Bob Moog Uses Games for the Tough Concepts | Episode 304

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Bob Moog co-founded University Games in 1985 to develop, design and manufacture social interaction games for families. Since that time, he has developed more than 200 game and toy products that have sold more than 30 million units. These games include the best-selling geography game line, Carmen Sandiego, the first line of games based on Dr. Seuss books, including The Green Eggs and Ham Game, 20 Questions, and Kids Battle the Grown Ups. The company has grown through a combination of internal growth and acquisitions and now boasts five divisions and more than 400 products. Throughout this rapid growth, the company has maintained its focus on socially interactive products that teach as well as entertain.

From 1995 to 1999 University Games was named one of the top 150 fastest-growing companies by the San Francisco Business Times, and in 1998 was named one of the fastest growing companies in America by Inc. Magazine.

Moog has authored six books on games in conjunction with Barnes and Noble the world’s largest bookseller.

Moog has hosted a syndicated weekly radio show, “Games People Play,” in addition to sponsoring and appearing on many other radio game programs. In 1999 Moog founded AreYouGame.com, one of the largest eCommerce sellers of games and puzzles in the world.

Under Moog’s leadership, University Games has successfully completed 15 acquisitions and spread to more than 40 countries.

In 2023 Moog developed the Rocky Horror Show Game and a game celebrating Bad Dad Jokes.

 

