[Veteran physical puzzle game publisher ThinkFun (Rush Hour) has found its way into the digital games space thanks to the App Store, and here its co-founder Bill Ritchie discusses the travails of that space, as well as the future potential of technology.]
Just before the New Year I got the opportunity to eat some great chili and enjoy some fantastic discussion at Hard Times in Alexandria, VA with the CEO of ThinkFun, Bill Ritchie, who's been distributing physical puzzle games - including the hit car-juggling title Rush Hour - for over 25 years.
ThinkFun's mind-bending board games already inhabit brick and mortar stores in over 60 countries. Now, ThinkFun is joining the digital revolution thanks to the iPhone among other new age platforms.
Last year they successfully released Rush Hour for the iPhone and January 20th marks the release of their new Solitaire Chess logic puzzle. They'll introduce a third puzzle, Chocolate Fix, in mid-February. In this interview, Bill Ritchie discusses the beginnings of ThinkFun, some early digital dabbling, and ThinkFun's newest additions to the App Store.
What year did you start ThinkFun?
Bill Ritchie: We started ThinkFun in 1985.
What was the impetus to begin your own business making games? Was an epiphany involved?
BR: My wife (just married) Andrea and I were both working in the real estate tax shelter syndication industry. We really didn't like the direction our lives were taking us, and the company we worked for was starting to do illegal things.
We both wanted to be entrepreneurial and to start/own our own company, so there was a powerful incentive for us at that time (we were both 29) to invent the next stage of our lives.
Why did we choose puzzles? My dad was a Bell Labs engineer, my older brother Dennis (13 years older than me) eventually became a Bell Labs computer scientist, and so as a young kid I was exposed to the world of puzzles and science toys and recreational mathematics. And my dad's best friend at the labs, Bill Keister, was a creative genius who among other things invented several mechanical puzzles based on binary code, which I played with as a little kid.
It's worth it to describe a little more about these folks. Bill Keister started at Bell Labs in the 1930s, and it was he who was asked to help explain the utility of Boolean Algebra, Claude Shannon had just joined the Labs at that time. To do this, he wrote a Tic Tac Toe program, accomplished in 1937... pretty cool!
After the war the Labs used the code to wire up a box that could actually play the game, and toured it around the country featuring the computer playing a chicken at Tic Tac Toe. And my brother went on to fame, he created C and, along with Ken Thompson, Unix. (I played Space War as a kid in the 1960s at Dennis's office).
So... in starting our company, I was generally aware that there was a whole community of inventive geniuses out in the world creating very clever puzzle ideas, but not one company that was dedicated to producing mechanical puzzles.
Our epiphany, if you could call it that, was that there was a void in the market, that we could be the world leader in this field. (The other epiphany we experienced was on February 4th, 1985, when Andrea quit her job and I was being fired from mine simultaneously in a separate room. We weren't expecting to launch so quickly!) We have an extended version of our story on our website.
ThinkFun has been a husband and wife team effort from the beginning. What has that been like? What were the challenges and benefits?
BR: Working together as a husband and wife team is challenging, absolutely. The bad news is that in order to survive, we both had to be very strong willed and committed, and this is a recipe for stress.
The good news is that, since we are good at different things, we each knew we always had the other's back, we always shared the same vision and values. After 20 years it started getting easier!
The original name of your company (Binary Arts) sounds very similar to Electronic Arts. Why did you choose that name and what caused the switch to "ThinkFun"?
BR: It's funny that Binary Arts sounds like Electronic Arts... we came up with the name in 1984, two years after them, but never heard of this company.
The puzzles from Mr. Keister were all based on binary arithmetic, and we wanted to add design and beauty to the engineering of them, so we just combined words that fit. For many years people told us that this was a lousy name, that we sounded like a computer consultant and not a toy company.
Specifically, in 1994 I presented our company at the MIT Enterprise Forum... I'm not sure if they still do this, back then every month they would bring in an industry expert speaker and then have an entrepreneur give a 20 minute presentation about their company plan, after which the audience gets to say whatever they want and the presenter has to sit back and just listen.
I gave a big vision presentation of where the future was going, all kinds of stuff, and at the end the biggest comment I got back was "Lose the name!" It took us a long time to figure out a better name, and a plan for what to do once we had a better name... this came in 2004. ThinkFun works as our name, people get what we stand for now
Did you dabble in the early video game market or was Rush Hour for the iPhone your first entry into the digital games market?
BR: Yes we dabbled in the early video game market. In 1995 we launched puzzles.com. In 1996 we launched a consumer catalog tied to our internet website www.webgames.com. In 1997 we had a hot young technology kid who got us as a beta site for Microsoft Outlook. That year we were selected as Microsoft's Small Business of the Year, and they made a video documentary about Binary Arts.
