CMA Event: Dice, Digits, and Dreams

Games are old hat to me. I bust out this card game at Starbucks, I used to be a gaming blogger, and I helped promote this. While the trend of gamification in all aspects of children’s media may be new, the principles and rules of gaming are in my blood.

But that’s not true of everyone. And that’s why Russell Ginns spoke to CMA members on Monday, August 11.

Russell Ginns

Hi, Russell!

As Executive Producer of Big Yellow Taxi, Russell’s job is to help people make great games. In order to do that, Russell spends an awful lot of time clarifying what does and does not make a good game. There was a lot to cover, and Russell encouraged us to follow his presentation for offering prizes to anyone who spotted errors.

Russell Giving me a Book

I found one!

The first thing he discussed was the ubiquity of games in today’s world, both in kind and quantity. “We are living in a game world,” Russell said, where everything is turning into a game. Pretty much every consumer product, from toothpaste and television shows to language learning software, feels the need to make a game in order to engage its audience… and that means breaking down all sorts of non-gaming activities into levels and turn-based play and reward systems.

And it all started with board games.

10 Points

In Russell’s experience, there are 10 key rules to remember when trying to make a good game:

  1. Games need to end

If not, people — especially kids — get bored and angry, and the adults “pray for death,” as Russell put it.


Especially you, Candy Land
  1. No one reads the rules

Don’t expect your players to be different.

  1. A quiz with a track is not a game

Trivial Pursuit and The Game of Life were products of their time. Today’s consumer demands something different.

Trivial Pursuit

 This is not a game. No matter how much of a genius it is.
  1. Flipping it around can make it fun
  2. Kids can be the anti-player

Adding the element of surprise to a group of seasoned players, and creating fun all around

  1. The best games put YOU to work

You’re not just doing an activity; you’re engaged in an interactive experience

  1. There is room on the store shelf for 10 games

Target, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, & Toys ‘R Us are the largest toy outlets in this country. After they stock their shelves with the big brands, there’s only room for a handful of games.

  1. Brands rule… but there are exceptions

See above. Also, Monopoly tends to thrive on cross-brand promotion with all kinds of limited edition sets — my favorite is the Klingon one.

Klingon Monopoly

This exists! And made my mother SO happy!
  1. Hobby games are a hobby

“Settlers of Catan” is A HOBBY. It’s the best-selling hobby game of all time, and they only sell 15,000 per year. It’s numbers are low… but it’s fans are devoted. “It’s like a different industry,” Russell explained.

10. Nobody wants your word game

EVERY game company has a word game – and they have to work ALL THE TIME to sell it. Because EVERY company has one.

11. is the ultimate resource

It existed before the internet.

Did you count 11 things in that top 10 list? So did I!

Me and my Book That’s why I won a prize!

There are lots of games that use these rules well:

Blokus allows for kids as young as 1 to play alongside adults and act as an anti-player.


Pretty Pretty Princess is a perfect daddy-daughter game that dads really seem to enjoy playing (“It’s okay,” Russell explained. “For a Princess accessorizing game, it’s weirdly gender-neutral”).

sleeping beauty

Tumblin Dice is a game that nobody’s heard of but works wonders in a crowd, drawing people who don’t play games (and is “incredibly mean-spirited,” which Russell found fun).

tumblin dice

Taboo, like many great party games (Apples to Apples, Pictionary), is a tool to make people feel smart and learn about each other in a group setting (“Someone put a LOT of work into making that game,” Russell praised).


It’s a bit trickier to translate those experiences to digital.

150,000 Apps in the App Store

Back when there were only 150,000 games in the app store, iTunes built a business model on getting people to pay for apps. Consumers were trained to go to the app store and pay for games. Anything that was on the web, mobile or otherwise, was free. That same model “will likely be taken back to the web,” Russell explained. Even though the user base for Android users is growing faster: Android users rarely pay for apps.

A little while ago, when there were 750,000 games in the app store, exposure and novelty were a lot harder to come by. Now there are over 900,000 games in the app store, and the rules have changed:

  1. Everything old is new again

Ideas that first came to life on CD-ROM re-surfaced a bit in the app world.

  1. You won’t get on Oprah. Or go viral

Those strategies may have worked as a novelty back then, but now they are absolutely no substitute for figuring out how to reach your audience

  1. Your version of “Angry Birds” probably won’t do as well

The company that made that game made 50 other games. They are not flashes in the pan. And remember: whatever gets featured on 60 Minutes or in The Wall Street Journal tends to be what the vast majority of consumers buy. Can you get that exposure?

Russell Ginns2

Russell’s keeping it real
  1. The top of the funnel can kill you

Don’t make your consumers register before playing the game. Most won’t. Would you?

  1. IAPs might be a successful path. Or they might wreck you.

In-app purchases can ruin the experience of smooth gameplay. Test your app first, and think about how players are making purchases in it. And if you make it so that players are forced to buy products in order to play properly, your game is broken.

InAppPurchasesDON’T DO THIS.