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Full episode transcription

Rob Alvarez: Hey, engagers. And welcome back to the Professor Game Podcast. And we have a very special guest with us today. Our guest today is Bob. But Bob, before we get started, we need to know, are you prepared to engage?
Bob Moog: I am engaging and will continue to engage.
Rob Alvarez: Let’s do this, because today we have Bob Moog, who co founded University Games in 1985. That’s actually the year I was born. So he created it to develop, design, and manufacture social interactions, interaction games for families. And since then, he has developed more than 200 game and toy products that have sold more than 30 million units. And these games include best selling geography, game Lion, Carmen, San Diego, the first line of games based on Dr.
Rob Alvarez: Seuss’s books, 20 Questions and Kids Battle. The grownups company has grown through a combination of internal growth acquisitions, and he now boasts five divisions and more than 400 products. Throughout all this rapid growth, they have maintained their focus on socially interactive products that teach as well as entertain. They’ve been named from 1995 to 1999. The University Names was named one of the top 150 fastest growing companies by the San Francisco Business Times, and they were named, as well, one of the fastest growing companies in America by Ink Magazine.
Rob Alvarez: He has authored six books on games in conjunction with Barnes and Nobles, he has hosted a syndicated weekly radio show, Games People Play, in addition to sponsoring and peering on many other radio game programs. And he founded Rugame.com, one of the largest e commerce sellers games and puzzles in the world. And under his leadership, University Games has successfully completed 15 acquisitions and spread to more than 40 countries. And this year, in 2023, he developed The Rocky Horror Show game and a game celebrating bad dad jokes. So if that has not given you an idea of who Bob is and why he is on the show, then nothing will.
Rob Alvarez: So let’s get started. Bob, is there anything that we’re missing or anything you want to mention before we start with the questions?
Bob Moog: Well, the only thing I would add is that when it comes to gameplay and tying learning to games, I raised three daughters, and they have been my test subjects for the last 30 years.
Rob Alvarez: That sounds absolutely amazing, Bob. So, Bob, what does a day with you look like? We’re curious. We’ve been doing games for all these years. You’ve been having university games for all these years.
Rob Alvarez: What does it look like?
Bob Moog: Well, my responsibilities are a little broader than just inventing games or just developing games. I’m responsible for running the entire organization, and we’re active in three continents in the United States, in England, and in Australia. We also used to, and we will in the future be active in Europe. So my day starts pretty early. I start typically between five and 06:00 A.m., I’m getting texts from our UK division, and my day ends pretty late.
Bob Moog: Because I finish up with the Australia company. But a typical day would be coming into work. Usually I do about an hour’s worth of work at home and then I come into work around 730 or eight. And I usually have a schedule of meetings which cover finance and which cover contracts and which cover a lot of different things. But what I try to do every day is to have one to 2 hours where I can be thinking about people and trends and how society is changing and how we can make an impact on that through the games and puzzle products that we develop and manufacture and market.
Rob Alvarez: That sounds amazing. Sounds amazing. It’s plenty of stuff to do. And that thought that many people are starting to take and we have been starting to make in the past few years, you’ve been doing for quite a longer time in that sense. So in all these years that you’ve been doing it, I’m sure you have many stories of success, but also stories of what we like to call our first attempt in learning or a fail, fail moment.
Rob Alvarez: So when creating games, when using these strategies to educate, to entertain at the same time, do you have a story of a time when actually it failed either spectacularly or not? But we especially want to be there in that story with you sort of in the ground level and see what we can learn. What are the mistakes that we don’t want to commit ourselves in the future?
Bob Moog: Well, first of all, I have many, many failures, probably more failures than successes because when you’re trying to do something new and different, you don’t have total control. So you can develop something that works great in your own mind, but when you actually do it with other people, it may not work so well or it works well with other people. But then in our business, we’re trying to sell this to retailers. The retailers don’t want to buy it or it sells well with retailers, but then when the consumer gets to it, they don’t like it to the extent that you think that they will. And I would say the biggest failure, and we learned quite a bit in this game, was a game we introduced called Phenomenon, the Extrasensory Perception Game.
Bob Moog: And we developed this game when I saw Shirley McClain, who’s Warren Beatty’s sister, who people may not know, but she was a very famous actress in the she was on the COVID of time magazine holding a big crystal, and she was talking about her interest in astrology and in the power of crystals and in kind of alternative science. And that led me to do some research and I realized that there was an emerging trend in the power of crystals and that there were millions of people that were learning about this and incorporating it into their meditation and incorporating it into their healing practices outside of Western medicine. And so we decided to come up with a game that would help people develop their extrasensory powers. And it included extrasensory perception, it included taste transmittance, it included image transmittance. And we did a lot of research and came up with this game.
