SPS-240: Pictionary: How to Self-Publish a Board Game – with Rob Angel
It all starts with an aardvark. Rob Angel didn’t set out to conquer the world of board games. He began with an idea that intrigued him, found partners he could trust, and persisted. Pictionary went on to sell 32 million copies.
- Where the idea for Pictionary came from
- How the idea wouldn’t leave Rob alone
- The importance of the right mindset
- The importance of choosing business partners who share your values
- Why breaking the rules matters
- Signing a licensing deal that worked for the creators
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
NEW COURSE: Join the waitlist for the upcoming How to Revise Your Book course.
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SPS-240: Pictionary: How to Self-Publish a Board Game - with Rob Angel
Speaker 1: On this edition of The Self-Publishing Show.
Rob Angel: All I have to do is sign this contract and I'm a millionaire. I'm 26 years old. I wouldn't sign it.
Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller Mark Dawson and first-time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Yes. Hello and welcome. It is The Self-Publishing Show with James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: It's a big day for the AV geeks today, Mark. What day is it today?
Mark Dawson: AV geeks. Well, first of all, we need to understand audio visual or aviation? Aviation I'm guessing.
James Blatch: What do you think?
Mark Dawson: I don't know something, something launched for the first time? I can't look behind you because your internet is [bleep]. I can't see anything apart from a blank screen with your name on it.
James Blatch: We're recording this on the 18th. Is it the 18th? Whatever day it is, it is the 18th, which is the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator for the first time in years.
Mark Dawson: Good. Let's wrap it up quickly.
James Blatch: Well, not that quickly, because it's going to take a day and a half to install I think, but-
Mark Dawson: Oh my goodness.
James Blatch: I've had it on pre order for about six months and quite excited about it because this is a game that I now played in its absolute infancy of PCs when it was all line drawings and gradually evolved. And then it looked like they'd just given up on it about, I don't know, 15 years ago, probably the last one, but it's supposed to be breathtaking. It's already gone into the hall of fame of most rated video games of all time on the basis of 24 hours.
Mark Dawson: And who decided that? Is it aviation geeks?
James Blatch: It's I think done on data. People buying it. Yes. It's supposed to be breathtaking. That's my exciting news for today. And your exciting news is that I read that you're now writing comics, given up on books.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, I'm stopping that. There's just no money in it. Books are just a waste of time. Yeah. I can't say too much yet.
We played around with this before with Beatrix, one of my characters, and my brother Craig who's a bit of a comics fan was putting together a project which we had an artist and letterers and a writer obviously to adapt the book. And we produced six pages that we sent out to pitch potential partners and got a couple of kind of nibbles, but nothing really substantive enough to think that it was something that we could do, but well, I was approached or I kind of approached someone who then hooked me up with somebody else.
And I can't say who the partner is yet, but we will definitely get them on the podcast at some point if this takes off, but he does seem quite keen now to run with this project. And what's really exciting is given that Beatrix is a very strong female character who doesn't take any nonsense from anybody, especially men, we were trying to put together an all female team to bring her to life.
So a female artist, writer, cover artist, letterer, colorist, and editor as well. And we think we're making progress definitely. We think we've got a writer now who's had some really, really good, really good comics published over the last year or two. And she's very well connected and she has been hooking us up with the other people who make up the team and touch wood it's really early, but I'm quite excited.
I don't think it's going to be anything that will make a tonne of money, but it will be really fun to do it. Plus my brother will be project managing things from this end, which will be quite fun as well. So yeah, more on that if it takes off, but looking quite good at the moment.
James Blatch: I imagine there's quite a skill to adapting a novel into a comic making those editorial decisions, what scenes are going to work in that format.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, I couldn't do it. I mean, I'm not a comic writer in the same way that I'm not a script writer. I've tried to adapt my stuff before for film and TV and it's completely different. I'm not saying I couldn't learn it, but it's not something that comes naturally to me in the way that long form prose does. And comics is just the same too.
The writer we have in mind is really good. And we know that there's a good chance she'll be very well known in the next couple of years. I'm very happy to have her on board. So we'll see how it goes.
James Blatch: Good, well that was a little bit unusual and not necessarily kind of the mainstream fiction area that we talk about probably most weeks, but this is not most weeks because the person who's on today, our guest is somebody who isn't known for writing books. He has created a game, a board game. In fact, it's a board game you're very likely to have played, Pictionary. It's a board game that's I think seeped completely into the culture of sort of mainstream media. We see it in episodes of TV shows. We all talk about it. Most households probably have a copy of it somewhere at some point.
It has been a worldwide, absolutely phenomenal success, but it started with this guy Rob and his mates, as he's going to tell the story in a moment, just something that they invented and played themselves.
So I'm going to talk a little bit about the Revision course, which is nearly there about to go live after the interview, but for a bit of inspiration, I think also understanding some of the mental hurdles, these mental approach that you need to be successful at something, whether it's marketing your book or marketing a board game or marketing, frankly, a motorbike, a lot of this is the same and Robert is an infectious character. So let's gear from Rob Angel.
Rob Angel. Thank you so much, indeed, for joining us from glorious San Diego. I'm jealous because it's such a beautiful part of the world down there in Southern California. And I mean, we've got history here, but we don't have sunshine. We've got grey. Well, you've got aircraft carriers actually. You've got some pretty neat history in San Diego.
Rob Angel: Absolutely. Yeah.
James Blatch: It's a fun place for me to go. Okay, look, we are here to talk about your journey and a little bit about process. And I think to try and draw some inspiration from somebody who's seems to me have grabbed life by the fears at some points and made the most of it. So just let's go back to the beginning.
Circle back to that moment I think you were working as a waiter in a cocktail bar, or if you were and you started obviously thinking there might be more to you than that and the idea, the idea for Pictionary.
Rob Angel: You know, you're right. First of all, this is great. It's summer. I've been at the pool. I'm outside. This is fabulous. I'm appreciating this a lot.
James Blatch: And we have beer, we should say, both of us.
Rob Angel: Okay, fine. It was like I had to ask the question, do I? And he goes, "Of course." So-
James Blatch: It's compulsory in Britain.
