January 2012 | Vol. XI - No. 1
Q&A With Rory O'Connor, Inventor of Rory's Story Cubes
TDmonthly Magazine recently had a chance to interview TAGIE Rising Star Award Nominee Rory O'Connor, inventor of the wildly popular Rory's Story Cubes. Below, Rory talks about the importance of prototypes, forging strong licensing partnerships, and how his various studies in everything from puppetry to guided self-healing helped him achieve success.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for your first product?
A. The idea for Rory's Story Cubes came to me while practicing Advanced Civilization. This is an invention technique I learned while training with Win Wenger, PhD. I wanted to invent something that could act as a creative thinking tool.
Q. How long did it take to go from the original spark of an idea to actual production?
A. I prototyped the first versions of Rory's Story Cubes about one week after the initial idea. I was selling these handmade versions a few months later. It officially launched about 4 years after the initial idea.
Q. What were the top two or three most significant obstacles you had to overcome to get your product on the market, and how did you do it?
A. One of the top challenges we had was with distributors, and the perceived value of 9 dice packed into a small box. In the beginning, the distributors we talked to all wanted to add other components or increase the size of the packaging. Luckily, we had enough evidence from the sales and feedback on our handmade sets to insist on keeping the packaging small. I think that decision has paid off for our partners and us.
Another obstacle we faced was funding the production of Rory's Story Cubes. We had little cash, and did not want to chase investors. Instead we scaled our production over time, going from 500 to 1,200, then 10,000 units. From there we jumped to 50,000, which is our standard production order
The third and probably biggest challenge was balancing the time spent running The Creativity Hub with our growing family, together with Anita, my wife and long-time collaborator. We had our first child at the same time that I first had the idea for Rory's Story Cubes. Since then we have had another two children. We intentionally took things slowly, as we are trying hard to balance two consuming activities.
Q. How much money did you need to create the first prototype and come up with a business plan?
A. I think I spent GBP9 to build the first prototype. Our philosophy is to try and create things that do not cost a lot of money to test at an early stage. This may reduce our later sales, but it also helps reduce the initial risk.
Q. How did you raise it, and how long did it take to raise it?
A. If I were being smart, I'd say I stuck my hand in my pocket! In reality, back then, GBP9 really was a lot of money to spend on a crazy idea.
Q. What aspect of the toy industry most surprised you when you first started?
A. The sheer scale of it, and the quality of people working within the industry. Our first trade show was the UK Toy Fair, but even this did not prepare me for the Nürnberg Toy Fair. We had people visit us on a recommendation from Gamewright. These distributors in turn referred other distributors in non-competing markets. There really is a network of people looking out for each other in the Toy Industry.
Q. What was the process of forming your licensing partnership like? What were the greatest challenges, and what are the main benefits of forming this sort of partnership?
A. We licensed Rory's Story Cubes to Gamewright in North America, Australia and New Zealand. We were actively looking for a US partner, and I researched different companies and their product ranges. I liked the quality of Gamewright's range, and the fact that they offer Game Night fundraising program for schools.
I first made contact with Gamewright (Jason Schneider) via their Facebook page. I posted a comment about one of their games, which I had bought in order to assess its quality. After a brief exchange, I mentioned that our daughter (who was a fan of their games) had a video on YouTube, explaining Rory's Story Cubes. Jason took a look, and immediately posted a reply requesting a sample to assess!
At the time we had others publishers become interested in licensing the game. This definitely helped when it came to negotiating a contract. This was the first time that I employed the services of a lawyer, which consumed our pay advance but was ultimately worth it for the peace of mind it provided.
One of the greatest challenges of handing of your “baby” to someone after working on it for so long is the belief that "they just don't understand it the way I do!" I had to keep reminding myself that Gamewright must be doing something right if they had managed to stay in the business for 16 years! I think we would have disagreed more if we were not publishing the game ourselves. At least by publishing ourselves we were able to produce the version we wanted.
We entered into the US licensing of Rory's Story Cubes with a specific intention. We knew that it would be difficult for us to enter the market. We had heard some horror stories about non-US publishers trying to deal with incredibly stringent requirements from distributors. We thought that if we had a recognized publisher it would achieve a number of things:
1. Give confidence to European distributors that there was money to be made from Rory's Story Cubes
2. Provide a partner who had a vested interest in protecting the brand. We realized that we were small fry, but figured someone might think twice about copying the idea if there was a bigger publisher on board.
I'm relieved to say that the relationship has gone from strength to strength.
Q. What were the top two or three best pieces of advice you received and from whom?
A. Definitely the top piece of advice we received was from Richard Gill, co-founder of the
Pictionary brand. He told us "Something like this come along once in a generation. Don't be in a hurry to do anything else. We spent 11 years developing Pictionary before we did anything else." This was in stark contrast to the publishers who were asking us "What's next?" It also challenged our belief that we needed to develop a wide range of products if we wanted to be considered a publisher. We immediately put a number of projects on hold, in order to focus our energies on Rory's Story Cubes.
I got talking to Richard Pain, MD of Paul Lamond Games in a taxi rank in the freezing cold at Nürnberg. We were in the process of looking for a manufacturing partner. We had been burned in the past, but he told us "work with a company that has a Hong Kong office. They are used to dealing with the quality standards required from the west.” As it turns out, we ended up working with one of the companies that they use.
Q. The worst two or three pieces of advice?
A. "If you want this to sell, you will have to put it in a bigger box," or something to that effect. More publishers, distributors, and retailers gave this piece of advice than I care to remember.