Bob Moog: We called it phenomenon the extra sensory perception game. And it was a party. It was meant to be part real, part joke, and we included crystals inside of it. We actually went out and bought crystals and put them inside. And I was very excited about the game.
Bob Moog: I thought it would help to educate people on how to activate their other senses, that maybe they weren’t getting activated by traditional education. And we released the game and we had pretty good distribution. It was in Toys R US at the time. Toys R US still was in business, neiman Marcus stores, lots of catalogs, and it just did not resonate with the consumer. It totally bombed.
Bob Moog: And the lesson I learned, because you want to learn a lesson by your failures, is that if people take something very seriously and you turn it into a game and you don’t present it to them as a serious subject, sometimes they don’t respond well to it. And also, the universe of something doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe of people who want to play a game about it are the same. And we have learned it twice, once with that game and once with a sports game that we came out with. And it turned out people like to watch football, but they don’t like to play a game about football. And so that’s a good lesson to learn that just because something’s trendy or popular doesn’t mean that people want to play a game about it.
Rob Alvarez: Kind of the medium through which it’s delivered is very relevant is what I’m getting from that story as well. Because, yeah, I like sports, but I like watching sports, which is through TV, media or whatever way you go to the stadiums or whatever, has nothing to do with me playing a game about me watching it or other people playing it, right. That’s completely different.
Bob Moog: And I like your use of the word medium, because the only place where this game actually sold well was in psychic shops where there were psychics who were doing tarot cards and things. They were able to sell the game, but no place else really sold it.
Rob Alvarez: So if you were having a, let’s call it a similar opportunity, and you were trying to do, again something that somehow looked very much like this, besides maybe not even starting the project, which might be the case, what would you do different? Maybe how would you figure out if that is the right medium? What would that look like if you were to do something very similar in the future?
Bob Moog: Well, it’s a great question. We have that exact situation. There is a belief inside our company that we should do an election game because 2024 is an election year and in the United States it’s looking to be one of the most popular elections in the history of the country in terms of the participation. And we’ll learn more as the Republican debates start to happen on what kind of interest there is in that. But inside the company, there are people that are saying this is a huge trend, this is a wonderful opportunity to educate people.
Bob Moog: Some people think this topic is an emergency. You may have heard the siren in the background. So they are asking us to develop an election game that will be both fun and have a learning base to it, that people can understand how elections work and how the election works. And my position right now is that we have to be very careful because just because someone goes and votes in an election or they watch Fox News or they watch CNN, it doesn’t mean they want to play a game about it. And it certainly doesn’t mean they want to play a game about it in years other than the election year.
Bob Moog: So I don’t know right now what we’re going to do, but our process is to do more focus group testing, to do more polling. We do intercept surveys in malls where we get a broad spectrum of people and we’re researching the history of election games over the past 30 years, what’s gone out, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, so that we can avoid having a new favorite failure.
Rob Alvarez: Sounds amazing and pretty good advice to do more of what we like to call as well, player research and to see what’s going on through the heads of our potential players. Right. Makes sense. So, Bob, we went for a favorite fail, a favorite first attempt in learning. You got your lessons, we got our lessons from your story.
Rob Alvarez: How about we go now for a success? Something that you would say, well, we went for this and at the first or the Nth attempt, it doesn’t matter. We actually achieved something that we’re very proud of and that we want to sort of showcase. If I asked you for a story on that, which story would you pick?
Bob Moog: I think I’ll take a recent story. We’ve been in business 38 years, so I have lots of examples of successes. But we have something right now that’s quite interesting. We started the company in 1985 with a product called Murder Mystery Party. We developed the concept of people having a party in a box and that party is solving a murder.
Bob Moog: And we then broaden that into murder mystery party puzzles. And for our entire history we’ve been very focused on developing mystery products for families and we’ve had a CSI license. We’ve done a lot of different things, but we missed the escape room trend in board games. Our team just didn’t see it coming. And by the time we were aware of it, there were already three companies doing those type of products.