Rob Angel: Pictionary. So, yeah. So the process, as you said, was I knew there was more to just waiting tables. I didn't know what it was, but I was always going to be an entrepreneur. And really all that meant to me was I wasn't going to work for anybody else. I don't know what it meant. I didn't have a plan, but I knew I was going to look for an opportunity and when it came, I was going to be ready.
I graduated college. I moved in with three buddies and one of them says, "Hey, you want to play this game charades on paper?" Sure. Why not? I didn't see it as an opportunity. It was just to have fun. And we started playing and we kept playing and I couldn't stop playing this silly game.
It was one of those moments where it's like, "Oh, maybe there's something here." And that was the genesis. That was the thinking process and that was the beginning of Pictionary. Again, no mission, no plan, but then I panicked. I knew the thing that I could only sell. I knew the thing that people would gravitate towards were the words and until I could figure out physically how to put words into a game, I wouldn't be able to do Pictionary.
James Blatch: And you're working as a waiter, but did you have sort of entrepreneurial experience at that point or business experience?
Rob Angel: I went to college to be a businessman. My dad was an executive and so I wanted to be an executive.
James Blatch: Like a nine to five kind of businessman.
Rob Angel: Nine to five working for somebody, but I wanted to be in charge. I like control and he got fired when I was in my second year of college. That's when this whole process started from businessman to entrepreneur to being my own boss. And that was the catalyst and my mindset completely changed.
I had to get out of the mindset of being a waiter, even though that's what I told myself I was, I knew that wasn't the only label I would ever have. We all kind of just tell ourselves, we're giving these labels. I am X. It's okay. Even if you tell yourself I am whatever, great. It doesn't have to be even a negative label, but you're never going to be labelled with the same thing. So I knew at some point I wouldn't be just a waiter.
James Blatch: So you're playing charades on paper, paper charades, which presumably just one of your mates has come up with this idea or it's evolved amongst them or you're not really sure the exact genesis of it?
Rob Angel: They played it at college. So after we all moved into a house together and so he was familiar with the concept and I latched on.
James Blatch: Yeah. And okay, so you're playing the game. You're thinking we could package and market this and I guess at that point.
How are you playing it? You're literally handing out sheets of paper and little pencils.
Rob Angel: See that's the thing. When I discovered, as I say, we just grabbed whatever was around. It wasn't overthinking rules. It wasn't overthinking the game because it was an activity. It wasn't a game. There were pads of paper from real estate agents. They used to give you these pads of paper. We grabbed those, we've got pens, paper, whatever we had right there is what we played with.
James Blatch: And you came up with the clues spontaneously like you would charades or?
Rob Angel: It was totally spontaneous, but even then we found that even a two second break for somebody trying to come up with a word would slow the flow because it was all about flow. I want to get to it. And so the process I figured out, if we get a dictionary we can rifle through the words really fast. Get a word, show the other guy, and that was how the words started forming. Even then, the winner, the loser of the game then, they had to go get the beer and pizza.
James Blatch: Right. So it was real stakes.
Rob Angel: Yeah, real heavy duty stuff.
James Blatch: People had skin in the game.
Rob Angel: Exactly.
James Blatch: I'll tell you what, that's excellent because a really good way you can imagine at big corporate level coming up with new ideas, which they do try to do all the time is not the same as evolving it like that when you're playing it in anger with each other because that little pain point about slowing the process down, and here's a way of speeding it up.
That's a really small but crucial part of it I imagine.
Rob Angel: It was. I hadn't thought of it in those terms till we're talking about it, but it was. And in the book I talk about that, that the shortest break got us out of it. And so we had to figure that out and that's the creative process and it was a dictionary in this case, but it could have been anything.
Nowadays you can do a random word generator, you can do anything, but we had to figure out what it was. But really, as you're saying, it's because we were playing it and we were playing it as pure form. We weren't, okay, we're going to make this great game and how do we make this work? It was I want to play faster. That was the pain point.
James Blatch: That was the driver. It was almost like it's the old thing about war accelerates invention, doesn't it? Because you have to have it, you have to use it, and in that environment. And it's a silly, slightly crap analogy for the serious business of war, but it's the same thing really is you're driving forward with something and necessity is the invention of mother.
Rob Angel: Necessity is the mother of invention.
James Blatch: That's what I'm looking for. Okay. So where did you go from here? Sorry. You were going to say something.
Rob Angel: I was going to twig on that a little farther is that it's because we were in the same room together. We were face to face and Zoom is great, but we were experimenting as we went. There was no wrong answer. I loved that.
James Blatch: Yeah. Fantastic.
So are these other guys with you, they're also thinking we want to be entrepreneurial here or are you the driver here?
Rob Angel: No, we just kept playing and I've always as we discussed, I've had that vibe. I've always wanted to do that. So I saw the opportunity and it was a couple of years for me to get started and I started over thinking things and that label came in. I'm just a waiter. I don't have a plan.
That was my biggest thing was I don't have the skills. I'm just a waiter. I can't do marketing plans, business plans even though I went to school. And so I kind of shut myself down for a couple of years and I had to grow up a little bit and I had to feel my way through. And then I revisited and that's when it all started accelerating when I saw Trivial Pursuit.
James Blatch: Yeah. Which was huge, right, Trivial Pursuit. We all played it.
Rob Angel: Oh, it was fabulous.
James Blatch: It was expensive. In the UK, it was 30 quid for a box. And I remember at the time we were playing it, only one person could really afford it and it was quite a big deal to go and buy it, but every house had at least a copy in the end.
Rob Angel: Yeah, absolutely. And they were our role model. We kind of looked at them. Why reinvent the wheel? If you want to say they were our mentor, you can. I mean, why did we want to reinvent the wheel? They're quality. They're great. They're fantastic. Let's emulate them. Why not?
James Blatch: So those two years, that break, were you still playing the version of it you had at home or was that just a period of time that had gone then?
Rob Angel: I went to Europe, I travelled, but the idea never left my mind. So how many times have we all, myself included, gotten out of the shower or driving down the road and you have this great idea, but by the time you're done drying your hair, it's gone. And this idea of Pictionary wouldn't leave my mind.