In 1998 we almost did a licensing deal with Berkeley Systems for a CD-ROM version of Rush Hour, but that crashed when they got bought by Vivendi.
We programmed several games and made a run to be a part of the dot-com craze, the problem was that the technology was hard, employees kept leaving for sexier job offers, and the market got really irrational and we weren't willing to raise millions from VCs with the possibility that we would crash and burn.
In the early 2000's, we struck a deal with Nokia to try to build our Rush Hour to be installed on their phones, worked on this for months before it went away. It has been a difficult thing for a traditional company such as ThinkFun to break into the video [game] market; cultures are different, business models and distribution are different, etc.
For a long time I have known that the market would evolve to support companies like ThinkFun getting into online games; Apple finally cracked the code and opened up opportunity when they launched the iPhone with the App Store.
Wow, so in all reality ThinkFun was early to the conceptual forefront of the game industry, as we know it today on the web. Do you plan on further development for Puzzles.com and WebGames.com or do you see ThinkFun pursuing a different digital strategy in the future?
BR: We were active at the start of the web, it's true. Let me give you one fun side story... In the early 1990s I was active in the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, I organized their first internet committee and started a side company that got a $70,000 grant from the Kauffman Foundation to build the YEO website, which we successfully did.
As a practical joke, I had YEO register the website ypo.org (the Young Presidents Organization being a much larger and more powerful organization, who was slow to pick up on the web.) Mysteriously one day, our ownership of the registration was removed and YPO became the registered owners, without us giving permission or even being informed.
The story of puzzles.com and webgames.com goes back to my presentation at the MIT Enterprise Forum and other events this same year. As I described, Binary Arts was just not a good name for a game company, people who know their brands feel strongly about this. In Spring 1994, Ted Leonsis presented to a business group I was part of, the day he sold Redgate Communications to AOL and joined that organization. This was a very powerful experience. Leonsis is a force of nature.
At the end, he gave us a chance to ask questions, and I eagerly asked him for advice on a strategy for how a puzzle company could attack the web and make an impact. "What's your company name?", he asked me... "Binary Arts". "You're toast," he responded. "You'll never get anywhere on the internet if you don't start with a good brand." Directly because of this, I knew that I needed to develop a broad online strategy, based on strong brand URLs, and fast. Puzzles.com was an obvious first choice; a smart friend suggested webgames.com.
Puzzles.com launched in February 1995, and Webgames.com launched in 1996. Our original idea was that puzzles.com would be a serious, non-commercial site dedicated to giving players an opportunity to play the best puzzles and learn about puzzling, linking to other sites dedicated to thinking and puzzling such as science museums and others... early social networking, I suppose.
For visitors who wanted a glitzier more commercial experience, they would be funneled over to webgames.com, a louder and more commercial site that would develop competition leagues and teams and have players competing against each other and be more promotional. For webgames.com, our idea was to create a new brand that would both be a website destination and also be a mass market toy brand.
In 1998 we launched custom versions of our Rush Hour and Hoppers games, giving them new names and a new brand... Traffic Jam Logic Puzzle by webgames.com and Top Dog Peg Solitaire Game (by webgames.com) featuring bulldogs rather than frogs... that we tried to sell into Toys R Us and Target.
(We also planned a custom version of Peg Solitaire to be sold only on the webgames.com website... a version of Hoppers where the same game piece was always left last on the board after the others had been removed. With this version, the Hero Frog was a caricature of Bill Gates and the other frogs would be various dot-com executives like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs.)
Alas, none of our customers was ready for this and this initiative faded.
That same year we launched webgames.com and custom built an ecommerce system into it to sell our games online. We developed a promotion, which we could never get to work, so that visitors could use a "mad-libs" style template to compose funny letters to their parents or loved ones asking them to purchase a specific game for them.
We also printed 75,000 Webgames.com consumer catalogs, in color, that we paid to have bundled with and sent out just in time for the holidays, the inaugural issue of Smart Kid magazine, a trendy publication targeted to our perfect parents. That company ran out of money with everything at the mail house and ready to go, they couldn't pay for the postage and everything got destroyed.
I still love this idea, but it was way too early.
Puzzles.com has been steadily chugging along, managed by a Ukrainian puzzle family, since the height of the dot-com craze. We put webgames.com in mothballs at that time and have not relaunched.
So... am I excited about these two iconic URL names and do I think there is a future for them? Yes, of course absolutely. Unlike the 1990's when I was looking for the web brands to strengthen our company brand (Binary Arts), now I think that webgames.com will need to be launched with its own strategy... and it will need to launch big for it to be worth anything. However, before getting to this, we need to launch our new initiatives for our ThinkFun online and App strategy.