Bob Moog: So I said to them, how do we figure out the next thing, what is it that people are doing and how do we do that? And we started researching the types of television shows, books and films that were very, very popular right before COVID 2019 2020. And we found that they were very different than the kinds of shows that were on 1020 years ago. That it was no longer shows about solving, figuring out who the criminal was, the way old shows like Colombo existed, or how they got caught, but it was more about the process of figuring it out. And so these procedural mysteries like CSI and like Forensic Files, both real ones and fictionalized ones, had become very popular.
Bob Moog: And we said, what if we created a game that was a procedural mystery? Instead of focused on suspects, it was focused on evidence. And we developed the murder mystery party case files. And the Murder Mystery Party Case Files require, instead of intuition and instead of understanding characters and being perceptive about people, it required one to understand critical path thinking and understand how to take evidence and put it in order to come to a deductive conclusion. And we launched our first one in 2021, and now here we are two years later, and the Murder Mystery Party Case Files is now an entire category.
Bob Moog: We have three or four other competitors since we launched and right now I think we’re doing our 10th called The Night Hunter, which we’ve just released this year. Yeah, so we took something that we did right then. We took something we totally missed, then we looked at what was happening culturally and then we said, how do we apply that to a game so that it’s topical and relevant?
Rob Alvarez: Sounds amazing, sounds like a great story. Something that you took by observing. I was in a talk about Gamification, as many of us have heard before, gamification is observing games and saying, oh, what do games do and how do they do it great. And bringing it to whatever other area. Take education, marketing, whatever that looks like, right?
Rob Alvarez: And this researcher was saying, yeah, that sounds great, but what do game designers do? So I started studying game designers, what do they do? They look at real life and try to bring it into a game. So we’re sort of recycling of bringing it then back to real life. So I really love that story because I think it sort of completes that cycle of looking at what’s going on out in the world and trying to bring it to a game that’s entertaining, but also definitely helping people understand other new things.
Rob Alvarez: And with all this experience, Bob, I’m sure you have many, many things that you could tell us. But of course, in a summary, what would you say is the process you use when you’re creating one of your games? That is thinking of again, as you usually do, of not only entertaining, but also being educational or helping people understand this or that topic.
Bob Moog: Yeah. We look at the process of creating a game through two different lenses. The first lens is where is there a void in the market? So what is it that is missing? And you could do this in a classroom too.
Bob Moog: You could say, what is the concept or what is the thing that I’m learning is the hardest for me to get my students to absorb. And we do the same thing. We say, what is missing? And I’ll give you an example. Well, that’s one lens.
Bob Moog: What is missing? The second lens is what are we teaching? Unlike many of our competitors, every single product we have, we’re trying to teach something. Sometimes in trivia games and things like that. It might be specific knowledge about a specific topic, but often it’s developmental, often it’s improving hand eye coordination, it’s learning critical thinking.
Bob Moog: For preschool kids, it’s learning the alphabet. It might be learning how to use your imagination or encouraging people to use their imagination. So we have a grid of developmental learning and then what would be more curricular learning and we make sure that we’re integrating that into every single product we have. As far as the first lens goes, we talk a lot about what’s the void in the market, what’s the problem that we’re solving. It’s not just about let’s do a fun game, it’s about identifying something that’s missing and how do we help fill it.
Bob Moog: And so that’s really where we start. And then from there we look at different game mechanics and different game components and for different ages, there’s different things that are appropriate. A good example is for kids under the age of five, you want to have a spinner, not a die, because it’s easier for them to spin a spinner with a finger than it is to roll a die. And if you’ve ever played with kids, you’ll know that half the time they roll the die right off the table because they just don’t have the small motor skills to handle it. So we’re thinking about ergonomics as well as all the rest of the things one thinks about when they’re creating a game.
Rob Alvarez: Well, that sounds pretty good and very good advice as well. When you’re thinking about creating a game, it’s not just about the game and the mechanics, but who are you doing it with and what are know, sort of motor abilities that are also in play. And Bob, again, from the experience that you’ve had, is there something that you would say is a best practice, something that you say, well, when you’re creating a game and you want to make sure it educates, it helps people understand something, do this thing. And I’m not going to say it’s a silver bullet, but it’s actually at least going to help you build a better product, a better game, or a better system that you are creating.
Bob Moog: In that sense, yeah, this is more of a general comment than a specific thing. But in game development, and this is true in a classroom or just if you’re doing something commercially, it’s really important to remember that some people are primarily auditory learners, some are more visual learners and some are more kinesthetic learners. And what a board game can do or a game experience can do is it can help those people in the classroom who are not auditory succeed and be successful. So we always take into account how is a person who’s primarily a kinesthetic learner going to be able to win this game? How is it going to be for a visual learner, how is it going to be for an auditory learner?
