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Invention convention for fun

01:00 AM EDT on Wednesday, June 25, 2008

By Paul Grimaldi

Journal Staff Writer

Geoff LaPlace, of San Francisco, shows Adi Golad, from Holland, how the game Do Tell is played, at the Toy & Game Industry Conference at Foxwoods Resort Casino yesterday.

The Providence Journal / Frieda Squires

LEDYARD, Conn. — Inventors hoping to get lucky spent the last three days at Foxwoods Resort Casino looking for someone to roll the dice, flip a card or plunk down cash as they tried to start a winning streak in the game industry.

Members of the toy industry began gathering Sunday at the casino in Ledyard, Conn., as the annual Toy & Game Industry Conference came to New England for the first time. Sponsored by the Chicago-based Toy & Game Industry Foundation, the event aims to bring together inventors, buyers and agents who want to stock store shelves and Web sites with the products shoppers will buy as Christmas gifts and keepsakes.

“This is the only [show] of its kind because of the amount of access it gives the inventors to put forth their product,” said Christopher Vestin, senior merchandising manager with Seventh Avenue, a catalog company based in Monroe, Wis.

The show spent its early years in Las Vegas, but several years ago it embarked on new destinations around the country. “Every year, the quality of the product goes up,” said Carol Rehtmeyer, the foundation’s president and a game industry consultant.

This year, inventors came from as far away as Hong Kong, Australia and the United Kingdom to pitch games such as Treasure of the Lost Pyramid, Hexx, Reign Drops and Identity Crisis.

While at the conference, inventors attended seminars on product licensing, packaging, distribution and marketing, and other topics. Among the companies represented were Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores, as well as the Radica and Spin Master toy companies. Also on hand were former executives from Hasbro and Toys ‘R’ Us who now serve as agents for budding inventors.

“This show is not supposed to be a trade show — it’s meant to be a symposium,” Rehtmeyer said.

The tips and tricks offered up by speakers ranged from the broad to the specific, such as researching a product niche before spending too much money on producing a game, or whether an inventor should use a chair in a trade show booth. (No, according to one panelist.)

Assume that you will make mistakes as you develop and market your toy or game, said Bob Moog , founder of University Games Corp., a San Francisco company that developed a board game based on the popular education TV program Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

“[But] figure out ways to minimize the dollar-amount of the mistake and the time-amount of the mistake,” he said.

But the event’s big draw was the chance to meet one-on-one with Moog and two dozen or so other buyers and agents on the prowl for new products. Inventors got the chance to pitch their inventions in a series of 10-minute meetings with the people who can put their toy or game on the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us, or some other national chain.

“I know that doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but for the toy companies it’s probably nine minutes too long,” Moog said.

Industry veteran Arnold Maggi said he relishes the chance to meet with inventors, whether it’s during a set-up akin to speed dating or at a more casual pace at some other time.

“I look forward to meeting with the young people who are making the toys,” said Maggi, a former executive with toy retailers FAO Schwarz and Toysrus.com. “The future of the toy industry is right here.”

Getting started in the toy business is not easy.

“You have a few retailers [and] massive amounts of suppliers, so it’s really hard to get started,” said Jon Meyers, a cofounder of Basic Concepts, a Hong Kong toy development company.

After several years of selling games in other countries, Basic Concepts is breaking into the U.S. market this year in a deal with Toys ‘R’ Us to sell games centered on the actions of the “Relic Raiders,” eight characters that players use to race around Treasure of the Lost Pyramid and Haunted Ruins, gathering clues and prizes needed to win games.

The games come with boards that open like pop-up books to create a three-dimensional playing surface.

“We were trying to do a pop-up game product but we didn’t have a game,” Meyers said of his company’s efforts.

He found the game’s inventor at the foundation show two years ago and struck a licensing deal with him.

While licensing deals are one way for inventors to make money on their efforts, they often would rather see sales come directly from retailers who order truckloads of their products.

That’s more likely to happen at bigger shows such as those that take place in New York City, Dallas, Hong Kong or the German city of Nuremberg.

“I think if you’re going to go to a toy show New York is the best,” said Brandi Field, a buyer with Calendar Club, a specialty retail chain based in Austin, Texas.

Her company adds about 300 new products a year to its lineup of calendars, games, puzzles and gifts, most of which she finds at the Toy Industry Association’s annual show in New York City.

Even at an event such as the one this week at Foxwoods, which is designed to help inventors make money at game-making, most will go home with little more than a reality check.

Harold Bentzley, a retired shrimp egg collector, traveled four days by Greyhound bus from Eugene, Ore., to come to the event.

“It seems like last year,” he said Sunday, still shaking off the long cross-country trip.

His game, Reign Drops, is akin to a color-coded checkers game. In it, two players square off across a gridded game board, moving Oreo-sized cylinders painted with bands of various colors. When a player moves a piece onto one occupied by an opponent’s piece, the colors determine which piece is captured.

The game failed to capture the buyers’ interest.

One agent referred him to others buyers he knew in the industry.

“That’s giving me hope,” Bentzley said, as he packed up his things yesterday.

A few minutes later, with his game covered in cardboard from a reused box held tight by yellow cord, he headed to the bus station and home to Oregon.