And I heard this philosophy and I believe it. When you have a great idea, somebody else is going to use it. It's waiting to land somewhere. And so Pictionary was waiting to land for me. So after two years of not getting it out of my mind, I thought, "Okay, how do I do this?" And that was the biggest process of the whole thing is how do we get started?
That's what drives everybody from not starting. That's always the problem. Where do I start? How do I start? What's the first step? I'm just getting dizzy talking and thinking about it still.
James Blatch: So where did you start? How did this begin then to go from silly idea with your mates, but you kind of knew this could work to getting it going?
Rob Angel: The word list. It was right back to the beginning and so it was the easiest step, but it was also the most accessible. So I went right back to the same dictionary, same pad of paper, same pencils. And I said, okay, I see Trivial Pursuit, and I see the words printed. Now I know how to make pictures, or at least the word list.
I started in the backyard, opened up the dictionary. And I'm sitting there, I'm 23 years old. Don't have a clue what I'm doing. I don't even have an idea for a game. I don't have an idea for a product, but I'm going to make a word list. I'm going to try something. I opened it up first word letter A, aardvark. That was it. I write down the word aardvark and I'm running around the backyard. I started. It was really liberating.
It wasn't overthinking how to get started. It wasn't over thinking the process. It wasn't over thinking anything. I wrote a silly word and that word, guess what? Led to another word, and another word.
More importantly, it started leading to a mindset change from waiter to game inventor. And that was the big switch.
James Blatch: Aardvark is a difficult one. Did it ever make it in?
Rob Angel: Yeah, it made it in, but this is one of those moments where I wrote down the word aardvark, because it kind of made sense. And I think in my brain somewhere, I knew what an aardvark was. I had no idea, but it was an animal I might as well write it down. I had to look it up actually what it was, but that's okay.
James Blatch: An anteater type thing or something?
Rob Angel: It's like an anteater. But different.
James Blatch: I think it's tough. I mean, the word list is the key thing because now I'm thinking about it. If you take the word list out of Pictionary, if you say, you come up with the words. What have you got? You've got a box with paper and pens in it.
The bullet list makes the game, right?
Rob Angel: Absolutely. Because everybody draws differently. Everybody guesses differently. They perceive things differently, whether it's Pictionary or life, but the words you got to have an anchor. You got to have a base.
James Blatch: Yeah. So you started compiling these lists. Did you work out, by the way, just a little Pictionary thing, that at that point, some words you could categorise words between easy and difficult? I think it's just basically the blue and red, or this might be much later down the line for you.
Rob Angel: No, they changed the whole game now.
James Blatch: Yeah, okay right.
Rob Angel: There are five categories. I had two criteria. I had to know what the word meant because I didn't want to trivia based. And it had to conjure a picture in my mind. So there was a criteria. And I didn't self edit the words, so I wound up with 5,018 words. I know the exact number.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: I still have those pads, by the way.
James Blatch: Do you really? The Genesis of Pictionary. You should frame them.
Rob Angel: They're in Game Changer, the book. They're 50 pages of words. They're fabulous to see. I'm a nostalgic guy. I'm a collector. For me, it's fabulous. Really, really cool to see the history.
James Blatch: There's a lot of words in a dictionary. So you were relatively selective, right? 5,000, I don't know how many words are in the dictionary, but it's a lot more than 5,000.
Rob Angel: Yeah, but I read them all. I read the dictionary. Anybody else? Anybody?
James Blatch: Yeah. No. Antidisestablishmentarianism, didn't make it in, I noticed, but that is also a tough one. Okay, so you've got your list now.
And at this stage, are you having conversations with anybody with a view to taking this to the next step?
Rob Angel: No. I'm a step by step guy. So I talk about finding your aardvark. I still didn't have a plan, even though I had 5,018 words. So I figured my next test, I have a play test with my family. Because maybe it was just the beer and pizza that made it fun. I don't know. So we had a good time, and then I know my limitations.
So they say now, accentuate your positive, what you're good at, and hire what you don't know. And that's why I'm successful. I took my ego out of the next decision, which was, I need help. How do I do this? And I got a couple of partners. One is a graphic artist, because Mr. Pictionary can't draw. I'm terrible at drawing. You don't want me on your team, is really what this comes down to.
James: How ironic is that?
Rob Angel: It's very ironic, but it's true. Nobody clamours to be on my team and I don't blame them.
James Blatch: Right. It's hilarious. I've got Rob Angel coming around, the inventor of Pictionary. I can't believe you're gaming the system like this. As it turns out, it's a disadvantage.
Rob Angel: As it turns out, I suck.
James Blatch: So how did you get these guys? Are these people you knew or did you advert in the paper?
Rob Angel: One was a graphic artist, he was a restaurant guy with me. He was a waiter and we just had this immediate connection. And then I asked for the business side, but I know what I'm good at. I like sales and marketing and being out there, even though I went to college to be a business guy, I'm not a good businessman. It's okay. I admit that, big deal.
So I had to find one and I wound up finding two guys. And there was qualities about them that I was looking for before I even knew I was looking for it. There's three of them. One, that they basically had the skills I didn't have. Augmented what I didn't have. Big deal. Not big deal, but you can find somebody online to do your accounting and all the rest of it. And two, they shared my vision. Now it's getting more important.
They're sharing this excitement for Pictionary. They understand what we're trying to do. But three, we shared the same core values. Stuff's going to go bad. You're in business, there's going to be problems. There's going to be obstacles and you want to do it with these guys you appreciate, that you like, and you want to have dinner with. And it's totally intangible. But whether you're writing a book or doing a game or starting a business, I really believe that you all have to be aligned and you'll be more successful, without question.
James Blatch: Yeah, I think that's really good advice. And it was amazing of you to have seen that and felt that at that time. Because I think that's a life lesson people learn later.
Rob Angel: Yeah.
James Blatch: Normally.
Rob Angel: Well, I said I didn't realise it till now. I mean, between what I'm talking about and I'm analysing my life, that's what it was. Back then it was, those guys right there, he might be a good partner.
James Blatch: So it was almost subconscious for you that stage.
Rob Angel: Intuitive and subconsciously, they were the best partners I could have hoped for.