Bob Moog: And we try to create balances and equalizers. And our philosophy is to lean things towards the visual and kinesthetic learner, have things they can touch and they can see versus the auditory learner. Because we feel like most education, at least in the western world, is geared towards auditory learners and so we want the game experience to be more fun for those people that are having more difficulty with the learning.
Rob Alvarez: Sounds amazing. Sounds amazing and makes a lot of sense. In general as you think about educational experiences, engagers, I’m sure that the first thing that you think of is listening to this person say this or that is actually trying to cater for the people that are not being catered to. That has to do probably with what you were mentioning before, right, of doing what other people are not doing in the market. That makes a lot of sense.
Bob Moog: Well, we’re thinking about it differently and I believe that if you’re just thinking about it as a business and how do we come up with copycat stuff, you’re not going to come up with the best solution. If people are trying to modify monopoly for their classroom to teach something, you can do that and you will have success. But you’ll have more success if you actually tailor a new game to the classroom versus modifying something that wasn’t meant to be used.
Rob Alvarez: That cool. That’s cool. So Bob, we’ve been talking and discussing many of the different things in this interview and I’m sure you’ve again, such a vast experience that you have, you’ve met many people, you’ve heard of many people, you’ve been inspired by different people as well. So after listening to these questions, after being interviewed on this podcast on Professor Game, does somebody come to your mind and say, well, I would actually be curious to listen to this person and their answers to these questions. Sort of a future guest for Professor Game, if he had an ideal guest, who would that be?
Bob Moog: There’s a guy who lives in Virginia, in the United States, his name is Bill Ritchie. And Bill Ritchie founded a company called ThinkFun. It’s now owned by the german game company Robinsberger. And he has been a real role model for me in that he always is thinking about how to take the products that he makes. And his company did Rush Hour, if you’re familiar with that game, it’s a one person brain teaser game, but they did a lot of really cool games.
Bob Moog: And he really has gone into how puzzles develop the mind, how games can help with children and families. He’s gotten into using games for therapy and puzzles for people who have who are older and are dealing with dementia and that sort of thing. And just a fascinating guy. And if you haven’t talked to him, he would be worth tracking down. His name is Bill Ritchie.
Rob Alvarez: Bill Ritchie. I don’t recall having met him before, much less having interviewed him, but it sounds like a very sound recommendation for sure. So we’ll take that into account for future episodes. And Bob, keeping up with the recommendations. Is there a book that you recommend our audience, the engagers people who are looking into using games for different things.
Rob Alvarez: Again, direct inspiration, sideline inspiration. One of your of course, I think it’s six books that you’ve written already writing, sitting right next to your books. What book or books would you recommend?
Bob Moog: Well, there are several books that are out that talk about how to design games and ways to design games. But I think that if you’re interested in games, the history of board games is fascinating. While this isn’t a how to for taking a game and putting in the classroom, it’s a wonderful way to understand the breadth of games and the role they’ve played in society and how they reflect popular culture. And the guy who is the expert on this is a guy named Phil Urbanes Orbanes, and he has a lot of books out, but my favorite of his books is called The Game Makers and it traces the history of board games in the United States. It doesn’t really cover Europe, but Europe is mentioned from the 18 hundreds to about the year 2000.
Bob Moog: And it talks about who the companies are, who the people are, how they got game ideas, how games spread from one country to another. And it goes into quite a lot of depth about Parker Brothers, which was the top game company in the world in the 20th century. So I can recommend that for people who are interested in understanding the role games have played in society. It’s not really a how to book, but it’s a wonderful novel. It’s a nonfiction novel.
Rob Alvarez: Sounds amazing, sounds very inspiring as well. And sometimes when we’re kids, sometimes some people I have to include myself, but I have to say it was not just me say, well, what do we study history even for? How is that useful? Right? And of course, you get to be an adult.
Rob Alvarez: You definitely get to understand. But this would be perhaps a case of where you say, well, what I want to do is some very practical advice. I get that from my students all the time. I need something super practical that I can apply tomorrow. Well, I don’t know exactly which are the direct and exact lessons that you could take from this book in particular, but I do know that learning from history and from what people have been doing before our time came is a big source of inspiration.
