We love games here at Everybody’s Invited!, so when I had the chance to interview Joyce Johnson, the mastermind behind games like In a Pickle (a party favorite amongst my friends), I jumped at the opportunity. Joyce is living her dream—creating innovative games that bring families and friends together—so I wanted to know some of the secrets of her success. Read on to find out the tricks of the gamemaker’s trade.
Everybody’s Invited!: How did you get into this business?
Joyce Johnson: That’s a long story, so I’ll give you the shorter version! While working in my parents’ real estate development business during the 1990s, my heart kept telling me to pursue a creative direction. Skilled as a cartoonist, I started a greeting card company, which grew to 100 cards over a 10-year period. Adults were my customer base and I knew I wanted to create something for kids. With no knowledge of the toy industry, I invented a toy and got a patent, which taught me a lot. Then in 2002, I enrolled in an adult education class here in Santa Barbara called Game Design for Fun & Profit. I knew instantly that inventing games was my destiny and the rest is history!
EI!: What kind of games do you love to make, and why?
JJ: To date, I have 38 published games, spanning all ages and kinds of games so this is a hard question to answer! I have a sweet spot for kids’ games! In my childhood, I didn’t get to play much so creating games for kids lets me play and I get to watch kids play! This makes my heart happy on many levels.
EI!: Do you have a process for the work you do that you can describe?
JJ: Great question! I have a super fun office full of inspiration—toys, dolls, and knickknacks, too! My creative process is free flowing. Ideas for me are constant so I store a lot of thoughts in my mind at all times. Some ideas I write down, others I choose to hold in my mind and let them develop there.
When a particular game idea rises to the top, I will usually develop a prototype first (rough game board, cards, etc.) and then test the game myself, along with my husband Tim (my greatest supporter and a smart and skilled gamer). When the game passes that preliminary test, I go on to play the game with the intended age group, often in the schools, with the neighborhood kids, or through play tests I put together.
After multiple revisions and more testing, I create final rules and then submit the game (by pitching in person or in written form through email) to game publishers in the industry. Publishers, if interested, will request a prototype to play test and cost out, and then the waiting process for a licensing contract (or not) begins. I move on to the next project while the time passes!
EI!: Are there trade shows for game designers?
JJ: Yes, there are many shows throughout the year for the toy industry.
I attend the New York Toy Fair every February where I present to many game publishers and also during industry events at ChiTAG in November. ChiTAG is the largest toy and game fair in the United States, and it’s open to the public! It’s a blast and anyone who loves to play games or invent games should check it out! There are many events during the week of ChiTAG—something for everyone!
EI!: What keeps you motivated when designing games?
JJ: I love bringing joy and laughter to the world through my work! Creating card and board games completely fulfills my purpose. The industry can be challenging because of the rejection part of the process, but when one door closes, it’s fun to go searching for another door to open! I’m a big kid at heart so it is very easy for me to stay motivated in my career.
EI!: What skills and qualities do you think are most necessary for someone who wants to be a game inventor?
JJ: The ability to invent and execute clever ideas is super important! Knowing how to make a prototype, whether by hand or on the computer, is necessary. I am fortunate to have a business background too, so the combination of creative and business skills is greatly appreciated in the toy industry.
I believe a game designer needs the qualities of flexibility and persistence. The industry is constantly changing and publishers often tweak your game to make it even better (hopefully!) When those changes happen, it’s important to understand those decisions and not be a control freak. If you have stick-to-itiveness, that quality will keep you going when the going gets tough. The rejection process requires a tough skin and a constant moving forward in order to succeed.
EI!: What surprises you most about designing games?
JJ: To this day, when my game samples arrive from a publisher, I open the box and cry tears of joy. I’m like a little kid surprised with a present! I feel the same way when I see my game on a store shelf or in someone’s game room! It hits me that I’ve made a difference in the world!
EI!: What is your most popular game?
JJ: In A Pickle, published by Gamewright, is my biggest seller. It is a co-invention with a colleague of mine. I originated the idea for the card game while in the Game Design class I mentioned earlier. I made the first prototype on 3” x 5” cards. I knew I wanted to create a game about fitting things inside of things! I thought it sounded like fun and it is definitely fun to play!
Be sure to check out Joyce’s games at JoyceJohnsonDesigns.com. Also, today is her birthday!