You recently ran into a bit of a legal issue with Rush Hour and the early iPhone game Unblock Me. Can you fill in the details of this matter?
BR: In terms of Rush Hour and legal issues... In the mid-2000's we entered into a disadvantageous license for the Rush Hour mobile app with a large media company, who decided not to move forward with the project themselves but held on to the rights through the end of the contract term. By the time we got the rights back, the iPhone had hit and there were a number of Rush Hour knockoffs already on the App store.
In one sense, this was not news; we have been fighting physical versions as well as digital knockoffs for many years, generally adopting a "pick your battles" strategy. What was new is that Apple had created a market where games were worth something to the developer, so there was a lot of effort and energy by different people to create different knockoff versions.
We did go after Unblock Me. The developer agreed to take their game off the App Store and did so for three weeks, but then put it back on.
The problem we face is that it is an offshore company who developed that game, which makes it much more difficult to pursue legal action. As a general matter, we are unhappy with Unblock Me and condemn them as rip off artists of our intellectual property, but they are by no means the only people who have knocked off Rush Hour.
Are you concerned about digital knockoffs eroding your brand or intellectual property rights?
BR: Of course we are concerned about digital knockoffs eroding our property rights, we do monitor this and we will sue developers who post knockoff versions of any of our games.
However, we also recognize that our job needs to be to develop digital versions of our games to be the best that they can be, better than the knockoffs, and that we need to do a better job of projecting our brand and telling our story. We will succeed not by stamping out the cheats and knock off artists, but rather by convincing people that they want to go with authentic ThinkFun games.
Was Rush Hour on the iPhone a success for your company? Considering the fact that ThinkFun is releasing two new titles for the platform it seems obvious that it must have been. Perhaps it was merely promising, though?
BR: Rush Hour has been a success its first year. We are closing in now on a million Rush Hour App downloads and players give it rave reviews. Rush Hour is now on the Game Center and we are delivering ads with Rush Hour Free, so we keep progressing it and learning from it. We are very excited about the idea of having three Apps in the market, working on how to cross promote one game through the others.
What made you choose Solitaire Chess and Chocolate Fix for your next wave of iPhone games? Was it simply a matter of choosing your best selling physical games to move into the digital space or did you analyze what would work well for the platform in a design sense?
BR: Solitaire Chess and Chocolate Fix are games that will work well on the iPhone interface and are strong sellers for us; these considerations helped make these games obvious choices.
But more than this, we at ThinkFun believe that our games are more than just casual entertainment. We believe that (with appropriate further work) that they can be used to help people build thinking skills. Together, the three games Rush Hour, Solitaire Chess, and Chocolate Fix provide a great platform for us to push this idea forward.
We have one more game coming soon – MathDice, which focuses on number skills – and the four of these games together will be the basis for a killer suite of Thinking Skill games. There are many more on the horizon, but we believe that these four combine the most fun combined with the clearest articulation of thinking skills.
Who designed the original Rush Hour, Solitaire Chess, and Chocolate Fix?
BR: Rush Hour was invented by the famous, now deceased, Japanese puzzle inventor Nob Yoshigahara. Solitaire Chess was invented by the Finnish puzzle inventor Vesa Timonen. Chocolate Fix was an adaption of several earlier games; the rules were developed by Mark Engelberg.
What was the story behind each of these titles?
BR: We brought Rush Hour to market in 1996, it caused an immediate sensation and won many major toy awards. It continues to sell strongly all around the world. Solitaire Chess is new to market in the summer of 2010, it is selling strongly and much success lies ahead.
Chocolate Fix started with my quest to find a good simple game based on logical deduction. I thought I had found one, but the game creator had different ideas than I did so I commissioned a consultant to develop a game for us.
The first version we came up with was called GridWorks, but we added too many rules and it was only a modest success. We changed the game to a candy theme and simplifying the rules, introducing Chocolate Fix in 2008, this version has been more successful.
This is all very exciting. It's apparent to me that you've played a more significant role within game industry than most people realize and in fact to some extent you have been visionaries with pioneer efforts to get games on the web back when most developers were consumed with the CD-ROM, full motion video, and early 3D technology. So my final question is where do you see ThinkFun going in the immediate future and where do you see the industry going over the next five to 10 years?
BR: First, society's experience of new technology is about to accelerate; we will be doing things more differently faster in the future, starting now. Things like group video chat, personal broadcast channels, wearable personal technology, robots and sensors everywhere, are on their way and adoption is going to be enthusiastic and fast.
The reason for this is that we have just passed an inflection point. Up until a year ago – I mark this with the arrival of the iPad – not enough infrastructure was in place to support radical breakthrough technology.