Rob Alvarez: That is actually exactly what we do here. You just don’t call it history, we just call it stories and podcasts and so on. So I definitely would encourage you to if you haven’t read a book like this one, I would definitely encourage you to do so. I think many things and a lot of inspiration can definitely come from that. And Bob, changing the subject a bit, we’ve talked about other people’s books, other people’s successes as well.
Rob Alvarez: At this point, I would like to know what you consider is your superpower, that thing that you do at least better than most other people in the world.
Bob Moog: I think probably the best thing I do is I try to focus in life on things that are easy, effortless and enjoyable and not do the hard things. I try to find ways to think about everything I do. It reduces a lot of stress. And I also suspend judgment. In a creative world like game development, it’s so easy to sort of close down on ideas and I try to suspend judgment and keep my mind open because I believe that there’s lots of different possible answers to any problem and not to just jump to the first thing that people come up with.
Bob Moog: So I think that gives me a huge advantage over most people who are very judgy and who tie their self esteem into being right all the time. So I try to suspend judgment and I try to focus on living my life doing what’s easy, effortless and enjoyable.
Rob Alvarez: Sounds like a very great way of living. Very enjoyable as well. And talking about enjoyment, Bob, what would you say is your favorite game?
Bob Moog: Well, I’m going to have to give you two games. One is a game that we acquired that I just played for the first time last year called Raccoon Tycoon. And Raccoon Tycoon is a strategy game that takes about an hour and a half. And it is a really fun game where you’re trying through auctions and through taking over territories, you are trying to time when to buy and sell various goods and commodities so that you can collect the most money and use that money to win auctions. And through the auctions you’re able to get more points, and through the points you win the game.
Bob Moog: So that’s a game that I really enjoy playing, and that would be my favorite right now, is not actually a board game, but we did a board game version of it. But the game 20 Questions, where you think of an animal, vegetable or mineral and people try to guess what you’re thinking of. I love that game because I think the best games are ones that are socially interactive, ones where people have to use deductive logic and problem solving skills and critical thinking skills and games where people need to actually put themselves out there a little bit, take some risks. Take that risk of maybe asking a dumb question or saying a dumb thing and realizing that you can survive that. So those would be my choices.
Bob Moog: Raccoon Tycoon and 20 questions.
Rob Alvarez: They sound like fabulous games for sure. So, Bob, I’d like to start by thanking you for all the time that you’ve spent with us, all the advice that you’ve given, the engagers, all of those things, all that experience that you’ve had that you’ve shared with us, and of course, ask you where we can find out more about you, about your company. Of course, if there’s any final advice you want to give or any words you want to give us that you haven’t said already, this is the time. Or again, anywhere you want to lead us to, any web page? I don’t know.
Rob Alvarez: It’s your time.
Bob Moog: Okay, well, first, I think what I’d like to say just to people who are trying to figure out how to introduce games into their classroom or build curriculum around it, games are kind of magical because a game experience is going to create more dialogue in the group and it’s going to allow for peer learning. And that’s always good if you can figure out how to have peer learning versus having a lecture format. So be creative, be imaginative, don’t be afraid for the thing to go bust. And when you’re doing it, think about how long you want it to take and how many turns it will take to fill up the time so that you can have a start and a finish to the game experience. As far as contacting me, that’s easy.
Bob Moog: My name is Bob Moog Moog, and my email address is Moog at Ugamesugam E s.com. If you want to call me, I’m happy to give you my phone number. It’s 415-934-3705 and I’m always happy to talk to people who are trying to figure out how to add games in their life. And then if you want to learn more about our company and more about me, you can go to Universitygames.com, which is our company’s website. That’s universitygames.com.
Bob Moog: And if you want to buy our games, you can go to Amazon.com or Rugame.com Areyougame.com. And overall, I’ve really enjoyed this. Robin, thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to your audience.
Rob Alvarez: Amazing. Thank you again very much for being here, for sharing your experience, all those things that you’ve been doing throughout all these years, and of course, sharing that with the engagers who are trying to make a dent as well in people’s lives like you. Have done with amazing things and amazing games and experiences. However bob however, engagers as you know, at least for now and for today, it is time to say that it’s game over.
Bob Moog: Hey.
Rob Alvarez: Engagers. And thank you for listening to the Professor Game podcast. And if you enjoyed this interview with Bob and other incredible guests in the past as well, maybe you want to go ahead and subscribe to Professorgame.com slash subscribe and get started on our email list for free. This way we’ll be in contact and you’ll be the first to know of opportunities that will be your way. And remember, before you go on to your next mission, wherever it is that you’re listening to this episode of the podcast, remember to subscribe or follow that is absolutely for free through this podcast app and listen to the next episode of Professor Game.
Rob Alvarez: See you there.

End of transcription

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