"It's not that great an idea. Why not just license it to us? At least that way you'll make a few quid on it." This was from a UK publisher that I will not mention.
"Why not sell your game exclusively though your website? That way, you'll make a bigger margin than through retail." If we had followed this business advisor's advice, I think we would be out of business by now.
Q. If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
A. We tended to question our choices a lot, as we did not consider ourselves to be "business people." Looking back, I think we were right with a lot of our decisions. If we had to start over, I would encourage myself to seek out mentors who with experience in the toy and game industry. These are few and far between in Northern Ireland. So maybe, I should have bought Keith Meyers’ book sooner than I did!
Q. What is your educational background?
A. I studied Computer Graphics & Animation, then went on to study Puppetry with the London School of Puppetry. Much of my training is informal. I've trained in Creative Problem Solving with Win Wenger PhD; Conflict Resolution with Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication; Spiral Dynamics (a model for understanding the dynamic nature of human values) with Don Beck; and Guided Self Healing with Andrew Hahn.
I mention them all, as they have all contributed to Rory's Story Cubes. My early training in computer animation and then puppetry trained my eye for visual communication and the importance of play. I used one of Win Wenger's techniques to generate the initial concept, [which was also] inspired by my training with Andrew Hahn on the transformative power of storytelling. The training with Marshall and Don played a huge part in helping me navigate all the obstacles, and resolve the many conflicts (personal and interpersonal) necessary to bring it to market.
Q. Have you always been an inventor?
A. I'm not sure. I have always had lots of ideas - some of which have landed me in trouble. I would say that I've probably started more things than I have finished.
The difference with Rory's Story Cubes was the implications of NOT finishing it. I couldn't imagine letting this game/tool, which was having an impact on the people who played with it, languish in a corner because it was no longer fun for me to work on. Whenever it got too difficult (in my case, having to make sales calls), I would have to pull my socks up and remind myself of the larger goal - to help people realize that they were more creative and smarter than they might realize.
Q. How do you hope your product/s will affect children's lives?
A. Well, considering that we originally designed Rory's Story Cubes as a creative problem-solving tool for adults, our hope has always been that it would encourage people of all ages to use and build their imagination. Hearing how people are using them for fun and education has been the most rewarding aspect of the success of Rory's Story Cubes. They are used by young and old to share stories, act as inspiration for short stories, artwork, music and performances, for language development, and even in organizational settings for learning.
Q. What one unique quality makes your product better than your competition?
A. This is hard. There appears to be a timeless quality to Rory's Story Cubes, due to the combination of its visual, tactile and design elements. When people see it, they just "get it" - there is a very low learning curve. People also want to share their experience of Rory's Story Cubes with others, which helps the word to spread virally.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring toy and game designers and inventors?
A. Prototype your idea as quickly as possible, then try to sell it to friends, family and strangers. If people are willing to pay for the prototype, then you are on to something. There is nothing like proven sales to make a publisher or distributor sit up and pay attention.
Q. What is your favorite book?
A. Ooh! That's a tough one. The book that jumps to mind is "Mistakes were Made, but Not by Me" by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson. I love books that help me to understand what makes people tick, so that I can better create games and tools that align (flow) with people's natural ways of thinking, rather than forcing them to change.
In fiction, my current favorite book has to be "The Knife of Never Letting Go" by the Irish author Patrick Ness. This is a modern classic as far as I am concerned. The second book in the trilogy is quite dark, and explores a lot of the themes covered in "Mistakes were Made."
Q. What is your favorite toy or game?
A. I don't think that I have a favorite. I do really enjoy games or toys that create or offer new possibilities through play. These might be role-playing games, action figures, computer games, Lego NXT, or board and card games.
Q. Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
A. The best way to get people to buy into your idea is to allow them to experience it. The cheapest way to do this is through prototypes. Otherwise, trying to get another person to see/feel/imagine the same way as you about your idea can be really frustrating for all involved.
This pocket-sized story generator is designed to provide hours of imaginative play for all ages. With Rory's Story Cubes®, anyone can become a great storyteller and there are no wrong answers. Players simply roll the cubes and let the pictures spark the imagination. "Rory's Story Cubes is unique because of its simplicity, small packaging, low price point and endless story possibilities. It's a great learning and writing tool that can be played with one person or a large group as a party game," Emily Nichols, marketing coordinator for Gamewright, told TDmonthly. Launch date: March 2010.
Awards: 2009 Dr. Toy’s 10 Best Games of the Year; 2010 Major Fun Award; 2010 Parents’ Choice Gold Award, Creative Child Magazine Seal of Excellence Award, iParenting Media Award, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award.
— As of 12/17/2012 this product had 4.6 out of 5 stars from 306 reviews on Amazon.com. Pros: Helps develop story telling ability; promotes cooperative play; creative; affordable. Cons: One reviewer said they were bored with it after playing a few times, but that it is very affordable.
— Stacy Kalisz of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine “absolutely loved” using the Story Cubes with her family as they came up with a variety of games. One of their favorite play variations “is to tell a group story, with each person using one die on his or her turn.”
ToyDirectory Product ID#: 26509 (added 12/28/2009)
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Writer's Bio: Justina Huddleston graduated Magna Cum Laude from Emerson College with a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing in 2009. After graduating she was the on-site director of the Boston Children's Museum gift store for a year, selling educational, developmental, and creative activity toys that tied in with the museum's exhibits. Justina also interned at children's book publisher Candlewick Press before moving from Boston to Los Angeles, where she is now Editorial Director of TDmonthly Magazine. Read more articles by this author
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