Did you dabble in the early video game market or was Rush Hour for the iPhone your first entry into the digital games market?
BR: Yes we dabbled in the early video game market. In 1995 we launched puzzles.com. In 1996 we launched a consumer catalog tied to our internet website www.webgames.com. In 1997 we had a hot young technology kid who got us as a beta site for Microsoft Outlook. That year we were selected as Microsoft's Small Business of the Year, and they made a video documentary about Binary Arts.
In 1998 we almost did a licensing deal with Berkeley Systems for a CD-ROM version of Rush Hour, but that crashed when they got bought by Vivendi.
We programmed several games and made a run to be a part of the dot-com craze, the problem was that the technology was hard, employees kept leaving for sexier job offers, and the market got really irrational and we weren't willing to raise millions from VCs with the possibility that we would crash and burn.
In the early 2000's, we struck a deal with Nokia to try to build our Rush Hour to be installed on their phones, worked on this for months before it went away. It has been a difficult thing for a traditional company such as ThinkFun to break into the video [game] market; cultures are different, business models and distribution are different, etc.
For a long time I have known that the market would evolve to support companies like ThinkFun getting into online games; Apple finally cracked the code and opened up opportunity when they launched the iPhone with the App Store.
Wow, so in all reality ThinkFun was early to the conceptual forefront of the game industry, as we know it today on the web. Do you plan on further development for Puzzles.com and WebGames.com or do you see ThinkFun pursuing a different digital strategy in the future?
BR: We were active at the start of the web, it's true. Let me give you one fun side story... In the early 1990s I was active in the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, I organized their first internet committee and started a side company that got a $70,000 grant from the Kauffman Foundation to build the YEO website, which we successfully did.
As a practical joke, I had YEO register the website ypo.org (the Young Presidents Organization being a much larger and more powerful organization, who was slow to pick up on the web.) Mysteriously one day, our ownership of the registration was removed and YPO became the registered owners, without us giving permission or even being informed.
The story of puzzles.com and webgames.com goes back to my presentation at the MIT Enterprise Forum and other events this same year. As I described, Binary Arts was just not a good name for a game company, people who know their brands feel strongly about this. In Spring 1994, Ted Leonsis presented to a business group I was part of, the day he sold Redgate Communications to AOL and joined that organization. This was a very powerful experience. Leonsis is a force of nature.
At the end, he gave us a chance to ask questions, and I eagerly asked him for advice on a strategy for how a puzzle company could attack the web and make an impact. "What's your company name?", he asked me... "Binary Arts". "You're toast," he responded. "You'll never get anywhere on the internet if you don't start with a good brand." Directly because of this, I knew that I needed to develop a broad online strategy, based on strong brand URLs, and fast. Puzzles.com was an obvious first choice; a smart friend suggested webgames.com.
Puzzles.com launched in February 1995, and Webgames.com launched in 1996. Our original idea was that puzzles.com would be a serious, non-commercial site dedicated to giving players an opportunity to play the best puzzles and learn about puzzling, linking to other sites dedicated to thinking and puzzling such as science museums and others... early social networking, I suppose.
For visitors who wanted a glitzier more commercial experience, they would be funneled over to webgames.com, a louder and more commercial site that would develop competition leagues and teams and have players competing against each other and be more promotional. For webgames.com, our idea was to create a new brand that would both be a website destination and also be a mass market toy brand.
In 1998 we launched custom versions of our Rush Hour and Hoppers games, giving them new names and a new brand... Traffic Jam Logic Puzzle by webgames.com and Top Dog Peg Solitaire Game (by webgames.com) featuring bulldogs rather than frogs... that we tried to sell into Toys R Us and Target.
(We also planned a custom version of Peg Solitaire to be sold only on the webgames.com website... a version of Hoppers where the same game piece was always left last on the board after the others had been removed. With this version, the Hero Frog was a caricature of Bill Gates and the other frogs would be various dot-com executives like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs.)
Alas, none of our customers was ready for this and this initiative faded.
That same year we launched webgames.com and custom built an ecommerce system into it to sell our games online. We developed a promotion, which we could never get to work, so that visitors could use a "mad-libs" style template to compose funny letters to their parents or loved ones asking them to purchase a specific game for them.
We also printed 75,000 Webgames.com consumer catalogs, in color, that we paid to have bundled with and sent out just in time for the holidays, the inaugural issue of Smart Kid magazine, a trendy publication targeted to our perfect parents. That company ran out of money with everything at the mail house and ready to go, they couldn't pay for the postage and everything got destroyed.
I still love this idea, but it was way too early.
Puzzles.com has been steadily chugging along, managed by a Ukrainian puzzle family, since the height of the dot-com craze. We put webgames.com in mothballs at that time and have not relaunched.
So... am I excited about these two iconic URL names and do I think there is a future for them? Yes, of course absolutely. Unlike the 1990's when I was looking for the web brands to strengthen our company brand (Binary Arts), now I think that webgames.com will need to be launched with its own strategy... and it will need to launch big for it to be worth anything. However, before getting to this, we need to launch our new initiatives for our ThinkFun online and App strategy.