James Blatch: And let me ask you this, in terms of sharing the idea and the IP, how did you approach that? Because that's also, these are decisions that last a long time.
Rob Angel: Well, at first we did it ourselves. We didn't licence product till later.
James Blatch: I mean, sorry between the three of you, did you employ them on salaries or did you say here's 5% or 10%? Or is that all confidential?
Rob Angel: No, I'm not going to tell you the percents, but because of the core values, we couldn't afford to do a purchase or a sale agreement or a partnership agreement. We didn't have any money. And so we came up with, between my partners, myself and my uncle financed us, totally on a handshake.
James Blatch: Okay, great.
Rob Angel: And because of our connection, our values, when it came time that we could afford to do a partnership agreement, we lived up to our obligations.
James Blatch: Yeah. Fantastic. That's good to know. So, but basically it was a partnership in the true sense. It wasn't simply you saying, can I pay you $500 this month for you to do some work for me? It was a partnership with these guys.
Rob Angel: Right, and they're invested.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Rob Angel: They're invested emotionally, man.
James Blatch: Yeah. Which is obviously an important part of how this then took off. And boy, did this take off at some point. So we're not there yet I don't think, but you've got your guys together.
You say your uncle's giving you a bit of seed money at this stage. He obviously believed in the idea as well?
Rob Angel: Yeah. Believed more in me than the idea. He didn't understand really the game or what I was trying to do, but he liked his nephew that was passionate. I really believed by the time we went for financing, this was going to be something. So by the time I went looking for cash and for capital, he was in.
James Blatch: And when you went for your pitching, let's talk about that in a second because it's not something everyone has experienced of.
When you went to pitching, what exactly were you pitching? How fully formed was the idea at that point?
Rob Angel: The idea was formed. The business model wasn't.
James Blatch: Right.
Rob Angel: We kind of made things up, but we knew we had something, but bottom line, we knew we had a good game. We had play-tested this thing so many times, and people loved it and we knew we a good game. And so that drove us and we were winging it. I mean, let's be honest, one foot in front of the other, there was no manual for any of this.
By now I'm 25 and still confused, but having a ball. And between the three of us we were going, what are we going to do today? Oh, we need some markers, okay, let's find some markers. And it was a blast.
Not knowing from one day to the next what was going to happen. For me, that that's my whole life. And I love the not knowing. It's not the fear of the unknown, because that's scary. It's giving up the known. And what we knew was great, so we didn't fear it. And so we just kept plugging forward and forward.
So by the time we went for financing to my uncle, it was like, this is the best thing ever. I mean, this wasn't like begging for money. This is, if you don't do it, somebody is going to do it, because this is a really good idea. Really good idea.
James Blatch: You were 100% convinced that this would be a commercial success at that stage?
Rob Angel: No. I knew the game was great. I had absolutely no idea if it would be a success or not, but I couldn't focus on that. I focus on, I still do, I focus on the intention. And the intention was to create a great game. And if it was successful, which clearly we wanted, that would be great. If it wasn't, then so be it. But that said, we created the best game possible. This wasn't just let's give it a try. We really believed what we're doing. Really believed it.
James Blatch: Okay. So you go for financing. So this was your uncle again, was it?
Rob Angel: Yeah.
James Blatch: You didn't go into a Shark Tank type scenario with a couple of guys, the other side of the desk, pulling apart your idea?
Rob Angel: The quick back story was when I was in college I had to put myself through school because my dad got fired. I went to my uncle and borrowed $2,000. The deal was that I'd have to start paying him nine months after I graduated. Nine months, I start writing him checks. Who writes checks anymore? But I was writing checks.
There was months where I didn't have any money. I'd send him a note, don't go draw them. Can't afford anything, have a good day. All I cared about was that I paid the debt. Or I acknowledged, excuse me, the debt. So by the time I went looking for financing, I was a man. I was a man of my word. That's the other reason he gave us the capital. The game was great because I was a man of my word.
James Blatch: And what did you do with the capital?
Rob Angel: We made games. Our business plan was pretty simple. Make games.
James Blatch: You worked out what was going to go in the box. You had your graphic designer who did... Here's a picture of a guy on the front. Is that the original from him?
Rob Angel: No.
James Blatch: No. Okay.
Rob Angel: No, it could have been. He didn't know what he was doing either. He was a waiter who worked at a magazine. We had no experience.
James Blatch: So you what? Had prototype versions of the game built?
Rob Angel: We had prototypes. We played them. Changed the rules when necessary. So by the time we went for financing, the product was perfect. Now the business model we had to work on. But the product was really good.
James Blatch: That's the main thing. If somebody is looking to invest this, the product is going to be key isn't it?
Rob Angel: People don't look at it that way. They just have an idea. If I do it half ass and I put it out, if it's successful, great. If it's not, then I'll try something else. Ah. Do the best you can do. Got to pull the trigger at some point because you'll never have all the information you need to make an informed decision, even with the internet. But do the best you can do.
Have the best product, have the best people. And then you'll give yourself a chance of success. If it doesn't work, you tried and you gave it a good shot. If it's successful now now you know why.
James Blatch: Yeah. And do you know what these cynical VCs and the people who invest? The one thing they look for is the person's commitment to the project.
Rob Angel: Absolutely.
James Blatch: It's a really key thing. A friend of mine does do this now. He's had a couple of them very successful breaks. I was going to say lucky breaks, but they're not. He's hardworking guy. And he now invests, but that's what he looks at, the person much more than the idea of the business plan for him. So yeah, so I can see that's an attractive proposition.
But all I'm curious about is, and there is some relation here to self-publishing, in trying to work out what it is you do at the various steps so that you are putting your time and effort into the right things. So you've developed the product, you've developed the hell out of the product so you know that it's as good as it can be at that stage, but what's in your mind about what you do next. I mean, I don't know how.
How does a game get distributed?
Rob Angel: I don't know. I'm 26. So we've got a product and I literally have a game and now I've got, oh. I should probably figure out how to sell this darn thing. And that was the next step is selling. We spent all this time, energy, money getting a product. Oh Rob, you got to go to work. Now we've got to go sell it.
