Fun and Games and Success

joyce-1989-loki

by Joyce Arthur

© copyright 1991

first published in MC2, the magazine of MENSA Canada, Vol. 24, #7, Sept. 1991

Photo:  Game creators, clockwise from top left: Matt Hughes, Len Roberts, Jan Verster, Joyce Arthur, Steve Borton (BC Business magazine, 1989)

 

 

It’s the all-American dream. First, come up with a brilliant invention which will wield the awesome power of separating people from their money. Then, with a deluge of dollars overflowing your pockets, laugh all the way to the bank.

Easier said than done, right?

So we thought too, until the summer of 1986, when one of our group of board game players suddenly sat up, scattering his letter tiles all over the table, and sputtered, “Wait a minute! How come the makers of Scrabble and Monopoly are raking in millions of dollars, while we’re just sitting around, helping them do it? Why don’t we climb the fence to greener pastures and rake in some of that green stuff for ourselves?”

And with these inspiring words (and a hundred dollars each), Loki Games Ltd. was born.

At that point, we were just seven Mensans with a dream. We wanted to create games-quality games, but games that would fulfill Loki’s mandate: “Let’s make tons of money!” We weren’t sure what sort of game would vault us over the fence, but after some stumbling around in the dark, one of us found a light switch. This intrepid explorer was Matt Hughes, a freelance writer whose idea, we thought, would serve as a quick money fix until we could get our more complex, but Really Great ideas off the ground.

However, before this tale unfolds any further, some introductions are in order. The speaker of those inspiring words quoted earlier was Martin Carriere, our resident businessman and entrepreneur. Next, there’s Len Roberts, an art historian. In his spare time, Len hangs around with a buddy of his who just happens to own shares in the game Trivial Pursuit, the biggest moneymaker in board game history. Len’s connections to a game industry mogul turned out to be a tremendous boon to the fledgling Loki Games.

As for the rest of us, we all contributed our time, our ideas and any available special skills. Jan Verster is a college professor with a PhD in mathematics, so of course, we made him our treasurer. Roy Langston, Steve Borton, and Joyce Arthur (that’s me), round out the rest of the group. Roy is a copy editor for a Tokyo public relations firm, and an avid “Go” player; Steve is an amateur entomologist who also supervises a team of salespeople in his 9 to 5 life, and I’m a technical writer and editor, as well as the group’s (non-token) woman.

So, what was Matt’s earth-shaking idea? It was on a well worn but never dull theme-the differences between men and women. And it was so simple that we had the basics worked out in 10 minutes flat. The game’s format is role reversal using multiple choice questions. Men have to say what they would do in a given situation if they were women, and women have to say what they would do if they were men. Points are scored every time a player matches answers with the players of the opposite sex.

The name of the game? Matt had an idea for that as well. It seems that in Greek mythology, there was this fellow who got himself turned into a woman for seven years just to see how the other half lived. His name was Tiresias, and in honour of his rare understanding of the behaviour of both sexes, we named our game after him. We were a little unhappy with the way he spelt his name though-like a Mexican automotive store or something-so we took the liberty of changing it to “Tyresias” (pronounced Ty-ree-see-us).

The problem, as you may surmise from the above explanation and pronunciation guide, was that people had a tendency to balk at the name. “Ty what?” was the common refrain. And then, repeatedly, “What was the name of it again?”

But what’s in a name, we thought? The basic idea was wonderful, and we got right to work writing such clever, scintillating questions as: “Suppose you were a woman-Your boyfriend wants you to hitchhike across Europe with him. Your main worry is: a) he’ll see you at your worst. b) you’re not ready to get that close c) he might sell you in Morocco.” And: “Suppose you were a man: Walking down the street behind a beautiful woman, you become physically aroused. What do you do? a) sit down somewhere. b) put your hand in your pocket. c) think about the economy.”

A couple of months into writing the questions, we felt ready to present a prototype of the game to Len’s Trivial Pursuit friend, Taylor Crandall. Besides his business of collecting Trivial Pursuit royalties, Taylor was also an employee of Fourth Line America, a Toronto area games industry agent run by some of the original TP creators.

On a Sunday afternoon in August of ’87, with our boxed prototype and 50 of our best questions, and amidst the distractions of a barbecue and the antics of three or four small children, we managed to conduct a play-test session of Tyresias. It was a smash hit. Even we creators had fun. You never know how well a game will play-sometimes even a seemingly great idea will bomb at the play-test stage-so it was gratifying to find out how well it really worked in practice.

