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Toy and Game Inventor Spotlight: Susan McKinley Ross

We're pleased to share this Q&A with Susan McKinley Ross. Susan is an accomplished professional product designer in the toy and game industry.

Here she talks about her entry to the industry, the path that led her to founding her own product design firm, IdeaDuck.

She strongly encourages new inventors to thoroughly play test their ideas.

1. How did you find yourself in the toy/game industry? You mentioned that you began your career at HearthSong. Did you do product development there from the beginning? What did you do before HearthSong that positioned you for the work you did there?

After college I worked at a wonderful nonprofit organization. Even though I loved my job, I was interested in doing something more creative. I didn’t know exactly what kind of work I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to make things.

Eventually I got a job as a merchandise assistant for HearthSong. Once a year HearthSong asked their employees for product suggestions. I was enchanted by the possibility that I could come up with something that they would turn into a toy. I turned in 200 product ideas. I was amazingly lucky that they recognized my enthusiasm and trained me to be a product developer.

2. Did you have any mentors early in your career who inspired you and encouraged you? What kinds of advice do you remember getting?

One of my mentors was Barbara Kane, the founder of HearthSong. She made sure I got moved to the product development department after I turned in my 200 toy ideas. All of the product developers that I worked with at HearthSong were supportive and welcoming. They were willing to train me even though I didn't have a conventional educational or professional background for product development.

I don’t remember getting advice so much as I remember watching the women I worked with take great pride in every part of their product. They cared so much about the things they were creating. I learned that passion for a product will help get you through the difficult parts of the development process. I also see this passion in the developers I’ve worked with since HearthSong. I am lucky to work with people who are committed to making great products.

3. Professional inventors often talk about how important it is to develop a thick skin and gracefully deal with having your ideas rejected. How do you do that? Do you have any habits, rituals or coping skills that help you bounce back after an idea you think is amazing doesn't dazzle a company when you pitch it?

I wish I had thicker skin!

If a company turns down your game, a) sincerely thank them for taking the time to look at your game, b) really listen to any criticism they are willing to share with you, c) take a deep breath and realize that publishers have all sorts of product needs that have nothing to do with the quality of your game.

Finally, when you get your prototype back, play it. Play it as soon as you can. Play it to remember what delights you about the game. You absolutely want to pay attention to feedback from publishers. But it is important to recognize that your love of the game (and your willingness to improve it) is going to be what gives you the thick skin to send it out to another publisher. Playing it will remind you why the game is magical.

4. What do you do when you hit a creative block or are struggling with solving a problem on a new product idea? How do you jumpstart your creativity to solve it?

Take a nap. Really. More than once I’ve taken a nap and woken up with a solution to a game design problem.

The other thing that I do is playtest as much as possible. You have to balance playing the game and thinking about the game, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I realize I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking about it too much. Playing it – again and again and again – really makes clear what the good parts of the game are and what parts are still rough. Continuously trying rule variations can be tedious, but it is also almost always productive for me.

5. Tell us about what you think is your favorite, most meaningful contribution - your favorite toy/game invention that has landed on retail shelves. What do you love about it?

Qwirkle is my favorite invention. Admittedly, one reason it is my favorite is that it has been so successful. Beyond that, I love hearing about families playing Qwirkle together. I grew up playing games with my parents and grandparents and when I hear about families playing Qwirkle, I’m delighted that Qwirkle gets to be a part of that family.


6. What was the inspiration for your award-winning game, Qwirkle?

Two of my friends are excellent Scrabble players. I was watching them play and I realized that my favorite part of Scrabble is when you make two words at once.

A few days later I had a dream where I saw something similar to a finished game of Qwirkle. I got up and made the first Qwirkle prototype that morning. Qwirkle changed from that first version, but it really was inspired by what I saw in my dream.

7. Do you have any new products coming out in the next year that you can tell us about?

There is an expansion for Qwirkle coming from MindWare in Fall 2013. The expansion includes game boards called Select and Connect. The Select board has tokens that let you select a piece that has been played on the board and add it to your hand – great for finishing Qwirkles. The Connect board starts with random Qwirkle pieces on it. You have to figure out how to connect the pieces, so it has much more of a puzzle aspect than regular Qwirkle.

8. What single piece of advice would you share with new inventors hoping to enter the industry?

Playtest. And then playtest more. Always try to improve your game. If you’re trying to improve it and it doesn’t work, it is easy to go back to what you had before. When you come up with a great idea, make a fast prototype and play it against yourself. As it gets better, play with supportive playtesters who will help you find the best parts of the game. When it is ready, take it to playtesters who will help you find the problems in the game. The more you playtest, the better your game will be.

Thank you so much Susan for your thoughtful insights! We truly appreciate you sharing your experiences and expertise. Follow Susan on Twitter @IdeaDuck

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