And so I'm thinking the only place people sold games were toy stores and the big box stores, Toys R Us, KB Toys, little guys like us, we didn't have access to the big stores. So it's just toy stores. So I'm thinking, after a couple of walking around the street, I'm thinking if anybody sells anything, I don't care what it is, you better be selling Pictionary. So I'd literally take the game under my arm, walk down the street, see a storefront and I'd walk in and try to sell them.
Real estate companies, bookstores, pharmacies. I didn't care. They didn't sell in these places. Department stores, Nordstrom, a big chain here in the US. And I just didn't care. And it wasn't a fear of failure. You make a sales call. What if you fail? No, I didn't fail. There's another store next door. I just take the game, walk out, go to the next door. Some were receptive, some weren't. But that's okay.
I had a ball. An absolute blast not knowing what store was next, but what it did was it got the game in front of people that normally wouldn't see games. If you go to a toy store, you're there because you want a toy or a game for a birthday, a holiday. But here it is like June 12th, you see this game at the fabric store. What's that? Oh, so we were disruptive before we knew we were disruptive.
James Blatch: Wow. So you created the box, you'd done the prototypes, but you created enough production versions of the game as far as you'd got to it in terms of its development. You must've stopped at some point and said... Is it Francis Ford Coppola that makes films, who says they're never completed. They're just abandoned at some point.
So, you just abandoned your constant product development, and then how many did you make? Did you commission?
Rob Angel: We did 1,000 and back then, 1985, '84, there was no internet. So we physically had to go through the yellow pages to find our pieces. We had nine different companies. Markers, dyes, cubes, printers, box makers, all of these different pieces shipped to my apartment and everything fit in there, and we hand assembled the first 1,000 games.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: Every one of those first 1,000 games has my finger... literally, my fingerprints on them.
James Blatch: Have you got any of these left?
Rob Angel: I've still got about five in a stash.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: Hidden away, that are those original 1,000.
James Blatch: They're heirlooms. Yeah, superb.
So, you hawked them. You went around to the shops?
Rob Angel: Oh, we hawked them. We would go to a restaurant, and two of us, we'd open up the game and start playing in the middle of the restaurant. "Oh, what are you doing?" "Oh, it's a new game, why don't you come see?" They would sit down, we'd get the pencil in their hand. They had a blast, they had a ball. Oh, by the way, I invented it and we're selling it next door. I mean, trottle over and go buy the game.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: So we were shameless. We would rearrange game sections of retailers. If I didn't like where it was, Gary, my partner would... He'd look around, "Go! No manager." I would rearrange it so Pictionary was eye-level. Trivial Pursuit somehow wound up on the bottom shelf. We were shameless.
James Blatch: Yeah, there's not an author with a book in a book shop that hasn't gone at some point and done some little shuffling around, which is fair enough. Okay, so you go from a self-published game before self-publishing was even a thing and who knew you could even do that. I love the fact that you did stuff that you didn't even know people did. Just, "Let's do that." I mean, it's a kind of obvious move, just to walk around shops, but...
Rob Angel: Yeah, what I like to say is, they say, "You've got to go out and break the rules." We never asked what the rules were. How can we break them? We didn't care. It's a game. It's not rocket science.
James Blatch: And then what was the next stage, after you've sold those first 1,000 or 995 if you've got five in your attic, what's next?
Rob Angel: Then, I had to reframe again who I was. Now I'm a game inventor, but now the game is so popular in Seattle where we'd launched that we couldn't fund our own growth. Scaling was out of the question based on our demand. So we had to licence.
We had the biggest game companies coming to us and saying they wanted a licence. Basically, they do manufacturing, which we couldn't afford, and they pay us a royalty per game.
The problem was that we learned early on that nobody cares about Pictionary like we care about Pictionary. We talked to this one company, and they said, "Here's what we're going to do for you. We're going to change the packaging, we're going to change the rules. We're going to change the words, and we're going to sell more games."
"No, you're not." This was our product, this was our baby, this was our vision of this wonderful game, and they wanted to change it all. We said, "No," so we wind up talking to Milton Bradley, the biggest game company in the world. And they give us the biggest royalty they'd ever given an independent game inventor. I'm 30 years old, I'm making $500 a month and I'm driving a 10-year-old car. Great royalty rate, but they wouldn't put in the contract it wouldn't touch the packaging without our approval. All I have to do is sign this contract, and I'm a millionaire. I'm 28 years old, 26 years old, I wouldn't sign it.
James Blatch: You were afraid they were going to change what you created?
Rob Angel: Exactly. And my financial future is tied up in their efforts, what they do. And if they're going to change it and we can't trust them, we couldn't sign the deal. I'm in my 20s, and I was willing to go back to waiting tables than sign a deal that didn't make sense.
James Blatch: And just so I understand this, this point, this is not because you're precious about it and it's an ego thing, it's because you know it works like this, and you're worried that it won't work if they make those changes?
Rob Angel: 100% true. That's exactly what it was. I didn't have this ego wrapped around my creation. "I invented Pictionary, you can't touch it because it's mine, mine." No. It was about the product. It was about money at this point, it really was.
We didn't feel, and my partners agreed, that our best interest and Pictionary's best interests were not served by signing this contract. And we went back to slogging it out, now we're doing 10,000 games and 20,000.
We risked complete failure, because if somebody comes up with a better game, somebody more well-funded, I mean, we took a huge risk. But a couple of months later, we wound up with a different deal, different company, all our guarantees, and a bigger royalty rate.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: Yeah, I know, right? Got lucky. But it was the universe. We weren't lucky at all. If we hadn't have stuck to our guns and knew what was right for us and Pictionary, I wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd be back at work.
James Blatch: You'd be serving me.
Rob Angel: I'd still be serving you, absolutely.
James Blatch: You'd get a good tip if we played a little game afterwards.
Rob Angel: I appreciate that.
James Blatch: Were you going for the companies at this stage, by the way? Were you the one calling them saying, "Can we come and pitch to you?" Or did they hear about the game?
Rob Angel: No, we made quite a name for ourselves in Seattle. We marketed only in Seattle, produced only in Seattle, everything we did was there. So by the time the holiday season rolled around, we sold 8,600 games in Seattle, which was a pretty good number. But we were in the paper, we were pushing, pushing, so by the time the next year rolled around, '86, that's when they all heard about Pictionary, and they all came to us looking to licence.
