Perpetual Motion: An Interview with IOTA Designer Gene Mackles on the Forces that Drive His Creativity

November 9, 2014 at 6:19 pm Leave a comment

By Jamie Hovis

One of the best perks of working at a place like Eureka is the opportunity to meet fascinating, intelligent, original thinkers. I told this to Gene Mackles when I sat down to interview him recently over a couple of medium dark roasts (another perk of the job is free coffee).

Meeting Gene was particularly meaningful for me considering his background in television. Along with being the creator of IOTA, the instant-hit abstract strategy game in a tiny white tin, and president of PDG Games, Gene carries the distinction of having been a senior designer at WGBH for 23 years. What that means to me (and any other child of the 90’s) is that he had my undivided attention for countless hours of my early life when I would religiously sit down in front of the television and watch programs like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Zoom.

Pic4Jamie

Photo: Kathy Rosen

Gene, it turns out, was also consulted on refining the rules of Carmen Sandiego, a children’s game show based on the best-selling series of computer games designed to teach kids geography. This was in the early days of computer animation, and Gene remembers scrambling to acquire six Macs and a team of designers to produce one and a half hours of animation three months before the first episode was shot.

His first foray into board games was in 1970, with a game called MAXE, which Gene describes as “somewhere right in between checkers and chess.” That game got Gene as far as a sit down with Parker Brothers, who unfortunately found the game too static.

However, like everyone else I’ve interviewed for this blog, Gene had other irons in the fire. He spent the next couple of decades at WGBH and as lead designer for children’s program promotion at PBS. During that time he maintained an interest in game design, creating a mechanical baseball game as a hobby. He also managed to produce a pilot for a game show called Quickdraw, which was similar to a later mildly successful 80’s game show called Win Lose or Draw (the pilot featured Loni Anderson, Betty White, Burt Reynolds and Tony Danza sitting around in a fake living room essentially playing Pictionary), and shared elements with a later boxed game called Backseat Drawing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r48nkKBOVN0

Win Lose or Draw, Pictionary, and Backseat Drawing all came after Gene had pitched his idea for Quickdraw, but this fact seems more like an amusing anecdote than a point of bitterness for Gene. In the osmotic gaming world it seems likely to just be a coincidence. The fact that almost identical designs can pop up in two totally separate minds is part of what makes game design an interesting field. It can feel like you’re all working toward the same end.

When I asked him what led him to work in game design, Gene told me he likes to think of games as “these little worlds-unto-themselves, systems where all the parts have to work in harmony with each other. I almost see it as a puzzle similar to creating a perpetual motion machine.” Like many creative people, Gene is attracted to projects that “fill his head,” and is most satisfied when he comes to that “(no pun intended) Eureka! moment.”

Gene first started his professional involvement in game design and production around 2011, when he came up with the idea for an abstract strategy card game. He was at home playing Qwirkle (another popular strategy game that Eureka carries) with his wife, when he had a thought that occurs frequently in the lives of regular gamers and with which most game designers are well familiar. “The phrase that kept going through my head was ‘this would be so much better if…’ And after about seven or eight of those, I had this idea for a game that involved three parameters instead of two and ‘all the same’ or ‘all different.’”

From there Gene began to fine tune the elements of the game, cutting back the number of shapes, colors and numbers from five to four, changing the designs of the cards from numerals to the more abstract representation of numbers as dots, and introducing wild cards.

What emerged was a colorful chaos, a simple-looking game where the trick was to understand the flow of the board and “see what’s out there.”

Gene playtested the game until he felt there was minimal risk in orchestrating a small production run. He was aware that other games and creative projects had found funding through Kickstarter and other similar crowd-funding campaigns, but because of the size and scale of his game, and the discovery that he could hire a company in China to produce 1000 decks for $2000, Gene opted to produce the first run of IOTA out-of-pocket.

When he first contacted Jason Schneider, Gamewright’s Director of Product, about IOTA, Jason suggested Gene speak with David Leschinsky (founder of Eureka Puzzles) about “the odds that a one-off game made by an individual could ever go anywhere.” Gene visited David at Eureka a couple of weeks before Christmas (our busiest time of year). “I asked David, ‘Is this a good time,’” Gene remembers, “and obviously he said ‘No.’”

But a month or so later the two found each other at a New York gift fair. Gene had a few copies of IOTA in his bag. He showed them to David and David immediately agreed to sell them in the store, making him one of the first retail locations to carry IOTA.

Shortly thereafter Gene created a website for online sales and a few months after that he had won the Mensa Mind Games Competition.

The calls started coming in, and Gene eventually decided to publish IOTA through Gamewright.

Since then Gene has created three new games, all of which are published independently through his own company, PDG Games (the website, pdggames.com, will be launching in full within the next few weeks).

“It’s an educational journey,” he tells me. As the founder and president of a game company, there are greater risks for Gene than his initial $2000 investment in IOTA, and he’s encountered some pitfalls along the way including serious manufacturing issues. But one gets the sense that for Gene, these are all problems that he enjoys working on, elements of the puzzle that fills his head. If he weren’t designing games, he would be working on something else.

“I think with IOTA I had a little bit of an idea of what was involved. And the one thing that struck me with IOTA was that right after I made the licensing agreement with Gamewright, I suddenly felt like I had all this time,” he says, laughing. “There’s really nothing to do on that front anymore. So that’s when I started making new games. And I also joined a game prototypers meet-up group (now known as the Game Makers Guild).”

We discussed his new games (Bop!, D!Git, and Q!nto), and the fine line one has to walk between strategy and simplicity when designing a game. “I think that balance is key,” Gene tells me. “What I wanted to do with D!Git was step back from IOTA and say “I don’t want a game where you have to spend any time calculating. I don’t want a game that is frustrating in any way. What I do want is a game that is challenging enough so that you might look at your hand, look at the board, see a perfectly good move, but maybe take a deep breath, look at your hand, look at the board again and decide that there’s a good chance you’ll find a better move. I thought that was a good place to be for a family game.”

He tested the game out at a few game nights with parents and kids and was pleasantly surprised by the sense of accomplishment the kids felt when they were able to execute a great move. It’s a feeling he can share with them, having himself executed the perfect rule set to lead them there. “In a way I feel like I’m sort of a stickler for elegance. It’s like I’m always looking for that elegant solution. And it’s often the case that when you find it, it’s obvious. But it’s not easy to find it. And it’s also the case that a lot of times you think you’ve found it, and you try it out and it’s terrible.”

Ultimately, it’s the idea of contributing to the legacy of play, the idea that someone could be inspired by his games to create something of their own, that drives Gene to keep creating. “It might even be the biggest kick there is,” he says with a smile, “to see someone having fun playing a game that you designed. It’s a thrill. That’s sort of the whole point.”

Gene will be presenting on his experiences with design and gameplay in an informal discussion at Knight Moves Board Game Cafe on November 11th at 6:30 PM. No registration required.

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