Taylor agreed to take the game back with him on his next trip to Ontario to show Fourth Line. If they liked it, we could find ourselves face to face with a tremendous opportunity.

We held our breath for the next couple of weeks, and then the verdict was handed down. They liked it! They loved it! Would Loki be interested in signing a contract? Needless to say, this first taste of potential greatness only whetted our appetites, so in the fall of l987, Loki signed a management agreement with Fourth Line. They would take over some of the work, such as flogging the game to a major manufacturer, and creating a professional, full-art prototype. But one thing had to go, they said. The name. One of the participants at the original play-test session had suggested a name Fourth Line liked a lot-Gender Bender. It was catchy, and probably very marketable, the type of name that sticks in people’s minds. For sentimental reasons, we were a little sorry to see Tyresias go, but business is business.

We spent the next several months frantically creating more questions to complete Gender Bender. Thinking up gender-related questions with only one woman in the group made things a little one-sided, so we enlisted the help of another woman. Then, meeting at each other’s homes, we held marathon editing sessions by committee and produced 350 questions. We managed to finish just in time for the February 1988 International Toy Fair in New York, where Fourth Line planned to show the game privately to interested manufacturers.

So only one year after we began to work on Gender Bender, here it was at the largest toy fair in the world, being sniffed at by no less than seven major game manufacturers. The interest expressed in Gender Bender translated into a strong negotiating position for Fourth Line. Ultimately, they recommended we accept a licensing agreement with The Games Gang of New York, makers of Pictionary and Balderdash. We were able to win the same royalty rate that Trivial Pursuit got when it first broke into the U.S. market.

The deal was signed that summer, and early next year, in March 1989, Gender Bender began to appear on shelves in Canada and the United States. By Christmas, it had passed the benchmark of 100,000 units shipped that qualifies a new game as a “hit”.

We had finally done it. With our first royalty cheque, we lavished a few dollars on a bottle of real champagne (the rest went to pay off our credit cards!), but it was no time to sit back and relax. The Games Gang was actively pursuing European distribution for the game, and at the same time, Fourth Line was busy negotiating for a television game show based on Gender Bender. Even before Gender Bender had hit the shelves, a glossy B.C. magazine called B.C. Business did a five-page spread on us in their February 1989 issue. It spotlighted Mensa, and came complete with a full-page colour photograph of our group.

Gender Bender was billed as one of the top five new games of 1989. While the prestige felt wonderful, the money was even nicer. We didn’t make millions, but we did make several satisfying trips to the bank. However, it was our unfortunate bad luck to pick the wrong time to market Gender Bender-the games market decided to go on an extended nose dive. No game, including ours, broke any sales records that year, and unfortunately, by the following year, Gender Bender was already spiralling into decline.

What had happened? Or to be more precise, what had not happened? Was Gender Bender a victim of the public’s whim? A temporary fad that just didn’t reach a critical level of momentum? We knew plenty of people who had a great time with it, a majority of those who played it, in fact. (It was even a hit at a couple of Mensa gatherings.) Perhaps the theme of male/female role reversal ventured too far down a slippery slope for some people. Although most reviews of Gender Bender were favourable, a few reviews, including one that was nationally publicized in the U.S., slammed our game as sexist and adolescent. Perhaps for some, the battle of the sexes is a deadly serious matter, not something to be caricatured and laughed at.

Of course, Gender Bender was written tongue-in-cheek. It pokes fun at the variations, whether real or stereotyped, between the sexes. We wanted people to relax and laugh together at their own foibles. We even hoped that it might help to illuminate some real differences and promote a better understanding of the way the opposite sex thinks.

We don’t really know why Gender Bender started out with such bright promise, and ended with a quick, quiet death. But whatever the reason, and regardless of the final outcome, Gender Bender has brought the seven of us more fun and excitement than we ever had playing Scrabble. We had accomplished something that thousands of other people only dream about. Our success at breaking into the market proved something-that if you have a good idea, and actually do something to promote it, people might listen to you. Some big players in the game industry listened to us. They liked us, they liked our idea, and they ran as far as they could with it. Seven ordinary people couldn’t ask for much more. We had nothing to lose, and we dared to dream big.

Nowadays, our group of seven is a little smaller, and a lot more spread out geographically. There doesn’t seem to be as much time to create games as there used to be. But we haven’t thrown in the towel. Some new game ideas are in the incubation stage, and one or two are about ready to hatch. This time, we’re starting higher up the ladder, and we still have nothing to lose. Why not keep dreaming big?