James Blatch: Talk about the name, by the way.
At what point did you form the name? Obviously, you're going through the dictionary early on. Is that the point at which you came up with the name?
Rob Angel: The name actually was very early on, and my roommates and I were playing, and there's an old parlour game called Fictionary, which became Balderdash. And so one of my roommates started with the dictionary that we used to use, he says, "Oh, here's an old game I used to play called Fictionary." The light bulb goes off, and he goes, "We'll call it Pictionary. Pictures, charades, done." And it was early on, from the beginning, my buddy Sean named it, and that was it.
James Blatch: Good. It's a great name.
Rob Angel: It was perfect.
James Blatch: So, you signed your deal and what year was this when you signed the deal?
Rob Angel: '86. 1986.
James Blatch: And if you don't mind me asking a little bit, not necessarily all the detail, but how did the deal work? Was it a bit like a book deal where you get an advance and then royalties once you've paid down that advance?
Rob Angel: We did not get an advance, but we did get a guaranteed royalty rate, and we put it in a minimum royalty. So even if they didn't sell any games, they would still have to pay us because what if their product, what if Pictionary doesn't land in their product mix anymore? What if in three years, they decide to go with another game? What if, what if, what if? I hate what ifs.
So we made sure we kept their feet to the fire and that they did what they're supposed to do and we never left. It's like licensing a book. You go to a publisher, the publisher will take the book and when they get the next book, you've got to still do your own marketing.
You still have to pay attention, you still can't just walk away and say, "Good luck, give me a check," because they're going to find something new. It's a fashion business. Pictionary is a fashion business, books are a fashion business, and so when we licensed, we stayed on top of it. We kept marketing our own money, when we didn't have to.
I'm still doing it with my book. You've got to pay attention. You can't just turn it over to publisher or a licensing agent. You've got to stay involved. That's always been my philosophy, and that's what kept Pictionary moving along over the years.
James Blatch: Some people say those days have gone where you can sit back and let the publishers do it for you. But other people would tell you that they were never there in the first place, you should always be marketing your own stuff regardless.
Rob Angel: What it comes down to with publishing and the book, I self-published because I want to own my content. I want to be in control. If I don't get the advance, I'm okay with that. But book fails or succeeds, it's on my efforts, and I'm okay with that. So, I'm happy.
James Blatch: I want to talk about the book next, but just to get to the kind of conclusion or get to the point where I was sitting around with my friends playing Pictionary, which I guess was a few years down the line from that point where the international licensing.
How did all that happen? Because this is a phenomenal global success, Pictionary, right?
Rob Angel: We went from 8,600 games in 1985. '86, we sold 350,000, we licensed. This is in the US. In year three, three million games.
James Blatch: Wow.
Rob Angel: So, I went from waiting tables, 36 months later, biggest selling game in the US. The next year, we're now in Europe, and in 1988, we sold 11 million just in the US. Another three million in Europe. The numbers are staggering. And it was just whirlwind, crazy time. Crazy time.
James Blatch: Was this all through the same company as in the US? Did they do the European licensing as well?
Rob Angel: No, we did a deal in Europe, different company, different sensibilities. We needed somebody that knew the market, and it was just the planet, the story, the universe, everything aligned to make Pictionary the next Trivial Pursuit.
James Blatch: And who owns it now?
Rob Angel: Mattel. They bought us out in 2001. We owned it for 17 years, and then they made us an offer we couldn't refuse. Plus, I was ready. I mean, 43, time to move on. But man, man, man, the ride was unbelievable.
James Blatch: I can only imagine. And the three of you, are you still friends?
Rob Angel: Yes. Well, Gary passed in '95, the graphic artist.
James Blatch: I'm sorry.
Rob Angel: He's still around. No, it's okay. His fingerprints are all over the game and Terry, my other partner is still around. We talked yesterday, and actually am having dinner with my uncle tonight.
James Blatch: Oh, superb.
Rob Angel: That's why I'm in San Diego.
James Blatch: A financier.
Rob Angel: Yeah.
James Blatch: So that was a good investment from his point of view?
Rob Angel: It was really good.
James Blatch: That worked out well.
Rob Angel: It worked out well. We never begrudged him. He technically never worked, and he was never in the office. But without him, we don't succeed.
James Blatch: That's how it is sometimes.
Rob Angel: Ah, never a problem. Never. Love him for it.
James Blatch: Fantastic. There's going to be bumps along the way, there must have been. Because so far, this sounds like incredible hard work, making good decisions.
But there must have been moments where you felt, "This isn't going to happen."
Rob Angel: Yeah. Oh, yeah. There was a couple of moments. It's like, "Really?"
For instance, when we decided to do the launch June 1st, 1985, we had to collate or sort 1,000 games, 500 cards per game, that's 500,000 cards. The printer said, "No problem, we've got it done." Well, we sent out the invitations, we have eight days, nine days before the launch.
The printer calls and he goes, "Can't do it, it's too costly, too much time." We've already sent out the invitations, what are we going to do? So we panic, I mean, it was my only tantrum. I was pissed. I threw the phone, I go, "What do we do?"
Well, what do you do? You get your act together and you figure it out. So, we hand-collated, hand-sorted half a million game cards in six days. It'd be like taking 9,500 packs of playing cards, throwing them in the middle of a room, and then having to sort them pack by pack. That's what we had to do in six days, but we got it done.
And we learned that we could count on each other, and that's where the core values and all these things came into play, that it started out as the worst possible thing, and it turned into the best. How many times has something happened to you and in the moment, it's terrible. It's like, "My world's coming to an end," or "This isn't happening!" And then a day, a week, a month later you go, "Oh, because of that, this really cool thing happened." It happens all the time.
James Blatch: It's Apollo 13, isn't it? Which is when someone said to the mission control, "This could be NASA's worst disaster." He said, "I think it's going to be NASA's finest moment."
Rob Angel: Right.
James Blatch: It's a way of looking at it, and that was a defining moment for those guys.
Rob Angel: Very good.