Incredible achievements in technology have been taking place, but much of the work has been in infrastructure building, in creating the technology groundwork and filling out the boundaries and in creating the social conditions of acceptance and receptivity so that accelerated change can take place. Now, things are ready to pop. Just wait -- it is going to be wild.
I see that the iPad is ground zero of this change because it is so transformative... it is a mirrored window that can express anything we can think of. And Apple has a strong vision of the future and how they will create it.
The iPad is being used by Apple to move people away from having to read instructions, for example... iPad learning is designed to be experiential, users should be given a path directly into playing and offered short videos on how to learn new things, no disruptive words to get in the way. This is different.
The idea of the iPad has been around for a long time, by the way. In a panel discussion that produced one of the most dramatic moments of the 1995 TED conference, John Warnock (Chairman and CEO of Adobe) told Alberto Vitale (Chairman and CEO of Random House) that "an electronic tablet the same size as a magazine and just as comfortable for bedtime reading would be on the market" within a year and a half, while Nathan Myrvold (Microsoft) and John Gage (Sun) sat there and nodded approvingly.
Warnock wasn't joking; he was hinting that it was in development at Adobe, Vitale took him very seriously. But... predicted in eighteen months, it actually took fifteen years to appear. Now that it's here, though, there is a whole lot of room for growth.
Second, this acceleration in our experience of technology is going to mostly be about creating richer, more comprehensive experiences for people to be connected and share with others... In other words, around the further development of social networks.
In the next few years there will be intense competition around social networking as more and more players jump in to organize communities and explore social networking boundaries and build new tools. Gamification and other motivational techniques will become more sophisticated and more universal.
Third, to an increasing extent the internet is going to give way to private online communities that deliver custom or premium content. Apple is in the lead now with iTunes and the iPad, big publishers like Time are jumping to the iPad and off the web so they can start charging for online. Everybody who controls a social network or produces media is going to want to make money somehow.
In the children's market, COPPA compliancy is going to have an accelerating effect. Tiers and specialties will develop, content developers working in networks with social designers and network hosts. Technology for hosting and managing communities will make it easier for non-technical people with fresh ideas to thrive in this environment, the battleground will be around how much will be open and how much under private community management.
Fourth, it is worth noting that the increased rate of change will widen and deepen the digital divide between generations, this will cause social stress. As one example, there will be more stress in our education system, which is behind already and is becoming increasingly more so in the future. The silver lining here is that stress can bring on creative new solutions.
There is a big social need to imagine how technology can better help to educate our children. If it's not coming from the schools themselves, then it's free territory for somebody else, using new rules and new imagination. It's going to be an exciting time.
Finally, you asked where is ThinkFun going with this beyond our current endeavors? That's a great question. I believe that it is time for us become new media innovators again. I want to achieve this... and we have already put in a lot of work and have a good idea of the direction we want to take.
To start, we are a mission-driven organization. We believe that society needs to do a better job of teaching thinking skills to our children and preparing them for the 21st century. And we believe we have a role to play in this. Our games get players to practice their thinking skills already. But, we believe that delivered in the right way in the right structured program, we can teach a method for critical thinking and problem solving using our games that can transfer across your whole life.
We have been experimenting with this already. Last Spring we beta-launched "ThinkFun BrainLab", an online community where players played Rush Hour practice games for points and entered a weekly Rush Hour Tournament with interactive leaderboard and got to choose and decorate their own avatars.
It was really successful... The program ran four weeks, we invited 500 students, 2200 signed up and played more than 90,000 individual Rush Hour puzzles, at one point the traffic shut down our server and we had to move to larger space. So we know that there is an appetite for this kind of thing.
In my earlier response I described the four ThinkFun games that together promote thinking skills. We're working now on updating Brain Lab program to include all these games and to redesign the play patterns and reward systems in the program itself.
We've spent a lot of research time the past five years to develop large databases of individual challenges for each puzzle, so we have the capacity to deliver continual streams of new challenges, we can keep game content varied and fresh if we decide to distribute "challenge of the day" style content into social network sites.
It's very important to us that what we do is authentic, also. We've established a relationship with Dr. Silvia Bunge, head of the Bunge Cognitive Psych Lab at UC Berkeley, Silvia is doing brain research to address the question "Can Reasoning Ability be Improved With Training", and has asked us to develop the "Training" part of what could become a formal research study.
We struggled with our leaderboard technology when we deployed a year ago, it's hard to build a social networking site from scratch as an experimental research project. Now, though, we are being contacted by newly forming social network companies looking for content. As I described above, all this is happening so fast now that we need to take stock of our goals and objectives and make a plan that will move with the future.
Our plan is to create a clear ThinkFun presence in the new media world, no question. Everything is coming into focus as far as we are concerned, the time is almost just right for a niche company like us to jump in and make an impact. We are very excited about where all this is headed! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.