackling and had to put the book down to collect myself.

    The boys meanwhile, were totally feeding off my reaction and having a great time. I knew they were hooked when the questions starting pouring out. "Dad, why does Hobbes look alive sometimes and sometimes not?" "What does Calvin mean when he tells his dad that he's not doing well in the polls?" "Why won't Calvin look under his bed?"and on and on and on.

    It didn't happen overnight, be C&H eventually usurped Garfield for the top spot as the comic of choice. The boys have checked out every C&H collection in the Seattle Public Library system, probably 3 or 4 times by now. (Note to Bill Watterson - Please come back!) An open Calvin and Hobbes book will draw my kids to it like a nail to a magnet. And they would keep their noses in that book for hours at a time if we let them.

    What sets C&H apart as a great family read. First, I think it sets the gold standard for creativity in its storylines and development of relationships between Calvin and others in his world. His ability to jump in and out of fantasy, "The adventures of Spaceman Spiff!", is truly entertaining. But I think what sets C&H apart from some of the other comics, is its ability to entertain both parent and child on two different levels, which is saying quite a lot considering that Watterson achieves this in 4 frames while Hollywood spends millions trying to achieve the same effect in a 90 minute movie.

    What better validation is there for the kids, when they can watch their parents laughing their heads off? Talk about positive reinforcement. In the meanwhile, my kids kept reading. And reading. And reading. A year later C&H still holds a special place in their hearts, but they have sought out new and more challenging material (Harry Potter anyone) and are well on their way towards literary bliss.

    Friday, September 22, 2006

    How Can One Piece of Tape Cause so Many Problems?

    It seems like a simple enough problem, almost innocuous. Our new shipment arrived from the factory this week with every box taped shut in three places instead of two. No big deal, right? Well, in fact that one piece of tape short circuited months and months of analysis, planning and design. One little, stinking piece of Scotch tape.

    That additional piece of tape was used to secure the bookflap on our new bookfap boxes. The bookflap box was the solution to a problem that we had identified as a major issue for our first release, DidYa Know, two years ago. That game was packaged in an attractive tin can. The tin looked great and had a terrific embossed pattern and logo that gave it a substantial feel. There was only one problem, it was too small to print enough words to properly convey what was inside. Customers would be drawn to pick the package up from a shelf (a good thing), but could not understand what was inside within the 6-8 second window necessary. So, back on the shelf it went. Sales were disappointingly flat.

    When it came time to design our new game line, we were faced with the quandry of how to convey the necessary messages without incurring the expense of and waste of an over-sized box. The solution was a bookflap style box. With this design we essentially doubled the amount of printable realestate without increasing the footprint of the box or utilizing wasteful clamshell packaging. Thanks to the great design work of Brigetta Cassar, we settled on a series of designs for all the games that achieved of our messaging objectives; include a sample of game content, the rules of the game, a photo of the contents and the game's audience.

    As I opened the first of our newly produced games, I spotted the most painful looking 1/2 inch of cellophane and rubber adhesive I'd ever seen. There it was, sealing off half of all our hard work from the eyes of the public. Leaving us, essentially, where we started with the first DidYa Know games. Talk about painful. As I write this I am locked in a "negotiation" with the printing company (Yaquinto Printing of Dallas, TX) who is currently claiming ignorance and deflecting any responsibility for the error. This chapter will be continued...