Prolific inventor Richard Levy on the launch of Tightrope – and the return of Furby
Richard, terrific to catch up with you at New York Toy Fair! I wanted to chat with you because you have a beautiful looking new game: Tightrope. What’s the idea?
The first player to successfully balance all their marbles on a suspended web of stretchy bands wins. Tightrope is never the same game twice. Players can create a fresh web pattern for each new game using three or more of 24 pegs and 20 stretchy, silicone bands. The tag line says it all: The Unpredictable Game of Balancing and Blocking. Mindware’s dazzling package design tells the story.
So Mindware published this?
Yes. Mindware describes itself as an award-winning creator, manufacturer, and distributor of brainy toys for kids of all ages. Tightrope is a collaboration between me and Peter Pook, a 35-year industry veteran and former Vice President of R&D at Fisher-Price.
Peter and I were neighbours and close friends in Florida. When he retired from corporate life, we started noodling… This idea was hatched by Peter then we co-developed it. Mindware was the first company to review Tightrope. As a former TV and film producer, I know how to recognize and match talent, so this has been a dream collaboration for all of us.
This isn’t your first game with Mindware, is it?
No – and it won’t be my last! Mindware publishes two of my card games, Bubble Gum Rummy and Go Fish, You Wish. I co-created both of those with another industry veteran, Hank Atkins. Hank and I have a new card game at Mindware for 2024. And Peter and I have another tabletop game under license to Mindware for 2024 as well… So we have a lot going on there.
Great team! It’s a wellspring of natural-born creativity based in Minnesota not far from the Twin Cities. And, actually, my wife Sheryl and I visited Mindware last year, just to meet everyone in person and express our gratitude for their exceptional talents and contributions to our concepts. As you can tell, I very much enjoy working with them. It’s a Promethean team.
Promethean! Great word. And Tightrope is out now, isn’t it? In the US and the UK?
Yes. We introduced Tightrope in June 2023, at ASTRA – the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association trade show in Columbus, Ohio. It received a strong response. Outset Media will be distributing it in the UK beginning this month, so consumers should be able to find it in stores this holiday season.
I’ll be sure to pick up a copy. It’s great.
Thank you! The response from store buyers and consumers alike has been extremely favourable. Kristin Gallagher, Director of Product Development and Creative Services, told me “From the new games introduced to the trade at ASTRA, Tightrope was a runaway hit! It’s also our most popular new family game on mindware.com.”
High praise! And in other news, I was excited to hear about the return of Furby… What changes can we expect to see in the brand?
Interesting question. You know, early on in Hasbro’s development of the current generation of Furby, I strongly recommended to the team going back to the DNA of the first generation which bowed in 1998 and was created by another partner, electronic whiz David Hampton. David’s vision was a “life form, not a toy.”
A life form, not a toy! Heck of a vision back then.
Brilliant vision! And I believe three things endeared the creature to the world, and gave it the staying power to still be relevant today… Specifically, Furby’s brilliantly choreographed performance, amusing content and its eyes. I still describe Furby as I would a BFF: hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.
Great! And why is now the right time for a resurgence?
This year marks Furby’s 25th anniversary. Hats off to Hasbro, which is going all out on multiple fronts to bring it roaring back… The Hasbro team has been working on this launch for three years. Their goal is to establish Furby as a lifestyle brand with the slogan: ‘Letting out your inner Furb.’
25 years! So, let me ask you this, Richard… Technology has marched on relentlessly since the first wave generation. Has that proven advantageous? Or does it not help much, because kids are surrounded by sophisticated things all the time? Has the advance of technology made Furby life easier, or helped lower production costs, for example?
The idea with Furby was always to have the technology invisible. Technology alone is not enough to sustain a product such as Furby. The bond Furby has with people of different nationalities and ages around the world has been built on a combination of factors that go way beyond technology. Furby made a deep and irreplaceable bond with people that has never flagged.
And that lives on?
Exactly. Furby continues to give people enduring affection, intimacy, trust, and good cheer. Furby makes people feel good when they feel low. Furby is a non-judgmental companion. But, at the end of the day, the toy gods continue to smile on Furby!
1998 must’ve been a remarkable year for you.
It was, Deej; it was very special year. I had Furby out with Tiger – the number-one toy; the number-one game was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus with Mattel. As you know, that was the social-interactive game I co-invented with John Gray, author of the blockbuster book by the same name.
You seem to have an uncanny knack of partnering up with brilliant people! Is that also true with BrainBolt? Tell me about that…
I was invited by game designer Brad Ross to discuss collaborating on new games. While at his apartment, he showed me a handheld electronic game called Optix that he created and licensed in 2004 to Character Options for the UK. Optix sold over 100,000 units in the UK, a major hit. Well, sitting on Brad’s couch, it only took a few rounds for me to become addicted – and see the game’s huge potential. We agreed to partner on licensing Optix to a US company.
Oh! I didn’t realise it had already been a hit!
Yes, in the UK, it did solid numbers, so I called Lisa Guili, a good friend who helms Educational Insights, a division of Learning Resources. Years earlier, I was a product-acquisition consultant there for a couple of years. I came to know the company and its product appetite… Lisa asked me to send Optix to her at home. She immediately loved it.
Anyway, Educational Insights changed the name to BrainBolt. In short order, it sold over 250,000 units. Based on this success, Brad and I co-developed BrainBolt Genius together with the exceptionally innovative Educational Insights team. BBG, as we call it, is off to the races! It’s doing so well that, in 2024, we’ll also introduce BrainBolt Boost. We have more extensions under consideration as sales of ‘The Bolts’ will soon surpass 500,000 units.
Brilliant. And you were saying earlier how pleased you were – beyond unit sales – with some of the reviews?
Yes, that’s really important. What’s given me the greatest satisfaction are some of the reviews on amazon. There was one – can I read it to you?
“I had a stroke which severely affected my cognition and motor function. I wish I’d started with this game earlier in my recovery. Highly recommended and fun!”
Oh, wow. That must be hugely gratifying.
It really is. And we couldn’t be more pleased with our relationship with Educational Insights… In particular, the BrainBolt team from the executive office to research and development to marketing and sales. And as the CEO at Learning Resources, Rick Woldenberg, said about BrainBolt: “The sky’s the limit.”
The sky’s the limit! Good name for a book, Richard… Maybe your autobiography! And actually, on that point, let me ask you this: you’ve had a wonderfully successful career for 45 years. What is it that keeps you going?
Ha! Well… I love interacting with people: sharing, hatching and developing ideas. The industry and its brightest stars – inventors and corporate executives – continue to inspire me… To be clear, though, I have many more scars than medals – but this is too much fun to stop. My wife, Sheryl, and daughter Bettie, have given me the heart to fight, the will to survive and even after the fight has been won, the ability to remain unsatisfied. My motto: Never give up. Never grow up.
Oh, brilliant. Richard, thank you! We’re wrapping it up here, and I’m taking the rest of the day off! Thank you again.
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