Big Monster Toys’ Gordon Downey on the ‘Aha!’ moment that led to Sink N Sand
Gordon, it’s great to catch up. Before we explore Sink N Sand, I wanted to ask about your route into toy invention. How did you find your way into this industry?
Well, the road to toy design was long and winding! I didn’t even study industrial design until my mid thirties. Before that I was a commercial photographer. When I graduated I began freelancing for product design firms and I assumed that was the type of job I would most likely find.
But, there was an opportunity to interview at Big Monster Toys and fortunately I had a couple of toys in my portfolio – as well as an infant care product that had won a national student award. I wasn’t really sure how toy invention worked but I wanted in!
Were you aware of Big Monster Toys and its history prior to joining?
No. And I’m glad I didn’t! Walking into that amazing building with the big yellow door and the monster would have just been that much more intimidating.
I can imagine! Looking back to your early days with the company, can you recall what the first toy invention you got over the line was?
Yes, it was a Max Steel item with Mattel. A waverunner that transformed into an underwater submarine. I’m not sure it ever reached the shelves in the United States; I think it only launched in Latin America.
From that waverunner to Sink N Sand, it sounds like you invent a bit of everything rather than focusing your attention on one category?
Yes, I work – and think – in all directions. From toys and games to crafts and baby gear. I have a very brand‐centric way of thinking and tend to go for the most simple and direct way to get to the fun. It sounds safe to focus on one thing and do that really well, but I try and avoid things that will mire me down for months because at the end of the day, you don’t get many shots with your concepts. It keeps things fresh for me.
Makes sense! Let’s talk about Sink N Sand. It launched from Spin Master last year, picking up awards and gracing many ‘Top Games for Christmas’ lists. Where did the initial idea come from?
Well I had worked with Kinetic Sand before, mainly in toy concepts. It’s tricky stuff. You think you know how it will behave but more often than not you are proved wrong.
The more you play with it though, the better you understand its properties and what it can do… If you hold it up, it sort of falls and drains through your fingers in such a cool way.
Of course, a quicksand theme seemed obvious, but that cool falling effect with Kinetic Sand happens off the table in the air… And quicksand isn’t up there, it’s in the ground!
Of course! A tricky problem to solve!
Exactly. My ‘Aha!’ moment came looking at games that play vertically above the table – like KerPlunk. Using a frame to hold sticks as a lofted platform for the sand ended up being the solution. You are able to see the sand fall from above and below as you remove the sticks, and that’s really cool and fun.
The execution had a simplicity and an elegance that I strive for with all of my products. And Spin Master did a fabulous job with it, adding a few game play elements that made it even better.
I was going to ask, did the concept transform much within Spin Master?
This rarely happens but the game looks and works very much like my prototype – which is gratifying! One clever thing they did was to give the figures different equipment, like a rope and a stick, so when they fall there’s a chance they can get hooked onto the edge in different ways. That’s a nice addition.
Another difference is that they created a molding plate that you push down onto the sand to create gem patterns and divide the sand up into sections, like a game board. You then roll a die at the start to see which space you place your character into.
My version didn’t have that. The mold plate compresses the sand a lot, and it means the sand tends to fall in square chunks. So it plays a little differently to my version.
It’s like hearing about the secret menu at Starbucks! Play without the mold plate to experience Gordon’s version!
Ha! Well, the whole game is very toyetic so I imagine a kid could play with Sink N Sand on their own for hours without actually ‘playing the game’. You have all the characters and making them fall through the sand is fun. I think families can get a lot of mileage out of this game.
It also feels like it has brand potential. I’ve seen there’s a Midnight Jungle version which adds a Meddlin’ Monkey piece that weighs characters down.
Yes – and there’s always a cart and a horse issue when it comes to designing with brand potential in mind. That said, I always think about the flexibility of ideas and opportunities beyond the current item. It’s a little daunting to chase blue sky, but if you can make an idea super accessible and appealing, it boosts your chances of selling – and upselling – that idea. It’s always worth thinking ‘What’s year two? What’s year three?’
A few final questions before we wrap up. What would you say is your most underrated invention?
A few years ago, back when Moose first tried to get into games, they picked up Boom Blast Stix – which I invented with Jeremy Posner. It wasn’t out for very long, but I think it’s one of my best games.
It has these sticks that lock together to create tension and you start to pile these on top of each other until one snaps and sets the whole lot of them exploding into the air. It is a great kinetic experience! And it was so neat to see a company dive in and figure out how to manufacture the game, but it only made it a year and nobody really knew it was even out, so it was bittersweet.
Funnily enough, Sink N Sand and Boom Blast Stix are similar kinds of experiences. They’re unique, simple and quick. I did another game called Gravity’s Edge that launched with MindWare and also falls into this camp…
They’re all very different games, but essentially you add pieces in, there’s some action and then it all falls down!
I played Boom Blast Stix at a past Toy Fair as it happens! Great game! Last question: How do you fuel your creativity?
Fear… Of failure and deadlines! And my best thinking is often done when I’m not working on something, so I’ll often solve a lot of problems and come up with ideas when I’m walking the dog or commuting.
Gordon, this has been great. Congrats again on the success of Sink N Sand. Let’s tie‐in again soon!
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