[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