6.  You are not smarter than Steve Jobs

You can’t bypass the app store’s fees. Accept that. In fact, learning to promote your app in the store will allow you to make more money than the 15% you think you’d save by bypassing the store.

  1. It’s probably not the best way to get your feature film out there

Meaning, don’t try to translate some other project of yours into a game. ESPECIALLY if you don’t like games. “There’s nothing worse than science fiction written by people who don’t like science fiction,” Russell confirmed.

So how does all of that apply to educational games, the bread and butter of the CMA crowd?

CMA Audience

This crowd

“The customer is NOT the consumer,” Russell summarized. Educational games are made for children and sold to adults – and no kid in the history of EVER has asked for “Hooked on Phonics.” As much as educational game makers might want to change the world, at the end of the day they still have to make a game that’s fun and engaging. As Jim Henson famously said of Sesame Street, “If you’re going to watch TV, this is less bad for you.”


No argument there, Jim.

And if you’re going to make an educational game? It better be pitched at kids ages 3-5. And about reading.

Fun fact: 80% of all educational games are for Kindergarten and Preschool age kids, 15% are for 1st and 2nd graders, and 5% for everyone else. That’s the buying pattern for parents – buy educational things before they get into school to help them get a jumpstart, but once they’re in school the buying pattern switches to supplies.

Also, 80% of those games above? Reading games.

“Parents are always teaching words and meanings,” Russell explained. Math might be about 10% of games. Maybe.

arthur reading games


Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  1. “Angry Birds” does not teach you physics

“Angry Birds” work because it’s well-executed. If you’re trying to teach something in a game, the player has to learn something they didn’t know before playing it. “How much less fun are you going to make that game to teach something?” as Russell put it.

  1. If the kids have to read your directions, then they don’t need you to teach them to read

This sounds obvious, but a lot of games do this. A LOT.

  1. The game should NOT be a reward for enduring the punishment

Meaning, the educational parts interrupt the fun parts, making the game not fun to play and not a good teaching tool. This is “education as the punishment of getting to play a game,” according to Russell. And it is far too common.

Homestar102 2013-04-02 17-33-43-54

Even the internet knows this
  1. Parents will not use that dashboard

No matter how expensive it was to create. Dashboards for parents to review and track their child’s progress on a particular game are not integral to the game – or, the player’s use of the game. “It’s putting all your effort and expense into something 4 people are going to use. And 2 people are never going to be happy with it.”

  1. “Do as I say, not as a I do” = The NPR Effect

Or, just because you read the rules, use the dashboard, and watch PBS, don’t expect that half of the country does, too.

  1. Grandma is 48

Designers keep wanting to create games “for granny to pass down for her grandkids” and they don’t realize that granny isn’t the sweet, old, cookie-baking granny that they have.


Like this!

While those points could have gone on all day, Russell closed his chat by listing discussions that will never die. They are:

  • Your violent games are responsible for war and violence

“Usually, the answer is ‘You’re a horrible parent, because how did the kid get the $59 game??’”

  • We need games for girls
  • We need to protect the children with a magic chip and/or more laws
  • Your game helps predators reach more kids
  • If only Pokemon could be used to teach

“If Pokemon taught anything, kids wouldn’t play it”

9 More Things to Know About

And then he gave us 9 More Things to Know About

Russell wrapped up his talk and we launched into a spirited Q& A. Here are the highlights:

  • While he’s not sure of stats on girls who game, Russell was quick to point out that the rise of casual and mobile gaming, specifically the Wii, attracted more girls to gaming – not because those platforms were “girl friendly,” but because they offered better content. “I think the answer was not change the world, but keep making great games,” he said. “We’re on our way to parity, because everyone’s playing great games.”
  • Kickstarter is a great place for hobbyists, or anyone who has a specific niche of the gaming audience they’re trying to reach – and especially helpful if you can get a celebrity attached (like with the Reading Rainbow campaign)
  • The Sesame Street Encyclopedia is “an infinite crazy illustrated warehouse of ideas” for creative types. Just flip to a random page and be inspired by Oscar on roller skates.
  • Playing Angry Birds for several hundred hours may or may not make your child’s physics textbook easier to understand.

Russell is a fount of gaming info and is open and eager to chat. Check him out at Big Yellow Taxi and hit him up to chat games. He’ll happily tell you.

Russell's Latest Project

And show you his new series!

Lastly, remember that a game is broken if a player can’t figure out what to do and it stops being fun – and that isn’t obvious to every player. As someone who keeps turning to her DS when she gets stuck writing this post, I would have never asked that question. I would have never thought to ask that question. But what I appreciate about CMA is its diversity, and someone did ask that question. And we all learned something because of it.

The_Legend_of_Zelda_-_Spirit_Tracks_(Europe) This is NOT a broken game. And super fun.

That’s my favorite part of CMA. And Russell was able to facilitate that for us.

Even if he didn’t actually hand out anymore prizes. Oh well. Don’t worry, Russell. We’ll crack your rules.