Kim Vandenbroucke is a toy and game inventor who I have been following for a while now, both on twitter and reading her blog The Game Aisle. Kim has been kind enough to answer some questions about what it’s like to be a toy and game inventor, with some great advice for anyone just starting out.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about where you are based, your background and how you first started inventing toys and games?
Kim: I got hired as a toy and game inventor right out of college. I was finishing up my degree in industrial design from the University of Illinois, needed a job and it sounded interesting! Not knowing much about the industry, it turned out to be blind luck that I started working for Meyer/Glass Design, a spin-off of the original (but long closed) toy and game invention firm Marvin Glass and Associates. Unfortunately in 2006, Meyer/Glass Design went out of business but I owe lots of what I learned to them. Today, I’m an independent inventor still living in Chicago, IL because really, once you’re in the toy and game biz it’s almost impossible to get out!!
Tara: How do you get inspiration and ideas for new toys and games?
Kim: I let everyday things inspire me. A huge volume of ideas is key in the toy and game business, so you must be constantly on the prowl for new ideas. But it’s not always physical things that inspire; sometimes I’ll hear something that sounds like a funny name and build off of that.
Tara: As well as an inventor, you are also a creativity expert. Please could you share a technique or two for generating creative ideas?
Kim: Two BIG things. First is give yourself the time to ideate – it’s really hard to invent under pressure. So setting aside a chunk of time to wholeheartedly dedicate to invention is essential. And don’t let yourself quit early, use every minute you have put aside, even if you come up with a great idea early on.
The second technique is come up with 100 ideas. My first year industrial design teacher had us do this exercise once and it’s really amazing because it’s never your first idea or your last idea that’s the great one. Odds are, it’s going to be one in the middle and forcing yourself to keep thinking and write down every idea (good and bad) drags your mind to places you probably wouldn’t have bothered to go.
Tara: Once you have an idea you think has potential where do you go from here? Do you create drawings or prototypes?
Kim: Depends on the idea. I think prototypes are essential for games just to make sure they’re playable, but sometimes it’s cost-prohibitive to create a prototype for a toy or game concept so a drawing is going to have to suffice. But for all concepts I create a 1-2 page “sell sheet” with pretty graphics. I use these to email concepts to clients and more importantly so I only have to lug around a book of concepts versus a couple dozen games during conventions!
Tara: How do you go about protecting your ideas, do you find the need to file patent applications or other form of IP protection for most ideas?
Kim: Nope. Typically I only work with clients who I know, trust and have a non-disclosure agreement with. I’m also friends with lots of other inventors so if a company steals one of their ideas I’ll know pretty quickly – as will the rest of the inventor community because this kind of gossip travels fast. Screwing over an inventor (pardon the language) is like kicking a beehive; it’s not a good idea. Large swarms of angry inventors aren’t good for business.
I should also mention that I don’t talk about what I’m working on to other people. They ask and it’s hard to keep a secret when you’re excited about an idea, but it’s imperative.
Tara: One of your more recent inventions is Scattegories Categories, please could you explain what it is and how you came up with the idea?
Kim: I wish the idea for Scattergories Categories was fully formed when I came up with it, but it wasn’t. I didn’t think the idea of having a vertical category word and asking players to try to come up with words horizontally that start with each of the letters in the vertical category word was enough to stand on it’s own, so it ended up being a mini-game in another game concept. Luckily, a client remarked that the little mini-game was an interesting idea and that feedback got the Scatttergories Categories ball rolling. After making it a game on it’s own it was obvious that it was a great line extension for the Scattergories brand. Unique answers get you points just like in the classic version, but it solved the one thing I’ve always disliked about Scattergories, which is that you play the same 12 cards over and over. In my version you get a new category every round, thus you don’t feel like you’re playing the same questions over and over with different letters.
Tara: Do you use toy company wish lists or briefs to come up with ideas or is most of your work self initiated?
Kim: I posted this question on The Game Aisle’s Facebook page a little while back to see what other inventors did and it sounds like we were all on the same page. I will read them and if a great idea pops into my head then I’ll probably do it. But I also know that companies don’t always know what they want and wish lists change quickly – sometimes on almost a daily basis. There have been meetings where the client says, “Oh yea, the wish list…we don’t need anything off that anymore. We’ve decided to go a different direction.” So if you’ve only ideated based on that – it’s not going to be a very good meeting. Besides, most clients want to be wowed and it’s hard to do that when it’s the hundredth concept aimed at a particular wish list slot.
Tara: If you were now just starting out and had no contacts in the toy and game industry how would you go about approaching companies and try to license your ideas?
Kim: Contacting companies is really hard – actually sometimes impossible for people who aren’t apart of the professional inventor community. Your best bet is to find an agent and CHECK THAT AGENT OUT. Talk to a couple agents, ask for references and really try to check your agent out. There are great agents out there and ones that don’t have very good reputations. The other thing to keep in mind is what an agent’s specialty is – find out if they have a great deal of success placing items similar to yours. The other option is Discover Games, which will bring your games to all of the trade shows for you. It’s a different route, and depending on the type of invention it might be a better way to go. Regardless, either way they can help you navigate the whole presenting, negotiating, licensing process.
And of course, I’d keep my day job. Toy and game inventing income builds slowly and it’s never certain. When you sign a contract and get an advance check, there’s no guarantee your item is going to actually see store shelves – and I won’t even get into if your item is going to be a success. Great items die all the time because of poor timing, bad packaging, etc.
Tara: What are the good and bad points about being a toy inventor?
Kim: Bad has to be the money situation. Like I said before, there’s never any guaranteed money and the odds are definitely against you creating a “classic” that’s going to bring in royalties for the rest of your life.
The good point is of course that it’s fun – really fun at times! I love to invent and come up with fun new things to play. I’d do this in my spare time even if I wasn’t trying to license my ideas!
Tara: Where is the best place people can find out more about you and what you do?
You can find out more about me at www.TheGameAisle.com which is my game review website. I’m also on twitter: @TheGameAisle and I’m very active on The Game Aisle’s Facebook page. If you are dying to know more about me you can also look a www.TheBrainyChick.com but I must warn that it’s in dire need of a refresh. But that’s perpetually at the bottom of my to do list as great game ideas keep get piling up on top of it.
Are you an inventor with an interesting story to share? Please get in touch via the contact form or email tara (at) ideasuploaded (dot) com