James Blatch: Okay, so let's talk about the book.
You've put a lot of this wisdom down on paper, and I'm delighted to say you've self-published it, because that's what we're all about on this show, and of course, it's true to the origins of you hawking the game around in Seattle back in the 80s.
Rob Angel: So, because I'm a little on vacation, I left the book in the room, but I'll go get it eventually. The book was really an interesting process. Because when I started it, it was going to be just a story of what dad did and I wanted my kids to read, so they know what their father did. That was really the genesis.
It wasn't dramatic, but the more I got into it, the more this story is connected to this story, maybe this was harder than I thought, and all these things that started coming up from this cathartic writing of my own life was really an interesting self-realisation, self-actualization and it turned into a really great project after I got started. A completely different project than when I started.
James Blatch: So when you set out, this was you as you say, a need to put down on paper and try and bring some semblance to this crazy journey that you'd been on.
By the end of it, what did it feel like as a project?
Rob Angel: Well physically, it was a difficult journey physically writing the book because I kept changing spiritually and I was learning and I was growing, and then all of the sudden, this story that happened for Pictionary had a new meaning and I'd want to change it. And as they say, you're never done editing, you just put your pencil down. So I just kept editing and changing, and finally, I had to stop.
And I won't lie, that was difficult. I mean, that was hard for me to say, "Well, I now know more about myself. I know more about Pictionary. I want to ..." But man, when it's done and it was done, it was brilliant. It taught me so much about myself, so much about my life, so much about the things and the people around me, the influence that they've had on me and that I've had on them.
And this book has been an amazing thing for my life. Didn't start out that way. Pictionary started out as an intention of creating a really good game. Well, this book didn't start out where I started either, but it turned into the most magical thing I ever could have done at this stage in my life. I couldn't be happier and I couldn't be more proud of it.
James Blatch: I can feel that. That's great to hear, Rob. So it means a lot to you clearly and has been incredible, an event in your life. What's it going to mean to me when I read it? What's it going to mean to the people listening to this? I mean, you say you kind of chopped and changed as you went through about what it actually meant.
But by the end of this, what's the intention of the book for other people to read?
Rob Angel: The line I use is it's not a how to book, but it's a you can too book. I mean, just a great story of overcoming obstacles, of not having a plan, of not really caring what happened. And so if you're reading the book, one, if you're a Pictionary fan, you'll know all the ins and outs, but you'll also know that anything is possible. It's going to inspire you to try. It's going to inspire you to follow your dreams, whatever those are. It doesn't matter. But just to get out there and try.
And if you're looking for your creativity, it's going to help you there. It's a fun story that teaches you, "Man, if this waiter from Spokane can do that, so can you, without question."
James Blatch: Fantastic. And I feel we've really scratched the surface on the story today. You're about to tell us the details of the book so people can go and find it.
Rob Angel: So this is the book, Game Changer.
James Blatch: Superb. And there's the aardvark.
Rob Angel: Yeah, the aardvark. You're right. It's find your aardvark. It's very important.
James Blatch: There you go. Find your aardvark.
Rob Angel: Find your aardvark. And so all the usual suspects, Amazon, but it's on eBooks, Audible, all the different platforms. You can find me at The Rob Angel at all the usual, Instagram, Facebook, and all the rest of them. But yeah, it's fun.
James Blatch: Do you narrate it on audible?
Rob Angel: I narrated the first and the last chapter and then an intro.
James Blatch: Okay. You've got a great voice.
Rob Angel: I had a professional in the middle, but yeah, it was fun. I mean, it was really fun. I'd go into the studio and not knowing and you just start talking. It was great.
James Blatch: Overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed this. It's making me a little bit giddy as well to think that back in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, in our house of course is a copy of Pictionary. I mean, surely it's in everyone's house. Everyone has a copy of this game.
Rob Angel: It is.
James Blatch: You must know that because every house you go to at some point, someone produces it, says, "Look, we've got it." But everyone has a copy of this game and has enjoyed it. So I want to say thank you.
Rob Angel: And they love telling me their stories of Pictionary, right? Everybody's got a picture. Pictionary was never a game. If you think about it for a minute, it was an attitude. It was an emotion. Nobody says, "I drew this great word," but guess what? You're with your friends, you're collaborating. There's this sense and sights and sounds, and everything is alive. It's like a rock concert, every word. And that's why you remember these stories. That's why you remember your Pictionary moments. And I love hearing about them and they're prevalent and they're everywhere. And it's fantastic.
James Blatch: That's a really good point. It's a little bit of theatre, isn't it? Because somebody typically is standing up and everyone else is sat down around or you can lean over each other's shoulders. And of course it makes it into mainstream culture a lot. I guess it's been in episodes of Friends and in all sorts of common sitcoms and films.
Rob Angel: Unbelievable. The commercials, everybody, it's ubiquitous. It is just part of Americana, a part of the world.
James Blatch: Thank you for the entertainment over the years, playing Pictionary. And also for this interview. It's been great, Rob. We've really enjoyed it. People can rush out and buy the book and get a dose of that inspiration that we all need.
Rob Angel: Appreciate it. This has been fun.
James Blatch: There we go. He was a great guy to speak to. Really, really fun. He was enjoying himself by his pool in San Diego, enjoying a beer, relaying this story. And I imagine has quite a nice life having sold eventually to Mattel, the world's largest game producer. In fact, because he explained in the interview, even before selling to Mattel, he'd done deals all over the place, all over the world to have it distributed, left, right and centre. It was effectively a self published game.
In those first days, they bought the pencils, they bought the pads of paper, they had the box artwork created by one of their mates. One of the team did a little doodle. They all became part of the company.
Then they went round to shops, and not just the toy shops that sold board games. They went around to restaurants and other places to ask them, "Look, if you stock this game, if you have a copy there, people will play it and then they'll come and ask you about it and you can sell them a copy." And all of that worked.
And all of that was part of the process of being so thoroughly conversant with the game and the market, the appeal it had, the way it should be marketed, that when he sat down to do his deals, he knew what he was talking about. And well, fantastic. I'm sure you must have played Pictionary.
Mark Dawson: Drunken Pictionary, probably. Yes. Probably. I'm not really one for board games most of the time, but I'm pretty sure I would've played it almost certainly at university. That would be my best guess.
James Blatch: Why don't you like board games? We love board games in our house.
Mark Dawson: I think my kids are a little bit too young at the moment. I think when they get a bit older, I can imagine Scrabble coming out and Monopoly and things like that. But at the moment, Freya likes top drums and stuff like that. So not really a board game, but she quite likes that. There are a few games. Dorble I think it's called. You may not have heard of that. I don't know how popular these games are outside of our house, but it seems to me like there are a few that break out and become bigger than you think they might be. I think that's kind of a fairly big one with the kids these days. So yeah, we play bits and bobs, but no Trivial Pursuits yet. I'm terribly competitive at that.
James Blatch: I think the questions are all outdated, and you'd have to buy the new ones.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Now quick kind of things to mention. As I said, just before the interview with Rob, we are getting close to launching our How To Revise Your Book course. It's absolutely fantastic. Well, I would say that. I've been editing it and watching it. With Jenny Nash, telling you how to go from your draft manuscript, a good story to a great story, how to pick up those inconsistencies, those weaknesses and turn them into strengths and so on.
So at the moment we are gathering names for a waiting list for the first people to be told, and there will be an offer for the first month or so when we go live. And you go to selfpublishingformula.com/revise for that. I'll mention that I was on a podcast this week. Daniel Willcocks's podcast, which is laughably called Great Writers Share, which I somehow slipped through there.
Mark Dawson: They're scraping the bottom of the barrel there.
James Blatch: The process. He does have another podcast I think called Next Level Authors. And maybe I'll be on that next. Anyway, if you want to go over to Danielwillcocks.com, W-I-L-L-C-O-C-K-S.com. And you can listen to me waffling on there.
Mark Dawson: You were on another podcast last night as well.
James Blatch: Yes, you and I did a double show, a team tag, didn't we?
Mark Dawson: Team tag? Tag team, you mean.
James Blatch: Tag team. That's it.
Mark Dawson: We did the, well, it used to be called the Self Publishing Show, now called The Story Studio with Johnny, Sean and Dave and Bonnie last night, which was quite good fun, wasn't it? We spoke at length about the state of the industry.
I think that they're doing a little series where they're speaking to various people about how things have changed over the last few years. And they were kind enough to ask us to go on. And they were very generous with their praise. I know Sean listens. Well, Sean was very excited, wasn't he, that you gave him a mention?
James Blatch: Love Sean.
Mark Dawson: While he's out walking. That was a lovely image. I could imagine him, a little skip in his step.
James Blatch: I think that's the first time I've ever spoken to Dave as well.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: It wasn't a long conversation and then Dave disappeared even further down into his bunker as an Auntie Em twister was on the way. It was a wind storm, they called it.
What was interesting was the fact that I consider them the elder statesman of self-publishing. They were around when I first learned about this world and listened to their podcast, got to know them then. I was quite nervous meeting them. They consider us elder statesman now, and it sort of occurred to us I think in that conversation last night how long we've been around now.
Mark Dawson: Yes, we've been around for about five years. But remember, you've only been in this industry for about five years. You can add another five years on for me. And they were very influential to me.
I've mentioned this before, when I started learning about what was possible. They're not elder statesmen. I'm not sure what they are. What's the level up from elder statesman?
James Blatch: Up from elder statesman? Other dimensional God?
Mark Dawson: I suppose so. Yeah. They've been doing this for a long time. So I was on their show, as we talked about this last night, I was on their show for the first time about five years ago, just as we launched Facebook ads for authors. And it was nice that they're still going strong and obviously we 're still going strong. It was good to kind of just chew the cud for a little bit whilst at least one of us drank a beer.
James Blatch: Perhaps one day you and they could be inductees into the self-publishing hall of fame.
Mark Dawson: Yes. That would be ... If there was one, which there isn't, it should be in ... Where's the Baseball Hall of Fame? Football's Canton.
James Blatch: Baseball is in Northern New York, I think. Basically it's a town that is built around the Hall Of Fame.
Mark Dawson: Yes. Same as football. Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. All the American audience will be screaming the name at us.
Mark Dawson: They will.
James Blatch: I remember it from the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Larry's juicing episode, which is-
Mark Dawson: You don't remember that well though, do you?
James Blatch: Why?
Mark Dawson: Because you don't remember the name.
James Blatch: No, I can't remember the name of the town. I think it is famous for being the Baseball Hall Of Fame. And obviously most British people, I watch a lot of baseball, but most British people don't.
Mark Dawson: Harrisburg?
James Blatch: I don't think it's Harrisburg. It's not Harrisburg. That's in Pennsylvania.
Mark Dawson: Yeah.
James Blatch: Okay.
Mark Dawson: Well, I'm sure someone will leave us a comment in the YouTube channel.
James Blatch: We'll have 200 emails saying, "You're both idiots. It's this town."
Mark Dawson: I don't pretend to be a baseball expert. I'm good at football. You're the baseball expert here. So if anyone's going to be sending rude emails, they can send them to [email protected] Not me.
James Blatch: Well, listen, I'm a Mets supporter, so there's not a lot of Hall Of Famers there. Mike Piazza probably the last one. Okay, here we go.
Thank you very much indeed, Mark. Thank you very much to Rob Angel. It was tremendous talking to him and I really hope we can get together one day and share a beer because he's I think an inspirational person. What a life story he's had. It goes to show, doesn't it, what happens when you just have one idea and then don't let it go. Improve it, work on it until it gets there. And I think there are a lot of parallels with writing a novel and the industry we're in.
Next week we have Marie Force. One of my favourite interviews I've done this year. Absolutely love Marie. Coming up to her 8 millionth book sold, which is incredible. And yet, going back to basics, she's currently ploughing her way through your courses, Mark. She's slimmed down her team. She's going back to the basics of self-publishing. It's where she wants to be in the future.
For people who say, "Well, I'm not sure about all this advertising lot. Does it work?" If Marie Force needs to learn the nuts and bolts of advertising to increase her sales, I'm going to say so do you. Okay, that's it. So Marie's next week. Until then, all that remains for me to say is it's a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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